Congratulations! You are probably reading this blog because you have been asked to crew your friend or family member during an ultramarathon. Crewing an ultramarathon is quite an adventure! When you have no idea what you are doing, it can seem overwhelming.
I am writing this blog because I was completely clueless when I started crewing my husband, Chase, for his ultramarathons. But he really didn’t know what he needed from a crew member yet, either. I searched the web, but I didn’t really find much helpful information. I ended up learning a lot by trial and error…many errors. So, I compiled all the information I could think of and shoved it in one place in hopes that if you are lost like I was, this will help make it easier to crew your first ultramarathon. We have both learned a ton along the way, and I thought it would be helpful to have some tips and helpful hints for those of you who also have no experience as a crew member. This might even be helpful for experienced crew members. I am learning new tricks every single race, and so might you!
I love crewing for my husband’s races. Some people don’t recommend spouses crew each other at races, but it works great for us. I know my husband better than anyone else, which is an important part of being a crew member. I know what he expects of me as a crew member. Chase never requires any pushing or motivation (he’s really great at doing that on his own), but I would never let him quit a race unless there was something catastrophically wrong. I can check my emotions as soon as I see him come up to the aid station and go into business mode. Once he leaves the aid station, I can have a mini freakout…which is fine. Also, I am not sure I would trust anyone else with the responsibility. I might be a control freak.
Enough about my obsession with crewing my husband. Let’s get into it.
No Ultramarathon Experience Required
You might be asking, how am I supposed to crew an ultra-runner if I have never been to, or participated in an ultramarathon before? While it definitely helps to be familiar with the ultra-experience and what an ultramarathon entails, experience is not required. You don’t have to be an ultra-runner to be an awesome crew member. As of right now, I’m not an ultrarunner! Like I said earlier, you will learn as you go. This is especially true at “shorter” races. I would definitely recommend getting some practice in at “shorter” races or having someone else there with more experience for multi-day races.
While you don’t have to be an experienced crew member, certain personality traits will be beneficial. Running an ultramarathon is not an easy task. There will be ups and downs, happy times, and miserable times. As a crew member, you should have a positive personality. No runner wants to come into the aid station to a grumpy, gloomy crew member. You also want to be encouraging and bring the energy (even if you are exhausted, which you probably will be). My crewing policy is all smiles, all positivity. If my runner comes in looking horrible, I tell them they look great. It can be a big mental boost for them. There have been times when Chase has come to the aid station a mess, but I pretend that it is all fine, and I am not at all worried about him. I may have a moment after he leaves where I am freaking out, but I never let him see me do it. Putting yourself in that situation can help you see why you want to have a positive crew member. When you feel tired and crappy, you don’t want someone telling you that you look tired and crappy. You want someone to lie to you and tell you how awesome you look!
When crewing an ultramarathon, you must be a problem-solver. Things can and will go wrong. Your runner might have some problems arise throughout the duration of the race, but it is your job to be pragmatic and develop a quick solution. We always believe that there is a way to fix everything so that your runner can continue the race. There are very few insurmountable issues. It also helps to be efficient and quick on your toes. Most of the time, you want your runner to get in and out of the aid stations fairly quickly, and most of this is up to you to get done.
Know What is Expected of You
Not all ultrarunners are alike. They each handle races differently and have different expectations of their crew members. I have crewed two very different runners and learned very quickly that they had different crew expectations. Make sure to have this conversation with your runner before the race.
Some runners want to know at all times what place they are in. Others only want to know later in the race. And others only want to know if they are close to another racer so they can decide if they want to push to pass them. Don’t just assume that your runner wants to know what place they are in. Your runner will often have a plan ahead of time for this, and you should talk about it beforehand.
Be Informed About the Race
When you sign up to crew a runner at an ultramarathon, be prepared to do some research. Believe it or not, your actions can actually get your runner disqualified! For most ultramarathons, the race directors will create a runner’s manual. If it is on their website, I suggest you read it and become familiar with all the rules. If you aren’t sure where to find it, reach out to your runner. Chances are they will know where to find it. The last thing you want is for your runner to get a DNF because you 1) did not read the rules or 2) did not follow the rules.
Additionally, you should familiarize yourself with the course map. Know where you can meet your runner, and discuss where they would like you to go. At some races, the crew is only allowed at specific aid stations. Some races allow you to crew your runner almost anywhere along the course. Sometimes, you won’t need to go to all the aid stations crew is allowed at. Other times, your runner might want you there every time you are allowed to be there. As with almost everything I have discussed thus far, have this conversation and make a plan with your runner.
