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Expect the Unexpected: Logistics and Contingency Planning for Your Big Run

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” — Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Logistics: Planning Before the Run

Finding someone to share the adventure

If you’ve got the budget for it (see my post about budgeting for your Big Run), things are a lot more convenient with a crew vehicle. You’ve got a place to store supplies, emotional support, and someone to check on your health when you may be out of it.

Both road angels (friends and strangers who step in at times of need during your Big Run) and an actual crew share common characteristics:

  • They approve of what you’re doing
  • They want to help
  • They’re empathetic
  • They often subjugate a need of theirs to satisfy a need of yours

Solo runners

If you’re running without a crew, it’s up to you to pack everything you’ll need–which can be difficult for long stretches in sparsely populated areas like the American Southwest–plus deal with things like flat tires on your supplies stroller, plus figuring out places to sleep that don’t require extra walking.

  • When it’s strangers, it’s natural and easy to heap on profuse thanks for the completely unexpected help, and there’s the added benefit of the surprise encounter that adds color to the day.
  • When it’s road angels, you’re usually friends or at least acquaintances already, and they’re willing to help you and even accommodate you for a little while…but they’re not going to be with you for the whole trip. They often offer their house as lodging, generally for free; but you can’t complain about the food or the drive time to lodging, and you sometimes have to spend your precious rest hours thanking them for their hospitality, and going out to dinner when you would rather shower or sleep. You’ll also definitely need to collect more than one name and call in a lot of favors.

Runners with a crew

When you have a crew, crew dynamics become critical.

Whoever is crewing you is investing an entire season of their time, during which they’ll do everything but the running, and will get none of the glory at the finish line unless you call them out.

Crew get to see us at our worst: sunbaked, rain-soaked, frozen, tired, injured, grouchy, unhinged, and generally hard to get along with. And yet, they volunteered for it and are most likely doing it out of love or friendship.

One way to keep the dynamics flowing smoothly in your support team is to understand that you are not your run. You’re just the team member who’s doing the running. Yeah, I know that’s “the tough part”, but the run will not happen without all of you.

Most of the time, crews are small: typically a spouse who’s driving the van and doing everything else. During my runs across Iowa, Texas, and the US, this literally all fell in my wife Leslie’s lap. And people would ask me if she got bored waiting for me to catch up with the van.

It’s important to realize that your crew are making the same sacrifices you are, if not more. They are losing the same amount of sleep, sleeping in the same cold tent, eating and cooking the same bland, serviceable meals, helping tell a story to media that focuses not on them but you, and when you get to the finish line, they’ll also be the ones who step into the shadows while everyone fawns over your great accomplishment.

If you’re lucky to have more than one crew member, remember: the more people you have, the more schedules need to be synchronized for waking up, showering, eating, dressing, and the like. Somebody always ends up last in line.

The more sacrifices people make, the more important it becomes to openly value the contributions of your crew. Tell your crew what they mean to you and how much you appreciate them. This is just as important as maintaining your daily mileage or getting enough protein.

The Dalai Lama once said, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

Try it. The good news about compassion is that it won’t take any time off your sleep schedule, it won’t make your muscles feel any worse, and it might actually improve both your day and that of your crew.

Crew responsibilities

You and your team will need to decide:

  • Who obtains the crew vehicle
  • Who drives the crew vehicle
  • Who maintains gear organization and inventory
  • Who maintains supplies organization and inventory
  • Who cooks meals, or whom and in what order
  • Who’s handling liquids and snacks for quick stops
  • Who administers first aid
  • Who is in charge of electronics, including cell chargers, keeping fresh batteries in headlamps and other non-rechargeable equipment, keeping RV batt charged, and making sure you have a good connection to the outside world (non-trivial when you’re in the desert southwest of the US)
  • Who’s the lodging coordinator
  • Who’s doing traditional media outreach (newspaper, radio, TV)
  • Who’s handling fan meetups
  • Who’s handling route updates
  • Who’s in charge of sponsor relationships
  • Who’s handling social media
  • Who gets dibs on limited “perks” like hot showers, early to-bed times, and comfy sleeping spots

You may also want to assign someone NOT with the crew to check in on your progress, especially if you are doing a solo run.

