Ultra Racing: Setting Your Crew Up For Success

Note: This article first appeared in the UMCA UltraCycling Magazine in April of 2015.

Group hug conveying the teamwork that went into a RAAM finish, photo by of RAAM Media

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” –Helen Keller

So you’re a cyclist who has set a goal to do a crewed ultra cycling race, and now you’re faced with the task of finding a crew and preparing for the race.  Or conversely someone has approached you and asked you to crew for them.  Both of these scenarios are the gateway to a tremendous undertaking, one that has the potential to be “life changing”, so what you do next is pretty darned important – much more so than many racers or crew realize!

As a racer, recognize that having a strong and cohesive crew can make a huge difference in your race.  Do not look at crewing as a minor, supplemental role, or as simply yet another item to check off on a checklist alongside flashing lights, a water cooler, and baby wipes.  Especially in longer races your crew are your lifeblood!  They can make or break your race, but it is up to YOU to do the groundwork to enable them to perform to the best of their ability.

Setting clear expectations, doing the appropriate planning and crew training, having the equipment and procedures in place to execute things smoothly during the race, and ensuring that you have assembled a team that is cohesive and contains strong leadership are all things that you’re responsible for as a racer.  If one of my crew has a bad experience, then I personally feel responsible because it means that somewhere along the way I failed to do one of these things adequately.

In what follows I will go into more detail on each of these areas and provide some suggestions and guidelines for both the racer and the crew that will hopefully set the team up for success rather than failure.  Much of what I’ll share can be applied to ultra races of any length, but some of what I’ll share is clearly more applicable to longer races.

Note that this is not intended to be a “manifesto” on crewing, and that what I present should not be taken as “gospel” or as the only way to do things.  It is simply my attempt to share some of what I’ve learned over the years being involved in the sport of ultra cycling as both a racer (six 500 mile races, two RAAM Challenge races, RAW, and two solo RAAMs) and crew member (three 500 mile races and two UltraMan triathlons).  I have not gone into instructional detail on the nuts and bolts of how to actually do particular tasks (to do so would require an entire book!), rather I’ve tried to present general philosophies and guidelines.  Crewing and race preparation are continual learning processes, so don’t be afraid to try new things, ask questions, and seek out the advice of others in the sport.

Special thanks to the MANY racers and crew whom I’ve had the pleasure to learn from over the years!  Much of what I’ve learned about crew organization and planning I’ve learned from Sandy Earl, Lee “Fuzzy” Mitchell, and Bill Osborn.  Thanks also to the many individuals who have crewed for me – I am forever grateful for your selflessness and generosity in helping me to achieve my dreams!

Set Clear Expectations

It is imperative that as a racer you be as open and honest as possible with potential crew members.  Crewing is NOT easy, so sugarcoating things or painting a purely romanticized view of ultra racing is not going to serve you or your potential crew members well.  My husband has completed 500 mile ultra cycling races, UltraMan triathlons, and ultra running races, yet he adamantly states that crewing for RAAM is the hardest thing he’s ever done!  Crewing can be a very positive and rewarding experience, but it comes with a lot of hard work, so the trick is in trying to convey the good without glossing over the bad.

Setting clear expectations from the onset is vitally important – if someone expects that they’re going to be on a glorified vacation, sleeping in a hotel for 8hrs a night, eating meals at a sit down restaurant 3 times a day, and simply being a cheerleader on the side of the road, then they’ve been setup for failure because expectations have not been set correctly.  Not everyone is cut out for crewing at an ultra race, so you do your entire team a disservice if you do not accurately set expectations with potential crew members.

