Sooner or later, many ultrarunners decide it’s time to give something back to the sport.
The most dedicated – or those who are the biggest gluttons for punishment, at least – take on the role of race director for an established event, or start a new one themselves.
But short of staging a race, giving back most often takes the form of crewing, pacing or volunteering. Often it’s to fulfill a volunteering requirement for an upcoming race or return the favor for someone who did the same for you at an earlier race, but other times it’s simply to be part of an event and see friends and acquaintances without having to lace up and run.
Those of us in the VHTRC might feel the urge to contribute more keenly than most, as it seems that every few weeks there’s yet another informal ultra-distance club run available as a free-to-all event completely supported by club money and the hard work of volunteers willing to give up their time and trek out to the boonies to make sure that a few dozen runners can have an awesome day on the trails.
Regardless of whether you volunteer, crew or pace, you develop a new appreciation for the level of effort involved in helping a group of crazies run some absurd distance for fun. And you’ll come to love the sport even more.
Crewing: Boredom with a chance of chaos
In the book “A Step Beyond: A Definitive Guide to Ultrarunning,” there’s an essay from Ultrarunning magazine publisher John Medinger that describes the role of the crew member. The essay, “Crewing: Ten Commandments for Those Who Sit and Wait,” offers the following tips:
- Be prepared
- Know the race course
- Be patient
- Be impatient
- Be positive
- Take the blame
- Make your runner drink
- Don’t forget the pacer
- Keep a sense of humor
- Have some fun
While I had an epic crew for my two 100 milers this year, I had no idea what a huge ask crewing represents, how much those 10 commandments were absolutely spot on, until I was on the other side. But after being on the receiving end of such tremendous support at the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 mile run in May, I knew I had to pay it forward.
So I joined Sara, Toni, Stan, Tom and Dot on a road trip to Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley to crew for Beth and Bob at the Burning River 100 miler. There, I learned that crewing is a lot like a military operation – you spend most of your time bored, tired, hungry, occasionally lost, and often too hot or too cold.
Those long stretches are interspersed with a few minutes of furious activity when your runner arrives at your crew location. In those brief and chaotic moments, it’s a rush of filling water bottles, handing out dry clothes, grabbing gross and sweaty clothes, patching blisters and providing moral support.
The most frequently told lie told to runners by crew members: “No, really, you look great!”
At Burning River, I was on the hook to pace during the last 30 miles of the race, which put me on crewing duty for the first 70. That meant about 20 hours of crewing before I’d ever get the chance to hit the trails. It very quickly became a monotonous blur of translating vague road directions between aid stations, unloading and staging the runners’ gear, making resupply runs for more water and ice, people-watching, grabbing a meal or dozing for a few minutes when the opportunity presented itself, and telling or retelling old running stories to kill time before our runners arrived.
It sounds extraordinarily boring, but we had a blast.
Each time we saw our runners, it was hugely gratifying to know that they were still running strong because of the help we were providing. And to know that when they were having a down moment, the right kind of support — a cold ice cream bar, a fresh pair of socks, a few words of encouragement — could put them back on track.
But the best part came when, after 29-plus hours of little to no sleep, we were there to see Bob and Beth cross the finish line together, the pain of the last few awful miles wiped away by huge smiles and the glow of an extraordinary goal accomplished.
Pacing: Herding cats in the forest at night
During the training cycle for an ultramarathon, many people in your life play different roles: Psychologist, doctor, coach, companion and entertainer.
When you take on the responsibility of pacing an ultrarunner for what could be as many as 50 miles, you play all of those parts simultaneously. And when all else fails, you need to be ready to play drill sergeant and crack the whip, ensuring that relentless forward motion is happening even as the runner does all he or she can to resist it.
My pacing stint at Burning River began at 1 a.m., as Bob and Beth reached mile 70. After a rough start to the night portion of the run, they needed to push the pace to gain time against on-course cutoffs, so as Stan and I took over for Toni and Sara and started our pacing shift, I played the part of the cheerful drill sergeant (not as if those really exist, but you get the idea).
“COME ON! WOO! LAST 30, BABY! LET’S DO THIS!”
Blame the 16-ounce Red Bull and nutrition bar that I had before my pacing shift began. Toni calls it “Jazz Hands Rob” when I’m like that, and I think she and the gang secretly dread it.
When Bob or Beth got grumpy, Stan and I told jokes. When Bob threw up at mile 75, I stood by and sympathized as Stan hustled Beth on down the trail. When their legs were shot out and burnt at mile 80, we walked long sections and kept the pace fast enough to maintain a comfortable cushion against the cutoffs.
