by Caroline Livesey
Sometimes I wonder if athletes are put off XTRI by the idea of needing a support crew. Maybe they think that they already ask too much of their team, are not quite sure what it involves, and believe they prefer to be self-sufficient.
I want to set the record straight; this aspect is one of the most extraordinary parts of racing XTRI. These races are as much about the supporter as they are about the athlete, and the athlete/support crew shared experience is priceless. XTRI is truly a team event.
If you have only ever supported at a mainstream triathlon, the idea of being a critical part of the race probably seems a little odd. I mean, triathlon is an individual sport, right? The process of getting to the start line is not individual; athletes all have a team around them. But once they head off into the swim, there is not a lot supporters can do other than drink bad coffee and wait anxiously.
It is not so with XTRI. All races are on tough courses that stir feelings of awe and disbelief. Teamwork is vital, and events place tough demands on crews as well as the athletes; don’t expect your average supporter experience.
Courses are usually point-to-point, finishing in a remote location, with very little organisation-supplied aid. Joint athlete/crew planning before the race is essential as there are no hard and fast rules. In some races the crew can support along the bike course, driving all 180 km leapfrogging the athlete and handing out what is needed. They can then assist for the marathon, ready for any eventuality. But courses dictate the character of the support. In other races the athlete must be self-sufficient for sections, usually accompanied by the crew on foot to an exposed mountain finish. Whatever the style and rules of that race, the support crew invariably have a huge responsibility. They must constantly be thinking one step ahead, working out timings, navigating, planning food and drink, noticing how their athlete is feeling, making difficult decisions, and they must know what the rules are for that section of the course. It is relentless, at times frantic, and in my experience of both, as tiring as racing itself.
But with hard work comes reward and the adrenaline fuelled elation of the crewing experience outweighs and outlasts the effort. Your day is not just about handing out water bottles, you only have to listen to any XTRI finisher’s story to know that.
The racing athlete is always in the moment, that is one of the most beautiful things about our sport. XTRI magnifies that. It grabs you round the throat and forces you to breathe the moment as if the next will be your last. The athlete becomes wholly immersed in the physical act of racing, but now that race involves the crew living the experience with them.
As crew you may start the day packing a cool box full of ice and drinks. But imagine now running alongside your athlete at the 35 km point on the marathon, up a steep hill set in breath-taking scenery, just when it all becomes overwhelmingly tough for them. They are moving at a pace which seems slow, grimacing in distress, because it is all they have left. Your gut reaction might be to tell them to stop, but you also know how important it is for them to continue. Any doubt over them finishing cannot be shown, even through body language. You must keep them focussed, distract them from the pain, and offer intimate words of encouragement that resonate deeply. By being there with reassurance and belief, you can be the difference between them finishing or collapsing in defeat. It is rare in life that we get the opportunity to see a character laid bare.
It’s an honour to watch someone digging as deep as they think is possible, and then to see them being spurred on even further by fuel you have provided for their body or mind; that’s an incredibly poignant thing. To witness as they summon strength, to share their victory, and to understand the depth from which the tears come at the finish is truly special.
That is the real power of the support crew, and that shared experience is the heart of extreme triathlon.