Seeing Things from the Other Side

When I began running ultras in 2006, I jumped into racing with no exposure to the sport. I ran a few low-key races in Alaska (one 50k, one 50 miler, and one hundred miler), and, then, I began travelling from Alaska to the lower 48 to run whatever races happened to pop onto my radar. I knew nothing of the history of the sport, and nothing of the racing scene and culture.

To illustrate how little I knew, I can recall that when I ran my first ultra in the lower 48 (Miwok 100k, 2008), a few minutes into the race I was running side-by-side with a tall guy with a full head of curly dark hair. I remembered him introducing himself to me as “Scott.” It was only days later when reading some news online about the race that I realized that he was one of the most accomplished and well-known runners ever to take part in the sport.

As another indication of how clueless I was about the sport I was beginning to take part in, I remember when I finished Miwok that day, I was immediately approached by Greg Soderlund, then-director of Western States. When he congratulated me on my third-place finish and asked me if I was aware that I had just qualified for a guaranteed entry into his race that would happen in seven weeks, not only was I not aware of this fact, but I really didn’t even know what Western States was. I seem to recall that I had heard of it at the time, but, certainly, I knew nothing more about it, I didn’t even know where it was.

There was one more thing that occurred that day that was even more telling of how clueless I was beyond me not knowing who Scott Jurek was or what Western States was. 2008 was the year that Dave Mackey set the Miwok course record. (Easily one of the two or three best performances I have ever witnessed.) Dave was on fire right from the start and it was clear that no one was going to stay with him that day. I was running pretty comfortable in second place most of the day, but began to struggle around mile 50 as the accumulated fatigue of so much running was starting to set in. Compared to everything I had run in Alaska, the Marin trails are very smooth, very hard packed, and thus very runnable, and my legs were feeling this extra impact of having run nearly every step up to that point. Somewhere around mile 50, Jon Olsen and his pacer went blowing by me. The thing was, I had no idea what a pacer was, so I assumed that I had just been passed by two runners (one of whom looked amazingly fresh). I remember feeling really dejected by this. I felt like I could handle being passed by one runner at that time, but two of them seemed like just too much. I was frustrated and tried to find another gear to chase them to the finish. Unfortunately, the only other gears I found in the remaining 10 miles were even slower. I plodded along and finally made it back to the start/finish area. When Soderlund came up to me to congratulate me on my third-place finish, I assumed that someone ahead of me had dropped out of the race, or that he was simply mistaken, and that I had, in fact, finished in fourth place. It wasn’t until weeks or months later when I learned what a pacer was that it suddenly popped into my head, “Oh, that’s why I finished third instead of fourth at Miwok.”

After this, I went on to race nearly 30 more ultras in the next four years, in a couple of them I even used a pacer myself. However, because of the way I jumped blindly into the sport, I had never actually paced (or even crewed) anyone in a race myself. In fact, it wasn’t until sometime in the past year or two that I had ever been to a race that I wasn’t taking part in myself. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in other runners, and doing what I could to improve their experience, but rather, I was just so into racing myself that, if I was going to go to a race at all, I was going to race.

This mindset, of course, took its toll on my body. I have now spent the better part of the past 18 months recovering from severe physical effects of compromised health likely due to over-racing. As a result, I have had many more opportunities to attend races that I wasn’t racing myself. With my health improved enough now, I was even able to pace a friend for the last 30-plus miles of Pine To Palm 100 a couple weeks ago. In many ways, I feel like my experience of pacing brought me full circle back to the opposite side of the point I was at more than five years ago, when I didn’t even know what a pacer was.

Through pacing and crewing, I was able to see what it’s like for other people to run hundred milers, not just what it was like for me. As the runners came through the aid stations, I found myself often noticing little things that I never realized runners commonly did during races. I always assumed that I did things more or less the way everyone else did. In some cases this was true, in many cases it wasn’t true at all. I saw all these really obvious things for the first time that most people observe early on in their involvement in the sport if they attend races as spectators, pacers, and/or crew. Not only had I never watched a 100-mile race, but rarely had I run a 100-mile race in which I was running with other runners for very much of the race, and never in the second half of the race.

