This weekend, Nige was racing in the Wicklow mountains near Dublin, Ireland so I went across to show my support and try to be the ultimate ‘Ultra WAG.’
I grew up going to races to cheer on my Mum, Dad and local running club members, so its in my blood. Standing on the top of hills clapping as every runner goes past, chanting from pavement sides of big city marathons while scanning the pack for our one club runner in their green and white vest, and holding out handfuls of jelly babies for those needing that extra boost. These are my early memories of race support and now that I race myself, I have a much better understanding of what runners are going through and what they need and want from a supporter.
During shorter races, from parkruns and 10kms to half marathons, simply a shout of encouragement from the sidelines is enough. Big crowds of public support are great, but knowing that a friendly face will be there at the halfway mark or near to the finish line gives that extra push of pace.
For marathons, ultras (anything above marathon distance) and particularly trail ultras with serious hill climb sections, race support changes up a gear and can be invaluable for the runner.
The race in question this weekend was a 50km (31mile) trail race with over 2000m of ascent following the Wicklow Way, a popular hiking route for both local walkers and tourists, with spectacular views of the mountains and Irish sea in the distance. The route was an out-and-back with break stations at 12, 25, 37 and 42km points. I’ve supported Nige in ultra distance races before, but only local ones that I knew the route by heart and could jump in the car to each checkpoint to see him go through. This one, away from home, was a little different, as I had to rely on others to ferry me to checkpoints and run to try and spot him as he went.
So with a little prior experience, here are a few tips of how best to support the ultra runner in your life:
1. Preparation is key, with most of these races using the ‘drop bag’ method allowing runners to hydrate and refuel with their own drinks and snacks at various checkpoints of the race. Get to the race well before the start with your drop bags ready, marked with name, number and checkpoint location, so that they can be taken to the correct place by the organisers. Bags should be easily recognisable as your own, so that when you get to the station you can spot them easily. Supporters can assistant with bag packing, marking and making sure they are ready for them at each checkpoint so that no time is wasted.
2. Let your runner go through their own race preparation. This is very individual and whatever it is that they need to do, give them space and time to do it. This might involve warming up together, taking pre-race selfies or letting them go off to use the toilet for half an hour (TMI?!)
3. Start your watch or a timer when they start running so that you always know their individual time and how close they are keeping to their checkpoint splits.
4. Note down a rough timetable of when your runner will get to each checkpoint. This should be quite easy if you know their average pace and goal of finish time.
5. Let your runner know where you will aim to see them along the route. This gives them motivation and they can look forward to seeing you at different points of the race.
6. Listen to your runner and follow their instructions. If they need encouragement give them that, but if they say they’re in the zone and don’t want to talk, hang back and give them their space. It can be hard thinking your support is not appreciated during a race, but after they finish they’ll thank you and let you know that being there was invaluable to how they performed on the day.
Everything went to plan on Saturday, Nige beat his time from last year by 32 minutes and placed well in the field. I was happy too, balancing race support with a sunny 12 mile run in the mountains.
Next up for Nige is the Highland Fling, a 53 miler taking in part of the West Highland Way in Scotland. Unlike this weekends race, which now seems like a training run in comparison, the Fling has to be run unsupported. This brings about yet another challenge for the Ultra WAG, anxiously sitting back and hoping they make it through the gruelling challenge without your support. I’ll be in London, trying to distract myself knowing that for more than eight hours Nige will be on his feet, clocking up those miles and pushing to beat his time of last year. He’ll do it, obviously, he has to now I’ve written about it! but it doesn’t get any easier looking on from the sidelines, or in this case from further afield.