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August 8, 2010

Tahoe Rim Trail Pacer Report*

*Or, How to Not Screw Up Someone's Perfectly Good Ultra

Before summer completely slips away from me (if you think I’m kidding, don’t laugh – my kids start school this week), I figured I should take a final look back at one of the highlights of the season: serving as crew and pacer for Gretchen at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. Since that night, a few people have asked whether I would write a report, but I was sort of reluctant at first, figuring the race wasn’t really my story to tell; it was Gretchen’s story, and she did a great job of telling it.

What I decided to do instead was provide a little bit of perspective on my role as a pacer, and highlight a few points that other pacers might keep in mind for future reference. However, it should be noted as a disclaimer that I’m not really an expert at pacing; I just came across the right situation with the right person, and things fell into place very nicely for us on our way to the finish line. With that in mind, we'll begin with one of the most important instructions for being a good pacer:

1. Pick the right runner

You know the old joke about how the secret to being a good runner is to pick the right parents? Well, the secret to being a good pacer is to pick the right runner – except in this case, you actually DO have some say about who you’re pairing yourself with for a challenging, unpredictable, potentially problematic trek into the wild. While there are obvious personality issues to consider, you should also think about the likelihood that your runner would do well anyway - even if you’re not there. In other words, the best runners to pace are the ones who probably don’t even need pacers in the first place.

In my case, I knew that Gretchen was a talented ultrarunner who not only had a previous 100-mile finish under her belt, but had finished this exact course before. She had trained like a maniac prior to race day, and had all the confidence in the world that she was going to succeed. Take look at the picture above: does she look like a basket case or a bundle of nerves? She’s having fun, and absolutely ready to knock out an epic task. As long as I could avoid screwing things up, I knew we’d be just fine.

That’s not to say your job will be a cakewalk, though; you’ll still be on the hook for some decision making, even before the race begins. Such as …

2. Tell your runner to get her ass to bed

This is Gretchen at 2:30 AM on race morning:

Which sounds (by ultrarunning standards, at least) only moderately crazy until I also tell you that she was already awake and showered by the time I woke up at 2:15. And she was still awake when I had gone to sleep at the previous midnight – as in two hours prior.

This was probably my biggest mistake as a pacer; the night before the race, I joined several people at Gretchen’s house for dinner, and as the night wore on, a few of us made observations like, “Hey, shouldn’t you be getting to bed?” Gretchen protested and said she wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyway – but if I had it to do over again, I would have dragged her to the bedroom, and instructed her husband to force her to lay down and shut her eyes. Functioning on one night’s lack of sleep is generally doable, but as we would eventually find out, working your way through a second consecutive sleepless night can make things a little bit sketchy.

3. Bring extra clothes to the start

This is our friend Olga, who was also doing the 100-mile event, and who complained of being cold at the start line. Since I would be the one walking back to a warm sleeping bag about 2 minutes after the start gun went off, I figured the gentlemanly thing to do was to let her use my sweatshirt. I have to say, it was kind of cold out there wearing just a t-shirt – although I knew better than to complain to two women who would soon be running 100 miles.

4. Get everywhere early

This is Gretchen rolling into the mile 30 aid station:

Before the race, she told me she’d be at this point sometime around noon, and I figured that getting there an hour ahead would leave me plenty of time to set her stuff up. So I arrived the parking lot shortly before 11AM, headed over to the aid station … and about 3 minutes later, Gretchen shows up.

The point is, average paces at ultramarathons are very tricky to predict – especially early in the day, when runners are feeling good and occasionally get sucked into keeping pace with faster runners they have no business hanging with (yes, Gretchen did this). So if you’re given an approximate arrival time, allow for 90 minutes to 2 hours on the front end, and at least 2 or 3 hours on the back end for your 3-4 minute window of service. The U.S. military might have invented the phrase “Hurry up and wait,” but ultrarunners take the notion to a whole different extreme.

5. Bring a camera – and know the ground rules

Gretchen and I have had a few discussions about shots like this:

She dismisses them as “pictures of my butt”, while I think they’re pretty cool images that capture the overall beauty of ultrarunning. Ultimately we settled on a sort of compromise where I let her get a short distance ahead of me before taking pictures that included her backside.

Another reason to have a camera at the ready is this: a couple of days after the race, you might get a pleading e-mail from your runner saying, “Hey – do you have some pictures I can use for my race report?” If your runner happens to be a blogger, understand that your pacer role isn’t fully completed until her race report is posted.

