Record-breaking Nicky Spinks knows how to succeed when it comes to tackling some of the toughest ultra running challenges imaginable (watch Run Forever). And while her incredible endurance fitness and mental strength play an important role, she also knows just how crucial it is to have a super-organised support crew filled with friends and family, all of whom are willing to sacrifice their own time and energy to get her to the finish line.
It was therefore very much a case of ‘roles reversed’ this summer when Nicky led the crewing support for fellow inov-8 ambassador Damian Hall at the world’s biggest trail running race, the 171km UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc). She drove and ran between aid stations, getting to each in time to help feed, resupply and, of course, dish out the necessary words of encouragement. By putting his trust in Nicky and therefore being able to fully focus on his running, Damian blazed round the trails of Europe’s highest mountain in a time of 22hrs 00mins, placing 12th, and 1st veteran aged over-40, in what was arguably the greatest field of ultra runners ever assembled for a race. The pair were photographed all smiles at the finish line (see lead photo, by Matt Brown).
To help others who are set to play the role of support crew, Nicky has penned the following top-10 tips. While they are based around her experiences at UTMB, they could be applied to most ultra and long distance running races or challenges.
1. Get your tickets for the show
If you need supporters’ ticket to access crew/supporter areas at on-course aid stations or checkpoints, make sure you get these in advance from the runner you are supporting. Whatever you do, don’t forget these tickets – and remember to keep them safe! If you turn up at a crew/supporter area without your ticket you will likely be refused entry and will not be able to assist the runner as planned. At UTMB, the rules say it’s one supporter per runner, but occasionally you are allowed more than that in the crew/supporter areas.
2. Think about traffic
Make sure you know the distances and times it will take you to get between aid stations/checkpoints – and allow for traffic congestion on the roads, especially in and out of the early checkpoints. Also allow time for walking (most likely with heavy bags) to the exact checkpoints from the car park. Good planning is crucial.
3. Learn the rules
Know the race rules around supporting. At UTMB, technically the supporter was only allowed take one bag into the aid station, and there was both a size and weight restriction on it too!
4. Prepare but also pre-empt
In advance of the race, talk at length with the runner. Discuss what he/she wants his/her support to do within the checkpoints, so you know exactly how to approach your supporting role. Every runner is different. Whatever the runner asks for, you must prepare and be ready for it. But, at the same time, also try and get a feel for what the runner might ask for – this way you can pre-empt. (Photo above, by Matt Brown, shows Damian eating at a UTMB aid station).
5. Sacrifice your own needs
Put the runner’s needs before your own. Be organised and get to where you need to be with plenty of time to spare. Don’t nip off for a run of your own if time is tight. It’s not worth risking it. Your runner needs you!
6. Be their sense of direction
Once in the checkpoint, look carefully to see where the runners come in and where they exit. It’s often confusing. By figuring it all out, you can point your runner (who may well be tired and lacking in a sense of direction) the right way. Also check where the toilets are.
7. Separate sweet and savoury foods
Lay all the runners food out in a logical way (see photo above by Matt Brown). If they have multiples of everything, there is no need to put it all out on display. Try and make it easy and simple for the runner. Group sweet stuff together and savoury items separately. Also group food that will be eaten in the aid station separately from food that they will take with them back out onto the course. Have their spare clothes options ready, but usually out of sight. Be able to find anything they want quickly.
8. Get into the mindset of the runner
Assess your runner as they approach. Are their eyes bright? Do they appear focussed? Are they calm or stressed? Do they look in pain? Do they pick up food and eat straight away or sit down for a rest then study the food for a while before choosing? You are trying to assess how the race is going for them. If they are clear-headed they will eat straight away and quickly assess the food they are going to take with them. If they are struggling to eat they will take longer trying to find something they want and then usually only pick at it. They might need prompting to eat and you may need to make suggestions about what food they take with them.
9. Keep questions to a minimum
Help the runner with their pack or race vest. Refill any bottles and clear out the rubbish that they’ve put in the pockets. See if any clothes, hats or gloves are wet and, if you have spares, suggest swopping them for the dry ones. Assess how much food/drink they are carrying and not consuming. Maybe suggest carrying less or more. Try not to ask loads of questions… it will confuse the runner at a time when they need to concentrate on eating. Don’t distract the runner with stories about what you’ve been up too, unless they ask and seem to want to chat about such things.
10. Be positive and talk about the finish line
As the race progresses try and pre-empt the runners needs. They will often form a dislike to sweet food and will appreciate something to clear their palate. They might also need encouragement to keep eating or at least have an energy gel or two. Keep an eye on their physical appearance and make sure they are warm enough. If they’re going to run in the dark check that they have working head torches. Changing head torch batteries will be an easier task for you than them. Always be positive. Tell them they are doing well and looking strong. And remember – say you look forward to seeing them at the finish (see photo above of Damian finishing the UTMB with his children, and Nicky in the background supporting right to the end! Photo by Andy Jackson).
* Nicky’s favourite kit for long days out in the mountains: PROTEC-SHELL (our most protective waterproof jacket – see video below), EXTREME THERMO SKULL HAT (new running hat for winter with superior comfort and protection), ALL TERRAIN PRO MITT (waterproof mitts for the ultimate protection for hands).