Ultra marathons are just extra. Ultra ultra marathons require a certain kind of person… and when one of those ultra peeps asked us to be their seconding team at the UTCT, one hundred miles over the mountain trails in Cape Town, as far as you can get from the city and then back again… we couldn’t say yes fast enough!!! Dawn Nunes approached us months before and we were part of her plotting and planning adventures from the get go. It was a resounding yes from us, this is exactly the sort of thing that my guys and I live for. We previously seconded Dawn through her and her team’s 13 Peaks Adventure… so we knew we were up to the task.
By the time your runner gets to the start of the race they are ready to run… they have done the training and they are totally prepped. you don’t have to worry about whether they can do this thing or not, you have to stay cheerful and encourage them all the way. There will be highs and there will be lows, expect them, prepare for them. By the time your runner sees you at a feed station, they have been thinking about nothing else but getting there for weeks… Be cheerful, be ready and encourage them.
There Will Be Tears
I am putting this right at the front, shouting it loud, for the folks in the back… THERE WILL BE TEARS and I don’t just mean tears of joy at the finish line – there were plenty of those too. There will be tears along the way. Your family and friends need to know that there will be a time in a crazy long race where your runner will decide that this is NOT FOR THEM, and they would like to leave and go home now. It’s okay, they can think that – but they also know that everything has built up to this, they have trained for months and they want this more than anything. They really want to finish, but everything hurts and they have had enough… and it is at this moment that they believe with all their hearts – that everyone that said they were crazy to even try – were right. And it is at this moment that you give your runner a chocolate, a hot or cold drink depending on the weather, and get them through and out of that aid station as fast as possible. All the while telling them – that’s fine, but just give me ten more kilometres. Remember these super athletes have trained for a hundred miles… 10 more km is nothing, really. Our runner took more than a minute to do that 10k, but she had been through her lowest point and moved on. She arrived 10km later, ready for a nap and left that aid station with a smile on their face. And then went on to finish… help them to get through that low point, rather than enabling them to quit… obviously if they are injured or past the point of no return… let them stop, BUT if it is voices in their head and they have been telling themselves for the last 5km that they can’t do it… help them change that narrative and move them along.
Se7en Tips for Seconding a Hundred Miler
- Read the Crew Rules: There are a couple of tips that really go without saying, for example read the crew rules carefully… you do not want your runner disqualified because you pitched up at an aid station that was not for crew, or worse run with them into an aid station… you may not run alongside your runner… read the rules carefully and follow them. This is not the time to decide which rules to follow or not follow, this is their race and you are there to help the through it.
- Recce the Route: If you can hike the route before hand do so, know when the trail is extra sandy, extra technical, extra steep… the more you understand about the route the more you can prepare your runner on the day. Be completely honest, no-one wants to know that there is a bit of a hill ahead, if in fact it is a vertical ascent for the next three kilometres. They want to know where the route is difficult and they have to take extra care and where the route is easy and they can relax on their feet.
- Know your Role: When your athlete arrives at an aid station, you need to have specific people doing specific things. We were a team of three:
- The Pack: One of us took off her pack, loaded her pack with fresh drinks and gels, bars, Rennies (for cramp), bite size snacks… swapped out head torches, and so on. Her pack had to be ready for her as she left.
- The Body: Another took care of her physically: How many layers do they need/want in the middle of the night, sunscreen in the heat of the day… shoes off, sand (loads of it) out, fresh socks, and fresh shoes if needs be. Shoulder rubs, blister care… there is a lot you can do for your runner while they just sit in a chair.
- The Mind: And then one was there to listen, ask how they are doing and what do they need… because your runner might need something they never thought of in preparation. there will be a time when your runner stops communicating with you, you still need to work out what they need… ask them: “Do you need water, are you warm enough, what is uncomfortable, what do you need, what would help… ask and keep asking, because they do know in their minds, but they might not be up to voicing it. Also, relay messages from the family and friends, relay instructions from the organisers, we had route change in the middle of the night – talk your runner through that. Talk to your runner a lot, just to check where they are mentally. And while you are talking make sure they are fuelling… put food in their hand while they talk and put drinks in the other hand.
- Family and Friends: Your runner will have supporters meeting them along the way and your athlete needs that support, you need to make space and step back for them. Also while your athlete is on the road you need to be messaging their peeps and giving them updates on what is happening… just as your runner wants updates, so their followers, who can’t be with them need updates too, you are their link. Keep updates short and sharp. In-between aid stations there will be lulls, you can send pictures and communicate then… when you and your runner are at an aid station, put your phone away and give them ALL the attention that they need.
