By Karoline Hanks
Being a second to an ultra-runner is a lot like being a nurse I reckon. There is the same degree of selfless devotion, empathetic care, brow-mopping, close engagement with bodily fluids, bottle or drip feeding and general self-sacrifice. The difference is your patient is far from immobile and hopeless. Instead he or she is running an impossibly vast distance over many, many mountain peaks.
You must only ever sign up for this job with an abundance of love in your heart and a generosity of spirit. It’s also worth packing a healthy sense of humour.
Having been on both sides (as runner and second), here are my top (tongue-in-cheek) tips on how to be the very best second to your ultra-running buddy/partner.
1. Embrace the race, settle in for the ride
Your runner will be eating, sleeping, breathing the race for a few days before – and (horrors), a good few days after. Be prepared to share all the love and enthusiasm, and no matter how much you have heard about his/her race nutrition, gear, route choices and hydration strategies….listen. Just listen, nod and agree. Arm yourself with an appropriate array of genuine responses such as “sounds good”; “excellent idea”; “wow, hadn’t thought of that”; “shew, that’ll get you podium for sure”. Etc.
2. Get to know the route well
It really helps to have run the route too. This is not always possible however, given that your runner might decide to do a 100 miler over impenetrable mountain terrain. No matter….get out the maps, and attempt to find the best spots where you can safely take your car and meet your runner.
3. Get comfortable with body fluids
Set aside your squeamish tendencies and embrace sweat. Know that you will get soggy buffs, dripping head torches and smelly socks tossed in your general direction. Get comfortable with having all sorts of things tossed in your general direction. Embrace the sweaty hug – there will be lots of these at the very end.
4. Get used to rejection
You may have baked a special batch of extra calorific, anti-banting brownies, but be prepared to have these summarily rejected – indeed, some runners may even look as though they may vomit at the very suggestion/offer. It’s ok – there are always plenty of spectators and fellow seconds prepared to enjoy your culinary delights with you as you wait together.
5. Don’t put too much effort into the buffet
There is little point in having a tantalizing range of foodstuffs in a bid to surprise and delight your sweaty charge. Establish what they want upfront and keep it simple. Leave the sushi, pulled pork, quinoa power salad and camembert at home…
6. Take nothing personally
Your runner will get delirious and belligerent. It is just what it is. Be prepared for the silent treatment or a curt rebuff. Do not be offended if all you get at the end of your three hour wait and excitement at seeing him arrive at your car is a breathless “I’m fine”. Get as much joy out of the experience of being left clutching two flaccid bottles covered in spit as you watch his retreating rear end…
Do not expect much in the way of cheerful chit chat.
Just put yourself in their Altras/Salomons/New Balances and be as empathetic as you possible can. All day. Just do it.
8. Support, but try not to argue
In the latter stages of the race, your charge will be a little squiff. It’s normal. They will suffer nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and may even pass out altogether. Offer gentle encouragement and life-saving advice, but understand you may be sworn at or even hit. Suggest a short sit down or lie down…..never EVER suggest they stop altogether. That call needs to come from them.
9. Double up as support team
If you are feeling super energetic, double up as the fan club. Write notes in chalk on the road sections, make special signs with encouraging tips like “Keep going!”, “Run Forest Run!”, “You can do it!” and other handy suggestions.
10. Get used to waiting
A no brainer really, but important. Take a good book – lots of good books, your knitting, a few audio CDs, etc. Strike up conversations with fellow seconds and supporters, but understand that the topic of running and runners, times and the weather will be flogged to death. Convincingly butchered infact.
11. If supporting a podium chaser
Should this be the case, understand that they will want to know how far ahead the next runner is, and/or how far behind his or her chasers are. Have these stats at your fingertips…
Should he or she ask how that particular runner is faring, be sure to fib. Liberally. If the runner in question galloped past hours before looking fresh, just fib.
If the runner has been flagging and looked very rough, milk it. MILK IT. Tell your charge they looked like death, were considering pulling out, etc.
12. Be at the finish line
Another no brainer. Be there with bells. And towels, cold drinks, ice, transact patches, whistles, vuvuzelas, more signs and bucket loads of good wishes. Get the sweaty hug out the way and try not to wipe yourself down straight after. Look genuinely interested as they talk breathlessly about the ups and downs of their 9 and a half hour run.
Continue as above for the long car trip home and for the rest of the day. And night.
When home, run a long hot bath, encourage your limping, broken runner to lie in it, make him/her a big cup of tea...
Pour yourself a very big glass of wine and vow to run the race yourself next time.