How to be an Ultra Pacer – Part 3

So far we’ve learned much of what to expect when pacing someone, mostly through clinical analysis, hypothetical situations, and real life personal accounts sprinkled in to make it sound legitimate.  If you haven’t yet, you’ll need to get caught up by reading Part 1 and Part 2.  Hurry up and go do that now; we’ll wait for you…whatever.

Ok, now that we all have a grasp of how unglamorous pacing truly is (travel on your own dime, taking time off work, telling a grown person when to eat, often moving at a pace that makes you feel as though time is actually going backwards, and watching your runner cross the line to loud applause, hugs, medal, buckle, and other accolades while you stand alone off to the side, soup broth stains on your shirt, picking burrs out of your socks, and wondering where you can get a beer at 4 o’clock in the morning), we can now look at a case study in the form of one’s pacing duties at Western States 100 from last weekend.

Brandonali Fullerton

In fairness and to avoid any critical and/or theoretical analysis reaching the subject (runner), we will use fictitious names.  We will call our case study from this year’s Western States “Brandonali Fullerton”.  We’ll call him Brandon Fuller for short.

Brandon contacted me to pace him after his first choice of pacer made up some lame excuse for not being able to make it.  Personally, I’m certain it was because he had paced Brandon the last two years at Leadville.  The first year, Brandon ran the first half of the race like the finish line was at 50 miles, so the last 50 took him around 20 hours.  To his credit, and his pacer’s horror, he finished, averaging something like 800 meters per hour.  Last year, with all this experience (one crappily run 100 miler 12 months previous), Brandon apparently decided he could win Leadville and, in fact, was winning Leadville…for the first 1.5 miles, hitting the first aid station at mile 13 just minutes behind the leaders and about an hour ahead of his prescribed pace split.

By the time his pacer (Jay Pee Patrickonovich) picked him up at mile 50, Brandon was scraped hollow like an avocado shell and couldn’t remember his wife’s name.  This brings us to the exploding gels in the butt scene on Power Line (read Part 2) and eventual DNF.

Now, as mentioned in Part 1, a DNF can save a life.  Specifically, it can save the pacer from spending the 25 hours of slow walking and subsequent planning of the perfect accidental death of the runner.  The pacer can facilitate a DNF, thus ending the suffering, saving time, saving his runner’s life (from the pacer’s own throat strangling hands), and hopefully allow him time to find a good Pale Ale in the nearest town.  Subtle utterances work like, “Damn, we only covered one mile in the last two hours.  We won’t see the next aid station until sometime next week.”  Eventually, your runner will see the light and fold his cards.  Unfortunately, when you have an inexperienced ultra runner AND a novice (read innocent and un-calloused sympathetic loser) pacer, you have ensured yourself misery until death.

So, with one barely finished 100 miler (a dime sized belt buckle) and one DNF, Brandon got his name drawn in the Western States lottery (that bitch!).  I was happy for him (in a fun I-want-to-punch-you-in-the-throat sort of way) and offered my gifted, first-rate pacing services.  Initially turned down, I scratched BF off my large group (3) of friends and deleted him from my phone’s contact list.  Jay Pee came to his senses and made up some ridiculous excuse to back out of pacing Brandon at WS, like not wanting his legs to be tired for some race about 8 months later, and, low and behold, I get an email asking whether I’m free to pace the two-faced jerk.  The nerve of some people!  I happily accepted.

The months roll by with a couple of informational, detailed emails from Brandon to his crew and pacer (I never read them, so I can’t tell you what they were about).  Soon, it’s June 22nd, the day before the race and I text Brandon to tell him I’m on my way and will see him that morning.  We spend a little time together that day but don’t really discuss the race or the pacing.  Everyone else on his crew is so wrapped up in all the important details, like what color Underoos he’s going to change into after the race, that I just assume he’s leaving my pacing details and plans up to me.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had no plans other than to drag his dead carcass across the finish line before the clock hit 24 hours.

Two pacers awaiting their runners.  Gary Gellin lucked into pacing a sub 17 hour finisher, hence the reason he’s dressed in running clothes ready to fly and I’m, well, not.

After standing around for about 10 hours at my designated aid station, waiting for Brandon to hurry his ass up and meet me, I changed into my running gear and started getting excited to run.  As noted in part 1 of this guide, I was hoping my excitement matched Brandon’s.  That hope slowly dissolved as Brandon came into view.  His bow-legged shuffle was slow and choppy and the expression on his face looked as though he just worked a 12 hour shift at a butt sniffing factory.  He was also 15 minutes behind the splits for a 24 hour finish and we had roughly 40 miles to go.  I had my work cut out for me and knew I’d be employing all my pacing tricks to get him his undeserved silver buckle and save myself from 20 hours of torture.

