Volunteering, Crewing, Pacing | May 17, 2010
Even if you’ve run just one ultra, you’ve no doubt noticed what a crucial role volunteers play in putting on an organized race. Without them, there would be either very Spartan running events or no events at all. When it’s your turn to volunteer, as a requirement for entering a race or just to “give back” to the sport, you may be missing a chance to run yourself, but rest assured there will be lots to learn that you can apply to your own ultrarunning. Likewise, crewing for another runner or pacing a runner through the later stages of a long race can also reward you as much as the runner you’re helping.
Volunteering, especially working an aid station, is fun and inspiring. As the runners come through your aid station, from the leaders to the last back-of-the-packer, you’ll be presented with a comprehensive overview of the sport of ultrarunning. Pay attention to how the runners are dressed, the shoes they’ve chosen, the hydration systems they’re using, the hats, shells, rain and cold weather gear, bandannas, and gators they’re wearing. You’ll notice things like the front runners using a pair of handheld bottles that are easy to fill up quickly, while the later runners will lean toward hydration packs that match a more leisurely pace. Note what the runners are eating and drinking at your aid station, and how that correlates with the stage of the race they’re in. What a runner chooses to eat at an early aid station can be a lot different from the choices at a later aid station. If you get a selection of which aid station to work, volunteer for one that runners hit over and over again. You’ll get a feel for how runners’ needs change as the race progresses.
Another area to key in on is how your experienced fellow volunteers work with the runners. If it gets hot, for example, good volunteers will really push the ice. They’ll ask each runner: “Ice in your drink? Ice in your bottle? Under your hat?” And if there is one, they’ll point out the bucket of water with the sponges to cool off. They’ll also make sure every runner leaves with plenty of water. Good volunteers will also share knowledge about the course. It helps runners to know the distance to the next aid, how far your station is in the race, if there are any big climbs or descents ahead, or any important landmarks, such as river crossings, critical turns, or hot, exposed areas. Runners also appreciate volunteers with a positive, friendly attitude. Ask each runner what he or she needs and point out what’s available. Runners can be pretty spacey late in a race and often can use a little guidance. Having worked an aid station, you’ll be a lot more aware of what you need to get out of an aid station when you’re the runner.
Crewing, that is supporting a runner by driving to designated aid stations and having the runner’s gear available and helping the runner get ready for the next stage of the race, is another way to help out that is also a great learning opportunity for you. Since you’ll see your runner at several points along the route, the progression from fresh, optimistic runner to struggling, survivor runner will be apparent to you. You’ll also tend to see the same runners coming through over and over again, the runners that are on about the same pace as your runner. Watch how each runner deals with the stresses of the run and what seems to be working for the runners who are engaged and eager to continue. The joke is that “crew” is an acronym for Crabby Runner, Endless Waiting. Don’t be surprised if your humble, cuddly runner turns into a snarling fussbudget. Many runners react to the pain and weariness late in a race this way. Be prepared to stay calm and helpful and tuck this experience away for your own run in the future so you can recognize the mental state you might be in some day.
Have your runner’s gear spread out on a towel before he or she arrives so you are ready to quickly provide anything needed. Also check out what is available to eat or drink at that aid station. Your runner may want to sit and relax while you bring over the turkey sandwich and soup. Keep the runner sipping drinks and eating as much as possible, and don’t be afraid to jump in and change the runner’s shoes and socks if necessary. On a hot day, wet a towel and drap it over the back of the runner’s neck. You might be the difference between the runner phasing out on what needs to be done at that aid station and eventually dropping out, or the runner succeeding because you helped during a bad patch. As you’re crewing adventure unfolds, think about how you will want your own crew to deal with you when you’re the runner.
Probably the most rewarding way to help a runner is by pacing, where you accompany the runner over part of the course, usually the last half of the race. Now you experience the runner’s struggle intimately, step by step, and you see decision by decision how eating and drinking, changing shoes and socks, resting or pushing on affects the runner’s ability to keep going and to finish. You are there not so much to “pace” the runner as to provide good company, to keep the runner on course, to be sure the runner is safe, to encourage eating and drinking, and to help the runner deal with the aid stations. A good pacer comes prepared. Learn about the section of the course you’ll be running or pre-run it if you can. Be ready with some jokes or stories to divert the runner’s attention if the runner feels like talking. Be positive. Keep things moving at the aid stations. But be aware that some runners might just want to shuffle along in silence, can’t be hurried, or might react best to some tough love versus a gentle push. All the insights you garner from pacing a runner can be fodder for reflection on your own running.
As you progress as an ultrarunner, you will inevitably experience a lot of painful learning from your own mistakes. But if you pay close attention to what is happening around you while you’re volunteering, crewing, or pacing, you may just experience the more enviable process of learning from other people’s mistakes.