I’ve read stories of USA crossers who complained that no one got their text messages requesting assistance…when they were in the cellular wasteland of southeastern California and Arizona. That wasn’t a crew failure–but it was a failure to anticipate the situation, its consequences, and the necessary changes in plans.

Every one of the responsibilities above comes not only with a cost but the possibility of failure. Whoever is responsible needs to have the authority to raise and resolve issues in a timely fashion, request prioritization of their issue, and potentially call a pause or a halt to the run if a critical item can’t be resolved.

Setting priorities

You should know ahead of time which objectives take priority and which ones must be able to slide.

You also need to decide whose vote matters the most for decisions about tradeoffs: for instance, more miles today at slower speed, or speed over miles? Take a rest day due to back pain or keep pushing to make minimum miles even it means a higher risk of injury? Risk running across the shoulderless Mobile Bay bridge at 3 AM to avoid traffic, or take the longer, safer route through Alabama backroads that dodge the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers?

Marathon swimmer and top-tier athlete Lynne Cox lives by this rule:

Everyone must agree to continue, but anyone can make the call to stop.

That means if your driver says the fuel pump needs to be fixed, you fix the fuel pump and don’t just keep running and hoping the van makes it another 100 miles. It means the person responsible for event safety can call a stop to your crazy bull-headed insistence on running in a hailstorm. And it means that if all is going swimmingly with the crew and you feel severely ill, you all take a break.

All other decisions proceed from that rule.

If that means delays, the people most capable of dealing with them should hop into action, offer the team their best advice on alternatives, and expect a realistic response from everyone else, including you.

Overall time planning

Part of getting the initial logistics straight for your Big Run is understanding the following:

  • Seasons and effect on not just gear choices but expected daily progress
  • Number of days and effect on supply quantity and choices
  • Need for athlete rest and crew resupply days
  • Time taken by interviews and speaking engagements
  • Time taken visiting or staging special photos and video shout-outs for sponsors

Generally, people run faster in cooler temps because it’s easier to bleed heat, but winter also means shorter days and greater attention to illumination, meaning more frequent stops to change or charge batteries.

Also, it’s easy to start by asking a reporter to interview you while running, and end up either interviewing while walking more slowly or actually stopping for them to set up a shoot. Blink and you’ve lost 30 minutes, which for me, at least, is 5% of my day.

Daily time planning

Someone on your team needs to keep an eye on how the little non-running moments get frittered away.

On my first 200-mile run, I planned on 3-minute fuel breaks every 3-5 miles or so, and a 1-hour meal somewhere around lunchtime. Our first meal break ended up taking 90 minutes because we couldn’t figure out where to pull off or how to unfold a sheet of Tyvek so that everyone had a place to sit.

Our fuel breaks ended up taking 5 minutes. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a 200-mile run, 5-mile breaks meant 40 such breaks at 2 minutes longer than planned. That little slip-up cost us 80 minutes–nearly an hour and a half–and part of it was caused by my insistence on not announcing what I wanted to eat until I had actually reached the van. The crew had to dig through supplies to find it and I bone-headedly insisted on eating sitting down instead of walking.