Assume your runner is short on brains – you’ll have more compassion for him that way.

Once we left the bubble of comfort of his family and friends, all coddling him like a lost puppy, he was all mine and I began the task of snapping him to reality:  “You’re going to eat when I tell you and we’re going to move fast and efficiently until we cross the line.”  At first my sternness was met with whiny, “I don’t care about 24 hours.  I just want to finish.”  Wrong answer.  I’m as compassionate as the next guy.  Heck, I even once picked up a salt tab a fellow competitor dropped.  I ate it right in front of him, but at least I picked it up.

Every 20 minutes I’d calmly look back and tell Brandon it was time to eat.  I’d hear wrappers and disgusting sucking noises on his water tube, and I was content.  When I was a little kid, for some reason I hated taking baths.  My mom would fill the tub and I learned that I could go in the bathroom with the door closed and make splashing noises with my hand and touch parts of my hair with my wet hand to make it seem as though I’d taken a bath when, in fact, I was still grimy with the same dirt from days previous.  Eventually, my mother caught on and after losing a few patches of hair from minor child abuse, I agreed that taking a bath was the right choice.

I began to realize that Brandon was pulling the same shit on me, so I began asking him what exactly he ate.  “One Clif blok.”  “Brandon, that’s 25 calories.  That wouldn’t give a mouse enough energy to stand up.”  “Eat two more.”  20 minutes later, “Brandon, time to eat.”  [zipper and wrapper noises] “What’d you eat?”  “A pretzel.”  “Brandon, a fucking pretzel?  You need to eat more, NOW.”  This went on for a while until I started getting his food at aid stations for him, putting it in his hands and staring at him until I was content the food found his stomach.

Hwy 49 aid station.  BF left and me right.

The constant prodding to get your runner to move faster is a true art form.  You know he has a million miles on his legs and feels like shit but you also don’t want to waste half your life waddling slowly through the woods, so you find the edge you can push your runner to (figuratively, for now) and keep him there without going over that edge.  Once I saw that Brandon could hike at a nice clip, I began allowing him to walk more (it was usually faster than his “running” stride).  We maintained a pace that wouldn’t necessarily kill him, yet would allow me to keep my sanity.

Bribing works wonders.  I promised Brandon Ibuprofen once we reached mile 70.  Within 20 minutes he went from a slobbering, mute sloth to a jabbering speed demon.  We must have clicked off a couple 13 min miles!  I took advantage of my drug dealing and pushed him through the next hour, even having him lead us for a bit.  As I pointed out previously, pacer talking is a no-no.  Follow your runner’s lead when it comes to talking.  Nobody cares about your kid’s stupid little birthday party after he’s been up for 18 hours and covered 75 miles.  If the runner wants to talk, that’s a sign the pace can increase.  Whenever Brandon started talking about something (to which I wasn’t paying attention), I would turn the pace up just a bit so it was barely noticeable but would make him stop talking.  It was like the volume on the family stereo.  If you could hear other noises in the house, you could probably turn the volume up a surgical fraction.  It was easy to tell if you had it too high because your brother or father would come into the room, kick you as you scrambled under the sofa and then snag your “Air Supply” record off the turn table, needle ripping crossways through the lovely falsetto songs (wait, did I just write that out loud?).  It’s a balancing act and can be mentally draining to achieve the desired results.

I was losing the battle with Brandon, but the war was still within grasp.  I gave up on making him run.  He was shelled and I can tell when there’s nothing left to give.  This is the point (around mile 94-ish) when you need to act like you have a heart, walnut-sized perhaps, but you have one.  Remind the runner of all the sacrifices he’s made and how selfish he’s been with his family and how it’s all going to be worth it in just a few short miles.  In no time he’ll be crossing the deserted finish line in the middle of the night and get a cheap belt buckle that only the biggest tool would wear in public.  Inspirational.

At the finish, the pacer typically peels off and allows the runner to act as though he ran the entire race alone, no aid, no crew, no pacer.  He crosses the line, announcer proclaims his name and accomplishment, family and friends embrace him, tears of happiness flow.  And there you are, standing alone to the side in your filth, cantaloupe juice stains on your shirt, wondering where the hell your car is parked.

Pacing is a true art form that some will never master.  It takes a certain mentality mixed with physical ability.  It basically sucks.

Brandon came back from a 15 minute deficit to finish sub 24 hours in 23:22 at Western States.  Congratulations, Brandonali.

Here’s Brandon’s Report

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2 thoughts on “How to be an Ultra Pacer – Part 3

  1. Good stuff. When I listen to your podcasts I always enjoy them, but am among those who wish you still wrote blog posts. Good satire on this tiny niche sport is rare and satisfying.

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