MA in Sports Journalism at St Mary's University

Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Crewing the Ultra-Runner

Ultra-running is a gruelling sport.

As the runners themselves eat up countless miles, pushing their bodies to the brink of exhaustion to complete the most unfathomable of challenges, the preparation and support that exists behind the scenes is often secondary in interest and limelight.

Yet the quality and actions of an ultra-runner’s support team can ultimately dictate success or failure for the athlete in question.

The goal of the athlete’s crew is to let them concentrate on nothing but their running and their specific goals along their journey. This can involve driving support vehicles, preparing those all important calories, providing emotional support and solving a multitude of problems along the route.

For multi-day and even multi-month events, the importance of the slickness of this process cannot be understated.

Becky George, a keen ultra-runner herself, has enviable experience in crewing ultra-running challenges.

She has helped athletes conquer the Spartathlon in Greece, run the length of Ireland in a world record time and even attempt a coast-to-coast conquest of America.

Her most recent crewing challenge was shepherding an inexperienced team through the process of supporting James Williams, an ultra-runner who was attempting to break the world record running from Lands End to John o’Groats.

Here, Becky offers her most valuable tips for crewing ultra-running events – a side of the sport that is rarely delved into.

Planning:

“Planning is the number one key”, Becky says.

“You are looking at a good couple of years planning and do not underestimate the time it takes for some of these events. For many routes it is important to do a recce and identify obstacles – success in these challenges are often years in the making.”

“Concentrate on the important parts of planning – not just the training – the logistics play a huge part!

Preparing yourself emotionally:

“In any event, don’t underestimate the before and after of the challenge itself. Nobody ever thinks about what happens afterwards – they concentrate on the race or the event.

“Depending on the outcome there’s two starkly different emotions, and you must consider that when you are knackered you will then be dealing with the feelings that come with success or falling short.

“Your recovery is then so vital when you’ve put your body through that. In reality the middle part is one of the most straightforward parts of it!”

Becky directs her crew at a scheduled stop

Know the sport:

“With my recent crewing work for James’ world record attempt, I was teaching a new team to crew – it was fantastic and I loved it.

“However, what I felt was different was that the team had no ultra-running experience – so that was an added difficulty in that I was not only teaching to crew, but also trying to explain elements of how ultra-running works.

“I could see what was happening to James and realised that when he struggled for spells or became upset with the crew – it was normal for those emotions and actions to be on display. To some of the team, especially his close friends, it was a bit more of a shock to see him like that.

“Ultimately, as an ultra-runner, you want to run something, but inside all you want to do is stop and have a sleep! You’re doing everything you can do to fashion a stop, tie your shoelace, remove a stone from your shoe – we’ve all as runners played those games and it’s the crew’s job to remove those crutches.”