Trail and Ultramarathon running is such a unique culture and blend of people. There are rituals, secretive races, rites of passage (claim an FKT), and jargon (i.e. fatass race, puke-n-rally, DFL) that gives each person their own stories, experiences and perspectives across the miles and years. In many races or FKT efforts, there are pacers and crew that assist the runner, and sometimes a good friend does both.
A great way to take part in the trail running community and support a friend is to be a pacer or a crew. With a bit of forward thinking, you can help your runner have their best day possible.
What to do as a Pacer
The pacer’s duty is to stick with the runner and be their brain, companion, and sometimes, competition. Generally, pacers come in around the halfway point of races, for night sections, or, in some FKTs, for the whole dang thang.
Running for a reallyreallyreally long time can suck. But you can’t let your runner feel that way. At some point, your runner will probably bonk, feel like DNFing, etc. You can’t let them. Shower them with positive thoughts and comments.
Sometimes, suggesting alternates and brain games can help too, such as running for a period of time to earn the next walk break, or running on flats and hiking any uphills, or if somebody passes them, they have to run along for the next 5 mins. Stuff like that.
Keep the discussion positive. Thank them for letting you be part of their journey and tell them how excited you are for their big day ahead. And if any of that means tell lies, lie away!
- “You’ve been running so well today, but I know you’ve got this in you. Let’s run for 5 mins, walk for 1”
- “Remember that time you did insert badass training run? That training was for THIS moment. You can do it!”
- “There is favorite food at the next aid station. We are going to get you all put together.”
- “The top is so close! Power through it!”
In trail and ultra races, sometimes food just doesn’t taste good. Food tastes sweeter the longer you run and sometimes your mouth gets filmy or irritated. Food is critical though, and the pacer should keep track of how often and what the runner is eating. Aim for about 120-160 calories per hour and adequate fluids with electrolytes. Generally, pacers cannot carry anything for the runner (with the exception of Leadville).
Pacers could suggest a variety of foods, or, simply not give an option. Instead of taking in 120 calories at a time, try the “drip method” where you are pushing a small but steady stream of calories over the miles. This could be a pretzel stick every minute for a 15 mins, etc. This can work well if the runner is nauseous by not shocking their stomach with a bunch of food at once. Nausea and poor appetite can be helped by carrying a peppermint or a Gin-Gin or even a toothbrush (running hacks) to help reset the palate and keep an appetite.
When you get close to an aid station, sometimes running ahead and getting staple items for the runner can help them out and save time.
- “Let’s eat a quarter of a gel every 5 mins and swish it with water. You’ll never know.”
- “Eat this pretzel. The salt is going to help you feel better.”
- “What kind of food sounds good (at the next aid station)?”
The pacer should know the course and have it on their watch or phone. Nothing is as mentally degrading as getting lost during a race, especially if vying for the podium. Double check the turns and intersections, even if there is flagging. Sometimes, courses get vandalized and flags switched.
Not all runners want to know where they are on the course in terms of milage or until the next climb is done. Make sure you ask the runner before you start giving them all their stats.
In the night sections, it can be helpful to have a pacer who is lit up like a Christmas tree running out front. Wear a headlamp on the head, one on the waist, another one on the back of the pack pointing down, and carry a flashlight. Go overboard if your runner thinks it will help. Footing can get tricky in the night, and that makes one last thing to worry about for the runner.
First, to the runner, but also with the crew.
For the runner, ask questions (even if they are getting annoyed with you). Ask if they are hot, cold, hungry, thirsty, digesting well, want anything, want to hear a joke, etc. Also, announce helpful things on the trail such as when there is a turn, a big rock, cliff, tree, etc.
You runner might not want to talk, and might not even respond. Sometimes, your runner might get crabby or cry. Don’t take anything personally out there. They might be in the pain cave, but are undoubtedly glad to have you around.