Know the race/course for the runners as well, not just the aid stations. Your runner might ask you how far it is to the next aid station or how far it is until the end of the race. You want to know these answers ahead of time. Additionally, you do not want to lie to the runner and just pull mileage out of your head. They could plan when they want to step up the pace or something, and you don’t want to mess with that plan. Also, it can be crushing to learn you actually have 5 miles instead of 3. By knowing the course yourself, you, in turn, make it easier on the runner.
Knowing the course also makes it easier to know where you need to go to meet your runner next. For extended duration races and races with varied terrain, you should also have the next section of the course in mind and relay that to your runner. That way they know what to expect, and you can discuss a strategy or a change of a piece of equipment for the upcoming stretch.
You may also need to walk your runner back to the aid station and point them in the right direction to head back out on the course. This is especially true during multiple-day races. As we have already discussed, your runner will be tired and disoriented at times, and you want to get them headed out in the right direction. Also, where you and the rest of your crew are staged may be a short distance from the aid station itself due to the number of people at some of these races.
It is also important to watch the weather during the race and prepare for weather changes. I have crewed a race (The Moab 240) in the desert where it was 100 degrees out during the day, and then at night in the mountains, it was almost freezing. Obviously, you and your runner will need different clothes for each of these situations. We try to pack and plan for all possible weather scenarios.
When you are crewing an ultrarunner, it is crucial to be organized. This makes you much more efficient at your job and can cut down on the time your runner has to spend at the aid stations, ultimately shortening the total race time. My favorite way to stay organized for a race is making myself a “bible.” This should contain the runner’s manual (if the race provides one), aid station checklists, directions to aid stations, and other pertinent information. Honestly, this is one of my favorite things to do. I love making checklists and such, so this is actually quite fun for me. My “bible” is usually in a 3-ring binder like this one. A good motto is always to have a plan but be ready to throw that plan out the window. As I said before, when you are crewing an ultramarathon, you have to be a problem-solver.
Be on Time
This section also relates to being organized and knowing what is expected of you. When you go to an aid station, it is obviously important to be there on time to meet your runner. Always arrive at the aid station before you think you need to be there. You should have a general idea of when your runner should be there and always go early. Some of the longer races provide the runners with a tracking device that they are required to wear. These are great because it allows you to track your runner (if you have service).
Arriving early allows you to have time to get everything out and organized before your runner arrives. As a crew member, one of the worst things you can do is miss your runner or make them wait for you. This is my biggest fear when I crew Chase. You don’t want to impact the race negatively; that is the opposite of your job.
Another good practice is to meet your runner when they arrive at the aid station. Don’t make them find you. This is especially true at extended duration and events with a lot of people. Also, you might have your stuff set up a little ways away from the actual aid station. Your runner should not have to wander around looking for you. I have seen this happen at races, and the runners did not look happy to be wandering through the aid station looking for their crew members. I have also been at races where the crew completely missed their runner.
If there is more than one crew member on your team for the ultramarathon, you are crewing, delegating tasks will be helpful. Once again, this is a way to make your team more efficient; think of it as a pit crew for a NASCAR race. You won’t want to be running around like a crazy person for the few minutes you see your runner at the aid stations.
If possible, have one person in charge of swapping out hydration, one person in charge of food, etc. I have also found it helpful only to have one person be in charge of talking to and asking questions to your runner. They will be tired and won’t want 4 people talking to them at once. It is also important not to overwhelm your runner with information and questions. The fewer decisions your runner has to make, the better. Their mind will not be 100% clear, so their judgment might also be a bit sketchy.
Get Down and Dirty with Your Runner’s Feet
For ultra-runners, the feet are one of the most important parts of the body. If they don’t take care of their feet, especially during an extended-duration race, they could very possibly have to drop out of the race. I have seen it. Hot spots rapidly turn into excruciating blisters. Tending to feet (even my husband’s, whom I love) is a weakness for me. I don’t do gross very well. My dad (bless him) is typically the “foot guy” of the crew. He takes Chase’s shoes and socks off and cleans his feet really well.
Clean, happy feet are so important in ultras, even more so in multi-day races. Keeping them clean and dry can be the difference between finishing strong, limping across the finish line, or sometimes, not even finishing at all. When we really want to treat Chase during a multi-day race, we will have a foot soak of warm water and Epsom salts for him to dip his feet in for a few minutes. Obviously, we don’t do this at every aid station. It takes up time, and we try to get Chase out of aid stations pretty quickly.