I try to convey to potential crew members that crewing is certainly not a luxury vacation, and may in fact be the hardest thing that they’ve ever done, but that it is one of those “once in a lifetime” type of experiences that hopefully they can look back on and be proud to have been a part of.  I also tell them that some people crew once, are glad for having had the experience, but would never crew again, while others catch the crewing “disease” and become crewing regulars.  A crewing guru and good friend told me that he tells RAAM crew that they may learn more about themselves in the two weeks of crewing RAAM than they knew about themselves beforehand.  I.e. this is an intense and epic experience!  I liken it to a roller coaster ride – there will be incredible highs, but there will also be incredible lows, and you’re going to swing back and forth between these states throughout the race, covering every state in between.

Talk in depth with potential crew to get a sense of their personality and what they hope to get out of the experience, as well as finding out what their skills, strengths, and weaknesses are.  Provide them with resources to learn more about what they’re being asked to do (for example Dex Tooke’s book “Unfinished Business”), and have them talk to others who have crewed at a similar race.

Knowledge is power – and it works both ways.  Potential crew need to understand what they’re signing up for so that they can decide if this is something they truly want to do, and you as a racer need to determine if the potential crew member would mesh well with the team that you’re assembling and bring a complementary set of skills.  If someone isn’t a good fit, it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re a bad person – but it is better to make this determination during the crew selection phase rather than find out half way through your race!

As a racer also be sure to set clear expectations as to what, if any, financial obligation the crew is expected to be responsible for.  Ideally you will cover transportation to/from the race and all expenses for the duration of the race (meals, accommodation, etc.).  Some racers may not be able to afford to pay for transportation to/from the race, in which case they should make this very clear from the onset when asking people to crew for them.  Some crew may be willing and happy to pay for their own transportation in cases like that, but transparency and honesty is critical.  Communicate to your potential crew what will be covered financially, and what, if anything, won’t.

Set expectations for how expenses will be dealt with during the race (things like fuel for the crew vehicles, meals for crew, hotels, supplies needed by the racer, etc.).  If you expect crew to pay for any of these expenses themselves during the race but you plan to reimburse them afterwards, then make this clear in advance.  I always have multiple credit cards available to my crew while I race (at least one in each vehicle), as well as cash in each vehicle.  I also set the expectation that if crew have to purchase anything out of their own pockets that they simply get the receipt, write their name on it, and put it in the designated envelope (I have one in each vehicle) and then after the race I will go through the receipts and reimburse everyone.  Not everyone has credit cards or has the ability to float large expenses for any length of time, so crew need to know going in what to expect so that they can be prepared and not be caught off guard.

Set guidelines on what expenses are considered reasonable – for example give a daily per diem guideline for food and personal expenses.  For expenses during the race like fuel and hotels keep in mind that the crew needs to have the freedom to purchase whatever is most convenient.  If crew are using hotels for sleep during a race like RAAM, then certainly you can advise that they not choose the $200/night hotel if a block away there’s a $60/night option, but recognize that in some areas expenses are going to be higher than in other areas.  The crew needs the freedom to operate efficiently and the peace of mind to know that they will not be saddled with any of the race related expenses.  Don’t budget based on a cheapest cost scenario.

Try to paint a picture as to what conditions crew should expect throughout the experience.  For example, before the race will you be putting them up in a hotel, a shared house, a hostel, the RV?  What about during the race – if it is a multi day race like RAAM, what can they expect their living conditions to be like out on the road?  Will they be sleeping in the RV, a van, a hotel?  Try to paint an accurate picture of what they’ll be experiencing throughout the race.  Life on the road during a race is tough, so do your best to ensure that conditions before and after the race are better.

Similarly, as a potential crew member you need to be honest with your racer and fellow crew members so that their expectations of you are calibrated correctly.  Don’t be embarrassed or scared to share that you can’t change a flat tire, or that you have a medical condition that requires that you have to go to the bathroom frequently, or that you can’t see well enough to drive at night.  These are all very important pieces of information to share, and if known about beforehand they can be addressed and planned for, versus finding out about them mid way through a race and then having them be perceived as a “burden” on the team.  I send crew members a questionnaire that attempts to gather this kind of information in the early planning stages.

