Tuesday, May 31, 2016


According to Western States 100 race doc, a pacer can be defined as:

A pace runner, or pacer, is defined as a “trail companion” who may accompany a runner along designated sections of the trail. Pacers are allowed solely as a safety consideration for fatigued runners in the remote and rugged territory of the Western States Trail. Absolutely no physical or mechanical aid may be given by the pacer to assist the runner over difficult sections of the trail (except in medical emergencies), and no food, fluids or supplies of any kind may be carried for the runner.
Pacers should be experienced trail runners in excellent physical shape and conditioned adequately to run 40 miles over rough terrain. Most pacing will be done during night time hours and early morning; so pacers should be warmly dressed, used to running with flashlights, and familiar with the trail. Pacers should be adequately supplied with flashlights, food and water. They may accept aid at the checkpoints.
A pacer is an encourager, therapist, drill sergeant, decision maker, guide...and so many things that can not be put into words. Ultra distance races allow pacers for the safety of the runner.  Many times, when you have been running for over 12 or so hours, you might not be in the position to make the best choices for yourself regarding whether you should eat, what you should eat, how close you should get to the edge of that cliff...your pacer is there to help you to overcome the unexplained desire to eat those peanut m&m's when you have a raging peanut allergy, and remind you that you might be shivering uncontrollably because your jacket is still tied around your waist.

Choosing a pacer is not something you should take lightly.  The wrong personality choice can be fatal to your race.  I have heard stories where after running 90 miles, a runner has to drop their pacer because the pacer is whining too much or the pacer simply can not keep up with their runner.  Before you make a knee jerk decision to ask your best buddy or your spouse (This can ruin your race at best and damage your marriage at worst.  Yes there are exceptions, but they are just that - exceptions) to pace you, there are a few things you need to consider.

First - What type of runner are you towards the end of a race when you are fatigued?  When you are feeling this way - what would you respond better to?  Do you want someone to be a cheerleader?  Comedian? Strong, silent type?  Drill sergeant?

Second - Out of your group of friends - who have you run enough long distances with so that you are familiar with their attitude when they are fatigued?  Pacing usually takes place in the later hours of a race when your pacer has already been standing around all day waiting on their chance to run with you.  They will be tired.  When night falls, they will be sleepy.  Whether they are doing 20 or 40 miles with you, they will be working hard under rough conditions.  You need to have a pretty good idea of someone's true grit before considering them as a pacer option. 

The best way to illustrate this is to tell you a few of my pacer stories.  As with every aspect of my 100 miler journey, this was a procession of bad to excellent choices.  Hopefully this can help you make the right decision.

ROCKY RACCOON 100 MILER 2011 - Pacer Disaster
Going into the 2011 100 miler (my first), I was planning to run the whole thing with a friend at the time.  This was a great idea until at mile 60 he was called away for a family emergency, leaving me facing the last 40 miles of my first 100 miler completely alone. I did mile 60 - 80 in the pitch black, sub freezing weather on my own.  You haven't lived until you find yourself trying to change the batteries of your headlamp while sitting on the side of the trail in complete darkness, next to a lake, with no other runners anywhere to be seen, using frozen hands and minimal fine motor skills due to exhaustion (probably 18 hours into the race at this point).  For mile 80-100 a well meaning person decided they would keep me company.  I would have been better on my own.  Every time I moaned from jamming a toe, they encouraged me to sit down, and they made sure I knew that this was really a hard thing for them and that they were still sore from a race they had run the previous weekend, etc., etc.  When at mile 93 I found myself thinking angrily about how I was going to do it better the next year...I knew I was hooked.  Finish time:  27:55

ROCKY RACCOON 100 MILER  2012 - Perfect pacers, terrible conditions
As soon as I healed from 2011, I started planning 2012.  First order of business - lining up pacers.  My two first thoughts were Mark Weineke (an experienced trail runner who has completed most of the toughest 100 milers in the US) and John Fell (a multiple Ironman finisher, mountain biker, and all around tough dude).  Luckily they both agreed, and 2012 I was ready and aiming for a sub 24 hour finish.  Mother Nature had a different idea, and after torrential downpours for most of the 100 miles, slogging through mud, rinsing sand out of my shoes....I finished in 25:28.  Shy of my goal, but I was satisfied considering the conditions.  Mark and John were wonderful pacers, and this run helped me to fine tune what I was looking for:  I like for my pacer to run slightly ahead and guide me along the trail, many runners like the pacer to run just off of their shoulder (even the side they want them on varies).  I also like for my pacer to keep light conversation but not to expect me to answer them.  Both of these guys were perfect at this.  But, I didn't reach my goal so when planning for the next year...

