Your best friend just asked you to crew or pace their upcoming ultramarathon, and you said yes, but now what?!
Acadia Gantz has oodles of experience in both running and crewing ultras, so we asked her to weigh in with her top advice on the subject!
Whether you’re an experienced crew member crewing a new runner or you’ve never crewed before, here are 11 tips for how to crew an ultra and to make it the best experience for everyone.
Never heard of crewing or pacing before?
Crewing at an ultramarathon is undertaking the selfless task of helping your runner finish the miles by providing on-course support at designated locations.
Crewing a runner can also be a great way to familiarize yourself with a race and/or the ultrarunning scene.
11 Tips For How To Crew Or Pace An Ultramarathon
Here are Acadia’s top tips !
1. Learn your runner
Being familiar with your runner can be super helpful while crewing.
Familiarity will allow you to understand what they need in any given moment, and can also give you insight in how to help them.
If you don’t know your runner before the race, don’t worry.
Get on a phone call with them, follow them on social media and take the time to ask them what they like or don’t like during a race.
2. Learn the race rules
Every race has different rules and restrictions for crew members, and failure to follow these rules could result in a disqualification for your runner.
Be sure to educate yourself on . . .
- what aid stations you’re allowed to be at,
- if you need a pacer bib or crew ticket,
- and what aid you are or are not allowed to provide for your runner.
3. Take care of yourself
While crewing for an ultrarunner is an inherently selfless task, you won’t be any help to your runner if you are cold, hungry or miserable.
Ultramarathons take many hours, sometimes even days, but as the crew you will have a lot of down time.
Be sure to pack appropriate clothing, snacks, treats, your favorite teddy, whatever will keep you comfortable and in good spirits to support your runner.
4. Don’t take anything personally
Yes, runners choose to do this, but no, ultrarunners aren’t always having fun.
Running an ultra is a huge mental, emotional and physical task and I can guarantee your runner will not be in a good mood every time they see you.
When your runner is short with you, or doesn’t say anything at all, let it roll off your back and remember that they still appreciate you.
5. Be organized – have a checklist
The saying “hurry up and wait” was made for ultramarathon crewing.
You spend the majority of the race sitting around only to spend 5 minutes frantically tending to your runner before sending them off on their journey again.
It can be easy to get caught up in the rush of the moments that your runner is in the aid station and forget a vital task or supply, like reapplying their sunscreen or changing their headlamp batteries.
Have a checklist you can reference at each aid station that includes things like:
- Give your runner something to eat,
- Reapply sunscreen,
- Change Headlamp/waist light batteries,
- Provide a change of clothes if the weather indicates,
- Does your runner need their hiking poles for the next section?
Have everything you will need for a quick transition laid out so it is easy to see and access.
Organization will make aid station stops quick, efficient and painless for you and your runner.
6. You Are Dr. Crewmember
Preparing to crew for an ultramarathon is a great time to brush up on some basic first aid skills.
While organized races will have first aid providers on the course, some things, such as foot care, are better managed by a runner’s crew.
Learn how to care for blistered feet, treat nausea, monitor for adequate hydration and calorie intake and support common running injuries (especially any issue that your runner has struggled with in training).
In addition to knowing how to manage basic first aid needs for your runner, become familiar with warning signs of major first aid emergencies such as dehydration, hyponatremia, heat exhaustion/stroke, hypothermia or altitude sickness.
If your runner is showing any of the following symptoms it is imperative that they be evaluated before being allowed to continue.
- The “umbles” (mumbling, stumbling, fumbling or grumbling), particularly in relation to cold weather or excessive body heat loss.
- Nausea that doesn’t resolve with food.
- Headache that doesn’t resolve with water.
- Elevated Heart or Respiratory Rate (beyond what would be expected for the effort of the race).
- Elevated body temperature.
- Shortness of breath or coughing.
- Extreme muscle cramping.
7. Expect the unexpected
Every ultra will throw you a curveball, no matter how prepared and organized you are.