As a potential crew member be sure to share what your skills, strengths, and weaknesses are.  Even if you have skills that you might think are irrelevant, share them – especially on longer races such as RAAM there aren’t many skills that are completely irrelevant!  On larger crews that need to be split up into subgroups this allows crew to be grouped in a way that key skill sets are distributed between the groups.  For example you don’t want all of your medical skills in one subgroup, you don’t want a subgroup in which no one knows how to change a flat tire, and you don’t want to assign someone to a role of driving the follow vehicle at night if they have trouble with night vision!

As a potential crew member, if your racer isn’t asking questions about your skills and whatnot, this could be a red flag that things might not be being thought through fully, and you should discuss this with them.

Obtain References

If you’re a racer evaluating the suitability of a crew member, especially someone who you don’t know personally, find out if they have experience crewing for other racers, or being involved in similar scale events.  Try to talk to some people who know the person to get a sense for their personality and how they might stand up to the stress of crewing.  Finding crew, especially for longer races, can be a daunting task, so it can be easy to be swept up in the excitement of finding a volunteer that you find yourself ignoring potential red flags.  Not being suited to being a crew member for an ultra race doesn’t mean someone is a bad person – its just that teams need the right mix of personalities and skills, and a racer who is not taking this into consideration is setting the team up for difficulty.

Prior experience crewing is certainly not a requirement to being a good crew member (some of my best crew members have been rookies!) – but at least try to get a feel for a potential crew member’s personality to determine if they’d mesh well with the team that you’re assembling.  Having a cohesive team makes everything run smoother and makes for a better experience for all involved.

Similarly, as someone who has been asked to crew for a racer, you want to find out about the racer, and probably the crew chief as well.  Try to talk to past crew members if the racer (crew chief) has done other ultra races.  Get a feel for what the racer (crew chief) is like personality wise during a race – someone’s personality during a race can be very different from their personality outside of a race!  Find out how prepared and organized they were, and what they did to prepare their crew.

While speaking to past crew keep an open mind – if they cite problems, make note of these as issues to bring up with the racer (crew chief) to find out how they’re going to improve on them this time around.  The logistics and planning of an ultra are an immense undertaking, and no race is going to be executed “perfectly”, but what is important is that the racer (crew chief) has recognized and learned from those past problem areas and has a plan to mitigate/prevent them this time around.  If the racer (crew chief) isn’t paying attention to things that did and didn’t work well in the past, they’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Ask past crew whether they would crew for that rider (crew chief) again, and why.  Especially for longer races the time commitment alone prohibits many people from being repeat crew.  Others might share that crewing just isn’t something that they want to do again but they’re glad for having had the opportunity.  Others might have serious concerns about a racer’s (crew chief’s) preparedness and the way that they treated their crew.  Try to get a couple of different perspectives – don’t just rely on what one person has to say.  After all, we’re all human, and a stressful environment like an ultra race is bound to lead to some situations where people are rubbed the wrong way.  Ultra racing can bring out the best and the worst in people.  Look for patterns in the feedback though.

Pre Race Planning and Training

Don’t underestimate the difficulty and complexity of the task ahead.  Ultra racing with a crew is an expensive sport, so it is understandable that you want to keep costs to a minimum, but don’t try to cut corners where safety is concerned.  Make sure that you have enough crew members to have a safe race.

It is typical to have 3 crew members for a solo 500 mile race – this allows 2 crew to be awake and 1 to be napping.  While it is certainly possible to have only 2 crew (I have been a member of a 2 person crew), I would highly recommend against it unless both crew members are extremely experienced and you’re a faster racer who won’t be out on the course for the full 48hrs.  For a 3-4day race like Race Across the West I would recommend 6 crew and 2 vehicles.  For a race like RAAM I would recommend a minimum of 9 crew and 3 vehicles.  Obviously it is possible to have fewer crew, and plenty of riders have done so, but again, I feel that this potentially sets you up for a less safe race, especially if a large contingent of your crew are rookies.

