Crewing an Ultramarathon at The Bear 100

What? Okay, let me start by breaking down the title of this blog for those of you who, like me a month ago, have little clue what it means. An ultramarathon is any race whose distance is longer than 26.2 miles. To crew one is to be the support team for an athlete competing in the event. The Bear 100 is a specific event that goes from Logan, UT to Fish Haven, ID. So this post will be all about my experiences this past weekend as I supported my brother, an ultramarathoner, in his first attempt at completing a 100-mile course. Prior to this race, the longest he’d finished was a 100K race (62 miles) but he’d been training for months and was ready to give it a go. So how did I get involved? Well, Brother asked if I would come to Utah and be on his crew team with my sister-in-law, Meggan. I was hesitant since I didn’t really know what to expect, but he sent me a few articles to read and ultimately I was up for the adventure and in! I’ll be writing this blog from my perspective throughout the race and weekend, but I’ll be sure to link to Jason and Meggan’s blog posts as well (Jason’s is up here!).

So this past weekend my mom flew to Boulder, CO to watch my nieces while I flew through Vegas to Salt Lake City and then bused up to Logan, UT to meet J and M. We met up on Thursday afternoon and first went to the pre-race meeting where course details and safety procedures were explained. There were 310 registered runners plus their respective crew (anywhere from one to a dozen people) and pacers at the meeting in the park. Wait, what are pacers? They are the other runners who aren’t entered in the race but who are allowed to run with the competitors for any portion of the last 63 miles of the race (in this case). Typically, the pacers are experienced ultramarathoners with knowledge of the course who accompany the athletes through the night and darkness to ensure safety. Brother’s official pacer was Eric, a friend and fellow ultramarathoner from Boulder who has finished The Bear 100 previously (read Eric’s account of the adventure here!). We also knew three other racers and their pacers, which was an added bonus!

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Dropbags organized by aid station

After the meeting, we turned in Jason’s drop bags before heading back to the hotel room. These bags would be taken to specific aid stations throughout the course where J would have access to them. They contained a variety of gels, extra clothes, medical supplies, and hand warmers that Jason had carefully organized in the weeks leading up to the race. Back at the hotel Jason and Meggan rested while I got in a quick workout (80 laps in a 10 meter pool) and showered. Then I grabbed dinner for us and we called it an early(ish) night.

Runners at the start line, Friday at 6am

Runners at the start line, Friday at 6am

Friday morning we were up before five and off to the start. It was non-assuming (re: on a random neighborhood street) and still dark. We later learned that 277 athletes actually started the race and at 6:00am they were off! We wouldn’t set eyes on the runners again until mile marker 19.6, which Jason predicted would be about 4.5 hours later. So Meggan and I went back to the hotel, packed the car, ate breakfast, grabbed a few groceries for ourselves for the next 30 hours, and headed to the aid station. At nine points along the course, crews would be able to see their runners. Jason had written out an estimated arrival time for each station based on a finishing time of 28 hours. His ultimate goal was to be in under 30 hours and the course cut-off was 36 hours. J wanted to average around 15 minute miles and knew that he would walk/hike most uphills and jog/run the downhills. His big goal for the first half, until mile 52 where Eric would join him, was to stay slow to conserve his energy and muscles.

Typical aid station set-up with necessary and emergency supplies.

Typical aid station set-up with necessary and emergency supplies.

Meggan and I got to the first checkpoint about 9:30am in plenty of time to work out our plan. We established that at each stop, we would pick up Jason’s dropbag, lay out the contents, and set out other “emergency” supplies from the car. When he came in, it was our job to assess his health (mental and physical), nutrition, equipment and clothing. Then, much like pit crews in NASCAR, we were supposed to make the necessary exchanges in a timely manner so J could head out as quickly as possible. Meggan and I had decided that I would manage water, nutrition, and basic equipment while she took the lead on health and clothing. This meant that at each aid station I swapped his water bottles out for full ones, collected trash from his pack, added gels as needed, got whatever food he felt like and either fed it to him or stuffed it in his pack for later, and replaced batteries in lights. While I took care of these tasks, Jason could focus on Meggan and her questions about his body, his clothing, and any other concerns that might have come up. This process was repeated at each of the nine aid stations we were able to get to and once Eric joined the race, he was able to relay information to us as well.

