In the fourth installment of my Western States training diary, I explain the rationale for having pacers during 100-mile events, and describe how I came to decide on my own pacer for the night of June 28th.
When I first thought about doing Western States, I didn’t think I’d bother with having a pacer. It felt like too much of an inconvenience to ask of somebody, and I also had this notion that the point of the race was for the challenge to be undertaken alone, without external assistance of any kind.
Eventually, a couple of things changed my mind. First, every runner on the course gets some sort of external assistance, whether it’s taking fluids from aid stations, getting a blister lanced and taped, or having dry shoes transported to a drop point. It seemed silly to deny myself a pacer based on a principle that I would already have broken several times during the course of race weekend.
More importantly, there was this: ultrarunning is an extremely selfish, solitary endeavor. Very few opportunities come along where somebody else might actually benefit in some way from our obsessive athletic pursuits. It occurred to me that running the final miles of an ultra with somebody might be one of those chances.
If someone is willing to accompany me through what might be – literally and figuratively – my darkest miles, whether it’s because they want a taste of the race experience or are just extending a goodwill gesture, it just seems like bad form for me to deny such a request. There was one important stipulation, however – the person had to be a good match.
I clowned on my pacer a little bit in my Miwok race report – but honestly, I feel very good about the miles we’ve covered so far, and how we’ll work together at the end of June. And that’s the main idea I wanted this article to convey.
**Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary
Part 4: Tell Me Thy Company
“Tell me thy company, and I will tell thee what thou art”
- Cervantes, from Don Quixote
Over the previous three articles, I’ve spent a great deal of time describing all manner of potentially dangerous elements encountered at the Western States Endurance Run. As if running 100 miles wasn’t hard enough, athletes worry about becoming lost in the wilderness, getting bit by a rattlesnake or attacked by a mountain lion, suffering accidents due to sleep deprivation at night, or succumbing to any number of medical conditions that can cause an untimely end to their race.
So … you get the idea. There’s danger everywhere.
It’s all pretty intimidating stuff to novice ultrarunners – not to mention, a good number of veteran ones. Sometimes it seems like you need to be some kind of superhero just to attempt such an adventure. Either that, or you have to be delusional.
If you’re a superhero, you need a dedicated partner. If you’re a delusional nobleman, you need an agreeable squire. Either way, I knew that if I was going to take on this Western States quest, my preparation would include not just training, but also recruiting a faithful sidekick: a Sancho Panza to my Quixote; Robin to my Batman; Chewie to my Han Solo; Tennille to my Captain.
(Believe me, I could go on …but they’d just get sillier.)
At ultramarathons, sidekicks are officially referred to as “pacers”, and play a significant role in helping a runner successfully finish the race. They do not travel the entire distance with the runner, but join in the fun during the later stages of the race. At Western States, pacers are allowed beginning at mile 62, and will typically cover the final 38 miles with their designated runner.
Those miles correspond to the time that darkness envelopes the course, and when the runner’s fatigue level can potentially lead to a catastrophic error in judgment. The period of the race when a runner feels the most sluggish is also the most important time to remain mentally sharp – and that’s where a pacer comes in handy.
(As a historical sidenote, the very first pacer in a 100-mile race was one Gordy Ainsleigh, the endurance pioneer whose solo run in the Tevis Cup horse race gave birth to the Western States Endurance Run, and by extension, the sport of ultrarunning. In 1976, two years after running the WS trail for the first time, Ainsleigh paced his friend “Cowman” Shirk through the final stretches of the same course. When looking for a pacer, it’s nice to know someone who’s just as crazy as you are.)
Finding a suitable sidekick is a much harder task than it first appears. The person has to be a pretty solid runner – because although he’s only doing a portion of the 100-mile race, that portion (38 miles) is still pretty darn long. He has to be selfless, attentive, and considerate – and, as mentioned earlier, perhaps a little bit crazy.
You’d be amazed at how few people respond favorably to the following proposition: “How would you like to drive up to the mountains to run for 38 miles with me on rocky, hilly trails in the middle of the night?” OK, maybe it’s just amazing to me. People can be surprisingly rational sometimes.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to look very far to score an ideal sidekick. In fact, I didn’t even have to look at all – the right person simply volunteered.
