As I sit in my car with the seat back, windows down, cool morning back-woods Tennessee breeze blowing through the car and the music cranked, I’m comfortable for the moment. I’m resting with my feet up on the dash and waiting on one of my runners. I’m as relaxed as it gets, I close my eyes and I’m content. I know of several poor sweaty souls who would trade places in a heartbeat right now because many of them are miserable. On the other hand, several of them are just as content and at peace right now as I am but their heart rates are 3x what mine is at the moment. We’ve all come to the southeast hills of Tennessee to find contentment and push the boundaries, to see what we’re made of and to see what we can accomplish. I say “we” since that is normally why I’d be here but I’m here for a different reason today, I’m playing a role that is all new to me. I’m here to water my people, feed them, to tell jokes and smile when needed. Here she comes in my rearview mirror right now. The other two are right behind her, all looking strong. We’re at about mile 11 if my calculations are correct and that’s just the beginning, but a good beginning it is.
Now they’re all taken care of and I can leapfrog on up to the next spot on the course. There’s no real good place to pull over so you just have to find one. Anything goes here, I’ve already watered the lawns of a couple of mansions myself and I’m not even running. I suspect the locals don’t mind though since this has been going on in the first weekend of May in Wartrace, TN, for 38 years now. It may not sound like much of a way to spend a Saturday to you but I’m having a ball. I’ve made new friends already, having met other people out here crewing for their friends and family members. One boy told me he’s out here crewing for his Mom, that this is what she wanted for Mother’s Day, and I assured him it meant more to her than anything he could possibly do. I’m meeting people I’d say are at a professional Crew level, I’m thinking they’ve logged thousands of miles doing this for their loved ones. I’m taking notes from them, they have big plastic bins of honey stingers, moon pies, pretzels, jellybeans, baby wipes, you name it. They have folding tables they whip out before you can bat an eye and a buffet of runner nom-noms appears on demand. Mobile aid at it’s finest. You don’t need a manual to do this, you need to make friends with these people and hang out for 15 minutes and they’ll show you how it’s done. In my first go at this, I have two coolers and a couple of drop bags my runners prepared and while it’s adequate enough for today, I’ve seen the pros and I know what I can do better next time.
I’ve always heard about Strolling Jim and when I ran more roads, it was a goal race of mine. Since becoming a trail runner, the word “roads” makes my toes curl inside my Montrails, and not in the good way. Eww… pavement. So about 2 months ago, I’m sitting at home one night watching Netflix and I get a text from Megan. “What are you dong May 7th?” I know what May 7th is. I have the Ultrasignup calendar memorized. “Not running Strolling Jim!” was my answer, or something pretty close to that. “Would you go with me and crew?” Hey, nobody’s ever entrusted me with that job before……… “YES!” Immediately I was excited. Come to find out, there were probably about 25 people I know running this race. Many had crew already lined up and other friends kind of trickled in with the registrations later into the game. When I found out Carrie and Jay registered, I mentioned that I was going up to crew for Megan and that if I could help them I’d be glad to as well. Luckily for me, all 3 of them are strong, competent, experienced and talented runners who knew what they’d signed up for and were prepared. They are all 3 happy, low maintenance people as well, which made my job easier. If I had a different combination of 3 people to crew, I don’t think it would’ve worked out as successfully as it did. Being a rookie to the crew game, I did not realize that offering to help others could potentially throw a monkey wrench into someone else’s game but in this case, everything worked out beautifully and if anyone suffered because of me trying to do too much, they haven’t told me about it yet. I ran around like a chicken with it’s head cut off but I loved every minute of it and I love these people!
I learned a lot today and I saw a lot today. One thought persisted; I can’t imagine crewing for someone and not having been the runner before. I say that because I think in order to know what to do to help someone, you have to have been in that mindset before. The mindset where you’re hot, tired, oxygen deprived, unable to think clearly and plain ol’ over-it. Runner-brain. Lack of brain. Yet I saw it today, I met a woman who has never been a runner but who has crewed her husband through several dozens of Ultras. She knew exactly what to do for him and how to think for him when he couldn’t. I saw a little girl running with her Mom who was going through a rough patch. I saw a 65+ year old man speed walk his way to a near 7hr finish wearing a Hawaiian Shirt and straw hat. I saw people wearing CAPRI PANTS (it was damn near 90 at one point…. PANTS, people???!!!) and people wearing hydration packs. I saw people running with NO hydration anything and I made them take ice-cold wet paper towels for their heads and I made them drink. I gave Endurolytes to people who looked like they were dying and they’d thank me profusely every time I’d see them. I had many people thank me for being out on the course, which I do to the volunteers at any race I run, but what struck me as funny is that I wasn’t a volunteer and they knew that. It was like they were thanking me, as a runner, on behalf of my runner. I shoved a Gatorade in the hand of an older gentleman without a handheld. DRINK THIS. He looked puzzled and said “I can take this?” I did that to a couple of people and told them to take it, set it on the side of the road and I’ll collect the trash as I come by. After all of this I realized I loved crewing because of what is perhaps a selfish thing, not because I love being thanked but because I love the feeling I get when I make someone happy. This is true for life in general but especially today. I know how grateful I have been to strangers when I’ve been caught running unprepared. I feel like I’m returning the favor, perhaps even paying it forward. It made me so happy to make a stranger’s day. Helping my friends made my day even that much better.
