This is not a how-to. There are a lot of people who have more experience, knowledge, and instructional sense in this particular arena. I’m not one of them. But if you want a glimpse into the potential ups, downs, and sideways of crewing, then by all means cross the yellow caution tape.
Sometimes crewing is about knowing your limits
Getting dropped by your runner sucks and no one wants to be dead weight. I don’t have the stamina to solo crew plus pace anyone at a hundred mile race. Double duty like that was never on the table when I traveled with Alina to the Zion 100 to pace her. But when I found out that Jenni was going to crew Jesse it opened up some possibilities that I might be able to crew a little bit for Alina. Jesse would be running faster than her but since they would run through the three crew accessible aid stations multiple times I hoped to see Alina once or twice (versus none at all) before I started pacing her.
Sometimes crewing takes a village
Jenni was crewing with three of her kids – Enrique (18), Sammy (13) and Jiya (12). They had never been with Jenni when she had crewed Jesse’s prior hundreds and I had never met them. I had actually never crewed with Jenni either. In our one joint effort we had been split into separate teams. But together, Jenni and I could help each other out. It’s not as exhausting if you can share problem solving and morale boosting. And hopefully at the end of the day we would still want to speak to each other.
Sometimes crewing is dealing with the unknown
Nature doesn’t care or work around our timetable. Rain was forecast for the weekend. Knowing how potentially hazardous wet conditions could be to the runners and crews as well as damaging to the environment having all these people tramping around in it, race director Matt Gunn sent out a lengthy email outlining contingency plans for various scenarios that included delays, re-routing, and shortening of the course. How it would all play out was dependent on the rain. After all that, if anyone wanted a deferral to a different event or next year’s Zion, they could take it. Jesse and Alina were still game as well as Bay Area friends John and Chuck. It was even confirmed the day before the start that if the course got shortened it would still keep its Western States qualifier status. Despite all this uncertainty leading up to the race we all showed up at the start line.
Sometimes crewing is about the breakfast
When your runners take off at 6am and you won’t see them for six or seven hours, what are you going to do? If you are staying at the Best Western in La Verkin that means you are going to spend some quality get-to-know-you time in the Waffle Room. We are talking four waffle irons, five flavors of batter, and all the scald-your-tongue-it’s-so-hot coffee you can drink. In. One. Room. All the other typical breakfast fixings were in another room but who cares.
Sometimes crewing is about the ice cream
Who doesn’t want to try some prickly pear ice cream at 10am in the morning? No waffle escaped the Waffle Room unscathed but that was not enough. No, an ultra crew and their children survives on their stomach and that requires the sacrifice of eating ice cream before their first watch. It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it.
Sometimes crewing is about MAD WHEELCHAIR SKILLS (PART 1)
Two of Jenni’s kids, Enrique and Jiya, have spina bifida and are in wheelchairs. Nature doesn’t follow ADA guidelines. There was a short but steep slope down to the Dalton Wash aid station. While Jenni was rolling Jiya down backwards, I was picking my jaw up off the floor as I watched Enrique negotiate it on his own. I hovered nearby but he got to the bottom like a pro. I kidded him that he could go faster if he brought his all-terrain 4WD wheels next time.
Sometimes crewing is about being annoying
Who doesn’t lose their minds when a loved one (or even a vaguely familiar figure in the distance) appears after a long wait? Jenni and the dollar store is a dangerous combination. We had neon colored plastic clappers and air horns. The racket we created when we saw Jesse, John, and Chuck come into Dalton Wash (mile 31) could have woken the dead. Sammy was so excited to see Jesse he bolted across the switchbacks to meet up with the boys and run in with them. “What are you doing?” I shouted to Sammy, “What is he doing?” I looked at Jenni. She shrugged. The look on her face said it all – that’s Sammy being Sammy.
Sometimes while crewing you have to get creative
We didn’t have a cooler. We didn’t want to buy a cooler. But Jesse had a Mountain Dew he might want and it needed to be cold. Solution? Hotel room ice bucket. ‘Cause that’s how we roll.
Sometimes crewing is about mad wheelchair skills (Part 2)
What goes down must go up. That slope Enrique went down? Yeah. All he said afterwards was, “My arms are burning.”
Sometimes while crewing a granola bar just won’t do
It was almost 2pm by the time we left Dalton Wash. What’s a crew to do when you’ve got 3 hungry kids? Drive-thru Little Cesar’s Pizza, chicken wings, and a hotel room picnic.
Sometimes crewing is about the process
When you are 13 and your name is Sammy you have a process for everything – how to make microwaved mac and cheese your own way, how to take over the world one french fry at a time, and how to scare the crew guest with fake tarantulas.
Sometimes crewing puts things in perspective
During our lunch layover at the Best Western I watched Jenni take care of Jiya’s medical needs. I know it’s as routine for them as brushing teeth but it was a completely new and foreign thing to me. I’d seen and helped Jenni haul wheelchairs in and out of the van all day and I know I was only seeing a fraction of the things that she must handle. And handle them she does with humor and grace.
