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How to crew for an ultra

There is a lot that goes into crewing for a friend/family member that is racing an ultra distance (anything over 26.2 miles). The best crews are organized and focused on getting their athlete back on the course rehydrated, refueled, and recentered in an efficient time.

Plan and Plan to Pivot: You should sit down with your runner and compromise a plan, but be prepared that things will go off the rails from time to time. In this instance, you must have your wits about you to know when to change up nutrition, attire, and your goals while staying calm for your runner.

What should a plan for crewing look like?

1. Logistics: Know the course and how to get places: Add to your spreadsheet the aid stations, noting where crew and pacers can access the race course. Have your GPS set for each aid station in advance since most are in remote areas that do not have access to networks when you may need them. You will need to estimate the amount of calories your runner needs between sections that you see him/her. Not all races have drop bags between these sections and your athlete may need to carry what they want to eat/drink aside from what is at aid stations in between. Does your runner have a goal time and how much time should it approximately take between each aid station. You can get some intel on the course from your runner/and other runners coming in to get a better idea in case the course runs faster or slower than initially expected and adjust time expectations/goals along the way.

2. Create a nutrition and hydration Plan: Note what your runner will be encountering prior to seeing you and after seeing you. If your runner just came out of a few gnarly climbs, it is time to refuel, get some magnesium/electrolytes and replenish fluids. If your runner is about to encounter some climbs. Get in the caffeine, take the running poles, and stock up on your fuel.

A good formula to use when trying to calculate how many calories an hour your athlete needs is:

((Distance of course leg x Average pace in minutes per mile) ÷ 60 minutes) x Target calorie per hour + 20% extra as a buffer

For example, a 10-mile leg for an athlete trying to consume 300 calories per hour (assuming 8-minute miles) would be ((10 miles x 8 min/mil) / 60) = 1.3 hours. 1.3 hours at an average of 300 calories per hour totals 390 calories. Try to add a 20% buffer. The total amount of calories would be 468 total calories for that 10 mile leg of the race.

Using a 20% buffer helps when things go wrong or when your athlete encounters tough terrain, hills, inclimate weather.

3. Electronics: Make sure you have your headlamp/watch/massage gun/phone charged and that you have extra batteries or a solid way to recharge everything if needed. It is always a good idea to have an extra headlamp in the case of a malfunction or that you cannot get it charged again. Keep your electronics in a Ziplock bag so they do not get wet and make sure you don't accidentally turn them on when you are putting them back into your car.

4. Practice your Aid Station Execution: Being efficient during transition will result in a faster finish time for your athlete. If your athlete is running a 100k race and stays at each of the 8 aid stations for 5 minutes, that is an extra 40 minutes tacked onto their finish time. If your athlete is experienced, strategize how to refuel and get the essentials quickly and efficiently to get back on the course rather than using the aid station as a physical place to stop and rest.

Mimize aid station time by having all the things your athlete might need out and easy for you to grab. Have water bottles, nutrition, socks, shirts, and shoes laid out. Make sure you have the nutrition mixed and ready to swap out of their pack. Have their soda shaken and flat for them to quickly digest. Have medications, ice bandanas, or even a second hydration vest ready for them.

Any aid station that stops longer than five minutes normally demands some kind of first aid like foot care or muscle care. Remember, the best question to ask as your athlete is getting up is “what do you want at the next aid station?”.

5. Be Organized: Crewing is challenging. To help keep thing simple, create a checklist to make sure you have everything and:

  • Break down calories into bags by the aid station. This is especially important if your athlete has drop bags at aid stations that you cannot be at.

  • Pack a bag for cold-weather gear, a change of clothes in a reusable shopping bag, and a couple of pairs of running socks in a gallon bag.

  • Pack first aid in its own kit.

  • Pack an extra headlamp and ALL chargers you might need in a bag together.

  • Bring your excel spreadsheet of aid stations, mileage between stations, course profile, and any directions.

6. Be Motivating: Crewing is a stressful situation, but you cannot show it to your athlete. It is best to stay calm and motivating when your athlete comes into the aid station. Remind them to run their own race and remind them why they do these things. Consider giving your runner a mantra they can remind themselves of when leaving the aid station. It will give them something to focus on, especially on any solitary sections. They can repeat it while they make their way to you until the next aid.

7. Be Assertive: There are many reason why a runner will want to deviate from plans or linger at an aid station too long. It’s the crew's job to tell the runner all that they need to worry about is running and everything else will be handled by the crew. They may not like it at the time, but at the end of the race they will appreciate everything that you’ve done for them.

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