Monday, June 13, 2011

Pacing is weird

The sport of ultrarunning incorporates a particularly unique practice that participants refer to as "pacing." I can't think of a single other sport where an individual athlete recruits another runner, usually a volunteer or friend but sometimes paid, to shadow them on the course for a fair portion of the race and provide what basically amounts to emotional support. Physical support is discouraged and "muling" (carrying of any supplies) and short-roping are outright forbidden. A pacer can help with navigation (no, [insert fatigued runner's name here], that's a yellow ribbon, we go right. Yes, the ribbons were always yellow.) Depending on the runner, a pacer can also play the role of a relentless drill sergeant (What? Your feet hurt? Well you better start crying, because your feet are going to hurt a whole lot more if you don't pick up the pace soon), or soothing caretaker (I promise it's only three more miles to the next aid station. How many to the finish? Um ... not many more.) A pacer can also provide a voice of reason amid the pain and delusion (Yes, last I checked there were no reports of pink rabbits around here.) But what do pacers actually do? Why is pacing so popular, even among top competitors? And what's in it for the pacer, really? Half the work and none of the glory. The common motivations for pacing in ultrarunning still elude me.

I personally approve of pacing, for the very reason that it allows an opportunity to enjoy all of the camaraderie and scenery of a particular race without the responsibility or competition. Race pacing holds a special place in my heart because that's essentially how Beat and I, in our own strange and elusive styles, coerced each other into a first date. Shadowing Beat for 50 miles of the Bear 100 last September was a fantastic and memorable experience, and similar to other couples who enjoy revisiting the location of their honeymoon, I like to believe we can recreate the magic.

The San Diego 100 is held in the Laguna Mountains about 35 miles east of San Diego. It's an intriguing region, with conifer-studded mountain tops, wildflowers and green coastal shrubs on the west side, and the stunningly barren Anza Borrego Desert to the east. Just before the morning of the race, a thick layer of marine fog drifted in from the coast. It burned off to reveal a brilliant blue sky before the 7 a.m. start, but not before trapping an air mass that kept the higher elevations unseasonably cool while hot desert air gathered below. I watched Beat and our friends Harry, Steve and Martina start, the set to whittling away the morning with lots of breakfasts and blogging. The race checkpoints were all on the higher ridges, so I sat and shivered in my fleece jacket while my friends withered in the oppressive heat on the trail. Martina, the friend I was originally set to pace, developed stomach issues at mile 13. She battled on but unfortunately timed out at mile 31. Steve slumped into the 44-mile checkpoint with white streaks of salt across his shirt and a palpable expression of distress on his red face. He told me the heat was annihilating the runners and he could no longer take in food or water. He admitted to obsessively fantasizing about the extreme cold of the Susitna 100. Beat looked a little better for the wear after a volunteer gave him two Popsicles, but I drove toward the mile 51 checkpoint expecting carnage.

The moment was so similar to the way I remembered it, the way it was in September. The sun drifted below a nearby hillside and orange light spread across the horizon. Cool air settled as the breeze began to dissipate. I wasn't quite prepared because I had only just arrived at the race's halfway mark, and was still sitting in my vehicle when I noticed Beat's distinct grin and blue Skinfit shirt weaving through a crowd of spectators and volunteers. I nervously approached him and received the same playfully stern look. "Well, are you running?" Of course. That was the plan, even if it wasn't always the plan. I shouldered my hydration pack and grinned. This wasn't the Bear 100 anymore; I wasn't a beginner anymore, with ultrarunning or with Beat. We set out together into the expanding evening.

I really do love running overnight. The world closes in and hours drift away. Focus narrows tightly and opens to new and unexpected spaces, sometimes at the same time. The overnight trek is one of the best reasons to run a 100-miler, and, in my opinion, the best half of one. Beat had weathered the heat of the day fairly well, but the rocky desert trail had chewed up his feet, literally. We jogged the flatter portions of singletrack — this was difficult for even me due to the technical nature of the course — and kept a brisk walking pace on the climbs. Walking with Beat proved surprisingly difficult for me as well. For the first time since we started training together, I really noticed how much faster Beat's walking stride is compared to mine. Have you ever followed someone who walks faster than you down a street? You wonder, "Why is this person walking so fast?" as you lengthen your stride and quicken your feet to keep up with them. The motion not only feels unnatural, it's strangely more fatiguing to lesser trained muscles than running. Now, imagine doing this for several dozen miles.

But, as pacer, it was my job to maintain Beat's speed, and give him sweaty kisses when he said something funny or sweet. As the hours trickled toward early morning, the heat of the daytime swung extremely and rapidly in the other direction. I had looked at a local weather forecast that called for a low of 40 degrees, so I was prepared with the same clothing that I used in the Susitna 100 (minus heavy socks, down coat and shells), and by 2 a.m., I was wearing all of it, including mittens. Breath condensed thickly in the air and our Stroopwafels developed a nearly frozen consistency. The strange inversion kept the higher elevations relatively temperate at 45 degrees or so, but temperatures in the lower-lying regions near creeks easily dropped into the mid-30s. One crewperson I spoke to swore she noticed ice buildup in standing water bottles, although I doubt the temperature dropped below freezing. Still, for the runners, it was an insufferable change from 90 degrees earlier in the day. Steve caught up to us and admitted he was no longer fantasizing about the Susitna 100. His gloved fingers were so cold he was reduced to shoving them down his pants, prompting more jokes from our frozen tundra days. For me, properly dressed and relatively fresh, it was all good fun. But for the runners still reeling from earlier heat sickness, it was added insult to injury.

