The importance of crew in long-distance events

by Jessica Rein

Most endurance athletes will tell you that a major key to their success is their support system at home. Family, friends, co-workers and even strangers all have a big impact on the outcome of weeks and months of endless training. We call these people our “Crew”.

Crew is a spouse or life partner that drives the streets looking for you when you’re caught mid-run in an unexpected hailstorm.

Crew might be your teenager who can be trusted to get dinner started so you can squeeze a few extra miles in.

Maybe Crew is a kind co-worker who picks up an extra shift so that you don’t have to miss a favorite race.

Perhaps it’s those special girlfriends who would way rather spend a few hours running with you than going shopping.

Crew can be the random stranger who lets you refill your bottle with their garden hose when you are miles away from any water source on a sweltering summer day.

Especially the strangers who are race day volunteers, keeping everyone safe at road crossings and picking up thousands of empty paper cups. Heck, even the little kids who anxiously hold out their hands for a sweaty high five, they’re our Crew too!

Will Rogers once said, “We can’t all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by”. I’m sure that quote was made in reference to war heroes marching in parades, but I can’t help but think of it in relation to endurance events. Most athletes are acutely aware of the give and take nature of these spectacles. In general, we’re a “pay it forward” kind of folk too. Most distance runners and triathletes I know spend time volunteering at events, pacing and crewing for friends and strangers alike.

My Story | Fall 50 2019

I have been blessed over the years with an amazing support system. My husband and I met through running and he’s coached me through countless ultramarathons. Recently we were at our favorite event of all time – The Fall 50. This is a 50-mile road race which starts at the northern tip of the Door Peninsula in Northeastern Wisconsin and runs south to the town of Sturgeon Bay. The race is run either as a team of 3 to 5 runners, as a pair of 2 runners or (if you’re feeling especially brave) you can run all 50 miles Solo. This year was my 8th time running it Solo and after all this time I’ve come to know the course like the back of my hand. My husband, DJ, knows exactly when to expect me at each of the checkpoints along the course since my pace times don’t seem to vary too greatly. At this race the Solo runners are prohibited from receiving assistance between aid stations so having a Crew puts you at an advantage. The time that’s saved by not having to enter the aid station and rummage through a drop bag for what you need is huge. With DJ crewing for me I literally float through each checkpoint, dropping my used handheld bottle at his feet while swiping the newly filled bottle from his hand. There’s no time for chit chat. He’s lucky if he gets a peck on the lips and a “thank you”. If you’re not moving forward you’re moving backward is my philosophy.

The race was going good. Fall colors were at peak and the course was breathtakingly beautiful. Late October in Northeast Wisconsin is a crapshoot as far as weather goes. Over the years we’ve had conditions ranging from sunny 70’s to full-on blizzard. This year we got lucky. The temps to start were in the mid 30’s but dry and forecast to warm to around 50 degrees by afternoon. I started in shorts and tank top with a light hoodie and gloves. At the third aid station (mile 19) it had warmed enough that I was able to ditch the hoodie and gloves and I was in a comfortable groove.

The next 20 or so miles were a breeze. Each time I saw DJ at an aid station I’d grab my fluid bottle and GU packet and be on my way. Coming into the 7th aid station I felt on top of the world. What I forgot was the fact that there is a LONG stretch between the 7th and 8th aid station. The miles were still ticking by at the same pace according to my Garmin, but my mind was slowly slipping into a dark place. All I could focus on was the biting wind and the fact that I was starting to get cold. REALLY cold. After what seemed like 10 miles but was probably only 4, I finally saw the aid station flags up ahead. As I came within earshot I started shouting to him “I need my hoodie”. Of course he didn’t have it with him and he had to run back to the truck to get it. And then when he finally came running back to me with it and it was still inside out and I had to fumble with numb hands to get it back on I nearly hit the roof. He handed me a can of coke which I took 2 or 3 gulps out of and then hurled the can on the ground. I was in full-on b**** mode at this point. I was torn between the horror of potentially being disqualified for littering (DJ picked it right back up off the ground) and feeling mortified that the volunteers just witnessed this stupid temper tantrum. And DJ…. my Crew, my Coach, my entire world…. he just stood there.

I bit the hand. I bit the hand that feeds me.

Literally. I felt terrible. I looked down at the mileage sign. Mile 43. Of all places to have my meltdown, it was at mile 43. To most people that would be of no significance. To DJ and me, mile 43 is the magical mile. He proposed to me at Mile 43 of a 100 mile run, that’s how important it is. If I thought I was in a dark place before, this just about set me over the edge. It was a bad omen. DJ had to talk me down. Immediately I was apologizing and babbling all sorts of nonsense about needing to keep my pace to break 8 hours. He was crazy calm. He looked at me with that practical, no-nonsense look and just said “Babe, you’re 11th place overall right now. You’re the 3rd place female. You only have 7 miles to go”.  In other words, “Keep your s*** together, CTFO.”

As simple as that, my Crew had snapped me out of my funk. I ran the last 7 miles thinking of the words DJ says to me before every big run “Run your own race”. I repeated that mantra for that final hour. The finish isn’t nearly as important as the journey itself.

Whoever your “Crew” is, whatever your sport, whether it be an Ironman or just getting through the day-to-day b.s. of life, remember to thank them. Recognize them. Appreciate them. Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds You.

Who is your Crew?

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