Another selfish reason I love this (true confession time!) is because I really get to watch my friends in action. Sure, I see them when I’m doing the races as well but I’m so into my own zone that I don’t pay attention to theirs and of course when I’m running I don’t see my fast friends. With crewing, I get to see everyone and I get to see them multiple times on the course. I see the good to bad to really terrible low to good back to great process as it occurs. As for Strolling Jim, Megan had a wonderful race and felt great all day which is hard to do in an Ultra. I am very proud of her, to say the least. She started out steady and slowly reeled in dozens of runners in the second half and was strong throughout. I wouldn’t have seen that happen if I’d been running (as I would’ve been about 5 miles behind her, crying as my tears made steam hitting the asphalt) so it was fascinating, in a way, to actually witness the progression over 7.5 hours. I saw a pattern of people in a certain order and every time I’d piggyback between Megan to Carrie and Jay then back to Megan, the order of runners would change as she closed the gap. I was amazed each time I’d come back and forth seeing the number of people she passed and it is something I’ll store in my memory banks and refer back to. It’s nuggets like that I pull out of my brain and think about when I’ve got 7 or 10 hours of running to do. It’s those kinds of things that pull me along so that’s why I call it another selfish reason to love crewing. All of my friends gave me something valuable today, I really didn’t give them anything. I was simply present with Coke and chips and vaseline, and hopefully at the right place and time.
Don’t get me wrong, it takes a lot of energy to run an Ultra. Lots. Lots of time, energy, positive thinking, concentration and… well, balls. To strip it down to it’s most basic, you show up with a plan and run. But to crew an Ultra? Exhausting! And this was only 41.2 miles, I can’t even imagine 100! I guess maybe you have 2 crews for that and they work in shifts. Or do you have one “Ultra” Ultra crew? Today I learned that instead of thinking about just me and what I ate, how much, when, etc., I’d have to think the same about 3 other people, what they ate, who hasn’t eaten in a while, did she get sunscreen?, is his sock problem fixed from an hour ago, will she need more vaseline, if that doesn’t work what do we have on hand that we can we try next? Were they drinking water or Skratch? I had too much going on to be tired or even think about being tired. It really hit me when I got home that evening, so much that my car is still in the driveway this morning. I was too tired to move it to the garage. I didn’t have much to say to my husband when I got home last night because all I could do was replay the day’s images in my head and think about all of the marvelous things that I saw. He knows when I’m quiet I’m either mad or tired and he knew this was a kid-on-Christmas-at-the-end-of-the-day kind of tired. So now he gets to hear all about it tonight now that I’m completely recovered. Who would’ve thought you’d need to recover from crewing?
I’d love the thank Megan for inviting me on this wonderful journey. Thank you Carrie and Jay for the bottle of wine and thank you all for all of the sweet memories from this day. The highlight of my day, other than seeing my friends finish and seeing Megan get sweet redemption from her unsavory previous Strolling Jim experience, was getting to meet Lazarus Lake! I said “dude, you’re like an Ultrarunning celebrity, you know that, right?” He said, “nah, not really, I’m just some guy who lives in the woods” in a true Laz-fashion. Megan & I had our picture taken with him but sadly it didn’t turn out (finger over the camera lens, oh well) and I felt like a stalker asking for a d0-over. I’m pretty sure I’ll see him again though. I can’t wait for my next crewing adventure, whatever that may be. If I don’t get wrangled into running Pinhoti (ya’ll STOP trying!) then I will be there crewing or pacing someone. I’m grateful to have had an open course like Strolling Jim to prepare me for crewing something bigger and more difficult. It was a good first-timer.
As for Strolling Jim, yes it looked every bit as awful as I thought it would. Up until about 10am, I thought, “yea, I could do this, so pretty, this Tennessee countryside. I might do this next year.” Then anything past 10am… awww hell naw. Ya’ll can keep that. Go get some protein by frying eggs on your race course. NEVER happening! But you know what they say, never say never. Which basically means I’ll probably be running Strolling Jim next year. Thanks, Megan. Your fault.