But, as it does in the best moments of real life, the sun always comes up for long-suffering ultrarunners. We left the mile 80 aid station and started along a particularly stunning section of the Pacific Crest Trail just as the night sky gave way to a spectacular strip of crimson red light over the desert horizon. Despite staying awake all day and night and traveling 30 miles, I didn't feel all that much physical fatigue, but my left foot had developed a pain that was transitioning from "annoying" to "semi-crippling." It's a burning, highly sensitive sort of pain on the lower outside of my foot; as best as I can determine, the pain is highly localized in either the lateral plantar fascia or connecting tissues surrounding it. I call it "hurty foot" because it feels like a bad bruise but doesn't seem to have the lingering effects of full-on plantar fasciitis. Of course, I always worry that it might develop into such.

I've only developed the full extent of this pain three times, all during 100-mile races. The last time it flared up was at mile 70 of the Susitna 100. Beat, like any good pacer would, helped talk me down from extreme grumpiness and the pain eventually numbed a bit. It didn't seem to produce any long-term damage. The time before that was at my mile 40 of the Bear 100. Beat stuck it out with me with me as my hobbling speeds slowed to 2 mph or less, and ended up finishing the race at least two hours later than he likely would have. This time, I didn't want Beat to take another time penalty on account of a broken pacer. Although I was loving our "date" and anxious to see the last 13 miles of the course, I had been reduced to moving too slowly to travel with Beat. I had to drop at the next checkpoint, my mile 37.

Beat went on to finish the San Diego 100 in 27:18:35, about 30 or 40 minutes after Harry. The sun brought back Steve's stomach problems and he finished in 27:27:27. As for my hurty foot, I do think there's the good chance it's the result of the unusual motion of strenuous walking over long distances, given that it hasn't cropped up at all during any of my more runnable 50Ks. I will have to stay wary of it ahead of the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, and probably should engage in nightly frozen water bottle rolling exercises. But overall it was a fantastic pacing date. Even though I still don't entirely understand the purpose of pacing, I hope I have a chance to redeem myself as one, someday.


  1. How do you kiss and run at the same time?

  2. You seem to be looking for purpose as a pacer for the pacer his/herself, which is completely missing the point. It's a selfless activity, the purpose being to just be there for the other person; not some sort of personal fulfillment for yourself as the pacer.

  3. Sounds like a great experience!

  4. Fonk, I understand that. That was the point of the original plan for me to pace Martina — to play a supportive role in providing a level of navigational competence, encouragement and gentle demands to continue eating and drinking. When she timed out and I quickly switched to running with Beat instead, that was purely for my benefit. Beat obviously doesn't need a pacer.

    I still think the practice as a whole is strange. The actual definition of pacing can be achieved with a good watch. Some runners question its fairness, which I think is valid. It's one thing for two competitors to run together and help each other through low points — which often happens in self-supported races — and another for one competitor to secure guaranteed coaching on the course while another has to fend for himself. Plus, having a pacer could backfire on a racer if personalities happen to clash. Still, in the mid to back-of-pack, I think it's mainly all about helping friends and having fun. I'm glad that the SD100 race organizers are so supportive of pacers.

  5. Oh yeah, I forgot your intent wasn't to pace Beat in the first place. I retract... :)

    I think pacers are a good idea in long events like this, even if just for safety. Some runners can start to lose focus, get clumsy, even hallucinate after many miles/hours out on the trail. As much as actually setting any pace, the pacer's job is really just to keep them upright, focused, motivated and moving forward. I suppose those who argue against them have this idea that the event's supposed to be all about mental toughness, too, and the pacers detract from that. I guess I can see their viewpoint, but ultimately this is still just racing, and safety should come first.

  6. SD100 is one of the best 100M courses out there. As for pacing - I, personally, stopped using them a few years back, but I would jump at any opportunity to offer it to others I know - and I had done it, and I loved every moment of it. No glory? Runner's satisfaction when they beat their wildest expectations while being paced by me:) I pay no entry fee, I get no nerves involved, I get to be a drill sergeant AND a care-giver (both of my favorite activities), I get to run beautiful trails, see tons of other people because I am much fresher than my runner, I get so much, I wonder why everybody else is not jumping on a wagon:) And - I get to tell stories for the next decade!
    Congrats to Beat and Steve. Make sure to take care of PF.

  7. Thanks Olga. I agree. Sometimes I write things on my blog that I intend to have more of a tongue-and-cheek humorous tone — such as the "no glory" statement — that don't seem to come across that way. I also agree with you about the SD100 course. The section I saw was incredible, much more rugged and beautiful than I expected. And the race organization goes above and beyond to ensure everyone has a great experience.

  8. Great photos and enjoyed the write up, it was "nice" to hear that other people also suffered at the Noble Canyon loop pain-fiesta.

    SD was my first 100 and having friends to pace and crew made the event more than just a very long run. It was nice to be able to laugh at every aid station and then focus on running rather than having to worry about possibly missing ribbons in the dark.

    As for why is pacing so popular? I think most ultra-runners are masochistic and don't like to miss out on the opportunity to put a few more miles in the bank. Plus shared experiences during hardship forms the strongest friendships.

  9. Nice, heading up to do Big Horn 50 in Wyoming. Ended up getting the Garmin...NICE tool!

  10. Have you considered "hurty foot" might be where your peroneus longus courses under the cuboid bone. The PL is involved in ankle stability. It can develop tendonitis where it does a turn from the side of the foot to run underneath the foot. The technical running means lots of work on your stabilizers. M.

  11. Pacing's been used in track and field running events forever. Called a "rabbit;" don't know if it's officially legal though.


Feedback is always appreciated!