Survival Guide to being a Support Crew

About a month ago I had the unique opportunity to act as support crew for four of my close friends – Jenna Eastlake, Mark Mosimann, Alex Wilks and Ric Morris – as they walked their way over 100 km of trail on the South Downs in the 2010 UK Trailwalker. Now, I had been a support crew once before, but that wasn’t for a running event (see the video of here of Paul McQueeney successfully crossing the English Channel). I know it sounds awful, but I simply wanted to be running the race myself and I just wasn’t sure how good I would be at sitting on the sidelines.

I convinced myself that it would be a great experience. I would get to stand behind my friends and be a part of the race in some way, which is almost as good as the real thing…right?

Well, that is a bunch of crock. Truth be told, being a support crew is not a fun job. It is WAY more fun to be racing. Sure, I could talk about the sense of personal satisfaction at being able to help my friends achieve their goals…. But that would be kind of like giving the “it’s an honour just to be nominated” speech. Everyone knows it sucks just to be nominated, but no one is willing to say it. Well here I am, willing to say it – being a support crew is brutal!!! At the same time, you and I both know that it is one of those jobs you can’t turn down without upsetting the karma gods. So, in case you ever find yourself in the position of being asked, here is the ultimate ‘survival guide’ to support crewing:

5. Never say the words “I told you so”. At least out loud.

This one is really important to remember because you are going to constantly be wanting to say it. For example, at the start of Trailwalker, I gently suggested to one of the newbie ultrarunners on the team (cough, Alex) that he lube up his nipples with vaseline before the start. Having seen one too many male racers sporting the “bleeding bulls-eye” look in the past, I wanted to help him avoid the nasty consequences of nipple chafe. Maybe Alex thought I was trying to pull one over on him, or maybe he was just too stubborn to take my advice, but needless to say he set off on his 100 km walk with dry nipples.

Fast forward 20 km later and who do you think came into the checkpoint asking for the tube of lube?  Now, as much as I wanted to say those four little words, I knew it wouldn’t make him walk any faster, so instead I smiled sweetly and got my revenge another way. I pretended I didn’t know where the regular vaseline was, and all I could find was an old tube of cherry-flavoured chapstick for him to use on his chest. (Okay, so that didn’t actually happen… but that would have been sweet. No pun intended. Instead I just bit my tongue.)

4. Get comfortable acting like an annoying cartoon character on uppers

When your team comes into a checkpoint, they will be tired, hungry, thirsty, and maybe a little cranky. You don’t just need to feed and water them, you need to do it in style. Think jazz hands. Rainbows, fluffy bunnies, and puppy dogs. Seriously. With any luck, your ridiculously good mood will rub off on them (at least a bit) and help them get to the next checkpoint a little bit faster. If you think you are laying it on too thick, you aren’t – crazy eyes and toothy smiles are what you want to go for here. Which leads me to my next point…

3. Use your “off” time wisely

No one can act like spongebob all the time and stay sane. Unless you really are on uppers. The good news is that you only need to put on the cheerful act for brief periods of time. Really, you’ll only be seeing your team for about 5-15 minutes every couple of hours or so, which is the only time you need to be (or look) happy. In order to conserve your energy, I suggest you remain as grumpy as possible in those long stretches when you’re waiting for your team.

Yup, that’s right. Just get it all out. Be as miserable as you want to be. Try out some new swear words. Have fun growling at other crews. Did you know it takes 43 muscles to frown versus only 17 to smile? Give your mouth a workout and frown away. Then when it is time to put on the happy show, you’ll actually enjoy the change.

During trailwalker, I would like to say that I mastered the art of illusion. When the team rolled in, I threw gold stars over them, waved them in with balloons, wore ribbons in my hair, painted my face with inspirational messages… you name it. However, the moment they left, those ribbons in my hair turned to snakes and I let the medusa in me out. It really helped, I have to say. What actually went on, I cannot say – these things are meant to be left behind the scenes…

2. Find amusement in the small things

At one point, I discovered that my head torch had a flashing mode on it (see here for a demonstration around 5:40 into the clip). That allowed me to turn the support van into an impromptu disco. Amused me for a good ten minutes. Hey, get it where you can, alright?

1. Use ‘selective honesty’

Your team will believe anything you tell them and really, if they are 20 km from the finish and they ask how far they have left to go, what is there to gain by telling them the truth?? They will only get demoralized and go slower, which means you will be out there longer. Here are some examples of how to use selective honesty to your advantage:

Q: Do these blisters look bad to you?

A: Blisters? Where are they? I can’t really see them… Oh you mean there underneath that patch of dried blood? Gee, they are so tiny I almost missed them. You should be fine until the end and we can sort you out then.

Q: Was that thunder I heard?

A: Thunder? Whaaaaat? Nah. I think that was your stomach growling. Here – have a cookie!

Q: I feel like we’re getting slower. Are we?

A: Slower? Are you kidding? You almost beat us to the checkpoint and we’re in a car. I reckon you guys will fly through the next stage!

See how it works?

I hope these few little tips will help you survive the task of support crewing in case you are ever put in that position. In all honesty, it really WAS an honour to support my friends and I was happy to do it. (Or is that me just practising tip #1? You’ll never know…)

-Ultra Runner Girl aka Stephanie Case

4 Comments »

  1. You forgot one…. choose your other crew members wisely! I’m not sure we would have survived if we didn’t have each other!

  2. Thanks for this post – I’m looking to be crew for my husband’s first 50miler so need all the info I can get 🙂
    That picture of the blisters is BRUTAL!

    • Ha, no problem!!! Despite my complaining, being a support crew is a really neat job. If you can’t be in the race with your husband, supporting him through it is the next best thing. Make sure to bring good food for yourself so that you don’t have to rely on all the sugary, salty, junk food that you’ll likely be feeding him. Also, talk to the other support crews! They are usually a really fun group and hey, YOU can also use a little support as well! Have fun and good luck 🙂
      P.S. Try to think up one little surprise to have at the end of the race…
      P.P.S. Make sure you know ahead of time what your husband’s goals are (this goes without saying, but doesn’t hurt to emphasize it!). If he simply wants to finish the race and doesn’t care about time, just give him positive encouragement and let him take a bit of time through the checkpoints if he needs it. Be encouraging, but firm, if he starts talking about dropping out. Remind him how hard he has worked and tell him to just try one more checkpoint and then see how he feels (this usually works). If, however, he is aiming for a particular time, then you might need to use a little tough love. Checkpoints are always a nice break, but if you rest too long then they can really affect your finishing time… so give him a kick in the butt and send him on his way! Finally, if he just wants to have fun… well, your job just became a whole lot easier.

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