When you’re looking at how you spend your daily time, consider:

  • Drive time to / from lodging (if you’re lucky, zero; otherwise usually 15 minutes.
  • Check-in time (sadly, often 15 minutes)
  • Running pace and hours (running a minute-per-mile faster over 30 miles means finishing half an hour earlier!)
  • Sleep time (I wouldn’t recommend less than 6 hours/day for a transcon)
  • Meal time (In practice, 20 minutes for a cold meal, 30 for hot)
  • Restroom time (figure on one long break per day at 15 minutes/stop)
  • First aid (Not usually an issue, but budget ~15 minutes for foot taping)
  • Shower time (30 minutes)
  • Time to setup gear for next morning (30 minutes)
  • Morning dressing/prep time (Seems to take me around 1 hour)
  • Unplanned time
  • Wiggle time

Not counting unplanned time and wiggle time, a typical 35-mile day looks like:

10 hours of running at 3.5 miles per hour +
15 minutes drive time +
15 minutes lodging entry / setup +
60 mins meal time (30 minutes x 2 meals) +
15 minutes restroom time +
15 minutes first aid time +
30 minutes shower time +
30 minutes gear setup time +
1 hour dressing/morning prep time +
6 hours minimum sleep time =
20 hours

As you can see, that doesn’t leave much time for unplanned events even if you skimp on sleep. Personally, I like to get as much sleep as possible (9 hours, to maximize recovery), so keep your interviews and meet-and-greets short if you can.

Contingency Planning

No matter how hard your try to anticipate, you will run into the unexpected. Whether or not your run stays on schedule will depend both on the unplanned event and how you handle it.

Road closures

Always have in mind an alternate route. It may not be your favorite. It may be longer than you want. But it’s better than being stopped in your tracks.

You can often avoid planned road closures by scouting your route a few weeks in advance of your Big Run.

Sometimes, road closures aren’t planned; for instance, due to flooding, fallen power lines, or the like.

One of the most useful resources I’ve found at providing high-level route alternatives has been the USA Crossers FB group. The group has over 1000 members, many of whom have done diligent research into how to cross the USA by foot. It won’t help you if you’re just trying to get around a traffic accident, but if your one and only way across the Mojave Desert is flooded, they’re a great resource.

East of the Rockies the network of roads is more dense and alternative routes abound. My advice is to play around with variations on your planned route so you can pull them up “fully cooked” in an emergency.

Weather delays

I’ll keep this simple. Don’t run in thunderstorms; it’s extremely dangerous. I did that four times during my solo run of Relay Iowa, which for reasons beyond my knowledge, occurs during what I have nicknamed “Tornado Week” , and I regret it.

The route actually goes past the house from the movie Twister!

It would have been so much easier to plan time to deal with weather.

You shouldn’t be here!

You will lose more time than you gain running on dangerous or illegal roads. I’ve known transconners who were making good time down I-8 through south Texas until the state troopers caught up with them. The lecture from police didn’t cost them much time, but the 100-mile detour did.

Don’t try to sneak through Indian Reservations. I discovered by accident that I had planned my US route through the Gila River Indian Reservation, something which was not met with amusement by tribal police. That cost me an extra day in the hotel scrambling to create a safe alternative route, one that ultimately ended up being 40 miles longer and an extra day on top of the planning day, not to mention having to backtrack to my last “legal” spot on the road.

I ended up losing three days in total, and I obsessed about making up the miles for at least another week after that.

Just plan for your route to be longer than you want, and it will be shorter than your bad luck sticks you with.

Dangerous conditions

Don’t bet your life on saving time running across a 3-mile shoulderless highway bridge at 3 AM or trying to dodge semi trucks in a mountain tunnel.

Part of finishing your run on time is not dying three quarters of the way through it.

Budget time to take a reasonably safe route and plan around it.

Private roads

Don’t just go where Google tells you to. Many roads suggested by Google Maps are either nonexistent or on private property.

Scout in advance and avoid delays by picking legal roads to run on.

Injuries and medical emergencies

If you get hurt, it’s going to cost you time. Depending on how badly hurt you are, that can range from 40 minutes to disinfect and bandage a bad abrasion in a hand, to an hour or two to stitch up a moderately serious gash at a local emergency room or urgent care clinic, to days recovering from a torn ligament, pulled muscle, or broken bone.

