Monday, October 26, 2015

My 2nd Ultra-Marathon Crewing Experience

As most of you know, the first time I did support for an ultra-marathon was for my brother at the world championships for the 24 hour race in Italy this past Spring. I had never been to an ultra-marathon before much less "crewed", so I virtually walked into an ambush. It was embarrassing (see my "notes" from April of this year), so in an attempt to redeem myself, I signed myself up to help [crew for] my brother at The Fall 50, which is a 50 mile ultra-marathon in Door County, Wisconsin.

In the weeks leading up, as my brother talked about how his training was going and the effects it could have on his race performance, I was worrying about how my crew skills would effect his outcome. Believe it or not, providing support for a long distance race is somewhat of a science.

Let me give you the layout....
First of all, every ultra is very different from what I have gathered. Everything from the competition to the course to the race organization is different. At the 24hr world championships, the course was comprised of an inner loop and outer loop about a mile in total length, whereas The Fall 50 was a course starting at the tip of Door County and working its way down the peninsula. So, this time, we drove to each of the 10 different gates to meet Isaiah for a quick hand-off instead of being in a stationary location the runners passed every lap.
The top runners don't stop running, so they need nutrition and hydration easily accessible when they need it. Kelsey and I would arrive to a gate, prepare drinks and a gel shot, stand about 100-200 meters away from each other, then wait 5-10 minutes to see Isaiah. After a quick 30 second cheering/hand-off, we headed back to the car and on to the next gate. The day went pretty fast for us because we always had something to do except for the few minutes before seeing Isaiah appear in the distance. Navigating, refilling bottles, finding gel shots, parking, finding ginger gummies, finding clothing articles, etc, the van looked like we had been living out of it for a few months I'm sure. Isaiah, on the other hand, said it got really lonely and boring in between gates with no other runners or spectators.

This was the hand-off at gate 7, approximately 36 miles in.


Isaiah ended up finishing at 05:54:33, in 4th place, reaching both of his goals. Considering the rain and head winds on Saturday, he had an amazing performance and I am thrilled to have been there. Congrats again Isaiah!

Lessons Learned: (Mostly specific to my brother)
-Practice makes perfect....Even though this was only my 2nd time crewing, I learned SO much the first time that I did way better this time.
-Organization! You can't crew if you're discombobulated.
-Each water bottle is for a specific drink. Don't mix them!! I.e. Water, Gatorade, Pom juice, and coconut water.
-Communication. This could be a blog post of its own. I'm talking about communication between crew members & communication with your runner. If there is more than one person crewing, roles & responsibilities need to be discussed/defined. Like having a child, at the end of the day, the runner is most important. Communicating with your runner is most important and most difficult. In USATF certified courses, the rules are pretty strict, so you basically have one chance every 1-6 miles to talk to your runner. Meaning, the rules only allow you to provide aid at dedicated aid stations (AKA gates) or defined areas, so you can't stop anywhere on the course and hand-off beverages/food/etc. Some are even strict about when/where you can communicate with your runner. At the competitive level my brother is at, these runners DON'T STOP, so you don't have time to have a 30 second conversation and get what they need. You have about 5 seconds as they are flying by at 8-9mph. So, Isaiah comes by and says "pom juice and ginger". The next time you see him and have those things ready, there is a good chance he already wants something different. After all, he's had ~10min to think about it. Example; it was raining and he wanted his hat so he says "hat next". Mistakenly, I grab his skull cap, not the baseball cap he wanted, not to mention it had stopped raining & was sunny by the time he got to the next gate, so he didn't want his hat. This situation happened nearly every 6 miles, fortunately, I learned to prepare and have multiple options so I had what he needed.
-HAND SIGNALS!! Attention ultra-marathoners! Isaiah uses hand signals, which are SO helpful! When he is about 200meters away from us, he throws up 1, 2, or 3 fingers which each represents something he wants. That gives me about 20 seconds to get what he wants and he doesn't use energy talking as well as not getting miscommunicated.
-The pickier your runner can be, the better. I am talking about before the race as you prepare all the stuff for your runner, the more detailed and specific they can be, the better. Like wanting 6oz of water, not 10 and not 4.
-Help pack the supplies. When Isaiah packs, it is like a treasure hunt to find what he needs, which can be time consuming.

Room for Improvement:
-GPS tracking. It would be SO useful if Isaiah had some sort of tracking because we would arrive to a gate and not know whether he was still 10 minutes away or had already passed. Thankfully we never missed him, but it was definitely likely. For the first half, we kind of calculated his pace and distance so could figure out approximately when he would be arriving, but that got time consuming and less important after a while.
-Liquid ounce labeling. Isaiah would ask for a specific amount of liquid and quite honestly, it is SO hard to get the right amount, at least for Isaiah. Too much, not enough, etc. etc. Maybe in his head he can eyeball 6 ounces, but I can't. We already discussed upgrading his bottles for the next go.
-Better communication. Like headphone walkie talkies or a watch that has 10 options and he can just press a button 1-10 so we would know a little before what he wants.
-Cheering team. Two people crewing is good. One person could have the liquid and one could have gel, one can drive and one can navigate, two ears to hear Isaiah's requests, etc. However, it would have been nice to have more people there cheering for Isaiah especially along the parts where there weren't any people, because we didn't know if we would have time to stop or where to stop.
-Visual identification. Isaiah said he would get confused if we took off a coat or put on a jacket throughout the day because he wouldn't be able to pick us out. Next time we should wear bright vests that can be put on over any clothing independent of weather conditions and stick out from other people.
-I need to prepare for myself! Meaning, I could afford to have a spare bag for snacks/food/water and clothing. Weather changes during the day/night, so one set of clothes doesn't really cut it and food and drink sources are unpredictable. Not to mention the guilt I would have digging in to some of Isaiah's supplies.
-Since hand-off zones are regulated, we should communicate in between laps/gates. At a checkpoint, we would try to tell Isaiah how far behind the next guy he was and he was trying to tell us what he wanted to drink next and we were trying to cheer.........it was just a lot to say in a few seconds.

I can't wait for next time!!!

Final Results:
Male Participants
1.Zach Bitter5:17:25
2.G Anthony Kunkel5:38:13
3.Christopher Denucci5:38:35
4.Isaiah Janzen5:54:33
5.Tim Stieber6:26:58
Female Participants
1.Camille Herron5:38:41
2.Michelle Kurnik7:22:40
3.Jessica Garcia7:24:25
4.Erin Zerth7:36:19
5.Jessica Lemere7:40:49

Thank you Kelsey for putting up with me all day, navigating, being there for my brother, and keeping me company.Thank you to the Chocolate Chicken in Egg Harbor for the food stop! Thank you to Zach Bitter, Anthony Kunkel, Camille Herron, and Chris Denucci for being more of a motivation to me than you know. Great race to all of you, I really enjoyed watching/cheering and congrats to each of you, especially Camille for setting a world record. Thank you to the poor guy working at the bait shop about 6 miles south of Egg Harbor that had to deal with me running in like a nut job asking for hot chocolate and hot water and a cup. I'm sure I looked like a whack-a-doo (anything for Isaiah!). Thank you participants, volunteers, and friends who did not steal my sunglasses that I left on a boulder at the 7th checkpoint in Murphy Park for 4 hours.  Thank you to my parents for letting us borrow their van and lastly and most importantly, thank you Isaiah for being so awesome and doing things like this. I am certainly living vicariously through you, keep it up!


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