Having crewed exactly one insane ultra, I’m not sure we’re the leading experts on the topic, but I can say we learned a few valuable lessons along the way.
First off - relay life is predictably unpredictable and doesn’t that always make for the most amazing adventures? The journey may be of more importance than the final destination and if not, I can assure you it was at a minimum, a wild ride. So here we go. What you need to know about crewing an ultra-relay…
The team shared a Google Doc (our Handy Dandy Notebook) with relay legs and estimated times. One of the most challenging things was estimating pace. We had two pace plans giving us an idea of what time the runners would each be running and resting. This gives you a gauge of where your runner will likely be on the course so you can navigate safety, barking dogs in the dark night, food, sleep, gas etc.
It’s important to know which runner will be running and which crew will be crewing for each leg. For instance, we hit some of the more complicated trails in at night. These trails required an experienced mountain biker for runner support. You’ll also want to mark major team/crew exchanges (more on that below), gas stops, food stops, and supplies (including ice).
Note: many of teams kept their support vehicle with the RV but we opted to drive the RV ahead and keep runners that were “on” in the SUV. This allowed runners to stay in a racing rhythm while “on” and resting when “off”.
Our 6 runners were split in 2 groups of 3. Each runner would run 12 miles total while “on”. The first group of 3 opted for shorter legs so they each ran 6 miles twice (runner 1, runner 2, runner 3, runner 1, runner 2, runner 3). Once they were done they hopped in the RV to rest. The second group wanted longer mileage so they ran one 12 mile leg each. Once they were done a quick exchange and 1-3 were “on” again.
Clearly, it’s important to have a schedule for your runners, but it’s just as important to have a schedule for your crew. Our 6 woman crew was split into 3 teams of 2. Two with the suburban, two driving/supporting in the RV, and 2 “off”/resting in the RV. The later legs were most difficult because all you want to do is help and be in the mix, but with 44 hours of relaying ahead it’s important to remember that the crew also needs to get rest to be able to best assist the team.
WHAT TO DO WHEN THINGS DON’T GO AS PLANNED
Now, this all worked beautifully… until it didn’t. And then we adapted. It’s not if something will go off plan but WHEN it will. For us, it was losing a runner and crew member and realizing that no one wanted to run 12 miles in the heat of Death Valley. So we adapted.
The RV only went a mile at a time to keep runners cool and hydrated. We took all the rags that came in the RV and soaked them with ice water for each runner when we checked in that the mile mark.
We asked each runner what they wanted to run, what support they wanted and made changes on the fly. Some wanted a biker with them, some a runner, some a mile at a time, we just adapted and most importantly put one foot in front of the other.
Nightfall came, temps dropped, mileage increased, and we kept adapting based on the runner’s needs.
When I first thought about emotionally supporting the team I thought it would be all pep talks and smiles. And while keeping positive is important, I think one of the most valuable ways to support your team is just meet your teammate where they are at and to be present in the moment.
It’s also not staying stuck in the moment… it’s a tricky balance. You want to help your runners keep their eyes on the horizon which can be challenging when you are all tired and more tired and yes, more tired. It’s easy to get myopic vision on hot desert highways and maybe that’s why it’s so important to have such a big crew, there’s always some to say “well, what about this?” Someone to point out what you can’t see and isn’t that the beauty in team?
And, let’s not forget the value of a little fun. Midnight dance sessions, Jungle Chicken’s non-stop party, celebrating small victories like missing the fact that you are now in Nevada and clearly must celebrate albeit delayed.
Most runners know what they need to eat so it’s important to pack what they want. But you also want to think more than just van/RV food. A stop at real restaurant after the first group of 3 was done running, an In & Out stop after the second group, and a Subway delivery from the film crew were all essential to keep our runners fueled.
Always be sure to pack water, ice, electrolytes, simple salty carbs but also real food. La Croix was clearly the star of the team’s hydration strategy; those little cans of sparkly gold were money in the desert.
I know I’m leaving a ton of things out, but the one thing to keep in mind is that no matter how well you plan this thing… you are going to have to adapt on the fly. The ultra-relay life isn’t about carefully calculating mileage with water stops every 2.3 miles. It’s about adventure, risk and reward. It’s not just about the run: it is raced with sweat, heart, soul, grit, determination, perseverance and that little thing we call family (aka team).
So when’s the next adventure? We’ll just RSVP “yes” now.
Robyn + Meghan
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