black canyon

Last weekend I had the privilege of pseudo-crewing for my brother-in-law at the Black Canyon 100k.  I say “pseudo” because I only showed up at the halfway point (mile 36).  I hadn’t been there since sunrise like most other crew members, loyally perched on foldout chairs beside coolers filled with ice, soda, and other assorted particularities for their runne.  I was a self-dubbed “moral support” crew member, unsure of what an actual crew’s responsibilities entailed.  I cheered, drove some cars, observed and packed up gear at the various aid stations (failing to remember an expensive-looking foldy chair with cupholders and the singlet my brother-in-law was supposed to wear at the finish.  Sorry, Jake.)

We arrived at the the halfway point at 11 am, perfectly timed with our baby’s morning nap.  We were flanked by barren mountains and giant cacti growing impressively between jagged rocks for as far as the eye could see.  This was one of the most rugged terrains I had ever seen.  It seemed inhuman that there were people actually running through it.  On purpose.

My mouth was instantaneously dry as I stepped out of the car, parched from the arid dirt permeating the air. The 50 degree Flagstaff weather hadn’t set the proper precedent for a smooth transition into the Phoenix summer heat.  Sweat began to congregate on my upper lip.  My cheeks and palms were flushed and sticky. I felt like I was standing in the corner at a middle school dance waiting for the ever-popular Kale Malwin to talk to me.

“Water!  I need water!” I thought frantically as I pushed our jogging stroller to the trailhead.  

I had been out of the car for about 10 minutes, where my raspberry sparkling water remained sheltered from the desert heat.

The 100k runners had been on the trail for four hours. The leaders had already run a marathon and a half.

The crews had been sitting in the unforgiving desert sun for just as long.

Now I’m not a crew virgin.  I’ve rung my fair share of cowbell, handed out a healthy amount of goos, and lined up extra socks and shoes at transitions for triathlon.  I’ve kissed my husband good luck at the beginning of a marathon and spent two hours accumulating athletic swag from various tents, grabbing a pre-made Jamba Juice before meeting him at  the finish dozens of times.  Easy peasy.  

Crewing for an ultra, I came to find out last week, is a whole other story.

First of all, there are no accommodations for the crew- no food trucks or vendors with icy-cold beverages eager to quench your thirst at every glance.  There are no bleachers or grassy knolls to rest your tired bum (I learned the hard way (literally) that a foldout chair is an ultra crewing necessity.)    

You are expected to drive (often off-road) to various ambiguously marked trailheads to meet your loved-one at his or her next stop.   If you’re lucky, there’s a port-o-potty just waiting to hotbox you with ultrarunning fumes after its contents have been sitting in the relentless heat for hours. Otherwise, you are more than welcome to relieve yourself behind a boulder or giant cactus.  

I guess ultra crews are expected to be just as rugged and hardcore as their ultrarunner counterparts- willing to withstand hours of discomfort for the promise of a cheeseburger at the end.

But of course, it’s about much more than the cool Finisher cup and greasy, hot meal (or 4 foot Diamondback Rattlesnake-true story)  waiting at the finish line.

As I watched the runners come through each stop, there was no end to each crew’s enthusiasm and eagerness to help.  Their pride was inconcealable- smiling and even crying when their runner appeared like a mirage in the distance.  It was heartwarming to watch friends, fathers, husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, sons and daughters spring out of their chairs upon spotting their runner, grappling to reach the coolers to get him or her what they needed.

“Do you want the sorbet?  Do you need me to stuff ice down your shorts?  Can I splash water in your bra? How is the chaffing?  Any between your butt cheeks?  Here’s the Vaseline.  Do you need me to do it for you?  Can I cut off any toenails?  Do you want me to fill your Camelback with Coke?  Oh crap, did you already pee in it? How long have you been subsisting off your pee? How many hand fulls of GummyWorms do you need?  Here- let me stuff this baked potato in your mouth while you change your shoes!  Keep going, keep going, stay positive!  Think about that belt buckle! I know all of your pants are made of Lycra and you don’t actually own a belt, but think of how cool it will look on the mantel next to the pint glass you got at Bootlegger last year!”

It was like watching a Nascar Pit Crew re-assemble a car and reinvigorate the driver to continue the race as quickly as possible.  

I know that runners are the stars of the show.  It takes a truly special person to put themselves through the kind of agony that I witnessed at the Black Canyon Ultra.  Likewise- and I think this is something that should be emphasized- it takes a very special person to sit in the desert heat (or Northern cold) for 10 hours, steadfastly waiting for the 5 crucial minutes they will be of assistance.

From my figurative bird’s eye view, I saw crews as the back-up singers of the race… barely noticed, happy to blend into the background, but utterly integral to the success and harmony of the race.

Without a crew, there would be no one to butter your butt with Vaseline.  There would be no one to force-feed you crushed up chips.  There would be no one to put ice on your netherlands to cool you quickly and efficiently.  Most importantly, there would be no one to give you a familiar smile and lather you with sincere words of encouragement to keep you going when you feel like giving-up is the only option.

So here’s to the unsung heros of Ultrarunning; the men and women, boys and girls who sacrifice countless weekends to help their loved-one through the grueling hours of cathartic, masochistic running.  To those who wake up before the buttcrack of dawn to ensure that your own buttcrack is healthy and unchaffed.  To the ones who- in the moment- would do pretty much anything to help you succeed.  

Here’s to the Ultrarunning crews who- in so many ways- are just as tough as you.  Just in a different way.