If you can’t run it, crew it!
Crewing for the 2016 UTMB race was a great experience, yet one that I couldn’t find much information on when Matt was preparing for the race this year. I wanted to share information on how we crewed for Matt, what stations we went to, lessons learned, and our overall experience. Our crew team included myself, Paavo (8.5 months old), our friend Anna, and her boyfriend Alex.
Keep in mind that we were crewing for a person ranked as 125 out of 2300 runners, and he ended up finishing 83rd, so we were crewing fairly far ahead of the pack. Parking and crowded aid stations weren’t as much of an issue for us (yet we still had some). This became apparent to us when we headed back to Chamonix from the last aid station, Vallorcine, and saw TONS of cars headed out the other way towards Champex-Lac, so I can’t attest for what it’s totally like to crew for a middle/back of the packer. But, hopefully this helps someone in planning or just gives you an idea of what it’s like to crew at this race.
Where can you crew?
You can only offer assistance to your runner at 5 locations: Les Contamines (31.2km), Courmayeur (80km), Champex-Lac (125.9km), Trient (142km), and Vallorcine (152.6km).
Another other spots to see the runners?
You could see them in St. Gervais (20.9km), though you risk missing them at Les Contamines (31.2km), and La Fouly (111.9km). We saw Matt at La Fouly, as did a lot of other crew members for their runners, because it’s not far past Champex-Lac (it’s on the same road). We couldn’t do anything other than cheer for Matt, but it was fun seeing him and time easily allowed it. Other friends’ crew went to other locations but we didn’t do the work to figure out where else a road easily intersected the course.
Rules for crewing?
In these 5 locations, there is an aid station tent where only one person can present a ticket for their runner (tickets given out at packet pickup), which is scanned, and the crew can only enter the aid station when the time is 10-15 minutes from the runner’s ETA according to when they left the last aid station. There was often a crew tent, though smaller, where you could hang out while waiting to get into the adjacent aid station tent. This was nice for offering shade and protection from the rain, as it started thunderstorming on us in Vallorcine on Saturday night and I was happy we didn’t have to sit outside.
The assistance zone rule means you can’t have all their stuff set out on a blanket outside of the aid station; you can only give them aid within that aid station and at no other aid stations. Since the race is meant to be self-sufficient with required gear, the race is fairly strict about giving aid. That being said, Matt saw several points where people were giving their runners aid from their parked cars along the course, which is kind of a bummer.
We found that the two early aid stations, Les Contamines and Courmayeur, were strict about not letting crew in until 10 minutes before the ETA. This makes sense because the runners aren’t very spread out yet and it gets busy inside aid stations. The last 3 were less strict and much more relaxed and it was much less stressful than the first two. At the first aid station, they wouldn’t let us in and Matt came in earlier than his ETA, so that was a little stressful having to get all his stuff out in a hurry since they hadn’t let Anna inside yet.
Driving vs. Other options?
The race heavily favors crew members taking the race shuttles that they provide to each of the 5 aid stations, which cost 30 Euros each for an unlimited pass, 20 Euros each for groups of 3 or more. I was in favor of using the shuttles until I learned that they don’t allow kids under 3 on the shuttles because of the possibility for extreme outside conditions and long waiting times, and the lack of a car seat. I get it, but that meant we’d definitely be driving our own car on the course since Paavo wasn’t yet 9 months old and we had a car seat for him. As with most races, driving is always harder in the beginning of the race, when runners are bunched up and therefore so are their crew, and it was made harder since the first two aid stations were in the dark. There were UTMB banners all over the towns that the race ran through, so if you saw those, you knew you were close. Another option to see runners, especially if you’re not the main crew, is to take the train. If you’re staying in the valley you likely got a free transportation pass and that would allow you to see runners in Les Houches, St. Gervais, and Vallorcine. Pretty much the beginning and the end, but hey, it’s an option.
Driving time to aid stations?
Anna and Alex went alone to the first two aid stations, Les Contamines and Courmayeur, because I was on Paavo duty for the night since the race started at 6pm and Paavo’s bedtime was 7pm. After the start of the race, Anna and Alex waited almost an hour before leaving, just to give time for traffic to die down in town, and it took them about an hour to get to Les Contamines and find parking, which ended up being about a mile away from the aid station. Matt hit that aid station at 9:52pm, so plenty of time for them to get there.
After Les Contamines there is a big gap in time and distance, so Anna and Alex drove back to Chamonix, slept for a few hours, then headed to Courmayeur around 5am, taking about 30 minutes to get to Courmayeur, and Matt arrived there at 7:09am. In Matt’s original plan, he was hoping to get there at more like 5am, but with the fantastic runner tracking, Anna was able to sleep a little, see that Matt would be longer than expected, and wait before heading back out.
