When the race starts, it is down to the racers to cover the course in the least time. Support crews cannot win a race for the racers but they definitely have an impact on how well they do.
A well organised and efficient support crew can make a huge difference to the experience and eventual outcome of a race team
This article provides some insight into the roles and responsibilities of support crews and tips on getting racers through transitions quickly. It shows you how to help the team both before the race, in transitions and after the race without getting in their way and also tells you how to ensure that the team leaves the transition area with everything they need for the stage in front of them, including some words of encouragement.
Key Skills For Support Crewing
Looking after your team is a bit more than just delivering their gear to the right place on time. You may have to perform running repairs to equipment, obtain food and water in remote places, cook and wash up with minimal kit – and even go without sleep for longer than the team itself. In other words, you need to be resilient, have initiative, have amazing endurance, unending patience, and be totally comfortable organising food and kit outdoors in whatever environmental conditions you encounter.
You are likely to have to collect instructions from the race organiser en-route (in other words, be multi-lingual or at the very least, able to extract exact information from hassled people from different cultures in difficult situations). You will also have to be able to assimilate new information in surprising situations and then make decisions independently as to the best course of action to take for your team.
Since the team will be asking for information like their placement, whether or not they are making ground on other teams and how much other teams have already slept etc., you will need to be able to make friends with, and gossip with, other support crews. Hence, being outgoing and easily communicative is key. Those qualities will also help you to find local re-supplies of food, kit and repair items.
Being practical with your hands is important too, since you will very likely have to perform running repairs to team kit as well as team members themselves. Investing in a basic strapping and sports massage course could in fact be useful but equally, so too could a outdoor haute cuisine course, a bike and car maintenance course (particularly ones that teach you how to fix things in the developing world with the minimum of tools) – oh, and a clairvoyance course, since you will have to anticipate your team’s every need!
You will basically become a jack of all trades and, since you will find yourself almost as emotionally, intellectually and physically tested as the racers themselves, you need to have both mental and physical fitness to see you through…
Working through fatigue is as much an issue for the support crew as it is for the racers
Ideally, you should also be able to mark up the race maps for the next stage and be able to identify and concisely communicate any navigational issues with the team navigator when they are in transition. NB: This is a skill very few support crews really have, so don’t worry if this is one area in which you are lacking. However, even if you are not a world class navigator, you can still use your communication skills to collate useful information about immediate exit routes from the transition (often traversing towns is the most difficult navigational issue for the teams) and to gather as much local knowledge about the stage ahead as possible.
Above all else, however, organisational skills are probably the key to successful crewing. In order to be organised, you have to have a fairly good understanding of adventure racing in general, and the logistics of the specific race in question. Although you will be doing far more than managing the smoothness of transitions, your organisation - or lack of it - in this key area is what the team will remember. It is your chance to prove how valuable you are. You will never manage to anticipate their every need, but if you have organised the kit and vehicle well enough, you should be able to put your hand on anything they ask for without causing them any delays.
Whatever the issue at hand, being able to keep a cool head in a crisis and to concentrate on the things that are essential to the race, is crucial. Your character should be resilient, calm and persistent. You need to be good at reading people in general and your team in particular. Learn as much about them as possible before the race and note signs to look out for to assess how they are coping individually and to adjust your support accordingly.
Being totally comfortable with all outdoor skills like campcraft, outdoor cooking, outdoor gear etc will reduce the pressures on you tremendously. However, no matter how brilliant or experienced you are, everyone needs time out to sleep and relax – particularly given the amount of driving you will have to do - and you must be able to decide on appropriate times for that within your schedule and make sure you prioritise that as much as team related tasks. You will not only be of no use to anyone if you are falling asleep on your feet or driving your car off the road, and you could also put yourself in considerable danger.
It is, without doubt, a highly stressful job, but it can also be hugely rewarding and will take you to places you would otherwise never visit.
Stresses Involved in Crewing:
In order to preserve that calm exterior, you will need to be mentally and emotionally prepared to cope with the many stresses that will come your way during crewing. It is by no means an easy job. Another way of wording ‘appearing calm at all times’ is, ‘how to deal with behind the scenes crises without the team having any idea about what is going on’.
