Spectating is not a Spectator Sport

Have you ever scheduled a family vacation around your wife’s upcoming race? Does your friend often show up to your place 30-90 minutes late, dripping wet and shoes caked with mud? Have you ever reached for a granola bar only to find that your husband ate them all on the drive home from the grocery store? If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, you might be spectator in the great sport of ultrarunning. To be an Ultrarunning Spectator is to do more than just watch your spouse/friend/coworker’s efforts. In fact, an ultrarunner’s effort alone would not be enough to complete a race. It’s only through the patience and support of Ultrarunning Spectators (or, US for short), that an athlete can pursue their goals and reach their full potential on race day.

If you’re just finding out that you’re one of US – don’t worry, you’re in good company. Ultrarunning Spectators come in many flavors. The most obvious, of course, are the spectators at a race. They can be seen trailside, balancing a “Go Mom” sign in one hand and a 2-year old in the other, clanging cowbells, and pumping fists into the air. The encouragement and support of these Ultrarunning Spectators can be heard and seen; however, not all of US are so obvious. Some Ultrarunning Spectators quietly provide

Zach's dad crewing at Zach's second Leadville 100. Zach's friend, Craig, paced him through this section.
Zach’s dad crewed at Zach’s second Leadville 100. Zach’s friend, Craig, paced him through this section.

support behind the scenes. Long before anyone toes the line, race directors and their staff are collaborating with land managers like the Forest Service and private land owners to hang route markers, set up aid stations, and establish medical tents to keep our runners safe. They forge partnerships with local businesses and international corporations to bring our runners the best possible race-day nutrition. During this same time, runners are scouring ultrasign-up and settling in on their race schedule for the coming season. Families commit money months in advance, and sometimes use their limited vacation days to travel to race locations. As the wife of an ultrarunner, I cheer for Zach on a daily basis throughout his training. My encouragement comes in the form of cooking healthy dinners, renting an apartment near trails, and helping Zach get out the door during bad weather. Supervisors may permit flexible work schedules so a runner can run during daylight hours and coworkers may trade shifts or take on extra projects to cover time spent training. Strava has opened new opportunities to become an online Ultrarunning Spectator. Through Strava’s social media website, fellow athletes share routes and give kudos to encourage each other and provide accountability. Race day offers still more opportunities to become involved. Aid station volunteers start

Zach paced for Anthony.
Zach paced for Anthony (center) at Cactus Rose 100 mile ultra. Seth (right) and I crewed.

supporting runners long before the sun comes up, cutting watermelon and filling coolers. Family and friends may crew for their runner, driving from aid station to aid station, refilling hydration bladders and tucking ice into their runner’s hat. In most races over 50 miles, a friend can join in the latter stages to help set a pace and provide support through the night. Out of a desire to help their runner, some pacers and crews were overzealous with their support, and so rules were developed to prohibit “muling” and other unfair race day advantages. Now, crews and pacers have become such an integral part of race day that most race websites now have a specific section of the site detailing how and when runners are allowed to receive outside aid.

While the timing and form of encouragement may differ, all of US will tell you, spectating is not a spectator sport. Each of US has taken an active role in helping our runner succeed. We want to make our contribution count.

Have you ever searched online for tips to improve your pacing or crewing?
What type of information would be most useful to your family, pacers, or crew if I write future articles?