It took them just 25 minutes to get back to Chamonix, and then we left around 10:30am to get to La Fouly, which took about 90 minutes, maybe a little more, as it was slow going on some windy roads. Matt arrived there at 1:15pm. Working backwards from La Fouly, it took about 45 minutes to get to Champex-Lac, 20 to get to Trient, and then less than 15 minutes to get to Vallorcine, so we had plenty of time before Matt got there (3:30, 6:30 and 8:40pm, respectively). That being said, we weren’t going to risk missing him by heading back to Chamonix in between. From Vallorcine it was about 25 minutes back to Chamonix, but we were driving in foggy, rainy, thunderstorm conditions, so we were taking it pretty slow, especially since it was at night.
Parking? Signage? Directions?
We found that parking was tighter at the first two aid stations, again because the runners weren’t as spread out as they were later in the race. Anna and Alex had to park a mile away from the aid station at Les Contamines and parked a few minutes walk from Courmayeur. Even at Champex-Lac, because it’s a beautiful lake and on a Saturday afternoon when lots of other people are out and about, we parked almost a mile away there. Trient was a little easier, as we found a parking lot with a revolving door of parking spots for crew, and Vallorcine had plenty of spots. Signage wasn’t awesome, nor were any sort of directions from the race, as they don’t want you to drive, but if you have a co-pilot (or two) to help spot the aid stations and parking, and to help with directions on a phone you’ll be fine. We scoped out maps ahead of time so we were familiar with where we were going, just in case we didn’t have much of a signal. Most of the time we had a signal with at least one of our phones. There aren’t that many road options to begin with, and road signs for towns were fairly straightforward, so this part wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.
The runner tracking is amazing for this race. Every single aid station and checkpoint scans in each runner’s bib, and it’s live tracking online, with an ETA for the next aid station arrival. Matt said it was amazing to reach the high point of a climb, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, only to see two people standing there in a tent, ready to scan his tag.
Other than online tracking there is text messaging (not free), Facebook updates (the runner subscribes to have FB post his aid stations for him) and a webcam. It’s pretty amazing and like no other tracking I’ve ever seen at a race.
-Check maps ahead of time so you have a feel for where you’re headed, what the town names are, estimated driving times
-If you have a tendency to get car sick, be aware that a lot of the driving is on sometimes narrow, windy roads, often hairpin turns one after the other, for miles at a time.
-Make sure all the crew members know the rules about the gear requirements, the “assistance zones”, the ticket policy…
-As always, bring crew snacks and drinks, though we were pleasantly surprised to find cooked crew food at the aid stations, both set up by the race and by other local businesses/vendors. Grocery stores like Casino and Super U have pretty much everything you would need, and there is a nice Carrefour and Super U in Les Houches as well.
-Bathrooms were easy to find at each aid station, and luxurious compared to the too-close-to-full-for-comfort porta potties at races in the States.
-I brought an umbrella for shade because it was hot and sunny on Saturday and we spent a lot of time sitting outside (on a blanket, also a good crew kit item)
-The Mont-Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur was 100 Euros round trip, 45 to Italy, and 55 back. Steep! But good to know ahead of time to expect that expense.
-Champex-Lac is a beautiful place to hang out, go swimming, so bring a bathing suit and a picnic perhaps if you think you’ll be hanging out there for a while. We didn’t but we were enviously eyeing everyone else swimming in the lake as we sweat our butts off walking to and from the car.
Not only is this a cool race to crew for because it’s freaking UTMB, but it was also cool to crew for because it was so well organized. I loved the ticket system, the one crew member rule, the online tracking, the huge aid station tents…too often I get annoyed with people setting up elaborate aid stations of their own outside of aid stations, and it becomes a fight for space to crew your runner. This method ensured that there was always room for the runner to sit at a table, that they could always find you because you could only be in that one tent, and that the aid station food/drink was much closer to them (how many of you have set up your aid for your runner past the aid station, only to find they wanted those orange slices 200 meters back, so you’re sprinting back to get them and to fill their bottles with water, not Tailwind?)
While there were stressful moments with the ticket system, parking was often hard to find, and driving can be rough on carsick prone crew members, these are pretty normal stresses for crew. The race thought of so many details not only for runners, but also for crew members, and we had plenty of options to find food and drink all day, and to rest in between aid stations. I’d love for Matt to run this race again, or for us to go back just to crew another runner!