“I’m going to barf,” yells my six year old from the back seat as I drive the steep, exposed mountain road riddled with hairpin curves. “But don’t stop. I’ll be okay. Just pass me a cup or something and keep driving so we don’t miss him,” he mumbles.
Driving from one ultramarathon race handlers’ station to the next in the French Alps with my four kids in a tiny, manual transmission Volkswagen is seemingly as ordinary as a trip to the grocery store. The kids don’t question why we spend a day or more driving from point to point to crew for my husband, their ultrarunner dad. Not one complains about cheering on runners with a cowbell or shouting “bon courage, bravo, or way to go” out the window or from the top of a hill with a panoramic mountain view. None seem to notice that they’ve missed a regular night of sleep.
Crewing ultramarathons is one of my favorite ways to spend time with my children. Lugging around extra socks, running shoes, gels, thermoses filled with soup, mashed potatoes, or hot chocolate, and first aid supplies like extra moleskin for unexpected blisters in a sleep deprived state is not only an awesome way to support our favorite ultrarunner and the sport, but it is an activity that brings our family closer together.
Crewing Ultras as a Family is the Ultimate Family Bonding Experience
Crewing races with children is the ultimate in family bonding time. It gives kids the chance to feel like they are part of something big and exciting. It gives kids the opportunity to connect with mom and/or dad in something she or he loves. It’s a chance for kids to identify, relate to, and share some of the contagious running and racing energy that grownup racers in their life know so well. Crewing ultras as a family also plants the seed for a lifelong appreciation of running, endurance sports, and the healthy lifestyle.
Having crewed or volunteered with my children at too many trail or ultra races to count, including big races such as the UTMB’s TDS, Vermont 100, The Chiemgauer, and the Transrockies Run, I’ve learned a few things about crewing with children in tow along the way.
Read on for 12 tips for crewing ultramarathons with kids in tow.
How to Crew an Ultra with Children
1. Get your own copy of the race guide. Big ultra races typically issue race guides. If you are thinking of crewing a race for your significant other, family member, or friend, get your hands on a copy and make it your own. Read the race guide before the race and keep it accessible from the driver’s seat during the race.
2. Get your support vehicle or handler’s station pass. Some ultra events require support vehicles to display a tag in the vehicle to gain admission to support parking areas. Some also require support crew to have a pass to enter aid stations. At the UTMB, I was required to present tickets to gain access to the handler stations in order to have access to my racer within the aid tents. Keep in mind, a handler’s station pass may only permit entry of one or two people into an aid tent, so you may have to have your children wait outside the tent (while you attend to your racer) or skip entering an aid tent if your children are too young to leave out of arm’s reach.
3. Highlight, circle, underline, or make a note of important instructions in the race guide. You’ll want to know if there are important or unusual spectator requirements, such as “No Cowbells, No Noisemakers or Cheering at the Finish” (yep, I’ve been to one of those).
4. Know where you are allowed to offer ultrarunner support. A race guide will tell you where you are allowed to offer support to your racer on the course. Many ultra races only allow racer support at designated aid/handlers’ stations. If you offer support elsewhere, your racer can get disqualified).
5. Know where you are allowed to drive and park. When you are at a race to support your ultrarunner, you want to do all you can to support your racer, and that often includes seeing them whenever possible on the course. You’ll want to be mindful of where you are are allowed to drive or park during the race. When races pass through small towns, such as on narrow country roads or in towns with limited parking areas, there are occasionally support car restrictions. Know them.
6. Recognize you may need to pass on an opportunity to support your racer. And it’s okay. At the UTMB, several aid stations or racer viewing opportunities required a +/- 1.5 hour walk to the viewing spot. With four, tired kids who were crewing the entire race, I skipped stations with long walks.
7. Practice Good Potty Etiquette. Sometimes when you’re crewing a race, the only toilet available is a port-a-john that is ultimately meant for racers. If you or your children must use it, be sure to yield to racers and give them priority. The racers will appreciate it and some will even comment on your kid’s patience and thoughtfulness. Some will even insist that your toddler go before them. Those are the sort of racers that make me want to find at the finish line and hand them a six-pack.
8. Make the Crewing Experience an Adventure. Load up the car with pillows, sleeping bags or cozy blankets (depending on the time of year), iPads, books, car games, whatever will keep your child’s interest while you wait for your runner to come through a checkpoint. Pack your favorite snacks or plan fun stops along the way. When I crewed the 2016 Vermont 100 with my children and my BFF, VT Runner Mom, and her children, we planned a morning stop along the course for breakfast sandwiches at a popular Vermont country store, an afternoon ice cream stop, and a mid-day pond swim between various cheering points for our racing spouses. These activities offered a change of pace and something for the kids to look forward to during the ultra.
9. Give the kids ‘important’ race jobs. Give each of your children an important job or responsibility that is uniquely their own to make them feel like they are doing meaningful ultra support work. At one recent ultrarun, my 8 year old was in charge of gels, salt tabs/electrolyte mixes, and First Aid supplies. She kept them organized in our crewing race totes, and when her dad needed a gel, Tailwind refill, or a blister relief pack, she was on the job! My thirteen year old job was to help carry lounge chairs, the cooler, and a picnic blanket when we set up support ‘base camp’ at various aid stations.
10. Be courteous to race volunteers, traffic control, racers, and other spectators. It may seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes the race environment gets a bit tense or edgy, especially as volunteers, racers, and support crew get tired as the race progresses. Sometimes those people might seem short tempered or rude. Take the high road and be kind anyway. After all, they are there for your ultrarunner, too.
11. Keep your cell phone charged. You never know when your racer may need to reach you (hopefully he or she won’t), the race officials send an important text or alert (this has happened at races that were canceled or changed mid-race due to severe, unexpected weather conditions, or other issues have arisen), or your something happens where you need help. Keep in mind, cell service isn’t always available on or along some ultra courses, such as in the hills of Vermont.
12. Have a blast and take lots of pictures. Don’t forget to have fun with your children! It’s a big day for your racer, but it’s also a big, special day for you and the kids. And one you won’t soon forget! Enjoy it. Take lots of pictures of your racer and the kid crew ‘behind the scenes.’ Your kids will love looking back on the day they crewed an ultra.
Oh…and if you’re going to travel any twisty, windy mountain roads…don’t forget a cup or an airplane ‘bag’ for little backseat passengers.
Have a crewing tip to share? Did I miss something really important? Leave a comment below or message me on social media.