Plan to run safely. Include strength work in your training, go more slowly than you’d like, mind the terrain, and watch the road ahead of you closely. It’s easy to get tripped up in wire from a blown retread on the roadside or step on a broken bottle.

Budget time for first aid, and have a concrete plan for how to avoid situations where you’re likelier to get hurt–such as mountain switchbacks, narrow bridges, tunnels, and the like.

Equipment failure

Outside Sonoita, AZ, I tripped and fell for what would be the third time in Arizona alone. I suspected that my first fall south of Tucson had damaged my Garmin InReach, the GPS locator beacon I was using to record the track of my run for any record verification.

The fall near Sonoita was the end of the road for the InReach. Garmin overnighted a replacement to our hotel in Douglas, and we were fortunate that the equipment was waiting there when we arrived.

It was equally possible at the time that we might have to wait for the early delivery from FedEx, which could have cost us 3 or more hours.

And that was only a minor equipment mishap.

Coming through Dallas-Ft. Worth, I had stopped for the night at Keller Springs and the Dallas North Tollway and Leslie had picked me up at the strip mall nearby for the drive to our house 15 miles away. When we got to the house, as she was parking the van, the check engine light came on. That turned into a one-day estimated repair on the fuel pump (Mercedes Metris cargo vans seem to have issues) that later turned into a diagnosis that the fuel pump had actually melted the fuel line coming in from the gas tank, and an announcement that the gas tank needed to be replaced under warranty.

We ended up trying to advance through DFW crewing the run out of our Subaru Impreza, which had none of our supplies or gear except what I had taken off when we got home. Meanwhile, Mercedes was at work replacing both the fuel pump and fuel tank.

Fortunately, because we had the Subaru, we lost only 2 days. But it could have been 4 or more.

Family emergencies

On March 10th, 3 days after his 83rd birthday, while Leslie and I were taking a rest day after reaching the New Mexico border headed out of Pine Springs, TX, we received news that my father had passed away a few hours before.

You can never predict when something like that is going to happen. It’s hard enough dealing with it in the moment.

But you still have to alert anyone you planned to meet that you won’t be there as expected.

Before your Big Run, think a little about how much time it’s going to take you to drop everything and rush to your family’s side, and have a plan in place you can put into action quickly.

Natural disasters

Whether it’s forest fires in California, a seasonal flash flood in the Southwest, or a hurricane in the US Southeast, Nature Happens, and sometimes, it’s a mother.

You can’t really plan for that kind of thing, and you just have to roll with the punches, stay safe, and relax your planning muscle a bit.

I had reached mile 1261 during my USA run, after stopping previously for a week for my father’s funeral, when it became clear to us that the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic was serious enough to be leading to lockdowns and runs on grocery stores.

We didn’t want to stop, but we didn’t want to be stranded trying to reach home either.

The closest I’ve seen to having a “plan” for dealing with situations like these is to watch the news and pay attention to weather. If you know that December in eastern Southern California is flood season, don’t pick that time to run. If you see a pandemic coming, think about where that’ll put you in a week or two and plan accordingly.

Then do what you have to do.

Other delays

As of this writing, the US is in the middle of vaccine rollouts for COVID-19. Because I have a chronic health condition, I’m in risk group 1B, and I’ve been fortunate to get my first of two vaccine shots. The second one is scheduled 3 weeks from that date.

Being a high-risk patient, and moreover, uncomfortable with accommodations choices and hospital room availability in case of a major medical emergency, I don’t feel safe resuming the run before I get that second vaccine shot. Moreover, I must consider how Leslie’s access to vaccine will affect our schedule. It’s obvious to me that we won’t be resuming the run before then without some kind of adjustment to our plans.

In the mean time, I’m checking weather for an assortment of potential dates for resuming the run. We’re restocking inventory for the van. nd we’re notifying media and sponsors.

When we can’t run, we can still plan.