- Nutrition: Your athlete needs fuel and lots of it… the nutrition required for a 100 miler is very different to the nutrition required for other events… simply because it is so long. You cannot just eat gels for two days straight… you need real food, tasty and nutritious food too. They will want sweet and salty and they will have a long list of food requirements, and you need to have warm drinks for the cold, cold drinks for the heat… water for their water bottles. Not to mention, every idea they have seen on instagram ever… and you will carry boxes of food from aid station to aid station. That being said, this may not be what they really feel like eating on the trail… the box is what they think they will eat and what they have been told they should eat. Load up their packs with gels and trail nutrition… all the bars, all the gu and don’t forget jelly sweeties. It is up to you to provide what they want and the more you know your runner the better. Ask them, talk to them, and make sure you have a mix of food… at one stop they will want fruit, the next they might want potatoes… you don’t know, you are their support, surprise them and talk to them… they know what they have in the box, they have trained with that… trust them to work it out and trust the aid stations and the nibbles that they provide for the runners too.
- All the Encouragement
- Sleep: Your runner cannot run for two days straight… micro-naps of no more than twenty minutes, will literally save their sanity, and their race. Your runner will try to push through… even when they can hardly put one foot in front of the other. They will forget to put warm clothes on they will forget to eat and drink… you must remind them… they are forgetting all these things because they are literally asleep on their feet. By encouraging them to sleep (read: “Tell them to lie down and you won’t be talking to them for the next twenty minutes”)… you are really helping them. Pop them in a chair and put a blanket over them… they will say they are ready to run, ignore them… and tell everyone around them to be quiet, your runner is sleeping. Protect your runner, perfect strangers will walk up to your sleeping runner and ask silly questions. (This is the actual truth!!!) Protect them and their sleep and chase the silly questioners away.
- Document Everything: Chances are the bug has bitten and this may not be the last time your runner does a 100 miler… it is a certain kind of person, just saying!!! And they will want to do it again and again. Take the photographs that they can’t take and keep a list of what worked and what didn’t work… write down all the highs and lows and talk it over before and afterwards. They may decide that they never want to see a particular piece of gear ever again and they may wish they had something along and never ever want to race without that… document the details. The debrief after the event is just as critical as all the plotting and planning that went into a race. This one event is never a once off event… you know you and your crew will be back for more.
The runners are actually are having a battle out there… they are fighting the gremlins in their head – all those voices that tell them this is crazy it can’t be done… and the way to quiet these gremlins is loads of reassurance and comfort food. We had a nice fresh coffee, freshly brewed from a local coffee store at every aid station. It was welcomed… After a full night of moving through one of the wettest and wildest that the Cape weather could throw at us, the dawn arrived with violently windy sunshine… and a tearful athlete who wanted to quit (there will be tears)… we needed easy to eat, real food stat… toss the box of prepacked, preprepared food in the car, we got her a take-out burger and fries and she inhaled it, comforting protein and carbs and lots of it. At the next stop in the heat of the day watermelon at the aid station was perfect. As the day wound on… we dashed home for a fresh batch of pancakes, trust me… your runner will welcome a nice surprise. After that the day wound down… soup was very welcome in the evening and after that mugs of hot chocolate. Final stop before the finish line… and we piled on almost everything in the box and sent her on her way.
Look After Your Crew:
A runner depends on their crew, so this is probably the most important tip of them all. Support Crews spend events in very frantic fast and furious mode, constantly on the alert for their runners, alert for messages, alert for changes of plans, alert for anything really. The runner might dash off into the night, but the crew has to be ready for the next aid station… It is very much a hurry up and wait situation… You may sit and wait for ages, then your runner arrives – it is always a fast and furious changeover… adrenalin flies, you only have so long to make sure that your runner is prepared and ready for the next leg. And then more waiting.
While you are packing energy drinks and running nutrition for your runner you really need to think about nutrition for your crew. You might dash to the next station and wait and wait for your runner. There are times when you make it just in time and there are times when you have to wait for ages… we made sure to check where on the route were the longest breaks between stations and made sure to rush out as soon as our runner left… straight to the next station for a solid hour of sleep. This was critical to our support, also food… energy gels and gu are great while you are running but your crew need more. When you are preparing for the event, look out for spots along the way, close to the aid stations, where you can grab a nutritious snack as the crew, you are on your feet as long as your runner is and you need to prepare for that. An energy drink will not suffice!!!
I have to say that for myself, crewing for a hundred miler is as close as I can get to doing one right now… it was an absolute highlight and I would do it again and again in a flash!!! All the magic of being part of a brilliant event and the triumph when your runner crosses the line… well there are no words for that.