Ultramarathon and beginner are two things that you may not think go together. While beginner runners certainly can’t stick with someone for 50 miles (the maximum length you can be a pacer runner at Leadville), there is absolutely a place for us at one of the most iconic trail races in the world.
Even if you aren’t a beginner runner, if you haven’t been part of an ultramarathon before, or if you’ve never been to Leadville, there can be a steep learning curve.
What does it mean to crew?
First, let’s all get on the same page. Running an ultra marathon is a really difficult thing to take on, so most races recommend you have a crew to support you along the way. The person or people who make up the crew meet their runner at some or all of the aid stations along the way.
Your runner wants to spend as little time at the aid station as possible so they can get back on the course and finish the dang thing. The crew arrives at each aid station well ahead of their runner with a bin of supplies you’ve organized with them ahead of time and/or the drop bag they packed for that aid station. The aid stations at Outward Bound, Twin Lakes, and Winfield let the crew pick up a runner’s drop bag, which is a handy time-saver.
Once you get to the aid station, you set up shop and wait for your runner to arrive. Once they get in, you leap into action like a NASCAR pit crew and get them in and out as efficiently as possible.
You make sure their pack is full of all the food and water they need, that they have appropriate clothing for the next leg (in Leadville, runners have a river crossing, 15,000+ feet of elevation change, and very chilly nights, so this is a must!).
The crew is critical because you need at least one person who is reasonably well-rested, not worried about running, and whose sole focus is “do we have everything we need?” This only gets more important as the race goes on and the runner’s cognitive abilities and general executive decision making get more and more compromised. You’re their back-up brain! Plus, seeing friends and loved ones at intervals throughout the race is a big morale boost for runners.
What does it mean to be a pacer?
For the last 50 miles of Leadville, runners are allowed to have one person run with them. This is a pacer. You’re there to keep them moving at a steady pace (whether they have a time goal or simply need to finish within the time cut-off) and serve as a kind of on-the-go crew, particularly once nighttime arrives and fatigue sets in!
At Leadville, you’re also allowed to carry the runner’s pack for them, which can be a nice break. But mainly, you’re there make sure they’re eating, drinking, moving, and at least somewhat happy (as happy as you can be trudging through 100 miles). If you have cell service, you can also communicate to the crew what your runner might want at the next aid station.
Pacing is a delicate balance of knowing when to encourage someone, when to give them some tough love, and when to go easy on them. It can be difficult to pace someone you don’t know or if you aren’t familiar with long-distance running yourself, but trust your instincts and discuss with your runner ahead of time what kind of feedback motivates them.
Most sections of the race are at least ten miles, but it’s possible to be a beginner runner and help pace. There’s a four-mile section that is actually incredibly helpful for a runner to have company for because it’s in the middle of the night through a very boring cow field.
If you have a training goal of running a longer leg, get after it! Just remember that this is not at all about you. You run when your runner wants to run, you run at their pace, you walk when they need to walk – your runner comes first. You’re there to support them, not to worry about your own distance or time goals.
This blog focuses on crewing since it’s the more beginner-friendly option.
What do I need to know to crew?
Honestly, it’s not rocket science. You have to be organized and able to follow your runner’s directions. You also need to be flexible, be able to think on your feet, and have a good sense of humor.
You need to take care of yourself (more on that later) but also keep in mind that you’re doing this in service of someone else’s goal, not for yourself. Plans change, things go off the rails, runners forget to tell you things, but at the end of the day it’s a wonderful privilege to be worried about the logistics of an ultramarathon. If that’s the worst thing happening in your life, you’re doing pretty well.
It’s not the end of the world if things go wrong, you just need to problem solve!
What should I do before the race?
Familiarize yourself with the aid stations. The race is one long out and back, so the runners go through every aid station twice. As of 2019, crew and pacers can access the May Queen, Outward Bound, Treeline (unofficial crew access between Outward Bound and Halfpipe), Twin Lakes, and Winfield.
