Making the Leap into the Ultra-World: Crew and Pacers

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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.

Could You Run Without Your Support Team?

Epic Exchange six

I couldn’t. My crew and pacers have been and continue to be instrumental in my ultrarunning and finishes. I know some runners complete ultras without crews or pacers. And my hat goes off to them. I sometimes think I could do it without, if I needed too. I’ve done the first fifty miles of a few hundreds without a crew (you typically can’t have pacers within the first fifty miles). And those races went fine. I’ve also had total melt downs at mile 83 and my crew has been able to get me back out there to finish the race.

I love to have them there even if I don’t “need” them. Their smiling faces and tough love make my race fun even when I’m struggling. Their belief in me, when I don’t believe, gets me through.  Sharing my success and love of running is another reason I bring out such a large crew. I have six people, three pacers and three crew, who will be joining me out on Antelope Island for the Buffalo 100 on March 18th and 19th.

I also recognize they are giving up time with family to be out there supporting my running habit. It’s important to me to recognize that and remember it during races. I try to be very aware of their sacrifice when I come into aid stations. I don’t want to criticize them or be a pain in the ass. They are, after all, out there just for me.

Because of all of this, I make a special effort to make sure their needs are taken care of and that they will have a good time out there as well. When I have my crew meetings, I go through things they will need and what their experience will be like. I try to plan things as precisely as possible so they know what to expect and don’t have to guess about what I will need or search for things I am asking for.

Even though I don’t have to have drop bags with my amazing crew at every aid station they can get to, I put them there to make life easier for my crew. It is easy for them to come into an aid station get my drop bag, which has most of what I thought I would need at that particular place and time in the race.

I also try to find a gift for them which is meaningful and will remind them how important they all are to me.

Take care of your support system and never forget, they don’t have to be there. They are there because they love to watch and help you succeed.

Share the Joy of Running

A 100-mile run is not a one-person enterprise, at least not for me. I know there are some runners out there who run the full one hundred without the assistance of pacers or a crew, but I am not one of those runners.

Maybe one day I will have enough experience to go without, but even then, I would still choose to take them along for the adventure because my crew and pacers add so much to the race regardless of if my race is going well or is difficult.

The Buffalo Run had medallions available for pacers this year, which I thought was awesome. I would love to see other races pick up that trend and expand it for crews.

My poor crew really was tested this race. I was demanding, grouchy, exhausted, sun burned, nauseous, blistered, and aching early on in the race. Temperatures were high (75 degrees Fahrenheit), for the time of year, and then dropped low at night (34 degrees Fahrenheit) yet my crew stood waiting for hours for me to come into the aid station.

Regardless of how I was feeling at the time, they were smiling and laughing which always made things a little easier for me. They had everything I needed ready before I came in and tried to anticipate any extras based on conditions.

At mile 82, I was near ready to drop from the race. My pacer, J$, seeing I was having a difficult time suggested I get out of the sun for a while and eat some real food. We reached the aid station and my crew was unexpectedly there waiting for me. I hadn’t arranged for them to be there because I didn’t expect to come through that aid station so late in the race, but there they were smiling and joking around. I sat in the shade and ate some real food for twenty minutes and then set back out for six miles until the next aid station.

When I rolled into the aid station at mile 88, I was ready to call it quits. I laid in the van and whined about how crappy I felt and how much longer it was going to take at my current pace. I didn’t think I would make it before the finish line cut off. Swiss Miss, after running her own race of 17 miles, listened to me whine and convinced me to go back out with her and J$ pacing. It was slow going, but we made it another six miles. I was six miles from the finish line. I still wasn’t sure that I could make the finish line cut off, but I was going to try.

The next aid station was two miles away with a small climb and descent. I was hurting on the descents. We made okay time over the next two miles and met my crew at the final aid station, four miles from the finish line. I sat in the shade, ate some potato chips, and then had to get moving again. Swiss Miss stayed with the crew. J$ and I headed out.

We had 70 minutes to get to the finish line. I was doing an 18-minute mile due to the blisters on my feet, nausea, and aching quads. The last section is rocky with some bigger rolling hills. It would take 72 minutes to get there at my current pace. We had to pick up the pace.

My Garmin beeped. One mile down, three to go. J$ asked what our pace was. My Garmin read 19 minute pace. He cranked up the power walk to 14:30 and I had no choice but to keep up. He was about ten steps ahead of me. “Focus on the arm swing and use your butt.”

I put my head down and kept going.

“There is no way you’re not finishing this. It’s knocked you down about eight times. It’s hit you with every possibility and you keep getting back up. You’re the comeback queen!” J$ called.

All I could hear in my head was, “Comeback queen.”

J$ raised his hand and pointed. “There’s the white tent. The finish line. One more mile.”

And there was my crew ringing cow bells and hollering, “Go DVP! You’ve got this.”

We crossed the finish line with eight minutes to spare.