37 Lessons Learned from Crewing and Pacing at Badwater 135 (July 2012)

*Originally posted on Runners World forum in July 2012, before I had a blog. Full (LONG) crewing/pacing report has been re-posted in the previous post.*

It’s taken longer than I’d planned to compile this list of lessons learned, but I did it.  Keep in mind these lessons are specific to crewing at Badwater, but some of them are still relevant to crewing at other ultras (or maybe even preparing to run ultras):

1.  Learn to enjoy the little things and focus on them.  Yes, you may be in pain, but the sand dunes, mountains, and especially stars are still beautiful.

2.  Think about the race in segments; it may be very hard to imagine the race as a whole.  I remember standing near the start line and realizing my mind was incapable of grasping the fact I’d be doing the same thing for the rest of that day (another 16 hours), the ENTIRE next day, and potentially a little bit of the ay after that.  Break it up into whatever segments you can comprehend.

3.  Know your runner’s history, not just the races they’ve run and their finishing times but any particular issues they had or things that went really well.  Every race is different, but there is no need to reinvent the wheel and try to learn everything from scratch; it helps to at least have a starting point.

4.  Keep a log to track what’s going on.  Each time we stopped (every mile or so), we’d write down the time, elapsed distance, calories taken in, if there was an electrolyte cap given, how the runner was feeling, and any other things that took place (replaced water bottle, new hat filled with ice, leg massage, etc.).  The most important element of this for us was the last time she took an electrolyte cap, which she was taking every hour the first day and slightly less often the second day since she was drinking more electrolytes then.  Time was going by quicker than it seemed, so I was constantly telling her to take another cap in spite of the fact I felt like I’d just given her one and she thought she’d just taken one.  Without the log, the caps would have been given significantly less frequently.  Keeping the log could also come in handy in the event the runner’s condition starts to degrade so the recent actions can be reviewed and a logical “recovery” plan can be devised; if you don’t know where things could have gone wrong, you’ll have no idea how to fix it.

5.  Be prepared to put a positive spin on negativity from the runner.  For example, if the runner seems discouraged after being passed by someone, you could potentially point out that the person who did the passing is someone who started in the earlier wave, meaning they’d technically been running longer and therefore moving at a slower race.  Or you could point out the number of people still behind your runner.

6.  Lie to your runner.  This seems terribly deceptive, but it can be in your runner’s best interest.  For example, don’t bring up any crew issues; the runner has their own worries-everything with the rest of the crew is always fine.  Don’t point out vehicle problems; deal with them, but don’t let on to the runner.  At the crewing meeting prior to the race, one of the guys pointed out that he crewed one year during which the only vehicle had a slow tire leak the entire time; 7 cans of Fix-A-Flat were used, but the runner never knew.  However, lying to the runner must not go overboard, and it must not involve things the runner is already aware of as you don’t want the runner to become distrustful.  It is important to keep in mind the intent of the lying-to protect the runner from things they can’t control anyway; it is always done for the benefit of the runner.

7.  Avoid taking medications.  I can’t cite the sources, but there have been some recent studies showing the negative impacts of even OTC pain meds.  I don’t think the issue is necessarily taking the meds one time but instead taking them at the onset of some kind of pain and then again every few hours; over the course of 30, 40, or more hours, that’s a lot of drugs (way over the daily maximum dosage) in a body that’s already over-stressed and particularly bad for the liver.

8.  If the runner must take a nap, it should be no more than 45 minutes (and some people say 25),  After approximately this period of time, the body can slip into REM, which will make the person more groggy and miserable than when they began the nap.

9.  Bring foods that are familiar to the runner, and particularly foods that have worked well in previous long-distance races.

10.  Bring a variety of foods and flavors of those foods because different things may appeal to the runner at different times.  They could develop food aversions.  At one point, my runner developed a hatred for a certain flavor of Powerade; luckily we had a variety, but this could have been problematic otherwise.  It also doesn’t hurt to bring some foods that the runner typically doesn’t eat during long runs, in the event that all else fails; this is sort of counterintuitive, but sometimes I think something new helps.

11.  Have a plan for how things should go, but stay flexible.  Don’t develop such a rigid plan that the smallest issue will derail the entire thing.  However, having no plan at all isn’t any better.

12.  Do your best to anticipate what’s going to happen (while keeping an open mind since that thing might not happen in the way you expect, or at all).  For example, if the runner is requesting a new iced hat every second stop, it’d be good to have one ready every second stop.  Or if the runner walks inclines and typically eats only when walking, be prepared to see if they’re hungry and what they want to eat when you see there is a long hill come up.