Remember how I said you need to be organized and have a sense of humor? I forked up the directions to the Treeline (unofficial) aid station on our way back from Twin Lakes, and my friend and I ended up driving to Mount Elbert by accident. But fortunately, we had over an hour of cushion, so we still arrived to the actual aid station with plenty of time and didn’t miss our runner. And the drive was really beautiful, to be honest. But also to be honest, I had a brief panic attack when I realized my mistake. Fortunately, my friend just thought it was a funny and interesting side adventure. Fill your crew (and your life) with people like that!
Make a plan. It’s important to sit down with your runner ahead of the race (even if it’s just the night before) and familiarize yourself with what they’re packing in their drop bags or what they would like you to bring to every aid station. That way you’ve discussed everything when they are alert and well-rested (the opposite of what they will be in the middle of the night). For example, my runner really wanted hot soup at a particular point in the night. And, because I forgot to ask where they were ahead of time, I was scrambling to find her caffeine pills when she specifically asked for them at one point.
Know when they’re arriving (approximately). You also need to estimate when they’ll be arriving at each aid station so you can plan accordingly. You want to be ready to see your runner at least 30 minutes before your runner is set to arrive, which means you are physically at the aid station with all of their stuff ready to go. Buffer time is most important for getting to Winfield and Twin Lakes since both of those are kind of a sh*t show to get to. Getting to Winfield in 2019 involved taking a shuttle that took several hours and we had to park almost a mile away from the aid station at Twin Lakes.
I love a good spreadsheet, so I put all of this information in a Google sheet, downloaded the app, and kept it handy throughout the weekend. You can see it here.
Cell service will be spotty. Download the race guide, maps, and directions to all of the aid stations ahead of time. You also won’t be able to communicate with your runner or track exactly where they are, however you can sign up for text alerts for when they go through each aid station. This helps you guess more accurately when they will show up. In the second half of the race, if they have a pacer and you have the pacer’s phone number, you may be able to call or text them to get an update on roughly how far out they are. But keep in mind that the pacer may not be able to regularly check their phone because they’re keeping the runner going!
What should I bring to every aid station?
Pack light and bring a few things for yourself. This might be difficult if your runner is channeling any anxiety into packing ALL THE THINGS, but try to pare down as much as you can. Bring only the essentials for yourself: a camping chair, water, snacks, an extra layer, sunscreen, your wallet, and your phone.
I’ll keep more stuff in the car and rework what I need to bring in my backpack for each aid station. This includes hand sanitizer, bug spray, plenty of snacks, and extra sunscreen along with all of my layers for the weekend. Always make sure to bring a camping chair (the Helinox Chair One has come in SO clutch here because it’s so lightweight, but it can be expensive). You’ll likely also have a bin or some other container of your runner’s stuff to carry.
Every aid station has port-o-potties that the crew can access, but you can’t access the water or other snacks at the aid station. Those are for pacers and runners only, so make sure you stay hydrated throughout the day (10,000 feet of elevation is no joke).
What should I wear?
The temperatures (and weather in general) can vary wildly. You’ll need plenty of warm layers for overnight, but in the daytime, it’s quite hot in the sun (and cold in the shade). I bring a small duffel bag of a bunch of different layers, including:
- Winter-weight running leggings
- Winter coat (doubles as a rain jacket)
- Fleece jacket or pullover
- Light-weight long sleeve shirt
- Baseball hat and sunglasses
My winter coat unzips into two layers. I kept the outer shell with me all day as a windbreaker or raincoat, and swapped out other layers in my backpack as needed.
I wear running shoes all day. It can be nice to change socks halfway through the day as a little pick-me-up, so I usually bring a few pairs. You’ll need warm clothes for the start and for once it gets dark. Make sure to bring your own headlamp and, if you have them, lanterns for your car for crewing in the dark.
What’s it like to crew for Leadville?