One of the most stressful aspects of the job is undoubtedly just getting to the transition area in good time. Some race locations are easy to navigate through but others can be extremely difficult. Good map reading and GPS skills combined with patience between the navigator and driver will see you through. Beware, because the race van in front may or may not be going to the same place, so you can’t just follow. Worst case scenario is that you may break down and have to either negotiate repairs or decide whether or not to hitch to the next transition with crucial kit.
Regardless, it is imperative that you are there before your team and that any rest or organisation stops are taken after you are in place and the basic essentials for the next stage have been set up. Only after that is there time to think about what it would be ‘nice to have’ ready – e.g. a shelter tent / shade tarp etc. There is also a limit to how nice you can be to other teams that are struggling if you haven’t completely sorted out everything for your own team.
When driving, there are times when you will undoubtedly feel pressure to drive a little faster than usual, but at the end of the day, it is better that you get there late than never, so concentrate on being safe. Try to alternate driving whenever there are long easy stretches of road, so that one of you can sleep. Note; your co-driver is less likely to be able to cat nap if they are scared senseless by your driving!
Some races are held in spectacular areas and support cars will be rushing through small villages and isolated communities. It is worth remembering that consent will be required from these communities should a future race wish to pass through the same area. Local wildlife casualties, let alone human casualties, won’t go over very well – neither will crews having epics and needing extrication from narrow roads / out of bounds areas. Hence, know your driving skills and don’t attempt to go into areas that are beyond your ability. It is also considered poor form to crash into another support vehicle!
The support crew needs to remain on good terms throughout the race because they need each other to be effective and to do their best for the racers. However, the highly stressful roles combined with a lack of sleep and personal time mean that personality clashes are not uncommon. Just make sure that differences of opinion are sorted out away from the team and then forgotten whilst the race goes on. A personality clash can cost time in transition and can create problems for the racers if they are distracted from the things they should be concentrating on.
At times, you will need to fit in trips to shops, gas stations or cash points for re-supplies, as well as for ‘treats’ like pizza or fresh fruit. There may also be broken kit to fix or replace. Any of these issues can necessitate contact with people who don’t speak your language and don’t understand your time issues. You will need to keep an eye on the clock and make sure you are back ‘in the race’ before the team notice your missing (even if it means giving up on your mission without accomplishing your goal). You will constantly be balancing priorities and assessing the best places to put actions into effect along the race course.
Possibly the worst stress comes when the team is overdue at a transition, race marshals haven’t seen them at a control and the weather is turning bad. Another stressful scenario is when there is a rift in the team, the toys are out of the pram and there are handbags everywhere. Trying to re-glue this broken pottery takes a lot of diplomacy – particularly when you may be feeling undervalued or under-appreciated and there are motivational issues all round. Whatever happens, you can’t afford to show or bear grudges until the team crosses the finish line. Even then, when the rest of the team crashes, your job is far from done, but it is only then that you can afford to release your tension and to sit down to analyse what went wrong and what could be done better, the next time.
Pre Race Jobs
Before the race starts there are many essential jobs for you, including learning as much as you can about the race ahead, since races vary greatly in format, disciplines, rules etc. Some of this can be gleaned ahead of time from press releases or the website. The rest will have to wait until the racers are issued their race instructions (map points and race book) and you are issued your ‘road book’.
Road books generally contain driving instructions between checkpoints, guesstimates about racing schedules between TAs, details about local amenities and ‘no-go’ driving areas. Whilst the racers are looking over their route and plotting their course on their maps on the eve of the race, you should be going through the road book with a fine toothcomb and highlighting any issues / queries that result.
Your team, if experienced, will have a pretty good idea of how long it will take them to complete each stage, so cross reference between your road book and the spread-sheets they will be compiling to ensure that you have good predicted timings to go by.
You should memorise the race rules as far as possible since you are likely to be asked to regurgitate them by tired confused racers in transitions. You should also make up lists of e.g. compulsory kit that the racers must have with them during each stage, and stick these to side windows / doors of your vehicle.
In your notes, highlight issues like ‘out of bounds areas, dark zones and cut off times’ so that you can remind the team of these key issues at appropriate times. All of these preparations will help when it comes to going through a checklist of points with the team just before they leave the transition. NB: It is worth adding ‘maps’ to your compulsory kit lists for each stage, since new maps can actually be forgotten quite easily! All of these road-book based jobs are generally your last jobs before the race starts, since the route books are rarely issued until last minute.