Another Gross but Necessary Topic
Pee. This topic weirds some people out, but I don’t know why. Everyone does it. During an ultramarathon, especially a multiple-day event, pee is pretty important. Running an ultramarathon is hard on your kidneys. So is being dehydrated. If your runner isn’t staying properly hydrated, there could be disastrous consequences. Hydration is such an important topic that we have a separate blog on it that you can find here.
You should be asking your runner what color their urine is and how often they are relieving themselves. I will skip the scientific stuff for this blog, but the darker the urine, the more likely it is that your runner may be damaging his/her kidneys. If they aren’t urinating at all, then this is also an issue.
Sleeping & Eating
While you are absolutely there to take care of your runner, it is also essential to care for yourself. You can’t expect to help your runner if you are exhausted, hungry, and delirious. Your runner comes first, and you come second; just don’t completely forget about yourself.
When you are crewing an ultramarathon, it is important to get some sleep if you are able. Personally, I can’t sleep much during Chase’s runs, but I try to nap. If I do take a nap, I make sure someone else is up. This probably isn’t the recommended thing to do, but it works for us. If my husband has to be up, I am going to be up as well. My mind will not let me sleep. For a 100-mile race, this really isn’t a big issue because most races cut off around the 32-hour mark.
When you get into the multi-day races, sleep becomes more important. Typically, there will be time (often several hours) for you to sleep or nap between meeting your runner at aid stations. For these races, you will learn to sleep whenever, wherever. If you can get away with napping in shifts, that is what I would recommend, as you will always have someone up watching for your runner.
Another aspect of taking care of yourself when crewing an ultramarathon is to make sure you also stay hydrated and eat food. Nobody wants a dehydrated hangry crew member! Most ultramarathon aid stations are not set up to take care of crew members. They only plan enough for the runners and volunteers. As a crew member, you are in charge of bringing your own food and drinks to the race. Make sure you pack yourself a cooler full of quick, easy foods, snacks, and drinks.
Ultramarathons are Not a Party…Until They are
While they are definitely fun and have a great atmosphere, ultramarathons are not a party if you are crewing a runner. We have a strict no alcohol until the race is over policy. You wouldn’t want anything to hinder your ability to help your runner. Once the race is over, all bets are off, and you can have as many drinks as you’d like. I have been to races where the crew was getting blasted the whole time, and while they definitely had fun, they weren’t much help to their runner. You aren’t there just to have a good time. Your friend asked you to help them with one of the most physically and mentally demanding things that they may ever do. The least you could do is stay sober until it’s over.
What to Pack
Below, I have created a list of items that you should make sure your runner has packed. I have learned a lot through trial and error and what works for us specifically. Depending on the type of race you are crewing, this might change, so I have a few different lists that fit different types of ultramarathons.
Chase and I pack for his races together, and it is a team effort. That might not be the case for you and your runner. If your runner isn’t a family member, you might not have to make sure they packed everything. This really just depends on your relationship. I have included it either way, and you can feel free to share it with your runner.
Most races allow drop bags for the runners to access at certain aid stations or points throughout the race. This is a great way for uncrewed runners to access the specific items they may need that the race doesn’t supply. In the past, Chase utilized these, but we haven’t really been doing drop bags for a while at his races. The exception is if there is an aid station that we aren’t allowed to crew at. Some runners will have crew members at all the aid stations and a drop bag if they miss their crew. This has been known to happen. Crew can get stuck in traffic, get lost, oversleep through a nap, or maybe the runner is just going way faster than anticipated and beats the crew there.
One rule of thumb (if you are going to have a drop bag) is that if it is a make or break item, put it in the drop bag. We have used everything from a plastic Tupperware to a drawstring athletic gym bag as a drop bag. If it is a wet environment, you will want to use something waterproof to keep your stuff dry. It is also a good idea not to put anything you are super attached to in your drop bags. During the night at one race we were at, raccoons were sneaking into the aid stations and stealing drop bags!
Typical drop bags include the following:
- Runner’s choice of fuel (gels, powder, etc.)