You will walk a lot. Every runner has at least one car following them, meaning there are at least 800+ vehicles attempting to meet a runner throughout the day. As people drop out or get cut off, this obviously goes down. Cars also get more spread out throughout the evening as the runners get more spread out, but for the first half of the race, be ready to park far from the aid station and walk there.
In 2019, I walked more than seven miles over the course of the day. I didn’t even go to all the aid stations, and I was actually trying to limit my walking for the day! (I’m preggo and have symphysis pubis disorder).
You’re going to be very tired. It’s a very long weekend emotionally, so even if you’re not running, you’ll be headed to bed at 7 pm on Sunday. You need to make sure you get some sleep before then though. You can’t support your runner well if you’re also completely frazzled.
You can split the day into two semi-reasonable shifts if you skip a few aid stations. You can either have multiple members of your crew to make sure all the aid stations are covered, or discuss with your runner which ones they would be okay with you skipping (particularly if they’ll have a pacer with them).
Most of all, it’s going to be an experience like nothing else. The trail running community is awesome. There is a sense of camaraderie that I haven’t experienced anywhere else, that maybe can only be forged when you’re running 100 miles through the woods (or helping someone do so). Leadville is a world-famous race, but the competition is far from cut throat and everyone is out there to help each other and have as much fun as you can. You’ll be tired, you’ll be inspired, you might cry at the finish line.
It’s a really cool experience that anyone can be a part of – so don’t hesitate to join in if you get the chance!
What does your typical weekend look like?
The race starts at 4 am Saturday, and your runner will finish sometime Sunday.
This was how I did it in 2019 with my husband and our friend (both pacers, but helped me out as crew when they weren’t running). We stayed together all day except when one of them was pacing, so you could cover more aid stations if you split up more then we did. Our runner prioritized nighttime pacing and morale boosts, so as always, talk to your runner about their own preferences.
- We woke up at 3:30 am to go to the start line with our runner. We went immediately back to the house and went back to sleep afterward, so we were back in bed by 4:30 am or so. We skipped Mayqueen because the crew can’t do much for you there. This is a point where you could split up if it was really important to your runner to see someone at every aid station.
- Arrive at Outward Bound to really start the day (8:30 am for my runner). Be prepared to be out until after lunch time. There’s a food truck at Twin Lakes and a general store if you need to buy anything. Both accept credit cards!
- Next you have the option to meet your runner at Treeline, or go straight to Twin Lakes. We went straight to Twin Lakes because we were worried about parking being a nightmare (it was).
- We skipped Winfield because of the shuttle nightmare and because our runner didn’t want a pacer until she came back through Twin Lakes.
~NICE BIG BREAK~
We went home, ate, slept, and got ready for the night shift. This was at approximately 12:30 pm for us. We didn’t need to leave for Twin Lakes until 4:30 pm.
- Arrive back at Twin Lakes. We weren’t going home again until 11 pm or later, so both pacers brought all of their running stuff with them. Your runner’s needs at every aid station vary, but at this point, your runner will be wet and it’ll be dark or getting dark, so a change of clothes and a fresh headlamp is a must for this aid station.
- Meet runner and pacer at Treeline for a quick morale boost. This is usually your biggest break because Twin Lakes and Treeline are about 20 minutes apart driving but takes several hours to run. This is a great time to sleep in your car because you just park right next to the road your runner comes down. Our runner got into Treeline at 10 pm.
- Go directly to Outward Bound, switch pacers, and go home to sleep (this was around 11:30 pm for us). We left Mayqueen to the overnight pacer because we wanted to wake back up at 3:30 am to see our other friend finish. But, we kept our phones on loud in case anything went awry.
- Wake up and meet your runner at the finish line! We did this twice to see both friends. If you only have one runner finishing, you could add on Mayqueen overnight and not feel TOO horrific if you’ve gotten a nap earlier in the day/evening.
Have other Leadville questions? I’m all ears! Drop them in the comments.