As a crew member it is your job to expect the unexpected and pivot to smooth the transition for your runner.
Keep an eye on the weather forecast if possible to send your runner out with the appropriate gear.
Have a contingency plan if your runner gets nauseous and doesn’t want to eat the food they packed for themselves, or if one of their pacers is unable to continue.
8. Remain Calm and Crew On
Remaining calm is probably your most important task as a crew member.
Even if it is suddenly snowing, your runner has the worst blisters you’ve ever seen and their pacer didn’t make it to the pick-up point, you need to remain calm.
Take a deep breath and fake it until you make it.
It’s possible, with the right attitude, to make your runner believe everything is ok, even if it’s not!
Beyond keeping calm, staying endlessly positive is also incredibly important when crewing for an ultra.
Avoid asking your runner how they feel (probably not great) and instead reinforce how awesome they look (even if they don’t look good at all!).
9. Pace like a pro
Part of your job as a crew might be to “pace” or accompany your runner on a section of the race.
Your job as a pacer is similar to your job as a crew member – stay positive, keep the runner moving forward, remind them to eat and drink and help them stay on course.
As a pacer you will have more time with your runner, so make mental notes about what is working or not working for your runner to share with the next pacer or crew when you hand them off.
Come prepared with good dad jokes, interesting stories, or a solid playlist.
Communicate with your runner before the race about their preferences – would they like you to run in front or behind? Do they like to be chatty or to have silence? What is their motivation for finishing?
Take pictures and videos!
Your runner is probably too tired to think to do this themselves, but they will cherish the memories.
And if they don’t?
Well, photos are easy to delete forever!
Finally, be sure that you are prepared to run the distance and elevation you’ve been asked to pace.
A tired, angry, or injured pacer is a liability to the runner, and you are there to help, not hinder!
10. Offer, Don’t ask
Communication is super important both between the crew and their runner and also between crew members.
Much of the communication should happen prior to race day so that everyone is clear on their jobs at the race.
Important topics to discuss as a crew with your runner:
Assign crew member tasks.
Pick a crew chief who will be ultimately responsible for knowing who will be doing what at each aid station.
Tasks for each aid station should include:
- filling water/repacking the runner’s vest,
- watching the time,
- tending to the runners feet,
- providing food,
- updating the runner on the next section of the course,
- ensuring the runner has all the gear they need for the next section (sunscreen, headlamp, sunglasses, warm jacket etc.).
Know which crew members will be at each aid station.
At some race the aid stations are too close together for the crew to drive between, so have your crew split up.
Have each crew member check-in with the crew chief when arriving at aid stations so that the runner’s stop can be quick and efficient.
Ensure that all crew members have contact information for the other crew members.
Discuss what things your runner finds helpful/encouraging and what will annoy them when the are tired and hungry.
During the race, keep your communication with your runner brief.
As they get tired, making decisions become a huge task. Instead of framing a question as “Would you like a quesadilla?” Have a quesadilla ready and say “Here is a quesadilla for you.”
If your runner wants the quesadilla (or whatever you are offering), they will gladly accept it.
If they don’t, they will say no, or grunt, or ignore you, but either way, it will be easier for them to simply say no then to consider the pros and cons of a quesadilla in that moment.
11. Create your own memories
Even though you are part of this race to help your runner make it across the finish line, crewing and pacing an ultra will allow you plenty of opportunities to make your own memories.
You will spend a lot of time hanging out at aid stations, so make friends with other crews! They all have unique stories and experiences and may have valuable tips to share.
Also, keep an eye out for other runners who may need assistance.
Not everyone has friends or family that are willing or able to crew for them, and sometimes a smile and a friendly hand can give a runner, even a stranger, the encouragement they need to finish their race.
Ultrarunning is unpredictable, and just like life, mistakes will be made.
It’s most important that you, as the crew, keep a positive attitude and stay quick on your feet to guide your runner to the finish line.
Enjoy the journey, and take notes for next time.