Financial issues coming up during a race are an unwanted and unnecessary distraction and burden on the crew.  Make a realistic budget – and then build in a cushion above and beyond that.  Crewed ultra racing is not a cheap endeavor, and just as you shouldn’t sign up for a race if you’re not going to be prepared physically, you shouldn’t sign up for a race if you’re not going to be financially prepared either.  Financing the race is YOUR responsibility as a racer.  There are plenty of self supported and minimalist rides and events out there that you can participate in without accruing these expenses, so if you’re going to do a crewed race make sure that you can afford it.

You’ve got your finances in order and you’ve got your crew lined up – now what do you do?  Well now begins the act of forming a cohesive team out of people who may be geographically dispersed and may have never met each other (if your crew is all local and all knows each other, consider yourself lucky!).  The longer the race, the more planning is involved.  For something like a 500 mile race you can probably get away with mostly email communication, but once you start talking about longer races like RAW or RAAM, having all communication in email can quickly become a nightmare.

I suggest creating an online wiki that you can make available to crew.  I’ve used Google Sites to create such a wiki – you can selectively give permissions to access the site, and its free.  For larger crews I also suggest creating an email group so that everyone can just send email to one address and know that it will reach the entire team.  On your personal race site you can aggregate all important information in a single place, which is much simpler than trying to go through months worth of emails when you’re trying to find a particular piece of information.  I had printouts of almost everything on the site in a binder in each crew vehicle.

On my site for RAAM this year the table of contents was as follows (note that this is just an example – set your site up to best suit your needs and goals):

Bookings
- Annapolis
- Equipment Rentals
- Flights
- Oceanside
- Vehicle Rentals

Contacts
(all crew as well as their emergency contacts, resources outside of the crew, etc.)

Crew Information
(summaries on each crew member including questionnaires that they answered, contact info, transportation details, medical info, dietary restrictions, etc.)

Nutrition Tracking
(details on how nutrition tracking is going to be done during the race)

Official Race Docs
(rules, route sheets, etc.)

Other Resources
(links to things like Dex Tooke’s book “Unfinished Business”, the movie “Bicycle Dreams”, Amy Snyder’s book “Hell On Two Wheels”, past race reports, etc.)

Packing Lists
- Bike Equipment
- Crew Packing List
- Food Supplies
- Medical Supplies
- Rider Clothes
- Vehicle Setup

Race Strategy and Logistics
- Crew Life
- Crew Roles
- Crew Rules and Guidelines
- Example Scenarios
- Race Scenario Instructions
- Rider Strategy and Goals
- Rules Cheat Sheet
- Troubleshooting During The Race

Schedule

While it is important to provide information to crew members, it is also important to get your crew interactively involved in the process early on.  If possible, do in person training sessions, especially if you have rookie crew members.  Practice things like water bottle and food handoffs from the side of the road, handoffs from a moving vehicle (if your race permits this), direct follow, navigation, use of any rider/crew communication systems, etc.

Try to get your crew starting to think like they’ll have to think during the race by providing race scenarios and having them send you their responses.  Aggregate and share the responses with the entire crew.  An example of a scenario would be:“Your rider is in the heat of the day, they’ve fallen behind on their hydration, they haven’t peed for 6 hours, and now they’re refusing to eat or drink due to feeling nauseous – what do you do?” Emphasize that there is no “right” or “wrong” answer, but that these scenarios are intended to be thought provoking.  In the heat of the moment during a race it is likely that crew and rider won’t be thinking clearly, so having had some practice thinking about these kinds of scenarios in advance is a good collaborative exercise.

Crew should know long before they arrive at the start what their duties will be, and how things will be run during the race.  Be sure to provide information on the different roles that different crew members will have during the race (driver, navigator, feeder, etc.), and the protocols/schedules that will be followed.