J coming into our first aid station

J coming into our first aid station

The biggest question mark throughout the race was when exactly Jason would arrive. We had his outline but a lot can happen in a few hours out on the course. We were relieved when he cruised into our first meeting point a mere 10 minutes after his estimation. After a quick stop, he was off again and we didn’t see him again until mile 30. This was another quick pitstop and was where we met up with Eric. It was HOT and sunny but Jason appeared relaxed and happy, still just off his goal pace. At the third aid station for crews, and mile 36.9, I was slated to run with Jason for a leg. He had decided that it would be nice to have both Meggan and I complete a leg with him before Eric started. Not only would it break up the monotony but it would cut about 15 miles off of Eric’s load.

Crew station #2 at mile 30

Crew station #2 at mile 30

When J came into Right Hand Fork (each aid station had a name), we did our usual pit stop routine and then I headed out with him. Our section was 8.2 miles total, with the first 4.5 gaining 1,000 feet of elevation and the last 3.7 being downhill. We set off at a strong hike and chatted easily as we went. To be honest, I’d been a bit nervous since I haven’t run that long since my marathon in July. And I live at sea level, while we started at 5,600 feet. But I was fine other than some heavy breathing at first. It was still quite warm (we started about 3:25pm) but we got ice water at the top of the climb and some shade on the way down. Most of my section was on gravel ATV tracks and not very technical, which was intentional as I do a lot more road running. I had a great time and we passed quite a few runners before coming into the next aid station at 45.1 miles. Here, Meggan took over pacing J and they hiked a huge, long uphill together while Eric and I got the cars situated.

Running with Brother for a section of the race!

Running with Brother for a section of the race!

By the time they got to the Tony Grove aid station (mile 51.8) it was dark. Meggan and I were happy to be done with our sections and were able to settle into the crew rhythm. For the rest of the race after J and Eric left a station, we would break down our setup, load the car, follow the directions along back-country roads to the next spot, set up, wait, and repeat. Depending on the time and distance between stations, we would cheer on our other friends, try to nap in the car, or just hang out. It helped that with the exception of one or two sections in the early part of the night, Jason was staying consistent with his times. This meant that we could calculate his projected arrival time and be ready without freezing outside in the dark for too long. Oh, I should also mention that sometime between 11:30pm and 4:45am it started to rain. In fact it downpoured where we were trying to sleep in the car. I felt so bad for J and we prepared for a cold, wet, and tired runner to come into Beaver Lodge at mile 75.8. Luckily for him, J had been at a non-crew aid station during much of the rain so he was okay!

Crew discussion between M and E at mile 75.

Crew discussion between M and E at mile 75.

However, during the next 10 mile stretch in the early morning hours Brother and Eric were caught in a second thunderstorm. At Beaver Creek (mile 85.25) we weren’t sure when the boys would get in because Jason’s shin and foot had been bothering him at the previous stop. Couple that with the rain and we knew it could be a while. Since it was raining, Meggan and I stayed in the car and it was my job to watch the hill above for the guys. In my head, I’d last seen them wearing blue and red jackets so that’s what I was looking for. It was the early part of the window we expected them and all of a sudden an orange-jacketed man slammed into the driver’s window. We both screamed bloody murder. Then laughed as we realized it was Eric! J was in a black trash bag to keep dry and Eric had changed into a more waterproof layer as well. So the orange/black duo I’d written off coming down the hill a few minutes before had been them! It was 7:51 am when the guys left this aid station. They were feeling okay and J was motivated to finish the last 15 miles in under four hours and ten minutes to beat his 30-hour goal.

