Ultrarunning has a special community. Nearly every weekend in cities, parks, and wildlands all across the country, people are organizing and running ultramarathons. Aid stations are stocked, and volunteers arise in the wee hours of the morning to take their places. Crews play a vital role in this community, serving as personal aid stations to weary runners as they undertake their ultramarathon journey. With comprehensive aid station support at most ultras these days, it is certainly not necessary to have a crew for your race, but it sure is nice to see a familiar face. Choosing your crew for this adventure is not a decision to take lightly. When you choose the correct crewmates, they can push you to greater heights. They will know exactly what to say and what to give you, and may even be able to anticipate what you will need next. When you choose the wrong crew, they can drag you down. The wrong crew can drain your energy, make mistakes in execution, and worst of all-cause a DNF when you are able to move forward.
The first step: Determine whether you want a crew at all. Both new and experienced runners sometimes choose to forgo crews entirely. Most races make this possible with bountiful aid stations and more than enough helpful volunteers to keep you moving. If, for whatever reason, your preferred crew (family, friends, etc.) cannot make the event, fret not. The race will most likely be able to take care of you.
If you decide you want a crew, your next move is to determine who exactly you want out there. Husbands, wives, kids, friends, and running partners can all make up a good crew. If they care for you and can getaway for the weekend, chances are they would jump at the chance to help. However, just because your friends and loved ones can be part of your crew does not mean that they should be. The best crew members are the people who know you as a runner and as a person … and have only a small amount of sympathy. After all, it’s going to be tough out there, so it’s best to have someone in your corner who does not mind telling you to suck it up.
Align your crew with your goals first, and then instruct them on the tactical details. First and foremost, your crew is there to assist you in achieving your goals; handing off gels or a jacket and making soup are mere means to that end. I consistently see crews with folders, spreadsheets, and labeled baggies in the aid stations of ultramarathon events. Any kid off the street could look at a highlighted portion of a worksheet, pull the food and gear listed on it, and lay them out for the runner. You don’t need a supportive, caring, and engaged crew member for that. And if that’s all you empower your crew to do, you are not leveraging the people around you to enhance your performance. The mistake people make is to have crew members who are well instructed on what to do but poorly instructed on the crew’s overall goals and the runner’s outcome and process goals. Make no mistake, these overall goals are far more important than the number of potatoes to eat at mile 30. Beginner racers and crews tend to rely more on worksheets and minute-by-minute instructions because the structure provides confidence. Your goal, however, should be to progress to the point where, if you have properly instructed and empowered your crew on their goals and your outcome and process goals, you should need to do little more than give them an index card with those goals, a duffel bag full of your gear and nutrition, and driving directions.
Do You Want a Pacer?
Many ultramarathons, particularly at the 100K and 100-mile distances, allow the use of pacers to accompany the runner. In theory, the pacers can provide motivational support and offer a level of safety for their runner and other runners in the field. As an added benefit, serving as a pacer is a great way to get an introduction into the sport. Most pacers are well intended, but some end up undoing their runner’s race. Personality conflicts, goal misalignments, and a lack of preparation have waylaid many an ultrarunner’s best-laid plans. Using a pacer or choosing to go solo is entirely a personal preference. The decision ultimately lies with the runner.
Success Is Always the Runner’s Responsibility
Crew or no crew, pacer or no pacer, the responsibility of finishing the race and achieving your goals is yours alone. In this way, your crew and/or pacer(s) merely catalyze the process; they are not the linchpins in the operation. Success will ultimately be up to you, your training, and the determination you put forth on race day. When you are choosing a crew or a pacer, remember that it is always your responsibility as a runner to succeed. Your crew or a pacer can help you thrive on race day, but you should not rely on them for your success.