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May 11, 2008

Tell Me Thy Company (Western States Diary)

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.

(Richard and Me)

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.


Anne 5/12/08, 6:02 AM  

Sounds like you've got an excellent pacer to help you through the hardest miles. I wouldn't be surprised if at some point the two of you don't start singing "Love Will Keep Us Together," though "Muskrat Love" might be more appropriate, given the wilderness.

Makita 5/12/08, 6:49 AM  

Certainly does... finding another runner to share your passion can sometimes be as difficult as actually running the miles. You are fortunate to have a great running group and support from your friends and family. :D

Potato 5/12/08, 8:35 AM  

Donald, I am a Tevis rider however I ran WS in 1982. It was the first attempt at running having just started Jan 1st that year at a distance of 1 mile a day average. By February I increased my distance to 2 miles a day average and in March 2.5 a day ave. Then in April I ran home from the overlook in Auburn for a long run of 16 miles in 3.5 hours. I thought wow 100 divided by 16 is about 6 so 6 times 3.5 is less then 24 so I could do the WS in less then 24. Might just as well, so just to be sure in May, I entered the 50 miler held in conjunction with a horse endurance race near Nevada City. The run manager tried to discourage me since I was a rider not a runner, but finally he took my 40 bucks and said ok! I didn't know any better so I ran fast all the way and was top ten at the 32 mile mark. I finished well and that night went dancing with friends from France. So that did it, I figured 2 times that distance was WS with no problem. Curt Sproul was race director that year and I ended-up with runner entry #1. All of the runners thought it was a joke and I would just run to the monument like a guy did a few years before wearing wing-tip shoes. However I had good shoes and a hard hat to keep the sun off my head and protect me from the brush. I drank my special water and ate boiled potatoes with honey all day and had a great time. I did slip on the snow just before Cougar Rock and strained my angle a bit but I was still in 4th place over Cougar Rock. Phil Gardener had just landed there with a Helicopter and told me I was a nut for doing this. He and I spent a lot of time in the early years marking the trail for the run so he was well versed on the difficulty. However the strained angle slowed me down and it was nagging me all day. I had to be at work on Sunday by noon so I really needed to finish early. I had a friend such as you have and we called him "MudFlaps" He ran in with me from White Oak Flats. About the time I was near my ranch which is on Sliger Mine Rd, I realized that perhaps I would not make it in 24 hours and the decision was finish or get to work on time. My work obligation was a 2 hour drive away from home. No time too waste! Then I realized that perhaps it was just stinking thinking that was starting to get to me. My MudFlaps kicked in. He said "Potato you have been running all day on little food and no rest that is why you are hallucinating just keep going". I said no, I need a 10 minute rest right here on the trail near china wall. Next thing I saw was a runner laying down in the embryo position moaning and I said if I stop I will be like that, inspiration set in and onward I traveled. Once again fatigue set in and about that time I saw the sweep team and they shouted "hay Potato I heard you were doing this, your crazy man get on our horse and we will carry you out". That did it, my speed tripled till I got to the next aid station. It was above Main Bar and there I asked for drugs (My personal Doctor was there and told me if I did this run he would provide me drugs), food and rest in that order. The Doc refused the drugs but did massage my angle as I sleep for 40 minutes and was awakened by a dog barking. I saw that it was getting light out and remembered that I had to get to work by noon. My pacer was nearly finished but a good shaking revived him and we made record time to the finish passing lots of other runners. My finish was not so good 27 hours 15 minutes and 8 seconds best I recall, but I did get to work on time. I think the there were three things that made my finish possible, of course my pacer helped a lot too. First I never even considered the possibility that I would not finish, second I knew the trail and third my water. I never got dehydrated and felt strong all day except for the angle problem of course. I might add that I returned to Auburn just in time for the last few minutes of the awards and got my finishing plaque. When home to bed and slept till Thursday. It was a great experience and I am thinking perhaps I should do it again. Incidentally I never considered the possibility of not finishing and I also didn't tell anybody except the people who had to know that I was going to do the run like Dr Lind and Curt Sproul as well as my personal Doctor and my girlfriend who crewed for me and of course MudFlaps and his girlfriend. The reason I did that was because I did not want to hear the negative stuff like so many said about the runners. I had to stay positive, thank you Jim Rohn and W. Clement Stone. Also of course Gordy and Cowman. In 1974 on horseback I saw Gordy Ansleigh as he did the run and it was inspiring to see him do that. You can see my ride efforts at TevisPost.com.
Potato Richardson

Speed Racer 5/12/08, 11:47 AM  

"Sometimes it seems like you need to be some kind of superhero just to attempt such an adventure." Yeah, well you're a superhero to me. (Sorry about misrepresenting the Miwok, you're 10 extra miles of a rockstar for it).

So what if someone were to HAPPEN to forget a pushcart full of icecream sandwiches on a hillside about 20 miles outside of Auburn? Would the hungry traveler who HAPPENS to come across said bounty be penalized for partaking of the ice cream sandwiches before they melt and go to waste? It's a helluva lot better than the usual "mule" method of having the mule shove it up his butt...

rick 5/12/08, 11:42 PM  

Bears, there's bears too at WS. I saw two of them while I was heading towards Michigan Bluff. After I saw the first one, a small bear, I promptly turned around and headed back down the hill where a bunch of runners was headed up. I explained the situation and I joined them in making noise as we headed back up the hill together. You'll both have a great time. Don't forget to enjoy the beauty of the course.

RunBubbaRun 5/13/08, 3:45 AM  

I like the word "delusional" for people who attempt a 100.. I think that is about right..

Sounds like you have a solid pacer and friend to get you through the tough spots at WS100..

Let me know if you figure out how to carry Ice Cream in a Ultra.. I need to do that as well..

Great post about pacing, because it does take somebody special yet a little bit "delusional" to pace somebody for that long..

olga 5/13/08, 9:15 AM  

Crazy. Selfless. Attunned. Patient. Know YOUR goals and able to adaot to their changes, yet without negative saying push over them still.
You'll have fun:) Trust me, you may not think of it this way while on the course, but looking back - it's the best fun you'll ever have with Richard. Just a fare warning to your wife - your pacer might replace her in your heart as the "closest person on Earth" after that night, especially if you reach and exceed your expectations:)

My Life & Running 5/14/08, 2:40 PM  

Ohhhh this post has made me so excited for you! You are going to have a great race and experience! (Even if you're not allowed an ice cream mule!)

I'm so glad that I'm finally all caught up with your blogs & running life. Thank you for a fun, inspiring, thought-provoking morning!

triguyjt 5/14/08, 4:14 PM  

"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."

Donald...I think that says it all. Love your pre-race preps pieces....
Its like I wanna run it with ya..but then, I realize I can 't push a cart with all that food.

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