13.  Keep track of any issues the runner mentions, even in passing.  Runners may try to hide issues either to not inconvenience their crew or because they think they can work through them.  In a shorter race, a hotspot may be tolerated for the rest of the distance (even if it develops into a blister), but when there are still over 24 hours ahead, it must be dealt with at the soonest opportunity.  Likewise, if the runner is beginning to feel overheated and get a headache, request that they sit down for a couple minutes at the next vehicle stop; this short rest is an investment for their well-being for the rest of the race.

14.  Don’t let the runner dwell on the negative.  Even if the runner is fatigued or in pain (assuming the crew can’t do anything further to manage it, like providing a massage), acknowledge what they’re saying, particularly to note any increases in severity, but try to distract the runner by talking about non-running topics, telling jokes, singing, or anything else.

15.  Know the strengths and weaknesses of the runner but also the other crewmembers.  This may not always known in advance, but it helps crewmembers find their niches on the team and it allows the crew to know which area may be particularly difficult or less challenging for the runner.  If the runner has a habit of reaching very low points when the sun goes down, for example, have ideas of how to deal with this in the future, or at least be aware that this behavior is normal and temporary.

16.  Always be as kind as possible to everyone around you.  However, know that everyone is sleep-deprived and likely very stressed out, so don’t take harsh words personally.  Remember your role, do the best you can, and don’t dwell on anything negative that’s been done or said that has no bearing on the rest of the race.  This is especially important to make newer crewmembers aware of so they don’t feel unnecessarily attacked by someone who has no idea what they’re even saying or how their words are coming across.

17.  Don’t ignore your personal needs as a crewmember.  It may seem selfish to take the time to take a nap, not pace for a segment, eat food that belongs to the runner (assuming there is plenty), etc., but it is really in the best interest of the runner.  If you don’t take care of yourself, you could become worthless to the runner later.  For example, if you can’t find the time to deal with a blister you feel developing and you become unable to run later on, this is bad for you and is not in the best interest of the runner.

18.  Keep situational awareness of the distance that has been covered, the time it has taken to do that, and what is ahead on the course.  The runner will ask these types of questions and you should be able to give them a decent response.

19.  Know the runner’s goals for the race and have an idea of when they expect to get to certain landmarks along the course.  Early on, the emphasis is typically on ensuring the runner is not going too quickly.  However, this is a double-edged sword as you don’t want the runner to go out too quickly and burn themselves out, but depending on the course, temperatures, etc., it may be logical to try to bank some miles earlier.  Discuss these things with your runner so you know what they intend to do.  Also, be aware of the overall course cutoff and any cutoffs along the way.  It doesn’t need to be reassessed constantly, but the crew should have an idea of where the runner is at a given distance compared to their goals and any course cutoffs.

20.  Know what is expected of you in advance so you can train and plan accordingly.  Just because you are a crewmember, that doesn’t mean you won’t be covering parts of the course on foot, and depending on what your runner wants, it could be longer segments than you think.  This shows how important open communication with the runner is in advance.  Or, for example, a crewmember unfamiliar with such races may not realize there are almost no bathrooms along the course; this is good to tell them in advance.

21.  Bring different styles of clothing.  This applies to the crew but especially to the runner.  It’s possible that a blister or chafing may start but can be easily mitigated by putting on a different shoe, sports bra, etc., that doesn’t rub in the same spot.  However, if you just bring duplicate sets of the same style of clothing, it may be more difficult to prevent issues once they’ve started.

22.  Share info about the runner’s condition and any of their intentions with the rest of the crew.  While it may seem like a good idea to safeguard that information, it typically isn’t.  For example, if a runner mentions a chafing issue to you and then the same chafing issue to another crewmember an hour later, it’d be easy for both crewmembers to think it’s a temporary thing, not something that’s persisting and in need of addressing.  Or, if the runner notes that they’ll want a gel in an hour, tell other people because you might forget.

23.  Reapply sunscreen.  I don’t know of any sunscreen that lasts for over a day, particularly in extreme conditions with lots of sweating.

24.  Spray the runner with water, if they want that, however, be careful when you spray their legs because the water can very easily get into their shoes.  Wet shoes tends to equate to messed up feet, which can very easily result in race-jeopardizing problems.  If feet get wet, change socks and shoes as soon as feasible.