- Extra Clothing (shirt, shorts, socks, maybe a long-sleeve if they get chilly at night)
- Different shoes
- Headlamp or another light source for running at night with spare batteries
- Blister/Chaffing Prevention
- Chapstick and/or Sunscreen
- Anything else the runner might need that the race does not provide
- Spare handheld or another preferred hydration system
Packing for a Single Day (ish) Ultramarathon (50k-100 miles)
- Prepared Food
- This should be ready to go when the runner arrives. Have a plan to decide what the runner will want each time you see them so you can have it ready to eat. During ultramarathons, food should be easy to eat and digest. You don’t want any whole grains or vegetables during an ultramarathon, as they can cause stomach upset.
- During races, your runner will likely experience palate fatigue. This means that they will get tired of eating and drinking the same things. I have definitely seen this happen with Chase. Most race fuels are sweet, so, many times, your runner will not want to eat sweet food at the aid stations (unless they have a monster sweet tooth). To avoid this, try to have a variety of salty and sweet foods for your runner to pick from.
- Chase likes to have these staples for his races: liquid carbohydrates that he uses as his fuel, watermelon, blueberries, oranges, chips, cookies, macaroni salad, ramens, pickles/pickle juice, tortillas with hummus, or PB&J, and macaroni and cheese.
- DO NOT EVER TRY ANYTHING NEW ON RACE DAY! I cannot emphasize this enough. If you try a new food during an ultramarathon, you have no idea how your stomach is going to react. IT might make you sick. Just don’t do it. Stick to tried and true foods that you know agree with your stomach.
- The important thing about food is to have options, but not so many that it is overwhelming for your runner.
- Additionally, some runners prefer to eat what is available at the aid stations (many have great food options), but it is good to bring your own food if your runner has dietary restrictions. This way, you will know for sure there will be something for your runner to eat.
- We always bring our own water to races. Call us fancy, but a lot of races provide water from a hose that tastes gross. Nobody wants to drink funky tasting water. We typically have a jug of ice water ready to fill water bottles with. Ideally, you can have the runner’s bottles or bladder refilled, mixed with electrolytes/fuel, and ready to go when your runner gets there. For maximum efficiency, discuss with your runner their fueling preferences ahead of time.
- This will be whatever your runner likes to fuel with on the trail.
- Other Drinks
- This could include things like coconut water, Gatorade, Coca-Cola, iced coffee, hot coffee, or really anything your runner might want. Once again, palate fatigue can be a real problem during ultramarathons, so have several options for your runner to pick from. Discuss in advance what they might be craving and have it ready.
- Bug Spray
- I don’t know about where you live, but here in Kansas, the bugs are on a mission to make you miserable. This is especially true for ticks and mosquitos. Bring tons of bug spray for yourself and your runner!
- Unless the race is in a heavily wooded area, your runner will likely need to wear sunscreen. Running an ultramarathon is already hard. Don’t make it harder for your runner by letting them get a sunburn. You should also apply sunscreen for the runner. They will be sweaty and salty, but you’ll learn to get over aversions to things like that pretty quickly (I think this is the 3rd kind of gross thing we’ve talked about).
- Chapstick with SPF is even better to prevent sunburnt lips if running in open areas.
- Anti-Chafing Stick
- Body Glide, Squirrel’s Nut Butter, etc. Chaffing preventers should be offered every time you see your runner. I have seen runners drop out of a race due to chaffing, so anything we can do to avoid that is great. I make my runner “lube up” at every single aid station. It is better to stay far ahead of that issue.
- First Aid Kit
- Check for blisters, hot spots, cuts, excessive chafing, and provide medical assistance when needed. A little blister or minor hot spot doesn’t take long to become a serious problem in an extended-duration race. You might go the entire race without needing anything from here, but you will be very sorry if you don’t bring it and it is needed.
- Antacid Tablets
- Heartburn is annoying and sometimes can be brought on from too many sweet or acidic foods,
- Camping Chair for Crew and Runner
- We opt to bring light, portable ones. I usually let my runner sit in mine, as I won’t be sitting when my runner is at the aid station.
- Folding Table
- We have a really light folding table that we use for camping that works really well. Our table can also double as a footrest if Chase needs to elevate his feet for a minute or two. It doesn’t need to be big, and you have to haul it around with you, so keep it lightweight.
- Fast-Drying Towels
- Have one for the runner to sit on, one to wipe down with, and one to put on the ground for sock/shoe changes.
- When you can’t park close to the aid station, a wagon to throw all your stuff in and wheel to the aid station is quite handy.