Emphasize the importance of sticking to schedules.  If a shift change is supposed to happen in 8hrs, then a bit of leeway is acceptable given the complexity of predicting where your racer is going to be in 8hrs.  Showing up 20min late is fine, but showing up 4hrs late is unacceptable.

Try to develop and stick to procedures for common tasks (sleep breaks, bathroom breaks, clothing changes, etc.).  Repeatability leads to efficiency – don’t reinvent the wheel each time you need to do a particular task.  Each crew member should know how these scenarios are going to play out, and what their role in it will be.

Crew should also clearly understand the chain of command and how decision making during the race will work.  When does the crew chief need to be consulted vs when can a decision be made independently?  If you’ve observed unsafe behavior or have other concerns, what’s the process to report this?  If you have ideas to improve something, what’s the process to communicate these ideas?  Communication is vital to good teamwork and leadership, so plan in advance how this will be handled.

As a crew member, if you’re not hearing regularly from your racer or crew chief in the lead up to the race, then this should be a red flag!  You can’t expect to show up to the race, learn everything on the job, and be successful.  Just as the rider needs to train for the race, as a crew member you need to be prepared for what your role will be.

Don’t be lulled into thinking that on a longer race like RAAM where you may have an RV that bringing small children along is a good idea.  An ultra race isn’t your typical road trip, and while it is understandable that you may want to share the experience with your family, an ultra race is not an environment that is safe or practical for very young children.  You’ll be passing through extreme climates, be in remote locations without cell service, be subject to extreme weather, and be stopped on the side of busy roadways.  The crew needs to focus on keeping the rider and crew moving safely and efficiently down the road around the clock.  This alone is a huge undertaking, and one which has inherent dangers even to adults – this isn’t a safe environment for young children!

In addition to not being safe, having small children along is going to be a distraction for your crew and consume valuable resources (time, space, focus, attention).  Even if you have someone dedicated to tending the children, this task isn’t something that can be solely managed by one person around the clock.  Inevitably responsibility is going to fall into the hands of other crew members at various points in time.  By having small children present you’re essentially increasing the size of the crew without increasing its ability to be productive, thus placing more burden and stress on everyone.  No one wants to see your family be in harm’s way.

If you want your family to be involved, have them follow the race separately and safely.  Perhaps fly them into a couple of different locations to cheer along the race course, or on a shorter race have them driven separately to a few points along the race (assuming this is permitted by the race rules).  This will be safer and less stressful for everyone involved.

Vitally important to pre race planning is ensuring that your primary planned methods of payments are going to work, and that you have backup methods of payment available (multiple credit cards, debit cards, cash, etc.).  Credit card companies and banks need to be called in advance and told that there are going to be patterns of spending that will trigger their fraud alert systems.  Call and explain the situation, and make sure that they put a note on your account.  Then just prior to the race call again and confirm that the note is there.  Also ensure that you don’t have any daily limits or anything else that might cause payments to be declined.

Similarly, do your due diligence in terms of understanding liability concerning crew vehicles.  If you’re using your personal vehicle, talk to your insurance agent to find out if other drivers are covered through your insurance or whether they need their own insurance.  If you’re using a rental vehicle make sure you have liability and collision insurance, and understand what needs to be done to allow different crew members to legally drive the vehicle and be covered by insurance.  Also ensure that the vehicle can be taken out of state if your race enters multiple states.

Redundancy is also very important.  A mentor of mine once told me that if it’s worth having one of something for a race, then it’s worth having a spare.  Many things you might be able to find replacements on the road if you’re going through major centers, but particularly for specialty items you should bring your own spares.  Bike parts are the obvious candidates (no, you’re probably not going to find a derailleur hanger for your $8,000 TT bike anywhere near Kim, Colorado!), but consider other equipment and supplies as well.  Look over your equipment and supply lists (hint – you should have these lists!) and identify items that you can’t easily replace on the race course which are fairly critical to completing your race – those items should be candidates for having spares.