Know Your Team
Before this, you will already have done your homework about the likes and dislikes of the team members and you will have gotten to know their individual personalities a little. You will need to have made detailed notes on things like the strength of sports drinks they like (and whether or not they want you to prepare them ahead of time in their spare camelbacks), what kind of food they will want to eat, how much help they will each require with their kit and what are the warning signs to look for when they are struggling. You will probably need to shop for all of the race food (and don’t forget the food for yourself for the duration too!) as well as for extra kit they might decide to buy on location including anything from organisational boxes, to chairs, garden tables, stoves, fuel and after-sun cream!
Food shopping can be fun or a nightmare depending on local supplies and dietary requirements. Stocking up on enough drinking water is often a priority. Remember too to buy additional fuel for the stove as well as for the van whenever you are in gas stations.
This all probably sounds far easier than it can be, if you throw in the language barriers, lack of local knowledge about where to find things, lack of availability of items that the team are counting on being able to source, etc. etc. A good tip is that walkie talkies often come in handy in these situations since time constraints can mean that the crew has to split up to try to find key items. Communication via international phone calls gets expensive!
Each team member will have their own system of sorting their gear and will either use one bag / box or will have a number of different bags they want to work out of. You need to be able to identify the bags so as to be able to place them as requested in an area designated for each person. Have a look at each person’s kit, in particular their bikes. Ensure you know how to adjust or fix them - sometimes you may have to do this just to get the racers to the start line!
An example of a personal kit bag
Some people will ask you to pull things like their climbing kit etc out of their personal bags prior to the relevant sections. Others won’t want you to go into their bags at all. Some teams will keep all of their kayaking, climbing or biking kit together and if this is the case, you will have to make sure you can identify and access these kit bags and set them out at the appropriate times.
General team kit like gels, sports powders, bungee cords, zip ties, duct tape and the first aid kit also needs to be accessible and you will need to know what the team has and how they want it laid out. You are very likely to have team members shouting requests at you for items like scissors, spare batteries etc during the transitions and you need to know where within their bags they have packed all of these items in order to be able to put your hands on them quickly.
Strengthening Your Organisational Skills
If you are not really outdoorsy yourself, then building up your knowledge of the disciplines involved will be useful, so that when somebody asks where their ascender is, for instance, you will have an idea what you’re looking for. It will also help you in general organisation of their kit.
With all the kit involved, (don’t forget the bikes, kayaks, ice axes etc etc), it is sometimes hard going fitting it all into the race vehicle. This challenge lies squarely in your hand. Keeping the van reasonably organised through the race will be easier if you agree beforehand what the team are responsible for and what kit you are expected to look after for them.
You have a think about how the van can be packed quickly and securely to save time at the transition areas and this should be agreed by each support crew member so that you both know where to find and replace items.
Important Note: Each person in the support crew will have different strengths and weaknesses and will gravitate towards being in charge of different tasks (cooking, bike repair, driving, navigation etc) but you should all be aware of basic organisational logistics as well as being prepared to take on almost any task, given that the best laid plans may very well go wrong.
Getting the team to label every bag they give you (written on duct tape rather than on the bags themselves) is another good tip and then you can easily keep all the sleeping kit in one area, the cooking kit in another etc. Big bike boxes (e.g. those made by www.roofbox.co.uk) can be really handy either as personal kit boxes for team members or as ways of keeping everything in order within or on top of your transport.
Do beware of getting sloppy towards the end since the pressure on the team will be greater the further into the race they are and they won’t appreciate being kept waiting for key items as you scramble around searching for them amidst chaos. They also won’t be very appreciative if they find that their kit bag has fallen off the roof in transit!
The last packing tip is to pay attention to the terrain you are driving through before deciding what to put on your car roof – if, for instance, going through jungle on bad roads, it probably isn’t a good idea to have the bikes on top, even if this creates additional logistical challenges. Of course, if you can somehow secure an enormous race vehicle, then this will facilitate your task greatly!
