How to be the best support crew at an ultra triathlon

A few weeks ago, I took part in a completely different type of endurance event. I didn’t swim, bike or run a single step myself,…

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A few weeks ago, I took part in a completely different type of endurance event. I didn’t swim, bike or run a single step myself, but I helped a friend cross the finish line of an epic event and felt just as proud as if it was my own race. That event was Ultraman UK.

What is Ultraman UK?
If you thought Ironman was the furthest you could go in triathlon, then welcome to the world of Ultraman!

Ultraman UK is considered one of the toughest ultra-distance multi-day events in the world. It’s staged over 3 consecutive days and consists of:
Day 1: 10km swim followed by 145km bike
Day 2: 276km bike
Day 3: 84km run (double marathon)

Set in Snowdonia with over 21,500 feet of ascent, the event is both stunning and brutal.

Unlike regular triathlons, Ultraman is unsupported. There are no aid stations or road signage on the course. Each athlete needs their own personal support crew to help them navigate the course, provide them with nutrition and hydration, and generally encourage them when things get tough. The support crew at Ultraman UK needs to consist of two adults and no more than one vehicle, who accompany the athlete throughout all stages of the course.

Entry to Ultraman UK is by invitation only. When my friend Jon was invited to take part, myself and Glen jumped at the chance to support him. We’ve spent quite a lot of time training and racing in Snowdonia ourselves and we always have the best time. It’s a special part of the world that holds great memories for us, so we couldn’t wait to go back and see a different side to Snowdonia… from the inside of a support crew van!

How to be the best support crew- Ultraman UK

Jon is an amazing endurance athlete and is always up for these epic challenges. He ended up setting new course records for the Day 2 bike and Day 3 run, plus he finished 2nd overall! It was awesome to have played a part in helping him achieve that.

We learned a lot from our three days at Ultraman UK, which I wanted to share just incase you also have a crazy friend who asked you to be support crew!

Choose your support vehicle wisely
We hired a Ford Transit van (which was in bad condition but I won’t go into that now)! Make sure the vehicle is big enough to hold everything you need, but also consider having to drive down narrow country lanes.

Know your athlete’s nutrition and hydration strategy
Jon had a clear plan for what he would eat/drink and when which he briefed us on before each day. It was our job to prepare the drinks and have his food ready to hand over quickly and efficiently. We got into a routine of making up his drinks bottles in advance of each stop and opening the packaging.

Decide when/where to stop
We knew that on the bike course Jon wanted to stop every 30-35 miles and on the run course, it would be every 3 miles. The idea is that the support crew ‘leapfrogs’ the athlete by driving on ahead and waiting in layby until they catch up. We needed to judge the terrain and find somewhere suitable to park, for example there’s no point in waiting on a descent as he wouldn’t want to lose momentum by having to stop. Sometimes the laybys were busy so we had to drive on until we were able to pull in somewhere.

Be organised
When your athlete stops to refuel, there isn’t any time to faff around so you need to be organised. Jon had already sorted everything into plastic boxes in the back of the van, so we knew where everything was. With the movement of the van, things did shift around so we were constantly tidying and rearranging to keep organised. You also need to collect the empty wrappers from your athlete, so have a bin bag handy for any rubbish.

Be prepared to adapt
Despite having a plan, in the later stages of the race, Jon needed us to stop more frequently so we adapted to his needs. Anything can happen during an ultra-endurance event, so be prepared to change your plans.

Know the route
Getting lost as a support crew can be a disaster for the athlete, so it’s important to know where you’ve going! The organisers had prepared road books which detailed every junction with photos of what to look out for, these were really invaluable. We already know parts of Snowdonia well, but there were places new to us so having the directions on the iPad was important.

Work as a team
Glen and I worked well together as a team, which helps as we are married! We had our different roles, he did all the driving while I did the navigating. I usually prepared the drinks, while he got the food ready. I also took photos and updated the 4Performance social media channels throughout the day.

Sacrifice your own training
As support crew, you need to be on hand for your athlete at all times so nipping off to do your own training isn’t really an option. I was able to go for a run while Jon was swimming on Day 1, but otherwise I waited until the evening when he was finished. It wasn’t a problem at all as I really enjoyed watching Jon and all the other athletes competing.

Stay well stocked
Make sure the support vehicle is topped up with fuel, and that you’ve got enough food and water on board. We did start running low on water at one point, so I had to go into the kitchen of a closed-down hotel to fill up a bottle!

Be positive and give encouragement
Your athlete will experience highs and lows during the event. As a support crew, you need to assess how they are feeling and try to remain positive and encouraging at all times. Jon was generally in good spirits throughout the whole event, apart from one section of particularly tough headwind when he seemed a bit despondent. We tried to keep him focused and motivated with positive talk.

Give updates on the positions of other athletes
Maybe not applicable in all cases, but if your athlete is targeting a podium place then they will want updates on the time gap between them and the next athlete. With the help of the Ultraman UK crew, we managed to keep Jon updated on how far in the lead he was. At points the gap started to close, so we had to use some tough love to motivate him to keep pushing on!

Take care of yourself
Crewing is tiring and hard work, so you need to take care of your own needs. Make sure you take the time to recover at the end of each day. Think about what kit you will bring to keep warm and dry. Bring enough food and drink to keep yourself going.

Have fun
Being support crew is a fun and unique way to experience ultra races without having to do any swimming/cycling/running yourself! We had a great time enjoying the Snowdonia scenery, getting to know the other support crews and being inspired by the athletes.

3 comments

  1. What a great read! Wow Jon – an incredible feat honestly! You wondered why your body protested two weeks later in Zofingen after that brute of a race? Athletes need supper crews like you guys otherwise it just would not work!
    Bravo

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