Recognize up front that even the best made plans are likely going to go out the window at some point during an ultra race.  The longer the race, the more likely you’re going to find yourself improvising on the road.  But try to anticipate most of what could happen and prepare your crew to deal with such situations.

Race Execution

The biggest challenge for crews during a race is looking after themselves.  You may be scratching your head on this one, but think about it for a moment.  The crew is so focused on the rider and the excitement of the race that it is easy to forget that they need to look after themselves.  I put it to my crew this way – if you’re not looking after yourself, then how are you going to be able to look after me?  It’s like the safety instructions on an airplane – you put the oxygen mask on yourself before you assist others!  On 1 or 2 day events crew can get away with running themselves pretty ragged, but the longer the event the more important it is for crew to be looking after themselves.  Nutrition and hydration are obviously important.  Yes, your rider may be riding through 100degF heat in the desert, but guess what, as a crew member you’re also in that same desert, so YOU need to be hydrating and applying sunscreen too!

Perhaps the biggest danger to any race though is a sleep deprived crew.  Humans just don’t function well in a sleep deprived state – we don’t think clearly, we become more on edge, we start to take things personally and become paranoid, we lose our ability to think critically and evaluate the bigger picture, we become reactive rather than proactive – basically all hell breaks loose!  A sleep deprived crew can ultimately end a race and endanger the rider, crew, and even innocent bystanders in the process.  This is why it is so important to plan things such that crew are getting enough rest.  Bragging that your crew didn’t sleep for 60hrs straight is not something to be proud of – rather it is something to be ashamed of!  Unfortunately from my experience this is also perhaps the most difficult part of the race to plan and execute well.  I’ve done solo RAAM twice now, tried 2 different crew sleep strategies, and I have still not found a crew schedule that has allowed my crew to get what I consider to be adequate rest.

Emphasize to your crew that they need to monitor their own alertness and be responsible for getting rest.  As a crew member when you’re on your designated sleep time you need to be trying to sleep, no excuses!  If you’re too wound up and unable to sleep, then you should at least pretend to sleep.  No joke – lying there doing nothing with your eyes closed is better than being up and about.  I also tell my crew that no one should try to be a hero – if you’re too tired to keep driving, speak up and have someone relieve you for a while.  Also monitor your teammates.  If you notice that Bob is dozing off, point it out and work within your group to relieve Bob of his duties for a while so that he can take a nap.  The safety of the entire team is dependent on everyone self monitoring as well as monitoring each other.  Safety first!

Organization of gear is also very important for a successful race.  If you have all the supplies that you’re going to need but no one knows where anything is or that you even have it, you’re going to be very inefficient and likely end up with a lot of unnecessary purchases during the course of the race.  If you, the racer, are the one who packed everything and knows where everything is, then you need to have a “brain dump” session with your crew before the start of the race.  Each crew member should have a basic idea of where everything is located, and at least one person on each subgroup should have a very thorough understanding of where things are.

Organize all your gear in clearly labeled and easily accessible storage units (we use stacking plastic drawers that are mounted along the inside wall of the follow vehicle).  Having all of your cycling clothes in one big bag is not going to make things easy for your crew – especially when you ask for your favorite pair of pink polka dot socks in the middle of the night!!

Be proactive – have a process in place for taking an inventory of key supplies at various points during the race so that you can restock as needed.  Keeping the crew vehicles clean and organized is also vital to maintaining efficiency as the race proceeds.  Emphasize that if something is taken from its designated place that it needs to be returned to that place as soon as it has been used.  It may sound OCD, but when it’s the middle of the night and you’re sleep deprived, you’ll be appreciative that when your rider asks for animal crackers that they’re in the drawer labeled animal crackers and not in the sock drawer!

