by Richelle Olsen
With only 5 weeks to go to the epic La Sportiva Running Wild Alpine Challenge, the 100 mile and 100km runners will now be reaching their peak of training, and polishing off their race plans. Either that, or they will be madly panicing about what the hell they have signed up for.....??!!
And if you haven't already, now is the perfect time for you as support crew to start planning your race day with your runner. Whether you are getting them over the line for a course record, or simply getting them to the finish with all their arms and legs attached, your job is key to them having a successful race.
I'm by no means an expert at crewing, but after crewing my partner Shane Hutton at 2 previous Alpine Challenge 100milers, once at the Leadville 100 miler in Colorado, as well as a multitude of 100km events, shorter ultra runs,a 24hr mountain biking enduro event, and a 14 day epic run from the top of Tassie to the bottom, I've learnt a thing or 2 about the crewing game. Crewing for the first time is pretty daunting, so I thought I'd share a few of my lessons learned along the way!
1. Eat properly. Plan your own food intake for the duration. Think real meals, make up some fried rice or cous cous with lots of veggies, and some protein. Or make up enough of whatever you are feeding your runner for you too. Healthy snacks, and plenty of fruit, all in an esky. Include a couple of treats (especially for the night-time section), but steer clear of eating too much junk. You are competing in an ultra endurance event too, so fuel you body with that in mind! I learned the hard way at last year's Alpine that a 1kg bag of cadbury easter eggs is not appropriate crew fuel!
2. Sleep! Plan when you are going to sleep as much as you can. Any 1-2hr naps you can grab will help both you and your runner. I bring a foam camp mattress, super comfy for a kip or two, and don't forget your sleeping bag or doona! You can even pack a little 1-2 man tent to set up by the side of the car - especially helpful if you have more than 1 crew member. But remember to set an alarm, you want to be awake and alert for their arrival. (Otherwise you maybe rudely awakened at Mt Loch carpark at midnight, in minus 5 with galeforce winds by the boot of the car opening and 2 freezing runners jumping in with you under your doona - thats how I woke up a couple of years back!)
3. Bring a gas stove, or even better, a Jetboil (boils water in under 2mins!). Something small and easy to use is ideal. Its November, and its the mountains - at some point its highly likely that your runner (and you) will get very cold. With a stove you can heat water for hot drinks, soups, even instant mash potato! You can also use it to heat up any of your meals that you may have prepared (spag bol, fried rice etc).
4. Bring a thermos. When you do boil up some water, fill your thermos for tea/coffee/hot chocolate/chai/cuppa soup for later. Way quicker than boiling water everytime you or your runner want a quick drink. Also, as a lot of this task contains boredom, drinking hot drinks gives you something to pass the time, and saves you from boredom snacking! Particularly useful through the night. If you are like me, who loves tea, Ill bring 2 thermos's, 1 for tea only (pours ready brewed tea, rather than fiddling with teabags), and one for hot water. This is my new fave tip - I'll be trying this one myself for the first time this year!
5. Know where you are going for each of the checkpoints. Some you can drive into, but others you will need to pull on your runners/boots and hike out to the checkpoint a few kms from the road. Id suggest heading out to each of the checkpoints you are planning on meeting your runner at, and familiarising yourself with the area. In particular those that you will be visiting at night. In particular, familiarise yourself with the Warby Corner hike in the day time, as, on race day, you will be hiking that before sunrise. Its a very easy track to follow (around 5-6kms), but intimidating if doing it alone in the dark. A decent head torch is crucial! And if you have a fast runner, be prepared to run (or mountain bike) into Warby yourself, you don't want to miss your runner!
6. Break up your driving. You may need to do the drive from Langfords Gap (top of Falls Creek) to Mt Loch carpork (top of Mt Hotham) at some point late on Saturday. Google maps tell you its a 90 min drive, it doesn't mention that its a super windy descent down Falls Creek, windy again through Tawonga Gap, and another big windy climb up Hotham. Its an exhausting drive after being awake for many hours already. Be careful on this drive (coming from someone who deliriously was pretending to be a racecar driver around the hairpins of Mt Hotham a few years back), and break up the drive. Stop in Mt Beauty for a break, or take the 10km round trip detour into Bright, stop for coffee, or at Woolworths for supplies. You will have plenty of time, so look after yourself.
7. Know where you can get food and other supplies at a pinch. Bogong Village only has a restaurant, Falls Creek may have a cafe or 2 for food or coffee - the supermarket on the mountain will not be open in November. Mt Beauty has a good small town range of shops, with a bakery and Foodworks, open from 8am-7pm everyday. Bright is the biggest town in the area with a Woolworths supermarket, open 7am - 10pm on weekends. Harrietville has a couple of pubs and cafes, and Mt Hotham has The General Hotel, famous for its pizzas. Call ahead and order, as they get pretty busy, and note the kitchen is only open 6pm - 8.30pm. They also have a very basic general store there.
8. Only 2 crew per car. Unless you have a van, between all your supplies, you will still need a place to attempt a sleep here and there. And no one sleeps well sitting up! (there's the tent option if you do have a number of crew).