25.  Have a way of remembering to take any necessary daily medications.  This is relevant for the runner and the crew.  In a race that spans over 24 hours, the perception of time is skewed and therefore medications that are taken every morning are easy to forget since the concept of morning typically follows sleep, which may or may not have occurred.  My runner, who was very alert the entire time, told me at one point to reminder her husband to take his meds.  That reminded me I also had neglected to take my daily “med”; I don’t say what “daily med” I take, but I will say we joked that if I had a kid 9 months later that its initials would be BW.

26.  Clearly organize supplies in the car in a way that everyone understands.  Ensure that things that will be used more frequently or that are more important are easier to access.  And don’t be afraid to modify the organization as times goes on if a more logical way becomes apparent.

27.  Ensure the runner begins eating earlier in the race than they become super hungry.  It is possible that a runner’s body will, for whatever reason, reject food intake later on, so it helps if at least a few calories were bale to be banked earlier on.  Of course the runner is in some state of depletion nearly the entire race as they’re burning more calories than their bodies are processing, but there’s no reason to aggravate this situation.

28.  Determine in advance what situations would warrant dropping from the race by discussing the topic with the runner.  Justifiable reasons tend to only be linked to physical problems as it is understood that mental commitment may wane at times.  However, if the runner has a recurring injury that may flare up, determine if that is good grounds for quitting (or perhaps only if it occurs before a certain point).  It is important to hold the runner accountable to what they said prior to being put into the extreme conditions of the race.  At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that there are some instances in which quitting is in the best long-term interest of the runner; finishing at any cost can be foolish.  But don’t let a runner off the hook easily if they make excuses for why they don’t want to continue.

29.  Try to prevent the runner from throwing up.  There are some instances in which this is the best solution to expel whatever is causing issues, but if the runner is only experiencing slight nausea, try to mitigate this as early as possible.  When the runner pukes, you now have zero idea of what is still in their body and what’s not there anymore.  This can turn into a huge guessing game of figuring out how to replenish their body when you don’t know what’s missing, let alone the time schedule on which that should be done.

30.  Phrase recommendations in such a way that the runner thinks it’s their idea.  This is especially important when your runner is stubborn and doesn’t like to be told what to do.  Build the stage for them to choose what you want to tell them to do.

31.  Know your runner’s preferences for talking and silence, which may change over time.  You don’t want your good intentions to make your runner mad.

32.  Know all of the official rules for the race,  Not reading them in advance is no excuse for not following them.  After your runner has worked so hard to get to the race, you don’t want your own ignorance to be the reason the runner is disqualified.  We actually sat in the hotel room the night before the race and read through every rule out loud and discussed it.  We also took the list of rules with us for reference.

33.  Have separate containers of ice for consumption and non-consumption.  This may not be relevant to many other races, but at Badwater, ice is not just something you put in your drinks.  However, it is paramount to not be soaking feet or putting dirty hands into the same ice/water people are going to be consuming.  And never touch the for-consumption ice with bare hands, as despite your best intentions, your hands are not clean and could make everyone sick.

34.  Ensure everyone knows how to operate all of the vehicles.  Just because you’re designated as a pacer doesn’t mean you’ll never drive one of the vehicles.  For example, pulling out of the start area is not the time to discover that you don’t know how to reset the trip meter, nor is the middle of the night when you should realize you don’t know how to turn on the headlights.  Also, even if your personal vehicle doesn’t lock automatically when you shut the door, the vehicle you rented may behave differently.  There are quite a few stories of people locking themselves out of their crew vehicles with the engine running.

35.  Don’t give your runner options when it doesn’t really matter.  It may seem helpful to have them choose between 25 flavors of gel, but in many instances, they don’t care and the decision is overwhelming, plus it wastes time unnecessarily.  Sometimes choices are good, but keep them limited to a max of 2 or 3.  Most of the time, if your runner doesn’t want something you offer to them, they’ll tell you; over time, you’ll develop an idea for what your runner does and doesn’t prefer.

36.  Consider the climate of the entire race and plan accordingly.  All of us fell into the trap of not equating Badwater with anything “cold.”  At night in Death Valley when the temps dropped to the 80s or so, it felt cold.  Also, the Mount Whitney Portal at midnight was in the 40s.  In normal conditions, this would seem cold.  However, after a high temp of 118 during the day and being more susceptible to cold due to being tired and moving slower, it seemed ridiculously cold.

37.  Remember you are there by choice, whether you are the runner or a crewmember.  Things will get tough and you may go through phases of varying lengths where you wonder how you ended up there, but the fact remains that you are there, because of a decision you made, and you need to make the best of it.  No one made you sign up or help out.  By being there, you’re pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, which is good.  You will learn a lot about others and yourself.  Enjoy the moment.



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