Establishing Your Transition Area Layout
For most crews with limited space, dealing with wet kit can become a logistical nightmare. Hence, you will need to decide how best to deal with both the kit that people will thrust at you to dry for the next stage and the kit that won’t be needed again during the race. You need to communicate your ideas with the team and get everyone to understand and buy into your organisational systems.
You also need to agree on things like transition area layouts with your team. They may have pretty fixed ideas on what they want and at the end of the day, their requests must take priority over what you may think is the ideal. Keeping the same set up each time will be crucial and the systems will become increasingly slick as you go alone. Standard practise, (as generally discussed here) is to have everyone’s personal kit at four sides of a square, team kit in the centre and specific stage kit (wetsuits etc) in designated areas outside of the square.
An alternative set up is illustrated here, with each person’s kit is still kept separate but laid out logically to ensure that each team member picks up every key item. This system puts less focus on individual bags but is only possible when the crew are very experienced and generally when they have been working with a team for quite a while.
NB: There are pros and cons in each arrangement and the team will no doubt have very definite ideas on what they prefer.
In addition to all of the standard jobs you are responsible for, some teams may expect you to help with their packing, with ironing or sewing on sponsor labels, with checking over and maintaining the bikes post transportation or even logging waypoints into a computer so that they can then be loaded into their GPS.
You are probably also going to be responsible for charging batteries for bikes and head torches and that is a lot harder than it sounds once out in the back of beyond! Making friends with the media team can be useful in this respect, since they are pretty technologically dependent and often have power access figured out.
In short, therefore, time will be at a premium before the race so make sure you have slept well on the plane ride on the way over. Otherwise you won’t be able to hit the ground running and you will be exhausted before the race even starts. Note also that your sleep deprivation will start big time from the night before the race so you will already be down on sleep before the team even crosses the starting line!
Your race jobs will depend on the format and duration of the race. Essentially, you will be the parents of the team, making sure they have everything they need for the stage ahead and coaxing the best performance out of everyone. You will have to look after their kit, to cook and clean for them, to provide them with temporary accommodation during transitions or overnight camps and to tidy up after them when they have set off again.
We have touched on the many things you may have to do en route to each TA already, so here we will concentrate on what you have to do at the TA's themselves.
On arrival at the transition area, look around for a good space in which to set up. If possible, park reasonably close to where the team will come in and leave, or e.g. near to the kayak ‘put in’ to save the team time. Remember too, though, that you have to be able to get out of the area once it fills up with race vehicles so beware of allowing yourself to get hedged in.
Setting up the TA
You will need to sort out the racers’ kit into their specific areas, placing their bags or boxes either on top of, or just to the side of, as big a ground tarp as possible. Racers appreciate being able to walk around barefoot on tarps whilst filling water-bottles / accessing first aid kit, eating etc.
Each team member should have a designated area for their kit –
ideally at each side of a larger tarp than shown here…
If you are experienced, you can get each person’s kit ready for the next section (either in a separate place in terms of bikes, helmets, buoyancy aids etc or just slightly separate from their main kit bags). You will need to check your mandatory check lists to do so, and remember that the very last thing you will have to do before your team leaves will be reading this out to them.
Think about setting up a weather shelter (e.g. an air tarp to cover the ground tarp and kit, attached e.g. from the back of the vehicle to walls or trees) to protect from either sun or rain. Be ready to rush the racer’s kit back into the vehicle if the rain comes on heavily!
First aid kits and other general team kit should be allocated a specific area (e.g. the centre of the tarp) so that each team member can access it easily without having to walk on bare ground (they will have their shoes off to air their feet but won’t want to get them covered in dirt or grit).
Kit dropped at the end of one section (kayak paddles, bikes etc, should be dropped in one area, and kit for the next section kept separate. For biking sections, for instance, keep bikes, lights, helmets and bike gloves in one area and distribute individual bike shoes and bike shorts with personal kit. They will want to put these on before leaving the tarpaulin.
One the basic set up is complete, the food supplies should then be sorted out. If the team have suggested that they may like to eat hot food at this TA, or if they have been out for a long time and you think that hot food might be a good idea, then you will need to decide when is appropriate to cook it. It is more important that it is possible to heat the food up quickly than it is that the pasta is done to perfection. However, preparing food too far ahead of time means that there is an increased chance of it going off, especially in hot conditions. You may end up cooking more than one lot of food and having to throw it away / eat it yourself but whatever you do, don’t feed the team dodgy food.
