With the lofty and vast experience of supporting runners for two ultra marathon events, below are my tips on how to be an awesome and thoughtful support crew member.
This is a LONG post, if you are a regular reader and don’t want to read the whole thing, please skip through the bold headings or just skip and wait for another post 🙂
I must premise this and say that if you’ve stumbled upon this post researching how to be a support crew, please keep researching! There is more thorough information out there than this humble offering. These tips are helpful suggestions, not expert advice.
The other thing I must point out is that while Bruny Island Ultra is an ultra marathon, 64kms, it’s not a typical ultra. There are no trails involved; runners run on roads. Most surfaces are rough and unsealed but it’s nothing like a trail. There are, however, lots of hills. The support crew drives along the same road as the runners, no navigation is necessary or weaving in and out of remote areas to gain access to your runner.
That said, here are my tips in no particular order:
- Train with your ultra runner
Get out there and do some trial runs as a support person. Have all the gear and fuel laid out and see if the theory works in practice. While doing this for Louie and Pauly, we found that some things worked and some things didn’t (getting the support right was a team effort of runners and supporters working together in training). For example Louie thought that a muesli bar would be a good fuel source. When I offered her a bar at the 30km point of a run she took one bite and then said nope! It was too dry and hard to eat. If runners don’t trial their food options they won’t know; they need to trial foods at the end of really long runs even if they don’t need the fuel there and then, it’s simply to see if the food works that far into a run. Another success story in our trial runs together, Louie made some protein balls (known as Louie’s Balls), they had chia seeds in them which got stuck in the teeth, the recipe was modified and excluded chia seeds on the day. (Louie and Janette both made protein balls and they were so yummy. No running was needed to sample these!). Training with the ultra runners also helped me to work out how to be organised and where to have things placed.
- Be ready to get tough with your ultra runner
That’s right, there are times when a support crew has to come the heavy on an ultra runner. Have the hydration and nutrition planed with them, then if they start refusing but you know they need it, within limits, make them have something. (I wish I’d done this with Pauly last year). This could be the difference in finishing happy or even a DNF. There does come a point where the runner can’t take on any more. Training with them will help you to recognise this. We had lots of different goodies in little bags; the three support people would run out to our runners and offer them things, but then towards the end we made the choice for them, almost popping the morsel into their mouth or thrusting a drink at them and insisting they take sip. It might also be necessary to insist on a change of clothes or putting on a warm layer. As runners become fatigued they need their support crew to help make vital decisions like these.
On race day, best not to offer your runner food or drink that they haven’t tried in training!
- Have a first aid kit complete with runner specific items such as rock tape
We didn’t need the first aid kit for our runners, but it was good to have as a precaution. Last year a runner was grateful for our rock tape! This year a runner with ouchy bleeding nipples appreciated our bandaids. Running brings people together. I can’t say I’ve ever gone up to a stranger and said Hello, your nipples are bleeding, would you like a bandaid? Ahh the conversations we have that polite company would be aghast at!
Don’t forget the chaff cream!
- Have gear changes for you and your ultra runner
You’re going to be out on that course for a long time, possibly from early morning until late at night (or longer). Have some gear changes for yourself as well as a torch. Have gear changes for your runner complete with changes of underwear in case of wet weather, getting too sweaty or umm other things. Changes of shoes for both runner and crew are also a good idea. Being comfortable will make the day more enjoyable.
- Look after your food and drink
Remember you need sustenance too. Take a supply of hot drinks, tasty things for you as well as food to sustain. Don’t forget a cool bag to keep things in. Water filled and frozen 3L orange juice containers make excellent freezer bricks that last all day and double up to help with ouchy bits on runners post-race.
- Be organised
We had support crew things separate to runner things. We had bags upon bags, the back of the car looked like chaos but we all knew what was where.
- Toilet stops
Don’t forget the toilet paper and little spade! Enough said.
- Be prepared for all-weather for you and your ultra runner
Sun screen, lip balm, wet weather gear, sun hats, caps and glasses. Be prepared for four seasons in one day just in case. At least running in Tasmania Australia at 42° South demands this, other places might enjoy more stable weather conditions.
- Have a big towel for a privacy screen
There weren’t many places that a runner could change in privacy during Bruny and bending down is a tough call after 30kms or more. We had big towels ready to act as screens for our runners in case they had to change on the run and we were prepared to help them change if need be, hence big towels to make a large changing area.
- Have post event refreshments and gear planned
What do they need afterwards? Warm gear? Favourite post race drink? A dry shirt? Beanie and gloves? Perhaps a fold out chair? Have this ready in a separate bag or back pack to take to the finish line if you can’t get there in the car. Don’t forget a plastic bag for that sweaty running top!
- Run the last few kms with your ultra runner
The runners are getting tired and starting not to care about anything other than the finish line. They can get wobbly! Running with them can help them stay motivated and on the right track. Some runs don’t allow this so check with the rules.
- Crew with friends
It’s a long lonely day on your own. Bruny has a great atmosphere and support crews got to chat at the different support stops (all 32 of them, they were dotted along the course at 2km intervals). I so appreciated the company of Grant and Janette on Bruny. Three heads are definitely better than one when making sure a runner gets to the finish line of an ultra marathon!
Grant had his iPod that we put through the car speaker system. It motivated all the runners but also kept us bopping along.
- Rubbish bags, tissues, toilet paper and wet wipes
Most important. There was nowhere to dump rubbish apart from one stop along the way. With only a couple of toilets on course we had a roll of toilet paper for each runner in case they had to simultaneously dive into the bush. I’ve mentioned toilet paper twice. It’s important!
- Cheer your ultra runner
Go nuts. They are doing something physically and mentally demanding. The cheering has to be the longest and the loudest at the end of the race just when you’re starting to get tired. This is when having a group of friends as support crew is the best. We danced and sang and cheered all the way from the first km to the very last. Cheer and go nuts! No matter how tiring being a support crew is, it’s not a patch on how fatigued our ultra runners were.
Below is a little clip of how to cheer. (Sorry Janette). This is staged because when we were actually cheering our in coming runners we had to have our wits about us and zoom off and support them. Perhaps we should have a separate group just for cheering! (Pump the crumpet was something I accidentally said at 4am that morning, I meant to say Your crumpet has popped, but I said pumped – it became a cheer line for who knows why… Quackers are indeed quacked in the head).
- Be ready to celebrate
Have the camera and the bubbles ready for the finish! Perhaps a stretcher might be a good idea.. Only joking!
- Read up about ultra running
You might not be running but you need to know all about it. Read about it from the runner’s perspective as well as finding out information about how to support. I highly recommend this book:
Andy Mouncey is a British ultra runner. The book is easy to read, well laid out and makes an excellent reference book. It has summaries at the end of each section and stories of success and failure from real ultra runners. I read this in preparation for myself to run but found the things I learnt were valuable for the support crew role.
My main message is that supporting someone to achieve an epic goal is something that I know all the Quacker Supporters relished, loved and felt honoured to do. We might not have ran those 64kms, but we were there for every step and loved it. The sense of achievement as Louie and Pauly crossed that finish line was huge!!! If you get the chance to be a supporter, go for it!
We loved our hats that Louie surprised us with
Hopefully 2017 will be my year to be a runner at Bruny Island Ultra and I know that Team Quackers will do their best to be there to support me, that’s just what Quackers do. I suspect that a few Quackers will be lining up in 2017 so we might have vacancies on our support team and that’s ok.
Happy running 🙂