On the weekend of 24/25th May 2015, I stepped over onto the other side for the first time. For the first time, I crewed another runner.
You’re probably wondering why I haven’t before. I have paced runners, swept courses and helped out at events but never have I actually crewed a runner.
This race was a biggy- the GUCR. The Grand Union Canal Race. 145miles of Britain best waterways, travelling by no means as the bird flies, from Birmingham to London.
After 2 years of valiant tries but alas no medals, my runner for the event and good friend Jerry Smallwood (@ultrakent) was standing on the start line, at Gas Street, ready to tackle those 145 miles once again.
I had vowed to crew him last year after his heart breaking DNF due to dehydration and ultimately as a result of having no crew who could have rescued him when his water supplies had run out on what was to be a very hot race year. So that was it, Jerry was having a crew and buddy runner. We were all very excited.
Many an excel spreadsheet, lengthy email of plans and map were created and discussed before the long trek up to Brum on Friday afternoon (of course hitting Friday rush hour). We arrived to find a gathering of excitable runners at the traditional meeting place of the Travel lodge and O’neils bar, bumping into the delightful Paul Ali and Stouty tucking into some monster size burgers ready for the next day.
After final plans and instructions (mine to him, followed by ‘yes mum… Yes mum…. YES MUM!’) we hit the sack and tried to get an early night in this city that doesn’t seem to sleep!
5.30am the next day and a quiet Broad Street becomes littered with colourful Lycra (no, not for dancing!) and heafty drop bags which we a testament to the length of this race. We hung around and tried to stay out of the way feeling a little unsure of what to do.
Normally at this time before a race I would be deep in final preparations both mental and psychological and generally flapping about everything, yet this time I was standing there watching others feeling detached from this, an onlooker. My role now was calming Jerry down, going over last minute bits and generally keeping him positive and relaxed.
Before I knew it they were all lined up on a narrow stretch of the canal path counting down to the off. Sam Robson, another great friend shot off in close second looking like he was sprinting in a park run as a long trail of others followed.
So, my roles as crew-person now commence. They can quite simply be bullet pointed as follows:
•food and water provider
•master of papers and maps
•giver of motivation and assurance
•frantic driver trying to get from check point to check point well in advance of runner
•SATNAV lover (godsend in this sport!)
Jerry and I had decided it would be a real benefit to use a tracker device from iPhone to iPhone (find friends/find iPhone) so we could accurately judge his pace and eta to each check point. This was a brilliant idea and worked perfectly… Up until about 18hrs when both batteries were on less than 5%! Cue panicked searches for shops selling 2 different car phone chargers and then realising we bought the wrong one and having to fit in another emergency purchase mid race.
Another problem with our tactics was the difficulty of accessing the canal at ‘non check pointed’ places. Understandably Jerry was unable to predict his needs and often mid way between our meeting points he needed us… SATNAV, frantic driving and phone tracking later and we were 10 metres from his location yet unable to get to the canal as a thick hedgerow, brick wall or building blocked it. We had to dashing to roads which looked like they joined up on to find out they were dead ends and then miss Jerry as he passes by needing to then go back on ourselves to get ahead of him. It’s at this point I should add, I wasn’t doing the driving, Sam, my followed crew member was. I was just doing the unhelpful screaming ‘YOURE GOING THE WRONG WAY!!!’ Etc etc. We even once drove straight through a show jumping event horses either side… Because ‘that’s where the Tomtom told us to go’ ending up again 20 metres from the check point but alas with 2 locked gates in between (great for a runner, not when you have a car in tow- again all new to me!)
Through the tricky night section I picked up Jerry and buddied up with him to carry him through the hard miles. We talked as the rain pelted down as it had down for the last 20 hours, hard and continuous. Just imagine running for a whole day… In the rain, with pretty much everything you are wearing wet and sodden, most importantly your shoes.
Jerry kept up a rapid pace, walking hard and fast when the tiredness in the legs had kicked in and continued on through into the next day as dawn commenced. We kept him happy thrusting many a pot noodle, Maccy D’s burger and hot chocolate at him whenever we could, timing out purchases correctly so it would be warm but not mouth burningly hot when he arrived. I think I got it down to a fine art (multitasking, I am a woman of course!)
The night was a blur of buddy running and breaks to sleep briefly in my snazzy new bed (aka the backseat of the car) and I welcomed the next day with rebelling hair, enormous bags under my eyes and probably a delightful odour. However, this is nothing compared to the troubles Jerry was experiencing.
After a good 25hrs of flooded canal path, puddles so large they were unavoidable and so muddy your shoes would never be anything other than brown coloured ever again, he began to develop swollen, creased, cracked and intimately incredibly painful feet.
We needed to fix this. One emergency stop later, taping, talc and new shoes seemed to cover up the worst of it but it was pretty dreadful. His feet could only be described as Sam delightfully remarked ‘your feet look like squashed brains’.
Jerry soldiered on, unfortunately with a slowing of pace as the pain took over and the threat of cut off times constantly loomed (made worse by Henk manning them ready to attack 😉 !)
He arrived finally at the 100mile mark a broken man, yet never moaning. We fixed him again and put him out on his way again… His mind set is to be applauded. Never once did he consider quitting because it was tough, wet, or just simply not enjoyable anymore. He didn’t moan about his feet just stated the facts.
But, it simply wasn’t to be, a short while later and the call was made. He knew the reality of the situation and his feet were getting serious- he needed to retire.
What have I learn from this, from being on the other side, as a crew not a runner? Many things, but I now understand the stresses that come along with caring from someone while you watch them destroy their body solely for the purpose of what we ultra runners call ‘fun’. I understand how it’s not so easy as I once thought it could be. The logistics of trying to reliably be whenever your runner needs you in advance of them, with everything they need are mind scrambling. I also now understand how utterly tiring it can be being part of a race without even running! Who’d have thought!!!
If anyone is considering crewing, I urge you to give it a go, you will discover a new found patience for your own crew next time you are the runner.. demanding the most random of requests in the middle of the night!
Well done Jerry, you did us proud.