I put this up in the Trail Runner forum, But wanted to post it here too. I got a lot of really good advice from many people here abut how to "crew" and I think it paid off. Thanks for the tips.
My first Ultra from the Other side. . .
Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to crew for a friend at the Inaugural Bryce 100, held just outside Bryce Canyon National park, in Southwest Utah. Bryce sits at an elevation ranging from 7,000 to 9,000 feet. It is distinguished by a number of unique rock formations, known as “hoodoo’s” .
The course was a Y shape, with the start and end point about 10 miles apart, consisting primarily of single track, double track, and an occasional dirt road thrown in for good measure. Many of the runners commented on the absolute beauty of the course. The out and back portion was about 30 miles long.
I’ve a number of thoughts on the entire experience, and I’m going to try to piece them together the best I can. I apologize from the outset, it may jump around a bit, and may get long.
I was initially a little disappointed that my buddy didn’t want me to pace him, but only to crew for him. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was a crew of one, for one runner. I borrowed a friend’s ATV (best idea ever) to crew from, as much of the course and many of the aid stations were at the end of gnarly unmaintained forest service roads and trails. The race started Friday morning at 5:30 a.m., but due to work commitments I didn’t get out to the course until around 2 p.m. I loaded a cooler full of ice, candy and V8 onto the ATV, as well as two milk crates full of misc. supplies (first aid kit, jackets, lights) and headed out to the 45 miles aid station, Pink Cliffs.
I was nervous when I got to the aid station around 3:30 p.m. or so. I was late. My friend had given me strict instructions as well as pace sheets (he put a 45-60 minute window for each aid station), and I was about 5 minutes behind his projected “fast” time. I checked with the aid station captain. He hadn’t been through, in fact only 9 runners had made it that far. This would be a precursor of things to come. I hung out and chatted with the volunteers for a while. It was staffed by a local high school cross country team and their coaches. As runners came through, I helped the best I could, filling bottle and race vests, locating drop bags, getting food. Finally my guy came through. He looked great. He was off his “fast” pace by about 35 minutes, but that would be easy to make up on the next downhill section. I got him refueled and sent on his way in under 2 minutes. In my instructions, I was told “2 minutes per aid station” I set a timer on my watch to keep track.
After he left, I spent another 10 minutes at the station helping other runners, then I took off to the halfway/turnaround point. This turned into the m.o. for the race. I’d get to the station early, help anyone I could while waiting for him. Help him when he got there, and then stick around after to help a bit too.
He hit the halfway point in 11:00 or so, somewhere within the top 20 overall. It was fantastic. We kept up the pace for the next 30 miles or so.
I got to see almost every aid station along the course (I missed the very first station) Each one took on it’s own vibe. They were staffed by High School and College cross country and track teams, UltraSpire staffed one, and some random strangers staffed another. The high school kids tried really hard, but didn't always know what to do. UltraSpire did great. The other’s, we’ll get to later.
A number of runners had crew there to assist along the way. I noticed something about some of the crews. A lot of them were quite content to hang out at the aid station, and just site see until their runner came through. I tried to not do this. I really did try to jump in and help anywhere I could. I get bored just “hanging out”.
Back to my runner. He was doing awesome. He’d slowed down a bit between miles 55-70, but he was still on track for a strong sub 24 finish and top 20 placement. At Blubber Creek aid station, he tucked in with a group of 3 other guys, and took off for the 80 mile station, Proctor Canyon. I got to the aid station and waited. Proctor Canyon was by far, my favorite spot of the whole race. The Aid Station crew was great. It had a really laid back feel to it, and a great willingness to help from the volunteers. Well, most of them. One of the guys staffing it had a great sense of humor, and I hope the runners understood he was joking (most did). When we’d see lights coming down the trail, he’d start walking towards them yelling “We’re closed” or “This is not the Aid Station you are looking for”. He was the head cook as well, and when runners asked for things, they got the same humor. I thought it was fantastic, of course, I hadn’t run 80 miles either. My runner finally got to the aid station at 2:18 a.m. He crawled into a chair by the fire and told me that he needed “10 minutes, no more” of sleep. He looked terrible, so I let him have his ten minutes. Ten minutes turned into 3 hours and 59 minutes. He ended up trying to sleep in a sleeping bag by the fire. People thought he was dead. It was rather amusing, and sad all at once. I kept helping other runners at this point. This aid station turned into a bit of a trauma center. People were beat up by the time they got here. The fireside conversations were pretty epic.
There were a lot of people who’d set some pretty lofty goals coming into this race. I met dozens of runners who had sub 20 finishes in mind. I thought it was ridiculous. This was a first year event, with over 18,000 feet of climbing, at high elevation, and they thought they’d waltz to a sub 20 finish? The winner (a team Salomon sponsored Italian runner) finished in 19:52, the only sub 20 on the day. I learned a lot about different types of ultrarunners at this aid station. There are a lot of people who take themselves very seriously doing these things. I listened to them talk about Hard Rock, Western States, Leadville, and almost dismiss little races like “Bryce”. There were a few in particular that got on my nerves. They were talking about how easy the course was, how “runnable” it was, but they were dropping, because they weren't going to get their sub 20 finish. Yeah, real easy. In fact, I was told by a number of people that the guy who led the race most of the way dropped at mile 80, because he got passed prior to the aid station, and felt if he couldn't win, he didn't want to go on.
But anyway, I digress. My runner finally got up and going again, after spending 3 hours and 59 minutes (IT WAS NOT 4 HOURS) at the aid station. He was in bad shape, but was determined to finish. He got to the finish in just over 30 hours.
In all it was a fantastic experience. I’m really glad I got to witness a race from this side of things. I’ve already talked to the race director about volunteering next year, and even getting enough people together to staff an aid station (we’ll be serving hamburgers, I took a poll).
Some last random thoughts. Don’t ever sit down in front of a fire if you want a sub 24 finish. If you think you’re toast, go to the next aid station, and decide what you’ll do from there, don’t make the decision at the current aid station. If you’re crewing, bring two extra jackets (I had my hand on my big jacket as I was walking to the door to leave, but decided I wouldn't need it. I did.) I brought 4 bags of ice, that was enough. If your runner is asleep, use that opportunity to catch a few winks yourself.
Don’t take yourself so seriously. Help everyone who comes through the aid station, not just your runner.
Happy Utah Mountain Runners really are happy, and very down to earth people. Fast Cory is cool in real life. Some Colorado ultra-runners leave a little to be desired in the personality department. Going from the east coast to Bryce is a surefire way to get elevation sickness.
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Wow, thanks for the great post! I volunteer a lot at local races and have always found it really enjoyable and rewarding, but now I want to do THIS kind of thing! Interesting observations and comments. Thanks for sharing.
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