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Make no mistake. He’s the one that made it happen. He’s the one that took off down a sleepy mountain town’s main street at 5 a.m. and didn’t stop until nearly 16 hours later. He’s the one that climbed higher than 13,000 feet on that journey. The one that crossed freezing mountain streams up to his knees; ran while inhaling smoke from nearby wildfires; and overcame heat exhaustion at the 42-mile mark.
I’m just the one who tagged along for the final 10 miles to make sure he didn’t wander off alone into the woods.
Superlatives aside, my experience qualifies me to offer some advice for anyone preparing for their first time pacing an ultra runner. These tips may be especially helpful if you (like I was) are nervous about what lies ahead of you.
If understandable if you’re a little nervous.
Back in February, when Ed asked me to pace him, I almost refused. Mainly because his e-mail referred to the race as “a real ass-whipper.”
I was concerned about running at altitude. But the more I thought about it, I realized I’d be fine. Ed was going to run 50 miles. And he was asking me to run/hike/walk the final 10 measly miles.
So unless your runner is asking him or her to pace him for a distance you’ve never run before, relax. By the time your runner makes it to you, he or she will probably be so tired that you might be setting off for a vigorous hike. Not a run.
2. Remember that this isn’t your race.
Forget about yourself for a few hours. That’s not to say you shouldn’t stay hydrated, replace electrolytes, and keep yourself out of danger on the run. But when you’re pacing, the race isn’t about you. It’s all about your runner. Your only mission is to make sure your runner is OK.
So maybe choose another time to talk about that hangnail that’s been bugging you all afternoon. Your runner is probably dealing with much worse.
3. Read/watch/listen to every pacing resource you can find.
There are plenty more resources on the web, but these are a few that helped me.
- The Art of Pacing via TrailAndUltraRunning.com (This list of 10 tips offers advice for people pacing ultramarathons of 100 miles or more.)
- Errol ‘The Rocket’ Jones, ULTRArunner (podcast) via UltraRunnerPodcast.com (This interview with the so-called patron saint of pacing features some practical and comical advice on pacing, starting around the 20-minute mark.)
4. Know what motivates your runner.
Does your runner prefer casual conversation? Light-hearted banter? Funny jokes? Outright vulgarity?
However, if you’ve never run more than a marathon with your runner, see the next tip.
5. Be prepared to forget that last tip.
What your runner says motivates him or her before the race may not apply at mile 42.
When I met Ed at the 40-mile aid station, he looked great. So great that I wondered why he needed me.
But 30 minutes later, as we began a 2,000-foot climb up a gorgeous aspen-covered trail, exhaustion crept in. For what seemed like an hour, we rested at every other fallen tree, where Ed threatened to puke each time.
But even though he’d told me beforehand that I might need to talk trash to him, I knew he needed me to urge him to drink more water and follow Tip No. 6.
6. Stay positive.
This is good advice for anything, but it applies to pacing, too.
Your attitude is contagious, so you might as well spread some good.
7. Be a better liar than me.
This quote from The Rocket (in the aforementioned podcast) stuck in my head throughout the day of the race.
“When you’re pacing neophytes or middle-of-the-packers, you don’t want to discourage them by conveying to them how really shitty they look. Sometimes you have to tell them, ‘You look marvelous!’ … When it’s seven miles to the aid station and you know that they’re about to tank in the next 100 yards, you have to tell them, ‘It’s only two more miles.’ Because they don’t know. And they’re hanging on your every word. And if you tell them that they will keep going. And then when you get to two miles you have to say, ‘Oh, well, listen, I thought it was that. It’s got to be just a little bit further.’ And they will go.”
I tried this around the 43-mile mark when another runner asked me how far I thought it might be to the 46-mile aid station. “Probably two miles,” I said somewhat confidently. But Ed wasn’t buying it. “More like three,” he said, knowingly.
Like I said. Be a better liar than me. I should have said, “Definitely two miles.” Not “probably.”
8. Know your runner’s goal and kindly help him or her stick to it.
Before the race, talk to your runner about his or her expectations for the run.
What’s the goal? Winning? Finishing in the middle of the pack? Or just plain finishing?
You’ll definitely want to know this before the race.
But don’t be surprised if your runner changes his or her mind at some point in the race. It might sound something like, “I don’t care if I don’t make my time goal. I just want to finish.”
That may be true. But it may also be your runner’s pride kicking in. Do your best to kindly urge your runner toward the initial goal.
9. Don’t assume your job is over when your runner crosses the finish line.
Did you just run an ultra marathon? No. You ran part of an ultra marathon. There’s a big difference.
So keep being useful and go grab your runner something to eat and drink.
10. Get ready to catch ultra running fever.
Despite nearly watching Ed cough up a packet of gel, my desire to run an ultra is now at an all-time high.
I don’t know when I’ll do it. Or where. But I know I’ll do it.
Wanna’ be my pacer?