Crew and pacers are unique to the ultra-world and not everyone uses them even for the one hundred mile distance. I recommend that first time 50 and 100 mile runners have a crew. First time 100 mile runners should have pacers as well. Once you have some experience figuring out how you run your races best, you can do whatever. So what do they do? Your crew and pacers can make or break your race.
Crew: Your crew is your support team. They wait for you at each aid station and help you with anything you need as you come in. Wait, isn’t that what the aid station is there for? Yes, but they have all the other runners to attend to as well, and you may need more than just a refill on water. Some aid stations will have volunteers who do more than just fill your hydration pack and guide you toward the food, but you can’t count on it.
You have to plan for the “unexpected” in a 100 mile race. Your crew is there to handle those issues and the planned issues beyond the refill. Your crew will help you change clothes, restock your supplies of food, salt tablets, and anything you carry in your hydration pack. They make sure your headlamp is working and that you have extra batteries. They take care of blisters and massage your muscles as needed during the race. They wait at the aid station for hot food and broth to be prepared while you take care of other things.
Your crew provides you with information and updates. Since they are hanging out at aid stations they hear about trail conditions and weather patterns. They also hear about placement, if you’re interested in where you are in the race or another particular runner.
An essential thing your crew provides is encouragement and tough love. It is so refreshing to come in from a difficult, physically or mentally, section of the course and see friendly faces waiting to help you in every way. They tell you things like, “You look strong,” “You’re doing great,” “Your on target for your goal finish time,” and other beautiful things. They also get tough. If you are whining and complaining they tell you to suck it up. If you feel like dropping out, they push your ass back out there. One runner recounted a story to me about a time where he wanted to drop at mile 80 of a 100. His wife was his crew. He told her he was quitting and he headed to the car. She beat him to the car and drove off calling, “See you at the next aid station.” Now that’s love.
Finally, your crew makes decisions when you cannot. They constantly evaluate your physical and mental status when you come in and go out of aid stations. When you are exhausted physically and mentally you don’t always make the best decisions about what you need. But as a prepared ultra-runner, you’ve had this conversation with your crew about important decisions such as when to drop and what to do with body functioning issues. So, even when you are falling asleep on your feet and hallucinating, they have your back. If you can’t think straight because your electrolytes are out of balance, they are there to recognize that and balance you out.
Pacers do many of the same things as crew, only they do it on the run. They are going to make decisions for you and evaluate how you are doing physically and mentally as you shuffle/crawl along down the trail. It’s important that you choose pacers who run under the conditions of the race. Their training should mimic your own in most way other than distance (unless they are training for the own 100). They need to be able to deal with crazy weather and technical trails during the day and night. They need to have their own gear to do this. They need to be able to keep pace with you.
Most 100 mile races allow pacers after mile 50. Some of the more difficult ones allow them at 40. Pacers make sure you stay on the right trail as you become more tired. They provide you company during the night. They are also added safety from larger animals that see lone runners as dinner.
Choosing: Take care who you ask to crew or pace for you. Many runners immediately pull in loved ones and close friends, but these are not always the best choices. It can get ugly out there and your crew has to be able to send you back out when you are not in the best condition and when you are hurting (a lot). Parents, siblings, and children cannot always do that and asking them to do it, is not very nice. Having experienced crew is ideal, but not always possible. You may have to learn/teach as you go. You need people who will stay positive even when you are grumpy, short, and negative.
What they can’t do: Crew cannot provide aid outside of aid stations. Pacers cannot carry (mule) things for you. They can hold your gloves or pack while you use the bathroom, but that’s about it.
Important: your crew or pacers violation of rules or unruly behavior can get YOU disqualified.
For more information on crew and pacers see my page titled Ultra Crew.