9. Bring a picnic rug, great for laying out your runner's gear on the ground, both at the car, and the hike in checkpoints. Also great for a snooze in the sun! Camp chairs are also very handy for lounging at checkpoints, and providing a chair for your runner to take a load off...don't let them sit too long though! And finally a warm blanket/towels to wrap around your runner when they get a lil chilly.
10. Keep warm, and cool. Its the mountains, prepare for all types of weather, including heat, snow and rain! If the sun is out during the day, it can get hot, and you can easily burn. Keep covered, as there's nothing like sunburn and dehydration to make crewing a miserable experience. Same goes for preparing for wet and cold - make sure you have wet weather gear with good coverage (I pack both waterproof jacket and pants!), and warm clothes particularly for the nighttime. And plenty of changes of clothes in the event of rain! My favourite piece of warm gear is the famous cow onesie! Thick, and not breatheable at all, it keeps you warm and toasty through the night (just take it off before it gets warm again...did I mention it doesn't breathe!?)
11. Agree the food plan with your runner. Kinds of food, backup options in case of stomach upset, estimated calories/food types for each section, how they like their tailwind or hydration mixed. A quick chat before the race will make things so much easier on the day. Have food packed ready for them to take from each checkpoint. It's a good idea for them to leave with a handful of food too.
Don't offer your runner too many food options. Now is a great time to decide what they are eating on their behalf. Of course if they request something specific, give it too them, but rule of thumb is 2 options, otherwise they will become overwhelmed. In the later stages or the race they won't be thinking too straight, and become a little like children, so there will be some mothering involved. I've been known shovel food into Shane's mouth. I draw the line, however at helping with toilet needs....
If you are looking for fast turnarounds: have a spare bladder (water bladder that is!) or handhelds, so you can have it filled and ready for a fast swap over.
12. Plan estimated meeting times with your runner. Your runner will know best their abilities, and even if plans change, its still a baseline. It's mountains...20k up a mountain won't equate to the same time across the high plains. Knowing expected times will help you plan your day (and your sleeps!).
13. Use a friend finder app on your smartphone. When you link your phone to your runners phone, you can both see where each other is on a map. Great for seeing how far away they are. Keep in mind that signal in the mountains is patchy at best. I use Find My Friends (we jokingly call it Stalk my Husband!) on my iphone.
14. Use Telstra phones - any other phone provider in the mountains is next to useless. At a minimum your runner should have a Telstra phone, but so should you if you want to have the best chance of communicating if you need to. I don't have a Telstra phone, but past years I've just bought a cheap Telstra pre-paid SIM (just remember that checking facebook will chew through your credit if you don't get a data pack!)
15. Walkie-talkies - Walkie talkies are a great idea for communication in areas where theres little phone reception. You can give one to your runner, so they can let you know when they are not too far away within range (and you can start organising their food etc). Or you can do what I did in Leadville, which is a very crowded event with carparking often a long way from the checkpoint. I was crewing with Shane's sister Jo, and Jo would run forward from the checkpoint to meet Shane on the way in, would ask him what he needed, and radio his needs through to me at the car. She would then lead him to the car, where Id have his supplies all ready to go, which saved him waiting around. Keep in mind that walkie talkies can be fickle things, so do your research before deciding which ones to buy.
16. Use storage boxes. I like to organise the boot of the car with clear plastic storage boxes. 1 big one for Shane's running gear (changes of clothes, shoes, socks etc), 1 medium one for food, and another shallow box with dividers (like that in the pic) as a quick reference box. Each section will contain crucial stuff for the checkpoints, eg. sweet foods section, savory foods section, first aid section (anti-chafe, bandaids, blister plasters, panadol etc) etc
17. Pack some surprise snacks for your runner. Something they don't expect, that you can pull out when they are at their lowest point. Shane has a special liking for subway cookies, so I'll always pick up a couple in Bright, and have them ready for him when he needs them
18. Motivate your runner! Nows the time to think out of the box, and prepare some fun stuff to keep your runner motivated as the race goes on. It distracts them, at least temporarily, from the task at hand, and they are fun for you! Get creative - crew shirts, motivation posters and whiteboards, glow sticks (don't explode them in the car, they will never come off the car roof!), dress ups, interpretive dance, you name it, have some fun...and most often there won't be anyone watching you being a crazy in the middle of the night!
19. Don't trust ziplocks! Ziplock plastic sandwich bags are a great robust idea in the hands of 95% of the adult population. But in the hands of a trail runner, digging around for a treat without looking, while trying to keep a 3 min/k pace....inevitable blowouts occur. Many an exciting treat has ended with a trail full of allens snakes, and a trail runner close to tears. So don't fill them too much, don't use ziplocks that your runners hands won't fit into, and splash out on a decent brand. Alternatives are good old foil (downside is you can't see what's inside), or the old school freezer bags with a twist tie.
20. Most of All....ENJOY The Exhausting yet VEry
Do you have any other tips? Share them in the comments for all to see!!
Shane's an ultra runner and La Sportiva Ambassador, with a taste for adventure, always up for a new and different challenge.