Disclaimer and Safe Harbor Statement:
What you are about to read is based on my first and only experience pacing in a 100 mile event. In fact, prior to the Pine To Palm 100 Mile Endurance Run this year, I had never even been to a 100 mile event as a spectator, volunteer, much less as a runner. I've done a number of Ultras, but the longest distance at any event was 50 miles at the time I arrived at this race. So what I have to share is from an informed, but inexperienced outsider's view and veterans of the distance may have a different perspective. If you disagree with anything I have written in this post, so sorry, but tough.. Enjoy.
A short overview. I was introduced to my runner for this event by Coach Ann Trason who said that she knew someone named Mary Cates who is an experienced runner and running coach who could use a pacer in a few months. At first, Mary appeared to have everything covered, but Ann brought the subject back up about 6 weeks prior to the race and so I decided to reach out and confirm. I'd been looking for an opportunity to pace in a 100 mile race and Ashland, Oregon was on my bucket list of places to visit. Mary was a little nervous about the idea, not knowing me or my background, and probably wondering if I would be a burden and screw things up. To be honest, I had the same concerns x 10.
Mary is a much more experienced runner than I am. She is a stronger runner overall and had some very specific goals in mind, namely to qualify for the Tahoe 200 the following year, secondarily to finish sub 24 hours. So if I was going to do this, I needed to treat this with the same focus and preparation as I would my own race. Overall, Mary killed it, 4th in the women’s field and I believe in the top 25% overall. To say I learned a lot from the event would be an understatement, but I digress, that's a topic for another post...
Ten Things I think I think about pacing:
- Pacing is about the runner, not the pacer. End of story. It's not to be treated as a training run, or something you are measuring yourself on. The pacer is there to keep the run safe, motivated, moving forward and to help avoid the unforeseen issues that always arise when a runner is that tired and worn. If you can't grasp this and fully appreciate it, stay away.
- Don't sign up to pace a distance you are not comfortable you can easily cover. Be candid and up front, being effective for 20 miles is far better than blowing up yourself 30 miles in and being a burden. I was worried about this given Mary's ability and pedigree.
- Your focus on your own food, hydration and well-being only matters in that you can't become a problem for the runner. Once your basic needs are covered, everything else should be about your runner.
- Aid station workers, etc will help you with whatever you need, but don't take their focus away from your runner, or other runners unnecessarily. You need to be able to be self-sufficient for whatever distance you are covering.
- When you are pacing someone you haven't met before, you need to invest a little time to try and understand the person, their personality, what they want to achieve and what motivates them. From everything I had read about running 100 mile events, especially in the mountains, things were going to get dark, both literally and figuratively at times. Waiting for your runner to hit a wall to figure out what makes him or her tick is too late, you should have a plan in mind before you start out.
For me, I chose to pepper Mary with simple, easy questions periodically leading up to the event so that I had something in mind to fall back on. Here's the first salvo of questions I asked as a reference:
- Hills - are you running up hills or hiking? What's your criteria for busting out the power hike or walk ?
- Do you want your pacer to run ahead behind or side by side ?
- Do you like to talk and run? Or maybe have someone else talk and just listen to distract yourself?
- Topics of conversation that are off limits - list them or you bear the consequences.
- Give me five foods you can always get down and five foods you sometimes crave on a long run.
- You ok with me going ahead at an aid station to get food and drink prepped for you and catching up after you pull out while I binge?
- What's your top 3 pump up songs?
- Give me the names of the two most important people in your life but no reason why- that's for discussing at 2 am.
- Why is Tahoe 200 so important to you? Of all the things you could do why this one?
- What was your greatest joy in life so far? Don't tell me why - just a title. The rest is best served for a face to face or heal to toe conversation.
- At 1 AM, when you are on a ridgeline trail 2 feet wide and with an 800 foot drop off to your immediately left, you need to be conscious of the fact that your runners response time, coordination and mental awareness is impaired.
- Have an extra torch light and make sure everything around your runner is illuminated if you see them struggling or slipping.
- Sometimes firmly suggesting they slow down a little (or graciously supporting their utterance that they're thinking of slowing down) for safety is not a bad idea.
- If you are running in front or side by side, call out any intruding brush or debris and call out rocks in the trail, especially when they blend in to the ground under headlamp illumination. From my own experience, unexpected stumbles, falls, etc after 30 miles can lead to a myriad of issues like spams, sprains, etc, let alone after 70.
- At 2 AM, when you hit a point of boulder scrambling and the markers on the trail seem to jump around or be too infrequent, and your runner is getting really upset, have them stop. Go scout a little ahead and then come back. Don't make them backtrack unnecessarily when they feel like they don't want to go on. Don’t assume they know the course forwards and backwards. Even if they had memorized every last twist and turn, by this point, they likely can’t remember their own name. You need to be the logical part of their brain that has long since departed.
- At 2 AM, when you hit a point of boulder scrambling and the markers on the trail seem to jump around or be too infrequent, and your runner starts talking about quitting, it's effective to remind them you are in the middle of nowhere and the closest point of contact is at least 3 miles in any direction, so you might as well just move forward to the next aid station. Use some blunt, stark pragmatic talk to get them to accept the moment and move forward. Then, as you move forward…
Every time you pass another runner who is struggling, offer them help, offer it twice. This has three important benefits you will immediately realize.
- Your runner, in their mentally impaired state will think you are a nicer person than you are, meaning your less likely to get in trouble when you miss a turn 2 hours later.
- The running karma gods will smile upon your runner.