And after sunrise as their energy started to come back, we got them running again. Sometimes, even just considering the distance to the next aid station can be overwhelming to an exhausted runner, so we started setting smaller goals.
“Let’s speed up a bit and pass that guy. You totally need to finish ahead of him.”
“Hey, that one up there is falling apart. Let’s pass her.”
“If we run for like another quarter-mile, we can roll that dude up and we’ll have passed like six people.”
Each time, they’d mutter about not wanting to pass anyone else. But then they’d speed up anyway.
In the end, Beth and Bob crossed the finish line at 29:12:29, a little over 47 minutes ahead of the 30-hour course time limit. As Stan and I peeled off ahead of the finish line to let them enjoy the limelight, we gathered with the rest of the crew to cheer and clap as they received their finisher buckles — the latest of many for Bob, but the first ever for Beth. As pacers, there were no awards for us, but knowing we helped Bob and Beth earn their buckles was a huge thrill.
At my second 100-miler of the year, Grindstone, ultrarunning legend David Horton talked about the privilege of running ultras. I and one of my pacers, Sophie, were both struck by that notion enough to blog about it afterward and she put it well in her own report on the Grindstone experience:
For those who can run long distances in the mountains over trails, in beautiful weather surrounded by the support of family and friends, it is truly a privilege.
To see a fellow runner finish a 100-miler, whether their first or their latest of many, is a privilege indeed. To help them get their buckle is an honor.
Volunteering: How to cure a case of FOMO
I’ve volunteered to help at ultramarathon aid stations twice this year. The first was to address a volunteer requirement for Grindstone. The second was to address a case of FOMO.
FOMO is described by IRunFar.com publisher Bryon Powell in his book “Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons,” as the fear of missing out. It can lead runners to sign up for more events than they can handle in a given season and, at worst, leads to injury or burnout.
To meet my Grindstone volunteer requirement, I volunteered to work an aid station along with Sara, Denise, Toni and Jen during the Catherine’s FA 50K, held in the Catherine’s Furnace area of the Massanutten mountains.
Like crewing, volunteering can be mind-numbingly boring, extraordinarily stressful if a runner is missing on the course or quits without checking out with a race official, and downright miserable if it’s too hot, too cold or the weather is otherwise uncooperative. But the benefit to volunteering is that since you’re not on the hook to pace anyone and you don’t have to drive from aid station to aid station, you can drink beer.
We got absurdly lost on the road to our Catherine’s aid station thanks to an incorrect set of directions, which caused a few anxious moments as we worried over whether we’d be set up in time to meet the race leaders and get them refueled and on their way.
But after setting up shop just in time to catch the first group as they reached us at mile 7, we settled in for an afternoon of hanging out in the woods and helping runners deal with the oppressive July heat of the Virginia mountains by topping off water bottles and hydration packs with plenty of cold water and ice.
We told jokes, heckled runners, critiqued running gear fashion choices and otherwise had a blast. Our last few runners were on course for so long that we were way late in getting back to the finish line for the post-race party. All that was left was a few sorry-looking bratwurst and a few remaining runners and race volunteers. Most everyone else had already gone home.
Volunteers don’t always get to enjoy the after-party, so we make up for it on the race course — hence the heckling and the beer.
More recently, a case of FOMO (and some just-in-case planning for 2012 race volunteer requirements) led me to sign on as a volunteer for the Potomac Heritage Trail 50K, an informal trail run through D.C. and northern Virginia. I ran this one last year and had a blast, but overtraining throughout the fall yielded an I.T. band injury that dogged me for months afterward.
So with a couple of final big events on the 2011 calendar — a 50-miler followed a couple weeks later by a final 50K — I decided to pass on running PHT. By volunteering instead, I dodged the inevitable case of FOMO that would’ve set in. We had a great turnout at the Chain Bridge aid station, including Sara, Toni, Denise, Kelley, Bob and me from the usual weekend running crew, along with VHTRC long-timers Kathy, Dave and Vicki.
On what was likely one of the last beautiful fall days we’d get this season, we convinced runners – male and female alike – to do shirtless push-ups to earn extra points for the run (the aid stations at the informal PHT 50K include games like this that allow runners to take time off their overall finish). We had a couple of beers. We even taught Vicki how to Dougie.
If a 50K is the gateway drug to longer ultra distances, volunteering at an aid station is the gateway drug for eventually taking on race director duties for an established event, or creating a new one from scratch.
I already know I want to stage my own ultra some day. I just need to figure out when and where. To create a new event that ultrarunners will come to love, or love to hate, seems a privilege unlike any other.