Think back to high school, when your coach was probably balding, had a belly hanging over his shorts, and a whistle around his neck. My basketball coach was actually a skinny, balding Italian, but had an incredible amount of body hair that made him look like a gangly orangutan with hair protruding from his way-too-short shorts. Stylish or not, high school coaches are probably the finest example of those with the ability to push athletes to achieve their best. Coaches know what to say, what their athletes need and how to lead them to success, and they are the perfect example of a crew and/or pacer for ultrarunning.
Say your high school coach can’t make it to Western States this year. What qualities does a runner need in their crew? Someone who will anticipate what you need before you arrive at each aid station, and encourage you to get in and out as quickly as possible. The person (or people) needs to be able to assess the situation, know what kind of carnage to expect, and respond accordingly. After being on the trails for hours at a time, you know how easy it is to pull into an aid station and be tempted (beware of the chair). When no one is pushing you to get moving, it’s easy to linger.
Details can spell disaster. When you’ve got your fuel in a Ziploc bag, make sure your crew knows to open the bag for you. It might seem silly, but those who have had a crew know when pulling into an aid station, they don’t want to have to think about doing anything. A runner should be handed open bottles, unwrapped food, and have assistance changing shoes/clothing or treating medical issues. A well-oiled machine is the result of a full service pit crew – and that’s not an exaggeration.
Remember in high school when the game was over and your mom asked, “Are you OK, honey?” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s certainly not what you need in the middle of an ultra. Of course you’re not OK, you’re running 100 miles. So make sure that if you do enlist your family as crew, they are carefully instructed (by you) not to ask how you are feeling. Keep it productive and tell them to ask specifically what you need. More S-caps? Gels? Ice? And make sure when they ask, it’ll be right in their hands ready to hand off. It’s easier for you to not have to think too hard about the answers. Then, tell them to get you back on the trail as quickly as possible.
Just like a crew member, a pacer should not only be keeping you on the trail, but also assessing your needs. They should be reminding you to eat and drink at a time when you’ll probably be using most of your energy to stay upright in a forward motion. A fresh mind with fresh legs will be able to help assess if you’re hypothermic or have heat exhaustion, and get you what you need at the next aid station. Make sure you and your crew also have a back-up plan (or two). The better prepared you are, the more likely you’ll succeed.
Most importantly, make sure you meet with your crew before your race and tell them exactly what your expectations are. Kind of a pre-game pep talk, if you will. They are there to do a job, and you need to be clear what it is you’ll need from them. So often we think we know what to expect and then the unexpected happens. Prepare your crew for this before it’s too late. Advise your pacer(s) on what you think will be your biggest concerns out on the trail – you are the only one who knows your body. Finally, remind your crew and pacers that the goal is to get to the finish line. That’s what you’ve been preparing for and come hell or high water, that’s the final destination. Help them help you do whatever it takes to get there.