- Blankets, Sleeping Bag, Gloves, Warm Clothing, Hat/Beanie, and Hand/Feet warmers
- This is obviously for cold weather races, but you would be surprised how chilly it can get in the spring and fall during the night. You will need these for yourself too! When you are standing around waiting on your runner, you will get cold quickly.
- For hot weather races, you can never have enough ice! We typically take an entire cooler just for ice. You can put it in arm sleeves, bras (if your runner is female), hats, towels, etc. This can go a long way in keeping your runner cool and prevent them from overheating.
- We just recently discovered and started using this, and whoever thought of it is a GENIUS! I saw crew members using it for the Western States and smacked myself in the head for not thinking of that sooner! You basically fill it with ice and water and mist your runner while they are at the aid station. Just a regular sprayer like the one you see in the link will work just fine. Just make sure you only use water in it and don’t ever use one that has contained any chemicals!
- Spare Clothes (shirt, shorts, long sleeves, etc.)
- We always pack extra clothes and plan ahead for changing throughout the race so I can have clothes ready to go when he gets to the aid station.
- Change of Shoes and Socks
- We pack a few different shoes and several changes of socks for races. If the conditions are wet, you want your runner to change often, as wet feet for 100(s) of miles can lead to serious discomfort (trench foot).
- Tissues and/or Toilet paper
- For obvious reasons.
- Massage Roller
- These are great for tight muscles. There are several different options, and your runner will likely know which they prefer.
- Extra plastic bags
- These always come in handy. They can be used for trash or to send food with your runner out on the trail.
Packing for a Multi-Day Event/Extended-Duration Event
These can be tricky to plan for. Some of these 200+ mile races are loops, and some are point-to-point. This can make crewing a logistic puzzle. We typically prefer to find a central location to make our “base” to drive to and from and use for resupplies, laundry, and naps. Doing so prevents super long drives (kind of, depending on the road quality) to aid stations that allow crew members to be present. Having a base also allows you a place to put all your “stuff” that you don’t need for the race itself but need before or after. Another option is to have an RV that you drive to the aid stations. We have not done this yet, but are seriously considering it for a 250-mile race (Cocodona 250) Chase is doing next year. If the roads and the race rules allow for it, this is an easy way to bring everything with you the whole time and allows for a real bed for your runner to take race naps in.
As far as gear goes, you want to have only the things you need because you will be on the move for the entirety of the race in most scenarios. For these types of races, being organized is super important. The same gear is recommended for these races, but you need to have it well organized. Some items you might consider bringing for extremely long-distance races are; a blow-up backpacking-type pad, sleeping bag or blankets, and a pillow for your runner. Some races offer sleep stations for runners, but it’s way more comfortable to sleep in the back of a vehicle with a temperature-controlled environment whenever possible. Your runner’s naps will be a lot more productive, trust me. For more information on sleeping during an ultramarathon, check out my blog here.
Packing for an LMS-type race
For a Last Runner Standing race or similar looping race where you are stationary and your runner sees you often, you will want to bring all the items you would need for a single day (ish) event (except maybe the wagon) and a few more things to make your life easier.
- Pop-up Shade
- You are going to be out in the elements all day, often through the night as well. You will be glad to have some shade during the heat of the day, and you can even put sides on your pop-up for some added privacy. I also like having sides up at night because I have a strange fear of a critter or something sneaking up behind me. Does anyone else have the same issue?
- Over the Door Organizer
- I saw this at an LMS race we were at this year and, once again, wanted to smack myself in the head for not thinking of this. You can hang this from your pop-up and store things to be accessed easily that your runner will need. We’ve done Tupperware/totes and bags in the past, but this is way easier to have it all visible and easy to find.
- Larger Folding Table
- You’ve got space for it at most LMS races, so you might as well make your life easier and have a table you can prep food, drinks, or even lay specific items out that your runner has plans to use at specific times or distances.
- This one is pretty self-explanatory. If your runner is in it for the long haul, you will be out all night and want some lights to help you see in the dark.
Whew! I feel like that was a ton of information. But here’s the real kicker: you can plan and prepare all you want for your first time crewing an ultramarathon, and that’s great! But guess what. Most likely, your plans will go out the window, and you will fly by the seat of your pants. As long as you stay calm, cool, and positive, you will do great. Like I previously mentioned, you will learn a lot through trial and error! You’ve got the easy job in this scenario…you’re not running a crapload of miles like a crazy person! Just go out there and support your friend or family member, and HAVE FUN!