This is the second year in a row that I’ve participated in the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon – as a crew member.
The Reston Runners is a local running club that I run with, and they always put up a good showing at the JFK 50. There were over 40 runners this year and nearly as many crew members to support them. I’m a bit of an anomaly among the crew members because I a) have never run an ultra, and b) am not supporting a friend/relative/significant other who is running. Last year, they made an announcement at one of the weekend races that they were looking for crew members for this ultramarathon and I just thought it sounded pretty cool.
Let me briefly explain the ultramarathon experience because it’s kind of hard to wrap your head around it. So pictures this: it’s 7am. You’re starting the JFK 50 Mile ultramarthon, which you estimate will take you between 10-14 hours. For this particular ultra, the first 17 miles are on the very rocky, extremely challenging Appalachian Trail, followed by about a marathon on a flat dirt trail and then the last few miles are on paved roads – and probably in the dark, by the time you get there.
Sounds crazy, right?
To help runners prepare for all these changes throughout the day, enter the Crew. The Reston Runners participating in the race packed different bags for each designated stop (mile 17, 27, 38, etc.) with things they will need for each one (clothes to layer, fresh shoes or socks, headlamps, nutrition and – of course – body glide). The Crew takes the bags to each station and waits for the runners to come. When they arrive, we find their bag and basically act as their personal assistant to help them get what they need so they can keep moving.
My first station was at mile 17. At this point, runners coming through were just happy to be done with “that damn trail” and were thrilled to see us. Some didn’t need anything at this point, and those that did need their bags were pretty self sufficient.
This is not the case (in my 2 years of crewing) at mile 38. At this point, runners are either moody or delirious.
- Moody Runner knows that they still have 12 miles to go and are not thrilled about it. They are focused on finishing, and the few extra seconds it takes you to sort through their bag to find their headlamp drives them crazy because they just want to be done. The Moody Runner may snap at your or grab their bag from your hands because they want to do it themselves, and that’s fine. We crew members pat ourselves on the back knowing that deep down, they appreciate us.
- Delirious Runner is happy to see you and utterly useless. They are thrilled that they’ve made it this far and don’t seem to be focusing on the next 12 miles – or anything, really. These runners are my favorite because it turns into a game of charades: the Delirious Runner grunts “shirt” so you sort through their bag to find not only a t-shirt but also a long sleeve, under-armour and a jacket. You hold them all up, the runner points at the correct one, and you help them figure out how to put their arms into it. It’s sort of like taking care of a toddler. A sweaty, spandex-wearing, 150-pound toddler.
It’s a really rewarding experience to help these runners during their journey. I especially like being at the later stops because you are not just their supporter; you become an extension of them at that point. They can no longer tie or untie shoes, so you become their fingers. They’re feeling good and forget that the temperature is going to start dropping, so you become their voice of reason and remind them that they may want another layer and gloves.
If you ever have a chance to be help a runner during an ultramarathon, please do it. It’s amazing to see the runners and how supportive everyone is to one another – including the runners, crew, family and aid station support! While the marathoner is distinctly different from the casual 5K runner, ultramarathoners are in a league of their own. There is a camaraderie like I have never seen at any other distance, and the crew and fans can be just as crazy as the runners. Not to mention it’s extremely inspiring if you need an extra push to get motivated!
Now, will I ever do an ultramarathon? That’s still to be decided, but I actually did end up running about 12 miles of this ultra… more on that story to come tomorrow!