‘Real food’ like sandwiches, cut up fresh fruit and vegetables etc also go down very well and can provide a good stop gap for when teams arrive at checkpoints and need to wait until the other food is heated through. Tubs of pringles and other salty foods can also provide good snacks. Teams will want easy things to eat so as to be able to stock up as much as possible before leaving. If you have managed to buy treats like pizza which are easy to hold / pack in cling film, they can walk off carrying these and eat them as they go.
Drink is a big thing to sort out and you must constantly remind teams to drink whilst in transitions. If they have been drinking sports drink on the trail, they should re-hydrate with water in the transitions. They may also want sugary or caffeinated drinks like coke or red bull on hand.
Camelbacks to be used in the next stage should either be ready with appropriate sports drink mixes (but be careful it doesn’t ferment if it is hot) or there should be ready mixed 5 litre containers from which the team members can fill their own camelbacks easily and quickly.
At the beginning of the race, racers will be pretty switched on to making sure they eat and drink sufficiently, but as the race progresses, they get increasingly tired and get sores in their mouths etc., you must become increasingly vigilant to ensure that they leave having taken on board everything they need.
Above all else, the food and water preparation must be very clean and hygienic. If you have water free cleansing gels on hand beside the first aid kit then getting the team to clean their hands is one of the first things they can do when entering a transition. Similarly, having washing basins of iodinised water ready for rinsing cuts / soaking battered feet is a good idea but is pretty water intensive unless there are rivers near your base.
Race Kit Organisation
Along with an area for first aid, sports drinks, etc, you will have to designate a system for collecting in wet clothes and for re-distributing the clothes that they want again later in the race. One suggestion is to have two bin liners ready – one for kit that won’t be needed again and one for kit that will. You should dry both bags of clothes (washing them first if possible, since otherwise the van will literally start to stink) but you need to keep them separate when laying them out on the ground or on washing lines or you will get really confused. If the racers have clearly identified their clothes, you can put the dry clothes they have requested back on top of their bags. If not, simply leave them out drying and racers can go and pick them up.
Some racers have little idea of how to look after their kit and you will have to fix all sorts mechanical maladies that they may even have turned up at the race with. This is particularly true when it comes to bikes but you could find yourself fixing literally anything!
Some of the race bikes will need a complete over-haul before the racers set out. It may be down to you to do this but it is definitely worth while since otherwise you may have bigger problems to sort if something breaks en route. We have had everything from broken derailleurs, rims, seat posts, spokes, brakes and hubs, to lost saddles and pedals, and non working shocks during races. If the racers can get to a TA without stopping to fix their bikes, they probably will do, so it will be down to you to fix the problems – as far as you can - before the next bike stage. At the very least, start by cleaning everything, since this in itself will reduce the likelihood of further problems arising.
As night follows day, there will be lights to fit to helmets and bikes, batteries to charge and warmer clothes to put out on transition chairs etc. Be aware also of changing temperatures when it comes to inflation level in kayaks, inner tubes etc. One local support crew in Brazil in 2004, blew Karen Lundgren’s tyres up to 100 psi and then left the bikes out in the sun to wait for her arrival. Not surprisingly, one of the tyres completely exploded before she had scarcely left the TA!
Bike preparation and repair is a never ending job and can continue far into the night
Information To Prepare For The Team
Now that everything is more or less ready for when your team arrives, it is time to take time for yourself to rest, eat and sleep as well as to enjoy the experience. Whilst you go around making new friends, be aware of all the questions the team are likely to ask you when you arrive and try to glean as much information as possible.
In particular, stay aware of the general situation in the race. Write down the time differences between teams (particularly those immediately in front of your team and any who arrived just behind them at the last TA). Be aware of which teams are in good shape and which are having problems. Try to find out all the information you can about the next section from locals. Determine whether or not there are any changes in route, rules, cut offs etc. from the race organisers since this will impact on team strategies. Also find out as much as you can about the weather patterns to come as well as local tidal information where relevant.