Even if you’ve planned and prepared for every scenario under the sun, remember that we are all human – mistakes will be made.  Someone’s going to forget to charge the battery on your light (but of course you do have a backup, right?), or make a mistake while navigating, or forget to buy that chocolate covered bacon jerky that you so badly wanted from the last town, or order your sandwich with no pickles and extra mayo instead of extra pickles and no mayo.  These are all examples of the kinds of things that seem minor as you read about them outside of the context of a race, but they can all be blown out of proportion when experienced in the pressure cooker environment of the race itself.

Tearing someone down for making a simple mistake is NOT going to help matters.  It’s NOT a sign of a good leader and it certainly isn’t good sportsmanship.  Once a mistake has been made, it can’t be undone.  You can either get on with correcting it and move on, or you can waste precious time and energy making a big deal out of it – I recommend the former!  This applies equally to crew and racer – treat each other with respect and work together to overcome obstacles.  The team dynamics on an ultra race can very easily turn into “Lord of the Flies” or “Survivor” with all kinds of power games and unpleasantries, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Instead think of something like the movie “Apollo 13″ – mistakes were made, but everyone came together to work hard to find a solution.  This is the essence of teamwork, and it is a beautiful thing when it happens!

Dealing with Conflict

Hopefully you don’t have to deal with much conflict during a race, but inevitably there will be some form of conflict – whether it’s frustrated locals who don’t understand why you’re driving behind a cyclist at 12mph when they’re trying to get to Bingo early and get a good seat, whether it’s that Sue and John on the crew just don’t get along, or whether it’s that your cyclist is so tired that they’re being ornery and have staged a “sit-in” on the Ohio roadside (yes, that would be yours truly!).  But conflict, like every other aspect of an ultra, can be thought about in advance and strategies put in place for dealing with it.  This is where leadership on the crew becomes super important – managing crew dynamics and making adjustments in order to keep conflict to a minimum.

Know and understand going into an ultra race (as crew or rider) that the environment that you’re going to be in is not a “normal” working environment.  Stress, fatigue, weather, the annoying song that your rider insists on listening to over and over again, sleep deprivation, not having showered in 3 days – all of these things compound to make for a potentially very explosive situation.  Crewing is not a 9-5 job – it is a 24-7 pressure cooker!  If you ever find yourself about to “blow”, try to take a deep breath, count to 10, and remind yourself that this is not a normal environment, and that “this too shall pass” (a mantra that is great for the rider too!).

Try to be more forgiving – of your fellow crew, of your rider, of the locals, even of yourself!  Remember that this is a temporary situation, and that you’re all working together and that each person is doing their best.  Very rarely will you have a crew member who is intentionally trying to sabotage the team – even if it really may feel like that in the moment!  That other person is probably just doing what they feel is best, just as you are.  No race is worth ruining friendships or potential friendships over – act accordingly!

If there is conflict going on within the crew, then certainly try to keep this from the rider as it is an unnecessary distraction.  I’ve had races where I thought everything was going smoothly with all the crew members, but after the fact found out that certain crew members really weren’t getting along.  The fact that I didn’t know this was going on during the race is a testament to the crew’s professionalism and their ability to keep this out of the spotlight so that it wasn’t a distraction for me.

As a rider, try to prepare yourself mentally going into the race and know that you’re going to be tested to your extreme.  Know that your personality is possibly going to change when you’re experiencing extreme stress, fatigue, and sleep deprivation.  Try to warn your crew that this may happen (and apologize in advance!) so that if it does it’s not a complete shock and they’re hopefully able to deal with it better.  For me, extreme sleep deprivation leads to paranoia, which has lead to some “interesting” situations during races – situations that I’m certainly not proud of!  When I experienced this paranoia during my first RAAM I wasn’t prepared for it, so I wasn’t able to recognize what was happening and the results were pretty horrible.  When I returned to RAAM again I was mentally prepared for this to happen, so while I still had a few “moments”, I was able to more quickly recognize what was happening and change my behavior accordingly.