Sometimes crewing is about making a decision
The drive to Grafton (mile 54 and 63) once you got on the dirt road off Hwy 59 turned into an unexpectedly scary experience. I had driven this road last year when it was dry and it was perfectly manageable in a conventional vehicle. With the rain that had started falling on and off in the afternoon and crew traffic the road turned into miles of heavy, sticky, chewed up clay – the kind of stuff you should turn on a pottery wheel, not drive on. We weren’t in a 4WD vehicle and Jenni didn’t have a lot of experience driving a car with clay boots for tires.
Three miles in we got to the turn off for Goosebump aid and a man in a truck warned us about going down to Grafton. He eyed our vehicle and the look he gave us wasn’t exactly confidence inspiring. We decided to keep going to Grafton anyway. The dirt road narrowed at this point and now we were sharing it with runners and parked cars on the shoulder. We’d often find ourselves sliding as Jenni cautiously made her way down.
Another guy stopped us and told us if we wanted any chance of getting out if the rain started again that we would have to continue down the hill to Hwy 9 instead of back to Hwy 59. He was adamant it would be the only way out. But all the information I had about that direction said don’t attempt it without a high clearance 4WD vehicle. He’d already pulled out several stuck cars and warned us to be careful if we continued because there had already been some collisions with parked cars. Good lord.
We carried on and got to Grafton completely stressed out. As Jenni took care of Jesse’s gear I walked around the aid station talking to anyone about what the road was like in the Hwy 9 direction. Everyone I talked to, after looking at our van, said don’t do it. It seemed the smart thing to do was to go back the way we came, that it might be okay as long as it didn’t start raining but if it did start raining again to get the hell out.
We decided then and there to leave Grafton and drive the mile back up the road to the turnoff to Goosebump and set up there. Our runners would pass us at this point anyway, the same as at Grafton, so even if it started raining again we’d be on the flatter, wider road that was free of most of the cross traffic and runners. James, who was Chuck’s pacer, had come out on the drive with us and elected to stay at Grafton.
We ran into Jesse, John, Chuck, and Dani as we were inching our way back up to the turn off. We helped them out and told them to look for us there when they returned from the 9 mile loop through Cemetery. It’s now 8:30pm and everyone’s been at it for 14 and a half hours.
Sometimes crewing is about losing your sh*t
The one mile drive up from Grafton to the Goosebump turnoff was a Disneyland E-ticket ride without the fun. Jenni was white-knuckling the steering wheel and muttering to herself. I was talking her through it as best I could, as if I was pacing her up a climb at an ultra. We were creeping along and the road felt frighteningly narrow with the parked cars, cross traffic, and runners.
“I don’t care if I hit another car but I don’t want to hit a runner.” The distress was clear in Jenni’s voice. We finally got to the turn off and I looked at her as she parked the car on the shoulder. She was nearly in tears.
“It’s okay. You did it. We can stay up here now and wait for them. The kids will be comfortable in the car and even if it starts raining we won’t have to deal with that climb again. It’s wide and flat back to the highway from here. We’re good.”
Sometimes crewing is about helping a brother out
How often does someone knock on your car window in the middle of nowhere asking if you have jumper cables and you end up knowing them? Said window knocker was Hassan, a friend of Jenni’s from the Bay Area. Of course we had jumper cables. This is a Jimenez owned vehicle.
Sometimes crewing is about being utterly ridiculous
We had time to kill. It’s cold, dark, late and to pass the time while we waited for our guys, Jenni and I stood outside draped in glow bracelets, glow necklaces, waving colorful strobe lights, and cheering any runner passing by. Yes, we were having our own mini-rave in the desert. If I saw me I’d think I was hallucinating. Have I mentioned that Jenni needs a dollar store intervention? I dodged a bullet when she forgot to bring the umbrella hats from the hotel room.
Sometimes while crewing you’ve got to pee
When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. Sammy needed to pee. Just pee behind the van we told him. Then I amended that by telling him not to pee so close to the van that someone could step in it if they needed something out of the back. Pee on Laura’s side. No, pee on Jenni’s. Do you need to poop? Don’t poop behind the van. The crew life is so fabulous.
Sometimes while crewing you actually get to crew
Contrary to this blog post it’s why we are out here in the first place. It’s around 11pm and our posse has not come back yet. It’s gotten much colder and we have exhausted ourselves cheering/bothering runners so the car heater is calling to us. I see a runner come into our headlights and recognized her immediately.
“That’s Alina!” I’m so excited to see her. Jenni and I both rush out to her. I finally get to fuss over her like I had fussed over the boys. She wanted some caffeine so we gave her a Mountain Dew. I topped off her water and electrolyte drink. She was feeling tired but focused and moving well. Then she’s off. Like that she’s gone. Next time I should see her is mile 76.
Sometimes while crewing 99 cents saves the day
My hope that the rain would stay away vanished around midnight. It didn’t take long for the soil to turn into an even more slippery mess. We started to see runners slipping and nearly falling in front of our headlights yet they were on a flat road. Two people came over to Jenni’s window and knocked on it.
“Do you have any spare garbage bags?”
