How to Crew for an UltraMarathon Runner
“He’s a beast!”
“Is he crazy?”
“Oh, I KNOW he’s a special kind of crazy to do that.”
“I wouldn’t even drive that far!”
These are all things people said to me about my husband running an ultramarathon. An ultramarathon is any distance over a traditional marathon of 26.2 miles.
To which I replied:
Yes. Yes he is.
You seem to know a lot about crazy.
Neither would I.
Here’s the deal. All ultramarathons are different. In some way, shape or form that runner is going to need support. There’s the practical stuff: food, supplies, medical, transportation. There’s also the intangible stuff like providing emotional support. Sometimes they need a cheerleader, sometimes they need a drill sergeant. You can probably guess which one I’m good at.
Last year my husband ran a 69-mile ultramarathon in Oregon called Barrel to Keg. Barrel to Keg is actually designed as a team race, but they allow solo teams. 4 solo runners registered. 1 didn’t show up. 1 didn’t finish. 2 did finish with vastly different times. Thankfully, (I think) my husband was one of the finishers.
At the end of it, I was proud of my husband’s accomplishment, but I hope he never ever ever wants to do it again. It. was. brutal. For all of us.
Here are some things I learned about crewing for an ultra marathon runner.
What Food to Pack for the Runner
This is going to depend on your runner, but pack more than you think you will need and provide lots of options. The runner’s tastebuds are going to change the longer they are on the course. Whatever you do pack needs to be easily digestible and easily eaten on-the-run.
At each aid station/meeting point, I would offer my husband a snack and a fresh water bottle. Depending on the runner, they might only be stopping for a few minutes (it is a race after all), so having everything ready to go was important.
boiled and cubed sweet potatoes with brown sugar
salt tablets – taken as needed to replace salt/electrolytes in system
peanut butter jelly sandwiches
There was also that time toward mile 57 where I finally found a convenience store and procured their only jar of pickles because my husband was craving the salt from the pickle juice. He drank it straight from the jar and said it tasted like unicorn blood.
Then he passed the jar around to complete strangers who all took a swig and then bumped chests. Like I said, taste buds start to go wacky during an ultra – maybe the brain too.
What Drinks to Pack
Water (and water bottles) – lots and lots of water
Ice – lots and lots of ice
Sports drinks such as Gatorade
Some sort of caffeinated beverage
Even if your runner doesn’t normally drink caffeine, at some point in the race, they might really crave the boost from a Coke or an iced coffee. Just don’t let them pound caffeine the entire time – that’s bad.
What Clothing to Pack
My husband was running a race where there would be pavement and gravel roads, so he packed regular running shoes and trail shoes. He also packed two pairs of each shoe – just in case.
Multiple changes of socks are a must. My husband changed his socks every 15 miles or so. He prefers these Drymax Hyper Thin Socks or these Drymax Trail Socks that we order on Amazon.
Take my advice, have a bag you can seal those stinky suckers in because 10 hours of smelling sweaty socks in a hot car is enough to make you want to run your own ultramarathon – far away from the smell.
We did have extra shirts, running shorts and compression gear, but ended up not using those. To that end, I honestly did not know if I would be able to get his clothes clean after the race. There were white lines everywhere on his clothes from where the salt of his sweat had dried. A
little lot of Oxiclean and they were as good as new.
Depending on the time of year, you runner will need to be dressed and prepared for the weather during your race. We didn’t have to worry about rain gear, but my husband did use sunglasses, a hat and of course, reflective safety gear.
Other Essentials to Have on Hand for the Runner
1. Chafe Prevention. I don’t care who you are. If you are running an ultra, you need something to prevent chafing. Seriously. I probably saw half a dozen guys who were running a little funny because of crotch chafing – there’s no gentle way to say that. I’m sure it hurts a lot worse than it looks.
I also saw some bleeding nipples. And, honey, that’s just not right.
Compression shorts and shirts help with this, but take it a step further. Please. For the love of the nipples, encourage your runner to use something like Bodyglide on his/her nipples, crotch and even feet. There are other products out there too. This is just the one my husband likes and he did not experience chafing. Phew. Too much information?
2. Cooling neck wrap. I wish I would have thought to bring one of these. We ended up borrowing one from one of the other teams. It was a lifesaver for my husband on a blistering hot day with no shade on the course. This one one Amazon is similar to the one we borrowed. I just threw it in with our ice to “refresh” it.
3. Sunscreen. Your runner is going to be focused on how much time they’ve been on the course, but not on how much sun they’ve been getting while there. Make sure you keep track of when the runner last applied sunscreen and when it is time to reapply – they aren’t going to remember. Recovering from an ultramarathon is tough enough – no need to add a sunburn on top of everything else.