- Once the struggling runner is out of ear shot, you can ramble on about how much better your runner is handling this, lifting their spirits and reminding them that they can handle whatever is going on. Don’t laugh. Your runner will take comfort in a sadistic sort of way of knowing someone else is hurting more.
- At 3 AM, when you get past the boulder scrambling fiasco, remember, you are responsible for your runner's emotional well-being and those your runner interacts with (i.e. aid station workers).
- You should not only profusely thank them for being there in the middle of the night for you, you should over do it and thank them on behalf of your runner who is too tired to think straight.
- In general, people are uplifted by compliments and praise from people they don't know. Therefore, you should do all you can to find ways to get anyone around you to heap praise on your runner. Here are things that worked for me.
b1. Let everyone know how you were awful and your runner saved your bacon, whether it's true or not.
b2. Sing and play air guitar to the theme of mission impossible (in particular MI2 - the song by Limp Bizkit version). The aid station workers will take pity on your runner.
b3. Compliment the aid station workers on their weird hats, puffy jackets, wool blankets and ask for the website or stores where they got them.
b4. Let the aid station workers and your runner know that of all the bowls of chicken broth and noodles you have had, this is the greatest in the history of the world.
b5. Playful joking, laughter, smiling, whatever to make everyone there realize this is supposed to be fun goes a long way.
b6. Thank your runner multiple times throughout the night for letting you share in this experience, especially when their GI track is bugging them so much they can't think straight. Your runner won't want to kill your buzz and it will get them to think about something positive.
Bottom line, aid station workers are giving up their weekend to be out there in the cold and dark at 3 AM to give you chicken soup and listen to you gripe. Treat them well.
- Whatever gear you are carrying for yourself, be prepared to fork it over without asking to your runner, possibly carry something extra just in case. For me, I had an extra foldup wind breaker that would keep me (or Mary) warm and protected from the wind on the ridgelines after we were soaked with sweat and the temp dropped 30 degrees.
- Once the sun has been down at least an hour, you need to have a series of things to talk about periodically and you need to pointedly engage your runner for a few reasons.
- Your runner needs a mental distraction. As much as their body is hurting, their brain is what is failing most of all. Keep it engaged with something other than running. There is a saying, "That which motivates also demotivates". At this point, running maybe be a demotivating activity, but talking about cuddly dogs, well that's a different story.
- Having them talk about something that is relevant or meaningful to them lets you, the pacer, know how with it they are at that time. Are they coherent? If they're too tired to eat, getting them to talk about something uplifting brings back some energy.
- Finding a subject they are experts in, other than running, and having them teach / educate you along the way, in my humble opinion, helps them pass a lot of time and increases their awareness and faculties.
- When all else fails, find a subject that they're passionate about and make up a scenario for them to get mad over (preferably not at you). Fear is a powerful emotion, but a little directed and focused hostility can be helpful to combat it.
- When approaching aid stations, find out what your runner might want ahead of time (food cravings, change of clothes, a blanket, a fresh headlamp, battery charger for their watch or phone). Go out ahead, get it going, have something to hand them the moment your runner arrives. Once they start eating, split your efforts between finishing off their requests and getting yourself ready.
- If your runner is ready before you, send them out, don't let them wait on you less they get eaten up by the folding chair monsters. If you can't catch up to them quickly, you shouldn't be pacing them any longer.
- (10 was a relative number, just like mileage on a Garmin). Remind your runner of what they have accomplished when they get dark. Less than 7000 people in North America finish a 100 miler each year, they are elite whether they know it or now.
- When your runner handles an obstacle or stretch well, or hammers a climb at 4 AM, let them know. Be profuse and obnoxious. Not just to pump them up, but also because their brains are mush and they probably didn't hear you the first time.
- When you hit cool landmarks, or venture onto the PCT for the first time (especially if they're from the east coast), emphasize how cool it is that they're there and how else would they be able to experience this wilderness (even if it is pitch black and you can't see anything).
And for the most important learnings...
- When you meet up with your runner's crew at aid stations, take 2 minutes to let them know how your runner is doing, any GI issues, etc and things to have ready down the trail so they have time to prep for possible issues that are building. By mile 70, most of the best laid race plans and expectations have changed dramatically. Do they need to ready extra toilet paper, different foods, TUMS, whatever? Give the crew some heads up so your runner doesn't have to ask for anything twice.
- What is said on the trail stays on the trail unless your runner has specifically given you permission to share something. My rule for Mary was simple, as long as you don't insult my wife or kids, you can say anything about anything or anyone to me until we are done and I promise I will have forgotten it by the time we reach the finish.
- If you are a parent, you will understand this. Sometimes your kids get so tired or worn out, even while doing something they love, that they just can't think straight or handle their emotions. They can't answer questions, they are irritable and don't know why. Your runner may be overcome with guilt for having you witness them in a state of 'weakness or shortcoming' which I think is hysterical given what they are pulling off. They're emotional and could just as easily burst out laughing or crying at any moment for no apparent reason. As a parent, you wouldn't hold it against your kids, treat your runner the same way. While you are focused on moving them forward and keeping them going, remember, they're still people, have a little empathy, even if you've walked the past 3 miles.
- When you get to the finish line and Hal Koerner is greeting you, and just 30 minutes prior your runner was pissed about the long, steepish descent for the final 5 miles destroying her quads, be sure to heap praise on Hal right away for an amazing course so that your runner doesn't let anything inadvertently slip out while in a state of fatigue.
Submitted by: Derek Jacobson – firstname.lastname@example.org
Instagram id: derekjacobsonaz
Twitter id: @dLevementum