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How to crew for an ultrarunner, by a Barkley finisher

Crewing for an ultrarunner is a very specialized task. Here are John Kelly's tips

Barkley Marathons
Gary Robbins in 2017, in camp between loops four and five. Photo: Michael Doyle / Canadian Running Magazine.

When we spoke to Arden Young about her Sinister 7 win last week, she admitted the two friends who crewed for her had little clue what she needed in the very challenging second half of the 100-miler, and could have benefitted from some honest info on the subject.  Beyond the basic logistics of transporting food and drink from checkpoint to checkpoint and knowing what’s allowed by the race, what is crewing for an ultrarunner really all about?

RELATED: Gary Robbins reveals 2018 Barkley Marathons crew shirts

John Kelly agrees that crewing for an ultrarunner is serious business. Kelly successfully finished the Barkley Marathons in 2017, and came back to crew for Canadian ultrarunners Gary Robbins and Jodi Isenor at Barkley this year. (Both were also assisted by their wives, Linda Robbins and Karine Isenor.)


The Barkley is unique in not having multiple aid stations on the course; runners return to camp after each loop, and can only receive crew support in camp between loops.

Here’s what Kelly had to say on the subject of crewing for an ultrarunner:

“This year’s Barkley was definitely my biggest crewing experience. You have to anticipate your runner’s physical needs as well as their mental needs. Knowing what the runner needs may not be the same as what the runner thinks they need.”

Barkley Marathons
John Kelly between loops in 2017. Photo: Michael Doyle / Canadian Running Magazine.

Kelly goes on: “My wife and my dad crewed for me at my first Barkley, and, no fault of theirs, they had no idea. After Loop 3 I was really low, and they just didn’t have the experience to know how to react. My dad was like, ‘does he need to go to the emergency room?’ and someone else at camp was saying, ‘nah, he just needs some chicken soup.’ Later I had more experience, and had discussions with my crew beforehand about what I would need and what I expected.” 

Get to know your runner and what motivates them

Kelly knows himself well enough to know what he needs his crew to do for him in the difficult moments in the later stages of a race: “What I needed was for them to go into drill sergeant mode, telling me confidently what to eat and drink and then to get back out onto the course. I explained to them that I might hate it at the time, but I would love it later. I needed them to make sure I didn’t quit between loops. They gave me the ‘talking to’ that I needed. With Gary, I made sure I knew what made him tick, so I could try to provide what he needed.”

RELATED: VIDEO: Watch 15th Barkley Marathons finisher John Kelly‚Äôs behind the scenes of the 2018 race

“The year I finished Barkley, I had 100 per cent trust in my crew,” Kelly continues. “They had to look at the weather forecast, my pace, what I’d been eating, and they had to make judgment calls about those things. They were a huge part of my being able to finish that year.”


Have a discussion ahead of time to clarify the runner’s goals and expectations

We asked Kelly how important it was for crew to have ultrarunning experience. This was his response: “Being an ultrarunner with experience racing long distances is certainly helpful if you’re thinking of crewing for someone, but it’s not necessary. If you don’t have that experience, it’s even more important to have that discussion with the runner ahead of time, about their expectations and goals and what they might need when they’re low, or when they’re doing well, and how you should respond.

“You need to know what motivates them, because every runner is different. It’s about understanding what a runner can go through, so you’re not panicking yourself. If they’re late to the checkpoint and they’re behind schedule, you will need a ton of patience. You may be sitting around for hours, and you may or may not have any information about how they’re doing out there. In most cases you won’t have any information.”


Know the warning signs that your runner is in serious trouble

“If things are going badly,” Kelly continues, “it’s doubly important to have had that discussion before the race. Some runners might look like they’re on the verge of collapse, when they’re actually OK and just need some hot soup. There may or may not be medical staff available to help you assess your runner’s condition. Go through the basics of making sure they’re hydrated and have electrolytes, and be aware of the signs of dehydration (and its opposite, hyponatremia). Sore muscles are normal. Bruised or possibly broken or sprained limbs are more of an issue. You need to know what your runner might look like in different states.

“One of the things I said to my crew before my successful Barkley attempt was, under no circumstances should you allow me to quit between loops. If I get into trouble and need to quit, it’s not going to happen when I’m in camp. It will happen out on the course, and I will deal with the inconvenience of getting back to camp in order to quit.”

Barkley Marathons
Gary and Linda Robbins. Photo: Michael Doyle.

What about spouses as crew?

This year, Gary Robbins’s wife Linda, an experienced ultrarunner in her own right, was Kelly’s crew partner in assisting Gary at Barkley. We asked Kelly how he felt about spouses crewing for each other.

“Linda and Gary do great together. For others, there are pros and cons. It depends on the crewing spouse’s level of experience. If they’re not an ultrarunner, it may not be a good idea. On the other hand, no one knows the runner better, or what their preferences are regarding food, hydration, and motivation. A spouse likely knows what drives them, and at what point they should consider throwing in the towel. The only con is if they lack experience.

“Another potential con is that a spouse might be emotional, seeing their partner in rough shape, and they might not be willing to go into drill sergeant mode. Or they might do it and then it becomes an issue in the relationship later.”

What about children? Gary’s preschooler son Reed was in camp with his mom, who had help from Gary’s parents in caring for him when Linda needed to tend to Gary. “I know Gary loved seeing Reed each time he came into camp, that it was hugely motivating for him,” says Kelly. “For others it might be too difficult to have their children see them at a low point, when they’re struggling mentally and physically.”

It underscores the point that everyone is different. Bottom line: get to know your runner, and be prepared for anything.