4. First Aid Supplies. There will likely be ambulance and first aid kits at various check points along the ultramarathon route, but it’s good to be prepared with a basic first aid kit. I also included supplies to treat blisters, ibuprofen and tylenol, and bug spray.
How the Crew Spends His/Her Time
My husband estimated the race would take him approximately 12 hours. I was to drive from check point to check point. I’d record his time, refill his water bottles, offer a snack and brief him on what to expect for the next leg of the race.
I figured I’d have a lot of downtime, so I brought a book.
I ended up not even picking it up. Yes, there’s a lot of time spent waiting, but there’s also camaraderie along the route. I ended up cheering on the other runners and chatting with other crews and race staff.
I also spent a lot of time looking at my watch, estimating the time my husband should arrive. If he was slower or faster than I estimated, it was a clue as to how he was feeling and what he might be needing in the way of support.
Since my husband was running from Point A to Point B, each leg of his race was a little bit different. At the end of each leg, I’d prep him for the next one and we’d talk strategy. How long it would be, if there were hills, was he going to walk a portion of this leg, etc.
When I did have cell service, I’d give social media/text updates to the friends and family supporting my husband from home (or the finish line).
As the race wore on, particularly after mile 50, I realized I couldn’t drive 5 miles ahead and wait for him any longer. My husband had a dehydration scare (kidney failure is real, folks) and I needed to check on him much more often – every mile or 2.
What I Learned as the Crew
I was much more invested in my husband’s success (i.e. completion of the race) than I had ever been before because I was there traveling each mile with him and helping him along the way.
Crewing for an ultramarathoner is a strangely intimate and emotional experience. You’ll wear many hats – cheerleader, mother hen, drill sergeant, coach, first aid administrator. You’ll discuss really personal things – the color of one’s pee, for instance. You’ll be rolling down your car windows and driving with your head stuck out the side because the runner’s shoes smell so bad.
When the runner says they are going to quit, you have to decide if they really need to quit or if they need a kick in the pants to keep going. At some point around mile 62 my husband told me he decided he was going to finish the raise. What the what? I smiled brightly and said, “sure you are! You’ve got this! Go get em’ tiger!” Okay, I didn’t say tiger. What I was really thinking was…
“Oh, really? You just now decided with 7 miles to go that you are going to finish? WE knew that WE were going to finish the raise when WE got up at 4 a.m. to drive to the start line. I’m glad you finally got the memo because WE are definitely finishing this raise if I have to drag you over the finish line myself.”
Like I said, this experience can get kind of emotional.
After the Race: Runner’s Recovery
Your crew job doesn’t end once the race is over – at least it doesn’t if you live with the runner.
Once the runner finally sits down after the race – you might not get them back up for awhile! So keep that in mind when they finally cross the finish line.
Their muscles are going to protest big time, so try to avoid stairs immediately following the race. Definitely have ice on hand for that first night following the race because they are going to feel every single ache as their body recuperates.
I was up off and on that first night checking on my husband, switching out ice packs, etc. It was a wee bit exhausting, but hey, I guess running an ultramarathon is a wee bit exhausting too.
Was it Worth It?
I’m glad I crewed for my husband’s ultramarathon for a variety of reasons. It was the ultimate test of physical and mental endurance for him and I’m happy I witnessed just how strong he is firsthand.
I didn’t realize going into it how demanding his race needs would be. Naive on my part, I guess. If something went wrong during the race he could end up in the hospital. He’s the love of my life and the father of my children, so I’m glad I didn’t trust someone else to look out for my husband’s welfare. Being his crew was definitely worth it in that regard.
Do I want him to do it again? Absolutely not. It’s a huge time commitment not just on race day, but also in training. It’s hard on the runner’s body and in my book, he has nothing to prove. That being said, I will happily support him should he choose to run down this crazy road again. I’m just going to hope and pray that he never wants to do an ultramarathon again!
Thanks for reading! If you made it to the end of this one (HURRAY!), you might find these interesting as well.
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Wow, I had no idea it was so intensive! I enjoyed reading the grueling details and how you both stayed the course. I can’t even imagine running 1 mile in my life at this point. I felt pretty good about playing volleyball for 2 hours straight…
Just walk a mile first – it will feel really good! And Volleyball is awesome!
Can you provide a list of ultramarathons that allow support crews?
I’m most interested in the races where the support crew can follow along with the runner similar to Badwater.
I don’t know if that list exists. Your best bet is to look for relay races under 100 miles long that allow solo runners. Relay races (with multiple runners on a team) have a course that allows for road traffic and exchange points. A solo runner on a relay would then be able to have a support crew. These are typically less corporate-y races than your big ones like Ragnar or Hood-to-Coast. Most ultra marathons that are trail runs are not conducive to a crew, but they are well staffed with checkpoints and aid stations along the way.