Navigation specific information must go to the navigator but the rest can be communicated with whichever team member is ready to leave first, so long as they are sufficiently ‘with it’ to take in what you are saying. Preparing the maps and road books for the next section is crucial since without them the team can go nowhere. If it is a race in which the route is only divulged a few stages at a time, mark up the maps for your team if you can. Even if this is beyond you, you can pass on comments from other support teams to your navigator as they mark them up.
After you have prepared as much as you can, settle down to wait. You could be there for minutes or days…
Action Planning For The Racers' Arrival
You will have a rough idea of when your team is likely to arrive based on their original predictions and the arrival of the teams in front of them. When it is getting close, make sure that you are looking out for your team. When you see them, run to help them carry boats, paddles, bags etc in (if allowed) and to direct them to the van.
Some racers will need more help than others and in very different areas, so knowing the individual strengths and weaknesses and who is likely to need the most help, is important in terms of prioritisation. First of all, make sure they know where to sign in and tehn ask them if they have a plan for this particular transition in terms of how long they want to stay, whether or not they want to eat hot food, sleep, mark maps etc. and then figure out how you can help them to achieve these goals.
Firstly, help them to remove their race bibs (these are often hard to get on and off, particularly over buoyancy aids) and then keep reminding them to eat and drink enough. (NB: When snacking they should be multi-tasking but you can allow them to concentrate on eating alone when you serve up the hot food.) Remind them to air and fix their feet, to wash their hands, fix cuts, clean their teeth and apply new sun cream etc.
Offer massages, first aid, new batteries, body warmth, whatever advice you have picked up and don’t forget the encouraging words. Give them a running break down on time elapsed since they have arrived and remind them to help each other once they are ready.
It is essential that the team has the compulsory kit, map and route book when they set off so just before they leave, make them stop what they are doing and listen to you whilst you run through what they should be carrying.
Finally, as much as you may like your team mates, send them off as fast as possible, because time in transition is wasted race time. Make sure both they and you check out of the transition so that the organisers can keep tabs on where everyone is. You too might need to hurry to get to the next transition in time to put your feet up! (No, um, I meant to set up again). It will often take you half an hour just to pack up and be on your way again. Make sure you have warned the team if you think you may have difficulties getting to the next transition in time!
Post Race Jobs
After cheering your team across the finish line and celebrating your joint success (after all, they couldn’t have done it without you!), you can relax a bit. They will probably be as tired as they’ve ever been and may be carrying injuries, so you might have to get them (plus their kit) back to pre-arranged accommodation (or even hospital) in your now even more over-crowded race vehicle.
They will invariably be starving hungry and thirsty, and in need of warm, clean clothes and a hot shower. Some will want to celebrate to excess, (and this can be fun or a nightmare depending on what others want to do) and others will be so wasted that they cannot even sort through their own kit let alone help with post race team jobs.
Whilst your team are recovering, you can really help in a number of ways. Firstly, make sure you gather together all the kit they scatter about whilst celebrating at the finish line. Then help to collect the kit that was left in gear drop bags and try to distribute to each racer.
If your team has had to borrow kit from other teams to get through pre-race inspections, it will probably be down to you to return it. You may also have equipment to get back to the race organisers (GPS tracker, radios, canoes, flares etc).
Sponsored teams may have some duties to perform for their money and - since you too have probably been given kit to wear, it is only natural that you should help. You could be asked to drive the team to interviews or to act as team photographer as they stage ‘jungle’ or ‘mountain’ shots. Don’t under-estimate how arduous photo-shoots can be but count yourself lucky if you haven’t been asked to add the job of film maker or photographer to all your other jobs during the race itself!
All the race kit will stink, so you might want to find a washing machine pretty quick and then spread it all out to dry! The team will very much appreciate these extra efforts. The van will also stink, so try to find a chance to give it a sweep out and spruce up: you may find those elusive clean socks at the same time!
After the race is the time to finally hose down the bikes and point out defects to the owner. There may be lighting systems, map boards and towing systems to remove. Those things that you couldn’t sort out during the race can be fixed at leisure now and you may even find some local shopping bargains.
You may have to get all the gear tidy again and drive home straight a way (shame). However, most races will have some form of party afterwards and perhaps you can concentrate on getting clean and changed in time for that. Come the evening, it will be time to celebrate, have fun and socialise. If your team has done well, it may not even cost you anything!