For the crew, let them know a few minutes before the runner gets to the aid station. This can help the crew be prepared and have everything spread out to the runner’s liking, or even let the crew know what food to gather from the aid station so the runner doesn’t have to make any decisions. Let the crew know if things are delayed or ahead, and if the runner doesnt want to talk about certain things, or if they should congratulate the runner on certain things.
Take a few pics of your runner out there too. They’ll appreciate the memories.
What to do as Race Crew
The crew does the behind-the-scenes work and offers aid and support to the runners at aid stations or pre-defined stops along the route. Generally, if you get asked to crew, the runner trusts your decision making skills and experience and already has you in mind to help them get through the day. It is a big job, but an important and honorary one.
Before The Race
- Get to know what your runner’s plans are for the day. Are they going to go fast, or just have fun?
- Know the logistics of the race. Not all aid stations are open to crew, and some races will disqualify the runner if the crew assists at off-limits aid stations. Where will you drive to and park? Will you have to walk far?
- Know what aid stations will have drop bags and what your runner plans to pack in them. If they need required gear (headlamp, jacket) at certain places, be on top of it. If they have a favorite food, shoe swap, or prescription, know where this will be at.
During The Race
- Show up to aid stations, and allow time to be early. It is a huge mental boost to see a familiar and positive face during a race. Missing an aid station can cause your runner to be distressed, especially if you were bringing in any gear for them.
- Give options and make statements. Don’t ask questions unless you have to. Your runner is almost always going to need something, but often won’t know what. “I’ve got you some pretzels and some fruit chews” is better than “what do you want”, much in the same way that “you are doing amazing” is way more positive than “how do you feel?” (Guess what they feel like at 3am at mile 65…)
- Spread out all their drop bag stuff in an organized pile. Use a towel or blanket. Runners may even train to expect a certain gear spread at an aid station, with shoes placed one spot, sweets and salty snacks another place. This makes it easy to find gear, and sometimes seeing the item is a reminder they need it, or that it sounds tasty.
- Don’t let your runner linger. It is too easy to sit down, get warm and comfortable, and then not finish the race. Don’t let them sit unless they are changing shoes. Don’t have deep discussions or ask conversational questions. Keep them moving.
- Anticipate your runners needs. If it is hot, you can be sure they’ll need water. Having extra water bottles ready ahead of time is a big time saver. Have a bag of ice ready to go and fill the pockets of their pack with ice. Have a wipe cloth and some lube ready for them. Know where the toilets are at.
- Know what crew member is going to have what role. Have a person in charge of food, one in charge of the pack, one doing the massage rolling, etc. Define and delegate those roles to prevent confusion and stress on the runner.
- If your runner has a special food request, make sure you bring it and have it ready! If that means Jetboiling oatmeal or camp stoving a steak, start ahead of their expected arrival.
- Be encouraging and deflect any negative talk from the runner.
- Be self sufficient. Race-supplied aid station food is for runners only and takes tons of finely planned logistics to have available.
- Take pictures when you can.
After The Race
- Congratulate your runner whether they finish or not.
- Get them their post race meal/beer/etc. Usually the food ticket is a tag or mark on their bib. They might not be hungry right away and not want food… but get it anyway.
- Help your runner stretch or foam roll.
- Be a crutch for them when they walk. Lend a hand. Those sore muscles…
- Make sure they get back to their home or hotel safely. This means making sure they have a ride. It’s never smart for the runner to drive themselves after an overnight race.
- Remind them before they jump in the shower to beware of chafing. Wiping off gently and applying vaseline or similar before getting into the shower can ease the pain.
- Let the positivity continue. There might be things that could have been better, they might have missed a goal, DNF’d, DFL’d… the list goes on. None of that matters though. They did great and did everything they could have.
In conclusion, the best things you can do for your runner as pacer or as crew is be positive for them and make sure they are getting the aid they need! The above steps will help you ensure your runner has a strong race and gets to the finish!
What do you do as a pacer or crew, or, as a runner, want your pacer and crew to do? Leave a comment below or ask questions!