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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?
Except I’m not so sure he needs my help.
Ed has climbed the highest peaks in North America (McKinley) and South America (Aconcagua); he finished an ultramarathon last summer; and he lives and runs in Boulder, Colorado, where he can run up mountains in his backyard. By comparison, I have driven to the top of one of the highest peaks in Colorado; I have never run an ultramarathon; and I regularly run at less than 400 feet above sea level.
Plus, we’ve never actually run together.
But just in case those first 40 miles push Ed to the brink of exhaustion—just in case I might come in handy—I wanted to be prepared.
To learn more about Ed’s motivation and his expectations for the race, we recently had the following conversation over e-mail. Along the way, I also learned that Ed
- Once roomed with “two cajun dudes named Sooterbob and Garyman” in a double-wide trailer in Louisiana
- Once escaped a series of life-threating misadventures during a single afternoon in Nicaragua
- Has two uvulas (that thing that hangs in the back of your throat)
If he doesn’t need my help on the trail, I’m looking forward to hearing more about Sooterbob.
Anyone Can Enter: Are you crazy?
Ed Roberson: I hope so. All of my heroes are complete lunatics in one way or another, so if I’m at least a little bit nutty, then I feel like I’m on the right track.
However, it is hard to judge what crazy really means when you live in Boulder. No joke. Today, I saw a guy dressed in full pirate regalia, wearing a gold Phantom of the Opera-eque mask, holding a cardboard sign, and begging for money at a busy intersection. And on the sports side of things, there’s a professional ultra runner here in town who runs up Green Mountain 300-plus times per year.
So compared to those guys, I feel pretty boring.
Anyone Can Enter: So, basically, in Boulder, everyone is so nice that pirates ask for money instead of taking it from you. That’s good to know. Does that same sort of friendliness carry over to the ultra running community?
Roberson: Definitely. Boulder is the home base of a lot of world-class professional ultra runners, and I have met a good number of them or crossed paths with them during runs. On the trails, they always say hello and smile, even if they are in the middle of sprinting up a steep 3,000-foot climb and are on the edge of puking. In extended conversations I’ve had with some of them— (such as) Scott Jurek, Marshall Ulrich, and Geoff Roes—they spend more time asking me about my running plans and offering great advice than talking about themselves or their own accomplishments. Me spending time with those guys is like some washed-up rec league basketball player getting to hang out with (Michael) Jordan, Kobe (Bryant), and LeBron (James).
But also, the average runner you meet at an ultra is just as cool. Last year at the Leadville 50, I was going up a pretty challenging hill at about 11,500 feet and passed by a lady who was at least 70 years old. We chatted for a while and she told me that she’d done the race every year since it began. Then she looked around at the awesome scenery, smiled, and said “Don’t these views just pull you right up these steep mountains?” I thought that her awesome attitude pretty much sums up the type of person who does these longer races—positive, laid back, supportive of the other runners, and enjoying the moment and the mountains.
Anyone Can Enter: Hearing you talk about these races is getting me pumped up for (the San Juan Solstice). Are you ready for this thing?
Roberson: I hope so. But one of the reasons I like to try stuff like this is because I’m never quite sure if I’ll be able to do it! Last year, Leadville was challenging, but not the world-class ass whipping that I was expecting. This one has a good bit more elevation gain and loss than Leadville, so I’m guessing that it will be a hard, but fun, day.
In my experience, the key to these long runs is managing nutrition, hydration, and electrolytes—you don’t want to run out of gas or overheat. Hopefully the weather, my gut, my legs, and my brain will all cooperate so that I can get across that finish line before the 16-hour cutoff.
Anyone Can Enter: If they don’t, I will do my best to drag you across the finish line. Wait. Is that allowed? And what are you really expecting of me out there?
Roberson: Did I forget to tell you? I’ve retrofitted one of those baby-carrying backpacks, and I’m going to hitch a ride on your back up that last 2,500 feet of vertical. I’m pretty sure I remember telling you to train by carrying a 190-pound rock up a really steep hill for 10 miles while breathing through a straw.
But if you’re not willing to do that, I’d say that best case, we have a fun but challenging run/hike through some of the prettiest mountains in Colorado. Worst case, you have to shoot off signal flares to show the rescue helicopter where to land to evacuate me.
But most likely, it will be somewhere in between those two scenarios—I’ll probably need you to tell me a few jokes and keep the mood light as I try to finish this thing. If I’m moving slowly, it would be good if you had an idea of the pace we should be keeping so that we finish in under 16 hours. I imagine that I’ll really want to be walking that last downhill, so I’d appreciate any “encouragement” you could provide to keep me moving at a reasonable pace. “Encouragement” could equal light-hearted joking, violent cursing, or aggressive trash talking. You and Kim (Ed’s wife and my good friend since 10th grade) can evaluate my condition at mile 40 and determine the best course of action.
Anyone Can Enter: I’m glad that Kim will be there to evaluate how you’re doing, seeing as how I have never gone running with you. Speaking of that, are there any things I SHOULDN’T do or talk about while we’re on the trail?
Anyone Can Enter: Noted. I will hold off on my review of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot until after the race.
Back in January, a knee injury forced me to preemptively drop out of what would have been my first ultramarathon.
At the time, I didn’t write too much about it because I was crushed. I feared I may never realize my dream of running an ultra. Worse yet, I worried my doctor might tell me to quit running.
That’s why I’m happy to announce that I’ll be running an ultramarathon later this month in Colorado.
I’ll be pacing my buddy Ed Roberson for the final 10 miles of the San Juan Solstice 50 Mile Run, a grueling race featuring more than 12,000 feet of climbing that tops out at 13,334 feet.
Considering that my runs in Raleigh rarely reach higher than 480 feet, I will definitely be out of my element. Fortunately, those last 10 miles only have 2,000 feet of elevation gain and I won’t have to climb higher than 11,500 feet.
Then again, by the time Ed makes it to the 40-mile mark, he might be walking and talking gibberish. Therefore, there’s a good chance I might have to push him up a few hills. And if that’s nearly as tough as pulling a donkey up a Colorado hill, I could be in trouble.
I realize that this isn’t something just anyone can enter. But someday I will run an ultramarathon (that anyone can enter), and I see this as part of the journey towards that goal.
In these final weeks leading up to the race, I’ll be looking for any and all advice I can get on the topic of pacing ultra runners. If you’ve been a pacer or had a pacer, I would love to hear from you. Especially if you have practical and/or funny advice.
This February, I’m taking a flying leap past my usual requirements of competing in offbeat, obscure, wacky, or just plain ridiculous contests.
Instead, I’m entering a race that’s just plain insane.
I’m running an ultramarathon.
The Uwharrie Mountain Run is a 40-mile trail run billed as “a true adventure that requires intense concentration.” That’s probably because the course promises treacherous hills, ample opportunities to fall down, the potential to easily get lost in the forest, and numerous stream crossings, which depending on the weather, could be freezing cold.
Of course, it could also be raining.
Fortunately, I’ll probably be far too insane to care.