“What?” Jenni and I were both confused but then she understood. “No, but I’ve got these.” And she handed them each a 99 cent poncho from Walmart. The gratitude and relief were clear in their voices. “Bless you, bless you.”
When our gang arrived shortly afterward we handed out more ponchos. It was so wet and cold and I had to be careful not to slip and fall as I helped John into one. Everyone but James left wearing a sheet of plastic.
Sometimes crewing is about transformation
The moment our group left we headed out. It was around 12:45am and it had rained for almost an hour. If the ground was awful just trying to moving around on it while helping our runners then the road was worse.
Jenni was so tentative on the drive in but now there was no hesitation as we made our way out. She kept her speed up and discovered that shaking the steering wheel back and forth in small, quick movements seemed to make the ride feel a lot more stable. When we’d approach a particularly heinous section she’d call out a warning, “I’m just going to power through here,” and kept on moving. “Just go with it,” I said, “the worst thing we’ll hit is a fence.” Infinitely better than bumping into a squishy runner. During one particularly long slide I heard giggling from the back and Enrique’s voice.
“That was awesome!”
Sometimes crewing is about the nap
We thought the gang would get to Virgin Desert (mile 76) around 4:30am. We got back to the hotel and I had my first opportunity to get some sleep, all of one glorious hour, before heading back out again. I’ve slept on dirt roads while crewing so an actual bed in an actual room is a luxury. I crammed in one bed with Sammy and Jenni while Enrique and Jiya were on the other. It didn’t take long before we were all down for the count.
Sometimes crewing is about getting THAT phone call
Jenni and I were back on the road, this time without the kids. She wanted them to get some more sleep before bringing them to the finish line to see Jesse. I had changed into my running gear and was ready to pace Alina. The moment I got to Virgin Desert I was going to backtrack to find her and bring her in. Then my phone started ringing. Only one person would be calling me at 3:50am.
“I didn’t make it. I was lost for 45 minutes,” said Alina sounding exhausted.
“Where are you?”
“Somewhere near Grafton. The aid station is gone. I’m here with some volunteers.”
“Can they give you a ride?”
“No, their car is full but they’ve called to get me a ride.”
“They can’t just leave you out there.”
“No, they’re not. They are staying with me until my ride gets here.”
Jenni drove me back to the start to my car so that I could go where needed, once I knew where that might be, to reunite with Alina. Jenni continued on to Virgin Desert.
Sometimes crewing is about doing nothing
I couldn’t go to Grafton to get Alina. The two girls who stayed with her also found themselves stuck in the mud. Attempting to reach her would only put me at risk of getting stranded and then both of us would be stuck out there. In this case the best course of action was inaction so I sat in the parking lot and waited. At 5:45am Alina told me that she was now with Rick, Matt’s course marshal, and he was bringing her in. Hallelujah! She was on the move. I was so relieved. Rick had tried to tow the girls’ car out of the mud as well but couldn’t. Alina was coming in but the girls who’d helped her were still stranded.
Finally, at 6:40am, I got the text that I’d been waiting for, “Here”.
Sometimes crewing is going with the flow
Jenni was keeping me updated about Dani and the boys. They had arrived at Virgin Desert around 5:20am and were getting ready to start the first of three loops that make up that section of the course. Then Matt showed up and announced the early closure of the race. Everyone in the area had to run to the finish where they would get their buckle and an official finish time. Total race mileage of the shortened course for our group was around 84 miles.
Sometimes while crewing there is no finish line
After the initial joy and relief to have Alina with me, the drive back to the hotel was mostly silent. She wasn’t feeling well. She couldn’t make it from the car to the room in one attempt and had to sit down. I took her mud-caked shoes that felt like they weighed 20 pounds off her feet. She had twisted her ankle and it was an ordeal getting one of the shoes off. She could barely move and I’d never seen her so done in by a race. Yet it’s amazing how throwing up, Advil, a shower, a bag of ice, and a few hours of sleep will turn the walking dead into a normal human being.
Sometimes while crewing there is one
While Jesse was making his way to the finish line, Jenni went back to their hotel to get the kids. With wheelchairs it would have been too difficult to get near the finish arch, which was in a camp site with sloppy mud everywhere, so Jenni and the kids watched Jesse from the van on a paved road that overlooked the area. The gang that had stayed together for most of the race, crossed the finish line together as well.
And sometimes, if you are very, very lucky, crewing is about love
After Alina and I woke up and had lunch we headed out to get her drop bags then meet up with Jenni to get my gear I had left in their hotel room. Alina reminded me to make sure that the race knew she had dropped and it’s a good thing I checked in with the timing table because she was still listed as active. Never assume. We sat in the lobby of the Best Western for hours. First with Jenni and Sammy. Then Enrique and Jiya joined us. Eventually Jesse when he woke up. Dani came by to pick up her drop bags. The kids could have been upstairs watching TV or playing video games but they were with us listening to our war stories. Then we all went out for dinner. Enrique entertained us with card tricks and I may have scored a date with a 13-year-old to go tarantula hunting on Mt. Diablo. For Jenni and me, this was our finish line.