Mark Weineke - expert pacer, great guy!

ROCKY RACCOON 100 MILER 2013 - When the stars align
Just before putting my money down on RR2013, my first call was John Fell.  He not only agreed to pace me again for this redemption run, he offered to do the last 40 miles with me.  He had never run that far, but John is one of the toughest human beings I know, so I wasn't worried.  8 months of hard training later, and we find ourselves at Rocky.  I managed to stick exactly to my predicted splits for the first 60 miles, and knew that I would do whatever John told me to do for the last 40 miles.  John had run enough with me at that point to know me pretty well.  He would tell stories (he tells great stories) and told me from the beginning that if I wanted him to shut up just to tell him.  I told him he could talk all he wanted just not to expect much banter on my part.  I knew I would have to work harder than I ever had to achieve my goal, and I didn't want the pressure of conversation.

John would run slightly ahead of me and guide me to the smoothest sections of the trail (there are TONS of roots at RR).  When the roots got too nasty, we would walk for through them then run again.  When we got to aid stations, John did two things that were very important - he made sure I was getting the fuel I needed, but he also made sure he got all of the fuel that he needed.  A pacer who bonks is of no use to anyone.

On the last 20 mile loop, John started bargaining with me.  I was beyond rational thought at this point, and working on sheer survival instinct.  I can't even describe how this last loop feels.  You just have to experience it for yourself.  It was then that John told me that if I gave him 5 minutes of running, I would get to walk for 1 minute.  As I got more and more fatigued, he would tell me to give him 1 minute of running and I would get 1 minute of walking.  All this time John never looked at his watch, so I knew he wasn't really keeping time, but he somehow knew when I was almost at my breaking point because that is when he would let me walk.  It worked.  Finish time 23:27

This is just one example of many I could give of how the right pacer can make a world of difference in the kind of race you have.  What qualities in John Fell did I see that made me think he would be a good pacer for me?

1.  He is an experienced long distance athlete, and I know he is very familiar with suffering and would understand to some degree where I was at in my head.
2.  He is a plain spoken person - no bullshit or flattery - just truth.  I like that.  
3.  John has high expectations from himself and everyone around him.  I have tremendous respect for him and what he has achieved, and I would NEVER want to let him down.
4.  He is physically capable of completing the distance required of him and barring injury, I never had to worry about John slowing me down.
5.  We met prior to the race to go over race splits, nutrition plan, etc., so he knew exactly what plan I was following and what my goals were, and he was experienced enough to understand any spur of the moment changes that might need to be made.
6.  He wanted me to reach my goal almost as much as I did.
John Fell.  No words to explain this feeling.

To end a too long post, keep these things in mind:

Some people will find the idea of pacing you for an ultra distance race sexy or may think it sounds cool for them to say that they were a part of an ultra.  Avoid these people.  The idea may sound sexy but the reality is not.  If they are the type to make it about them, they are not the type to be of any help to you.

Some people will get their feelings hurt because you don't ask them to pace you.  Let them.  This is your race, not a popularity contest.  As with any task, you choose the tool that will most effectively help you to achieve your goal. If they are that sensitive, they would suck as a pacer anyway.

Because you think you might end up walking the last 10 miles of your race, don't pick a pacer who is only qualified to walk 10 miles.  If the stars align and you are crushing the course, the last thing you want to do is wait on a pacer.

When you choose a pacer, choose someone with thick skin.  You may not be rude necessarily later in the race, but you will be pretty raw and you will not give a damn about your pacers feelings....until a day or two later.  Choose someone with a good sense of humor.

Any specific questions about this topic, post on the Paix Running Facebook page or email me at PaixRunning@gmail.com.

Happy Running!