Updated: Nov 24, 2020
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I had the pleasure of speaking with Minnesota trail runner, Amy Clark. Amy is a lover of trail running and an amazing pacer/crew member! In this discussion, she provides tips on how to be a great pacer/crew member during an ultra, along with things ultra-runners should consider when picking out their support team!
Tips for what a pacer can do to help runners during a race:
Remember that everyone is different! Some people like a lot of structure, while others have a basic goal that is more flexible and want a support team to keep their spirits up.
Ask the racer what they need from you. Some people like pacers who are really chatty, other people want to run in silence. Some racers like it when their pacer runs in front of them, while others like their pacer behind them.
It is important to have open communication between the pacer and runner as to what their preferences are and what they are needing in that moment. As the runner, be ok with being open and honest without too much concern about hurting someone’s feelings as long as you are communicating a need in a respectful way.
Consider having a safe word! This allows runners to communicate effectively that they need a period of silence without the concern of hurting the pacer’s feelings.
How to be a successful crew member:
Have everything the runner needs once they get to the aid station. This will help to avoid a situation where the runner is looking around and trying to figure out what they want. We want the runner’s job to be 100% on doing their race and you are there to get everything ready so that they can keep moving forward.
Have a support team meeting before the race to go through the logistics of the race and to have a clear plan.
What to do when people are in the pain cave or want to drop out:
If someone is in physical distress and it could be dangerous for them to continue, then it is time to drop!!
If you know that the runner is mentally and physically ok to continue, then make a decision on how to respond based on your relationship with them and their personality.
There is a point where you need to recognize that you have done everything you can to support someone! You cannot force someone to continue if they are set on dropping and you have done everything you can to support them.
Bring a treat! Whip it out when food starts to not look good so that they can have a surprise treat to brighten them up!
If you are pacing/crewing someone you do not know well: You want to avoid coming off too strongly. Consider creating small goals for them, such as “Let’s just get to the next aid station or to the next tree.” Consider using analogies to discuss how there is still fuel in the tank even though our brain is telling us otherwise. Have some good lines/quotes that can be motivating and inspiring to the runner. Especially focus on quotes that discuss how great the runner will feel after the event. Have little points of light for the runner while also considering their personality.
If you are pacing/crewing someone you know well: Reflect on their successes during races they have completed in the past to remind them of times they have gotten through similar difficult points in a race.
As a pacer, have fun stories, facts, silly phrases, jokes, or songs that you can whip out to entertain a runner or to help them get out of the “pain cave.” Try to help them focus on the moment and the joy of what they are doing. Anything to help them get their head out of the moment.
Be mindful that you are feeling fresh while the runner has been racing for a long time.
Remind the runner that they are doing great!
Remind them that “It doesn’t always hurt this bad.” The current hurt or low might only last 20 minutes or an hour. When the runner is experiencing a tough moment in the race, consider changing nutrition, eating more, changing shoes, etc.
Differences with pacing style when pacing a new vs experienced ultra-runner:
For a new runner: Be more “annoying” about reminding them to eat and drinking. They might forget or be too foggy to remember to fuel and hydrate. Ask them more frequently about what they need. Remind them to change their clothes if it starts to get warm or cold. Again, they may not think of these things!
For an experienced runner: They likely want companionship and moral support vs. reminding them what to do during a race. The concern is less about whether they will finish or not, and the focus is more on getting through the night and making the race enjoyable.
Differences with pacing style depending on personality:
Take into consideration whether someone is more introverted or extroverted.
Ask the runner what they like and what style is best for them.
As a pacer, be comfortable with silence! Say encouraging comments every once in a while, but otherwise be ok with spending hours out on the trail without talking.
Things ultra-runners should consider when they are picking out their crewing/pacers:
Find organized people with a caring personality!
Have more than one crew person.
Take the course into consideration. For example, if it is a loop course or a point to point course. There is more planning that will be required for a point to point course.
This depends on your personality. If you want someone who will follow your spreadsheet to A T, then recruit friends that are more organized. If you want moral support and someone to make you laugh, have those friends join you!
Make sure to consider people who will be ok with being in the background. It is all about you, the runner, and not the support team. Consider people who enjoy helping and love helping others achieve their goal.
Consider people who will be able to adjust to your mood changes throughout the race. There can be a lot of emotional ups and downs during an ultra, so consider people who will respond well to this.
Before the race, go through what your needs will be and what will work for you and then develop your support team based on people who will meet those needs.
Crewing and pacing are hard! Consider people who will still be a great support for you even when they are sleep deprived, a bit stressed, etc.
My favorite quote from Amy Clark:
“I think there is a great deal of joy in ultra-running and that is kind of the space that I operate from. I know that there are other people, and I really admire them, but they go in there to go deep in the suffering and they kind of get this incredible spiritual strength from coming out of the suffering, but I really go in there looking for the joy and chasing the joy and I feel like as the pacer if you can remember to show your runner that even in a dark moment…Find those little moments. That is a really really good thing that you can do as a crew or pacer. Just find the joy.”