Whether you’re crew or rider, if you have a moment where you know you stepped out of line, clear the air as soon as possible and apologize to the other person.  Doing so helps both you and the person you’re apologizing too.  I find that if I don’t apologize then it starts to gnaw at me and adds extra stress, as I’m sure it does to the other person as well.  When I apologize though it is like a weight is lifted off my shoulders and I am able to resume focus on the job at hand.  The corollary of this is obviously to be forgiving – accept the apology and move on, don’t dwell on things or hold a grudge.

Where possible try to keep things light hearted and see the humor in things.  Sometimes it is really hard to see the humor in the moment, but afterwards you’ll look back and it will be something that you can all have a good laugh about.  One particular story comes to mind in this vein.  Approximately 680 miles into Race Across the West a crew member really wanted to get a change of clothes from her personal bag which had ended up on the roof of the follow vehicle (tip – don’t keep crew belongings in/on the follow vehicle if you have more than one vehicle!).  The thought of changing into clean clothes after being on the road for over 2 days was something that would provide a huge sense of comfort to this crew member who had been working selflessly in the extremely hot and dusty desert.  The crew chief was completely focused on the race and did not want to have the vehicle stopped any longer than necessary.  When the crew member asked to get her belongings while the follow vehicle was stopped refueling the crew chief snapped “You don’t need no stinkin’ underwear!”.  The quick witted crew member responded “You’re right – I already have that!”.  The crew chief burst out laughing, and a moment that could have easily escalated was instead defused, and to this day is a memory that both parties will recall and laugh about.  And yes, the crew member did in fact get her clean underwear and no time was lost.  This also illustrates that during an ultra race it can be the small things that can make such a huge difference for crew.  Keep in mind that while the energy and focus is on the rider, do what you can to make the situation even just a little more comfortable for the crew.  They’re working their tails off out there, so be appreciative!

Try to make a pact between all team members before the race that whatever happens during the race you will all at least be civil to each other after the race.  Hopefully as crew or rider you will bond with most of your team (and these bonds can be very deep and last a lifetime), but don’t be surprised if there are some team members whom you may not want to interact with again – at least not for a while.  This is ok – respect each other’s personal space, but again, try to be forgiving, and stay civil.  Recognize that you’re now outside of the confines of the race and back to “normal” life.  Leave any petty squabbles behind, take the high road, and focus on the positives.

Gather Feedback

The only way to learn from our mistakes is to recognize them and understand them.  Conduct a post-mortem after the race to learn from the experience, especially if you plan to race again.  After a race I will send out a questionnaire to crew members to try and gather their feedback.  I ask about all aspects of the race – the pre race planning/communication, race execution, supplies, leadership, teamwork, etc.  I ask what worked and what didn’t in all areas – with regard to managing the rider as well as with regard to managing the crew.  Remember, as a rider you only see a small slice of what is happening during a race, so this feedback can be very enlightening and helpful!  Encourage crew to be honest, be accepting of this feedback, and use it to try and improve your next race experience for all involved.

Conclusion

Following these guidelines is by no means a guarantee that you’re going to have a “perfect” race, or even that you’re going to finish, but you will at least arrive at the start line with a crew who are prepared for the journey ahead.  Rider and crew will still be tested mightily on the race course, but you will be much more prepared to rise and meet those challenges head on.  Your overall race experience will also be much more pleasant, positive, and safer for everyone involved.  Hopefully you’ll all be able to walk away from the race as friends who have great respect for each other and who would work together again, and you’ll have memories and stories that will last a lifetime!

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One Response to Ultra Racing: Setting Your Crew Up For Success

  1. Klaus Dahl Tindborg says:

    Dear Joan,

    I will be the Crew Chief for Team Claus Robl in RAAM 2016 and find your article very interesting and useful – thanks a lot.

    Any chance that you can share relevant parts of your team site, in particular the ones related to equipment and bookings, but really as much as possible, as we are first time participants in the race.

    Thanks in advance for all the information you are willing to share.

    Krgds Klaus (Denmark)

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