Ultra-running can be a lonely sport. But once you get into the realms of 24 hour running and beyond, you'll often require a support team (even if they can't run the miles for you!).
Robbie Britton has been part of the British & Northern Irish 24-hour team, both as an elite runner and crew member at the European and World Championships. So, he's perfectly placed to explain what makes the ideal crew member for ultra-endurance athletes…
What does a support crew do?
The 2022 IAU European Championships saw possibly the strongest 24-hour race in history. The format, which sees athletes trying to simply run as far as possible in a single day, is a supported race. It means each athlete can have a handler who will hand out food, drinks, kit changes, as well as mental and physical support over the full 24 hours.
We went there with our biggest ever team. There were nine male and seven female athletes on the start-line, as well as a crew of eight plus a physio. So, in a team with 16 athletes, each handler has two runners to look after.
The selection of each crew member is based on their own experience in the event, their past experience of supporting and / or because they bring specific expertise. A sense of humour helps too.
Before the race starts, the crew member and athlete go through as much as possible. Anything you can do to make the race easier is worthwhile; practicing the hand-off of bottles and nutrition, coming up with hand signals to communicate in the busy seconds you pass each 1,54-metre lap, or starting to recognise the non-conscious actions of a runner that sends a message (e.g. the dropping of a head, the unusually quiet chatterbox, the tell-tale dragging of a tired leg).
Any extra information helps us make better decisions when we’re in the thick of the action.
Make a plan...
In the early hours of the race it’s all about seeing your athletes coming around the bend, being ready with whatever is on the race nutrition plan. It might be a PF 30 Gel every 20 minutes, some Haribo, a sandwich, a drinks bottle or a cold sponge. The plan runs the show, at least for the first few hours.
Each hour we tally up the carbohydrate, fluid and sodium concentrations. The job is made easier by planning and having a “cheat sheet” of numbers and volumes, but then the athlete goes off plan and your tired brain needs to do more complicated maths.
A one-hour window isn’t the best option either. Sometimes they take 45 minutes to finish their drink and it leaves an hour looking low on total carbs, but the three-hour average is spot on. Other times they keep asking for more food and you need to ease them back. More isn’t always better. What works at hour six might impact hour 18 and everything needs to be as level as possible.
You can see from Sophie Power's race nutrition case study from the European Championships just how challenging the fuelling and hydration aspect of a 24-hour race can be.
And then improvise...
It isn’t long before one of us has to improvise though. Common issues that arise include gut issues because food hasn’t gone down well, the athlete overheating, they develop a hot spot on their foot, or need to use the toilet more than expected.
Everything is noted down. Each 24-hour race, no matter how successful, is a lesson towards the next. In the words of Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.”
No one needs much encouragement in the early hours. It’s the opposite. How many different ways can you say, “slow down a little” or “ease back the effort”, when the athlete keeps telling you that they feel just fine. Maybe training has put them in world record shape? Maybe it’s the excitement of running for their country in a big event and being pulled along by the current world record holder Aleksandr Sorokin?
When someone goes that fast, everyone else follows because our perception of what’s normal gets warped.
As a crew you need to have thick skin and a way to get the same message across with a smile. You need to be able to resist saying, “I told you so”, when the trouble starts. It doesn’t help at this point and our job isn’t to be right. It’s to be helpful.
Say the right thing, at the right time. It might not be what you even think or agree with, but if it gets the athlete moving, and keeps them eating or holding their pace, then it’s worth doing. Some refer to it as “tough love”, but it’s only 12 hours in and they haven’t seen really tough just yet…
The power of positivity
Simmer, don’t boil. We repeat the message. It relates to pace, effort, fuelling, hydration. Don’t go wild, just keep doing what you need to do and try to smile. At least once a lap.
The last hours arrive. The ones that are still out there, in touch of their PBs, still need to eat. They want information, but you only want to provide positive news. They’re trying their best and bad news won’t help.
Again, you try to tell them ‘the right thing at the right time’. Share the info that could help: the next runner in the rankings, the team we can chase down, the PB drawing closer and the records they can achieve.
Even at 20 hours, with the end seemingly close, it’s still all to play for and you can burn too many matches. There’s four hours of running left so don’t get too excited. Keep eating. Try to smile. And that’s just the advice for the crew.
All in all, it’s a team effort, but the athlete gets the credit. They had to run the miles. They put in the hours and hours of training and dedication. You just need to be there to catch them at the end.
Every 24-hour runner knows a good crew is worth their weight in gold, or extra miles - which, at the end of the day, feel far more valuable than gold during an ultra endurance event.