You may have read the title of this post and thought “what is she talking about?”. What is crewing and what the heck is an ultra marathon?
It”s obvious that running popularity is on the rise. What’s a runner to do after conquering the half marathon and then the full marathon? Try to improve your time? For some, the answer is move on to the ultramarathon. But what exactly is an ultramarathon? An ultramarathon or ultra for short is any distance greater than 26.2 miles (the distance of a marathon) usually measured by distance or time. The most common “distance” ultras are 50 milers and 100 milers as well as 50k’s (31 miles) and 100k’s (62.1 Miles). Another format is the “time” ultra where runners go for 12 or 24 hours in one shot. Often times, to add insult to injury, these ultra races are run on tough terrain, in scorching heat or up steep elevations.
In May I had my first exposure to the culture of ultras when I crewed for my friend Kevin as he ran the 50 mile portion of the Keys 100 in the Florida Keys.
1. If you don’t have a crew you’re s’crew’ed.
So, what exactly is an ultra crew? A crew is usually comprised of 1-3 people who are there to support you through hours of suffering. Cause let’s be honest here. Running for 12 or more hours IS just what it sounds like. A whole lot of suffering.
Your crew is almost always your spouse or close friends and those people are more often then not runners themselves who can empathize with your crazy addiction to pain. Crew members make sure that you stay properly hydrated and fueled. They fill your camelbak. Make you peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Reapply sunscreen, Rub you with biofreeze and swab your feet with body glide. Crew members are in it for the long haul. On loop courses they cheer you on as you pass through the aid station and on point-to-point races they follow along for hours on end as they drive one or two miles ahead of you and wait at each designated meeting point to make sure you have everything you need to continue. In short, they’re your lifeline.
2. Not huge playlist productions.
Ultras are not gigantic mainstream affairs. They don’t have huge commercial sponsors. You’re not going to have to fight your way through a crowd of 30,000 other runners on a course and pray that there is a banana left when you reach the finish line. Ultras are usually small, under-the-radar events, which is why you may not even know where to find one. Ultra runners like it that way. It’s sort of an underground culture.
3. Small tight knit group of individuals who go from ultra to ultra.
Watching the interaction between runners at the starting line, it was apparent that many athletes knew one another. It seemed to me that within this tight group of ultra runners there was a lot of camaraderie. As I talked with other runner’s crew members at several of the designated aid stations, many of the crew members knew of other runners in the race as if these runners bounced from one ultra to the next, together.
4. Friends will be made at aid stations and on the course.
It was fun to talk to some of the other crew members as we moved from location to location during the 14 or so hours we were participating. I spoke with one gal who was the spouse of the oldest runner on the course, Don, he was 70! (That’s him in the yellow shirt and blue shorts) Yes, pretty much solidifying that my excuses are invalid. We found out the names of several other runners and were sure to call them out when cheering as they ran, walked and hobbled by us as we waited for Kevin. Same rule applied to the runners. Our runner ended up finding a few fellow runners who paced him for much of the race. If one of his new found friends needed something as they came by, Kevin made sure that we got it for them if their crew wasn’t at that stop.
5. There’s a lot of walking involved.
The folks that are participating in ultramarathons are normally not the type of athletes who are walking in say a half or a full marathon. When you’re trying to tackle 50 or 100 miles in one shot, there’s going to be some walking involved. A lot of walking actually. Especially at the end when your muscles have long since been depleted of glycogen. I saw a ton of runners walking the entire second half of the race. No shame in that game. Point is that they got it done.
6. Your map and checking out the course in advance is key.
As part of the mystique of Kevin’s very first ultra race experience, he wanted to keep the course a surprise. He wanted to see the Florida Keys for the very first time as he ran through it. As a crew member, I wanted him to drive the course the day before so that he knew exactly where he needed to cross the street, where the mandatory check points would be and where we as his crew could set up an aid station for him. The race director gave each crew a map with specific places where we were allowed to wait for Kevin. Driving the course the day before was crucial to our success as crew members because there was an air of familiarity when we could tell Kevin, “OK…remember that restaurant or gas station we stopped at yesterday? That’s where we will meet you next.”
7. There’s a lot of down time.
For crew, there’s a lot of down time. There’s a lot of standing in the sun too. I wish I had dressed more comfortably and put on a ton more sunscreen. I’m glad I had Kevin’s wife Carrie there with me to chat with. We had convo’s like “What are we going to say to him if he wants to quit?” and “How are we going to force him to eat something at the next station?” These ended up being questions Kevin needed answers to throughout the day and night. We as crew had to evaluate our runner and anticipate what he would need at the next aid station.
8. It’s not about the bling.
Many runners run races for the bling. For that dangling, shiny medal they can wear proudly around their neck after crossing the finish line. Ultras are not so much about the bling. Ultras are more for bragging rights. To become part of an exclusive club. Ultra runners are just as satisfied with a hat or shirt. They can wear that for everyday use. Ultra runners usually go for “the buckle” as many ultramaratons reward finishers with a belt buckle instead of a race medal.
9. You may have more fun on a relay team.
The Keys 100, in addition to having a 50 mile option, has a relay option where 6 runners relay the 100 mile portion of the race. As a crew member, I got to see the relayers in action. Each relay team had a van that they traveled in from relay point to relay point. The vans were decorated and the relay team members looked like they were having a blast since they were eating the ultra a little chunk at a time.
10. I want to do it.
If there’s anything that crewing for my friend Kevin taught me, it was that I want to do the relay in 2015. This is the same way that I started running half marathons. I volunteered at the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend and the rest was history!
How about you? Would you ever consider an ultramarathon or relay?