The Importance of Pacing

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I’ve been an active participant in the long-distance trail running scene for years now.  However, it wasn’t until recently that I ever considered the use of a pacer or, particularly germane to this discussion, pacing a fellow endurance athlete.  About a month ago, a friend of mine, a fellow Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC) member, reached out to our community for some racing support.  Specifically, he sought some runners who would pace him for the last 50 miles of the infamous Grindstone 100-miler.  I found myself offering my candidacy without giving it any real meaningful thought.  I had never used a pacer before, I had never paced another athlete before, and I had never even seen the Grindstone course.  Nonetheless, I found myself locked-into pacing miles 65-100; a 35-mile stretch which, for reasons to be illustrated infra, would become a solid 40-something mile slog.  Initially, I was excited and eager to rise to the occasion but soon thereafter, apprehension set-in.

“Wait….you mean, my performance (or lack thereof) carries the possibility of directly affecting another runner????!!!   Ugh!”

As the race date grew closer, I was seemingly more apprehensive than my runner.  The race was to begin on a Friday evening and although my runner was unsure as to his pace or progress through that night, we decided that he would hit mile 65 somewhere between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. the next day.  I drove out to the Wild Oak Trail parking lot (TWOT lot) and joined the running crews and relief pacers as we awaited the arrival of our respective runners.  After hours of eager anticipation, my runner bombed down the trail into the TWOT lot, pacer in tow; a strong showing for mile-65.  The other pacer and I sat him down, grabbed him some aid, nutrition, and, most importantly, beer (if you’re a trail runner, you get it).

At about 4:30 p.m. our runner was sufficiently rested (as much as could be expected for mile 65) and the other pacer tagged-me-in. GO!

Immediately, out of the lot, my runner and I neglected to notice the trailhead on the roadside.  Our view was somewhat obscured by the parked crew cars on the shoulder.  We powered up the road, flew by the trailhead, and continued on.  At once, we were dubious.  As we covered miles of concrete, we searched high and low for signs of the course; any sign that would deliver us some relief from the pounding of pavement.  Finally, after a little over 2 miles of street hiking, another runner’s crew spotted us and turned us around.  We eventually found the trailhead and course corrected (an unfortunate 4-something mile error).

As the sun set on the Allegheny Mountains, we found ourselves evaluating our pace and summiting mini peak after mini peak.  I had stupidly forgotten my Garmin GPS watch and had to borrow the last pacer’s Suunto for my leg of the race.  Being unfamiliar with the watch, I found it challenging to maintain an accurate measurement of both distance and pace since the TWOT lot.  The watch had been tracking since mile-50 and with our erroneous 4-something mile excursion, I found myself shouting out mere approximations of these statistics for my runner – definitely not an ideal situation.  We persevered and ran-on.

As the pitch black of night set-in, so too did the wind and, at times, sub-40 degree temperatures.  My runner had not slept for over two days and it was starting to show.  I tried my best to keep our pace rigorous but reasonable; ever cognizant that we had to cover some serious ground in order to stay ahead of the hard time cut-offs.  Our pace was gradually slowing with every seemingly endless summit and the tunnel vision of our headlamps wasn’t making it any easier.  Bottom-line – my runner had to sleep but time wasn’t on our side.

Finally, with 15 miles to go, things got bad.  We had two more grueling summits ahead; both along exposed ridgelines whipped by cold winds and sputtering rain.  As with most runners traversing great distances, mine went to his “dark place”.  I know it – we all know it.  It’s that place to which your mind eventually retreats at times when things are tough and your body wants to give up.  An immediate strategy change was needed.  Coffee was ineffective, hot solid food no longer worked, and sleep would time-us-out.  The only weapon available to combat that “dark place” fatigue, a seemingly unvanquishable foe, was the one and only thing within our control, our pace.  The logic here was simple: so long as one is uncomfortable, they’ll remain awake. PUSH the PACE!

At a point in which most runners would’ve reached their limit, we rigorously pushed the ascents and subsequently trotted those steep (but runnable) single-track descents.  It worked!  Yes!  Every passed runner was an additional buoy to our spirits.  It wasn’t long before we found ourselves bombing-down a long fire road into the last aid station with renewed fervor.  We were going to make it.  Time was no longer the rabid dog nipping at our heels.  2-3-4 small cups of coffee, 5 more miles, and this odyssey would reach its terminus with more than an hour to spare (14 hours since the TWOT lot).  My runner did well!

My runner and I chatted over the course of the last two segments of the race.  Having a great deal of pacing experience in the past, my runner offered some advice relevant to the task at hand as well as some insight into the role in general.  I learned a great deal and, although I won’t endeavor to draft an exhaustive list, here are some take aways:

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Pacing is definitely NOT the same as running the race yourself.  Despite any attempt to rationalize the distance and the logistics, it is definitely a different animal.  You must be ever cognizant of your runner’s capabilities and requirements.  Are you moving too fast for him?  Is he physically able to move faster despite what he’s saying?  And, are you able to effectively motivate him to do so?  Which leads me to my next point:

Know your runner.  My runner and I had done some shorter 10-milers together in the past, but we had never spent any significant time together.  I was lucky.  My runner was easy-going without any real goals besides finishing the race.  He was unconcerned with maintaining any particular pace or PR’ing the course.  So long as I made sure that he was going to finish before the time-out, we would be in good shape.  Know your runner’s goals and his priorities.  His goals ARE your goals and they should be regarded as such.

Be prepared.  Your runner should only be concerned with his own stamina and his own body.  YOU should know the course and his progress across the map.  YOU should know the incremental time goals for each aid station.  And, for the love of God, don’t be a bonehead and forget your GPS watch.  The last thing that your runner should have to deal with is tracking his own stats.  Know the course, track the progress, track his stats, and take all of that off of his plate.

Be a cheerleader.  As mentioned supra, all runners (even the elites) hit their “dark place” at some point.  You must strike a balance between being an effective cheerleader and being bothersome or annoying.  Personally, I’m not the most up-beat person.  That said, I tried my best to keep my runner’s spirits up while conveying empathy for his condition tempered by some expression of realism; some sense that it would be ridiculous to drop at mile 85.  Deceivingly, this can be the most challenging pacing duty.

Pacing is equally valuable to the pacer.  Despite the trials and challenges facing your runner, you’ll have a great time.  You will learn a lot about how other runners function under racing conditions.  You will get to run courses that you’ve never visited.  If you’re currently training for one of your own races, as I was during the time of my experience, you have the opportunity to get in some serious training mileage (albeit at a potentially slower pace).

At the end of the day.  I don’t know why I never opted to experience this sooner.  It brings people closer together and, more importantly, it is truly a selfless act of generosity which is owing to those in your running community.  Pay it forward.  Although it should only be a collateral inducement, you too might find yourself in need of a pacer someday and people will be more inclined to heed your calls to service if you’ve done on to them in the past.