6. Be a decider – but be selective

For the most part, I let Gretchen determine the pace, when to walk and when to jog, what to eat, and so on. However, she had a few periods of indecision – especially when it came to an important decision early in the evening:

Basically, she had spent the previous 5 miles or so telling me about blisters developing on her toes, as well as her apprehension to get them taken care of for fear of losing too much time at the aid station, getting her socks dirty, or some other concern that might somehow make the situation worse. It took me saying “You need to get those taken care of” about 10 times before she finally capitulated – and even then it took a friend of hers at the aid station to back me up before Gretchen was fully convinced.

It ended up being the best decision she made – and for the rest of the night, I pretty much let her call the rest of the shots.

7. Have fun!

There’s really no other way to explain it - but running 100 miles is a pretty crazy thing to do. We all have ways of rationalizing it, of making it represent something greater or more significant – but in the final analysis, there’s only so much a rational person can do to make the task seem remotely sensible.

So be irrational. Be nonsensical. Laugh at yourselves. Tell jokes. And if your runner asks you to take one last picture of yourselves acting like complete dorks before the sun goes down, don’t hesitate to say yes. 100 miles is far too long to be serious all the time.

The flip side of this is to know when to be focused again, such as …

8. Beware the night – and especially the early morning

Without a doubt, the toughest stretch of the race for both of us was between about 3AM and 6AM. Gretchen had about 75 miles on her legs, was at the tail end of 8 consecutive hours of darkness, and well into her second straight sleepless night. We were on rocky single track trails going up and down steep mountain slopes, and she was misstepping and weaving off trail with increasing frequency.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a whole lot better shape – and my periodic efforts to keep her talking by offering up pop quizzes or soliciting her family history weren’t nearly adequate to keep us as alert as we should have been. This is one of those “things fell into place” items I mentioned at the outset – the fact that neither of us tripped or fell or otherwise injured ourselves through this stretch wasn’t due to anything either of us did; we mainly just got lucky. However, we also learned to …

9. Bend the rules a little bit

This is Gretchen at approximately 5:30AM:

The fact that she suddenly dropped to the trail and pleaded for a 60-second nap might have surprised me, except for the fact that she had already dozed off momentarily in the previous two aid stations, and as I just described, she was obviously very far beyond fatigued.

Conventional wisdom for ultrarunners is to “beware the chair”, and to move through aid stations as quickly as possible, because the longer you stop moving, the harder it is to start again. However, under the circumstances, taking a few brief catnaps seemed like a great idea to allow our mental batteries to recharge just enough to carry us to the finish line. In fact, I was so understanding of Gretchen’s plight that I gave her a whole extra minute before waking her up again.

Truth be told, I never had any doubts that she would finish – because as I described before, I was sure to ..

10. Pick the right runner (Part 2)

I don’t really have anything new to add to this point, so I’ll just recap a conversation that took place here at the mile 93 aid station, after Gretchen had been on the trail more than 25 hours. A few of these volunteers had also seen her come around on the first lap in the early afternoon yesterday, and while Gretchen was resting in a chair (staying awake this time), one of them started the following exchange with me:

Volunteer (gesturing toward Gretchen): She’s Batman.

Me: I was thinking more along the lines of Wonder Woman … but yeah. Same idea.

From different vantage points, each of us reached the same conclusion: there was no stopping Gretchen at this race. And THAT’s the kind of runner you want to hook yourself up with.

Finally, we reached the finish, where I still had to …

11. Capture the moment

Having been there a couple of times, I can attest that once you’ve completed a 100-miler, you really only want a couple of things: 1) a chair to rest in, and 2) to get the heck out of there so you can shower and go to bed. You’re not exactly in the mood to pose for pictures, and anything besides those two simple needs seems superfluous - and yet, there will come a time when you want to look back on that moment and recall how wonderful it all felt.

So be sure to take a picture. Because you never know when you’ll want to remember it all over again.


JamesBrett 8/9/10, 11:38 PM  

so did you start pacing at mile 30? when do pacers generally begin that part of their work? how do you know when to start; or how does the runner know when they'll want you to start?

brooklynrunning 8/10/10, 5:58 AM  

Nice "pacer" report. How many pacers were allowed? Just one, or could a few people have broken it up?

olga 8/10/10, 12:38 PM  

Great bonding, and yeah, I agree, #1 - pick the right runner! BTW, where is my picture with hot dude at 30M AS? :)

Donald 8/10/10, 6:42 PM  

James and Brooklyn: I started at mile 50 and did the whole 2nd half of the race. You pass the mile 30 aid station again at mile 80, and some runners don't start using pacers until that point, or they switch pacers there.

Olga: I'll mail it to you!

Boris Terzic 8/11/10, 8:59 AM  

Good pacer report. I've never had or been one before.

shel 8/11/10, 9:17 AM  

PERFECT! and all very true.

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