Richard is a fellow Carmel Valley resident who runs with me on a regular basis, and is one of a group of local runners who did a 50-mile race together last fall. He and I both applied for the Western States lottery – then after I got in and he didn’t, he offered his services as my pacer.
It seemed like a good fit: he was someone I already know and – even more importantly – get along with. (When you’re considering spending 12 tiring hours with somebody, that person had better be someone you actually like.) His volunteer gesture demonstrated a willingness to put aside his own interests on my behalf, which seemed like an impressive quality as well. So I gladly accepted his offer.
Just like that, I found my Sancho. The next step was to figure out exactly what I’ll need him to do for me on this fantastic journey.
In some ultras, a pacer can carry extra food or drink for the runner to consume along the trail – a service often referred to as “muling” (quite fittingly, since a mule is what Quixote’s Sancho rode. Who knew ultras could be so literary?). However, to my great disappointment, the Western States Run specifically prohibits this practice. So my initial plan to have Richard push a cartful of ice cream sandwiches alongside me would have to be revised.
I started to compile a list of reasons I wanted another person out on the trail with me in the middle of the night, and here’s what I came up with:
* Someone to carry extra lights to see the trail. Like, maybe 20 extra headlamps and flashlights strapped to various parts of his body.
* Someone to stand between me and any bear and/or mountain lion we might encounter on the trail. And maybe …
* Someone who can tell some good jokes.
Admittedly, it wasn’t a very thorough list – but like I said, my ice cream cart idea would be illegal. I wasn’t sure what else to consider.
Seeking help, I contacted a few veteran Western States runners I know. I inquired about what tasks they request of their pacers – and their responses surprised me somewhat. They mentioned a couple of logistical details I hadn’t thought of - such as having an extra set of eyes to find the trail markings, or helping to get water bottles filled at aid stations – but the overwhelming opinion was that the benefit of having a pacer isn’t so much for physical conveniences as it is for psychological benefit.
Some of the suggestions I received about the role of a pacer were:
* Keep me entertained with conversation, or …
* Respect the silence when necessary
* Be patient with my mood swings throughout the night
* Assist me to unleash my best powers, and to find my inner strength (Hmm … is Tony Robbins available?)
* Keep me encouraged, positive, and/or distracted
It all sounded a bit strange at first – I mean, this isn’t exactly stuff you can learn from a manual. And I really enjoyed these next two items:
* Be positive or shut up
* Make me feel like a rock star
I was starting to think that instead of a runner, what I really needed was a self-help guru. However, the final e-mail I received told me this: “Training partners and good friends, the ones who know you well, make the best pacers.” That seemed to make a lot of sense.
Richard’s a good training partner, a good friend, and he knows me well. I think I’m in pretty solid company with him. As to whether he makes me unleash my inner strength or feel like a rock star … I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
After reading those e-mails, I’m finding the idea of having a sidekick to be a pretty nice thing – and I think I’ve got the right guy to help me chase my windmills. I’m confident that Richard and I will do great together - so much, in fact, that I feel like we need some kind of catchy nickname. Unfortunately, most of the cool ones have already been claimed.
The Dynamic Duo is taken. Butch and Sundance has been used. So has Dumb and Dumber. Maybe we’ll just rip off a famous ‘80s movie, and call this whole thing “Donald and Richard’s Excellent Adventure” – or perhaps something better will come to mind at some point further down the trail.
Then again, I suppose the name we come up with doesn’t matter. What’s important is the way we’ll be focused on the same goal, and how we’ll work together to reach the finish line in Auburn on June 29th.
It also occurs to me that having a pacer alongside you during a race such as Western States might be symbolic of a larger life lesson – namely, that we all benefit at some point from the goodwill of others.
Sure, it’s possible to run a 100-mile race solo – and some people do. But it seems that doing so would make the whole process a little scarier, a lot more lonely and difficult, and potentially more dangerous. On the other hand, sharing the adventure with someone close to you makes everything more enjoyable and rewarding.
This summer I’ll be on the receiving end of generous kindness – so when the time comes for me to reciprocate similar assistance, I’ll be more than happy to provide it. Some days you’ll be the runner, other days you’re the mule – but as long as us crazy people always stick together, we’re both certain to enjoy the journey.