Waiting for the boys in the morning at Beaver Creek.

Waiting for the boys in the morning at Beaver Creek.

This is the point of the race when Meggan and I felt more at ease but also more stress. On the positive side, they had survived the night with any major injury, malfunctions or falls. I was confident that worst-case J could hobble the last 15 miles in 10 hours and finish (YAY!) It was also raining lighter and was getting brighter by the minute. On the not-so-positive side, they were now racing the clock. The course was muddy and mucky and J had been on his feet for 26 hours and counting. We knew that the next (and final) aid station would give us a good idea of whether or not his time goal was going to happen, so we packed up, bounced down our own mud-covered roads, and got set up. We knew that J would need to leave this point no later than 10am to have a chance to break 30 hours. We also knew that he’d want to be in and out extremely quickly.

Mud collecting on our tires as the race wore on.

Mud collecting on our tires as the race wore on.

At 9:36am, they rounded the corner and were MOVING. Our instructions this time were to take everything out of J’s pack that wasn’t essential. I pulled leftover food, gels, jackets, trash bags, etc. out of the bag and they headed off without even sitting. Again, our spirits rose and Meggan and I congratulated each other on completing our crew duties. Then we hopped in the car for our last drive, this time across the border into Idaho and to the finish.

Kari and Chris grabbing food from the last aid station.

Kari and Chris grabbing food from the last aid station.

Here, we stood in the rain and watched other runners come in. The finish was a 100 meter (or so) straight-away with a banner hanging outside the timing tent. We saw one friend, who left the last aid station with J, finish about 11:15am. This was a good sign as he was moving strongly and gave J 45 minutes to get in. Then we cheered on a second friend about 11:30am who told us that Brother wasn’t too far behind her. Finally, about five minutes later, Jason and Eric rounded the corner and we all started cheering. At 11:36, J crossed the finish line, completing his first 100-mile ultramarathon. Meggan, Eric, and I all jogged across the line with him and were all smiles. His official finish time was 29:36:34!!

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Coming into the finish with Meggan and Eric… Go Jason!!

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Finished and happy 🙂

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Eric (pacer), Jason (racer), Kari (r), Kendrick (r), Chris (p), Erin (p), not pictured: Mark (r), Callie (p)

Everyone was tired, especially Jason, so we enjoyed the moment and then shuttled back to the condo for showers, naps, and well-deserved vegging. The rest of the day was spent playing games, eating pizza, and just recovering. Our fourth friend finished a few hours later so the condo had a 100% finish-rate. J ended up 70th out of the 167 runners who completed the course under the 36-hour cutoff, including one who crossed the line at 5:57:26. Yikes! Understandably, we all crashed early Saturday night but not before we dried out and reorganized our gear to prepare for the return to reality. Sunday morning we were up early and Meggan/I switched off driving duty for the 8-hour drive back to Denver. They dropped me at the airport just in time to find out my flight had been delayed. Sweet. I finally walked in the door about 11:30pm Cali time and face-planted. Happy to have been a part of such a phenomenal achievement in Brother’s life but absolutely exhausted and thankful for my bed. Until next time…

Finisher! Check out the elevation map of the course.

Finisher! Check out the elevation map of the course.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. cdan4th
    Sep 30, 2014 @ 20:13:41

    Great write-up. I’m one of Jason’s running buddies and it’s cool to see our sport through outside eyes.

    Like

    Reply

  2. raysoffunshine
    Sep 30, 2014 @ 23:48:41

    Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words 🙂

    Like

    Reply

  3. Eric Lee
    Oct 02, 2014 @ 11:50:16

    Great to meet you and have you along for the ride. 100milers are such unique events, and are only made possible by the support of others. I hope Jason said thank you many many times.

    Like

    Reply

  4. Trackback: Hardrock 100 Ultra-Marathon | Rays of Funshine

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