The actual experience of pacing was in some ways entirely familiar and in other ways entirely different than running those same miles as part of my own race. At times, I was aware of my own body and my own needs, and, at these times, it didn’t feel that much different than racing my own race. The majority of the time, though, as a pacer you are observing and assessing what your racer is doing, and completely ignoring your own body. It is in these moments that the whole thing becomes an entirely different experience than I have ever, or could ever have running my own race. In doing so much to take care of someone else’s needs it becomes almost easier to deal with our own situation, because we simply stop thinking about our own situation. This isn’t to say that pacing is easy on any level, but in hindsight it is kind of funny that I was stressed about how much I might struggle to run 33 miles, as this would be the longest run I had done in about 18 months.

Certainly it was a very demanding thing for me to do, but in the moment none of this mattered, I just selflessly made sure everything was going as smooth as possible for my friend who had been grinding out the miles for the entire day. My experience still mattered, and I needed to be sure to take enough care of myself to be able to make it the distance, but his experience mattered so much more, that it somehow made it all easier for me. A pacer is there for the benefit of the racer, but having the racer there as a diversion certainly makes the experience much easier for the pacer. A wonderfully effective and satisfying symbiotic relationship.

If pacing surprised me by being perhaps more satisfying, and in a weird way easier than I expected, crewing certainly had the opposite effect. Crewing for a runner in a 100-mile race is an exhausting experience with only a few short diversions offered by your runner. It’s waking up at 4:00 a.m., spending the majority of your day in the car looking for out-of-the-way aid stations on secondary roads which are likely not on the map, stressing about whether you’ve missed your runner, and forgetting to do much of anything to take care of yourself.

One of the hardest things about pacing is that you typically crew your runner all day before you start your pacing duties. When I actually began to run with my friend shortly after sunset, I felt nearly as exhausted as I might have expected had I run all day. Within minutes of pacing, though, everything just melted away. Without question, the most relaxing and effortless hours of the nearly 22 that my friend spent running Pine to Palm were the seven-plus that I spent running with him.

In one way, I found crewing to be a lot like racing: large portions of the overall fun come in the satisfaction of being successfully done with it as opposed to actually enjoying every moment of it at the time. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the crewing and that I don’t intend to crew for him or other friends in the future, but more to observe just how much everyone is giving that has done this for friends and family in the past.

In the end, I was just hanging out at a race all day, and there were a lot of things about that that I understood and expected, but certainly I was in a unique position having run so many races, but having spent almost no time at races that I wasn’t running myself. I learned a lot of subtle little things that I was never aware of. A lot of things that will make my experiences at races (as a racer or otherwise) in the future a lot more complete, and a lot more satisfying. This coming weekend I am going to be at UROC, helping run one of the aid stations. I look forward to seeing what I find out from looking at things from that angle, another aspect that I’ve more or less missed out on by always competing in the races that I’ve gone to.

I’ll end by saying thank you to my friend Bryan for letting me run those last 33 miles with you, and saving me from the grind of crewing for several more hours. And to my friends Deb and Sidra (Bryan’s wife and daughter) who did crew for several more hours, you two were amazingly selfless and patient all day and well into the night. It was great to see the crewing/pacing side of a 100-mile race from the inside rather than from the outside looking in. All of you that have ever done it are incredibly generous, and are impressive endurance athletes in your own right.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When you turn from runner to volunteer, crew, pacer, or anyone who supports the running efforts of others, what do you learn from and notice about the runners you assist?
  • What do you think is harder, running or crewing, and why?

There are 28 comments

  1. Vern L

    Excellent article. I've run triathlons, running races, bike races, and I have never helped at one. I was always racing them. If someone would have asked, I would have helped, but I'm sure there were times when I could have volunteered and told someone I was available to help and it would have been appreciated.

    I've always seen athletes (myself included) as very self-centered, selfish with their time, their help, their energy for others. Even their own families. There are only so many hours in the day to train and recover, plan for races, travel, and eat. Because ultras are so demanding from participating runners and the crew, it's interesting for me to see ultra-runners – those I thought must be the most selfish with their time of anyone, crewing for, pacing for others. It's a cool twist on things.

    Ultra running is so many things… it isn't all competition. I'm finding that out the more I watch from the sidelines here in Thailand. I haven't done my first ultra, but considering it as I build up my strength. I'm really enjoying finding out about this great sport, the social aspects, the competition, the giving, the rivalries, the old-schoolers, the climbers vs. the road runners, the ultra-cool personalities and the knobs of the sport. Really glad I tuned in. Hopefully I'll be able to take part at some point in the near future.

  2. Tim

    I came to Western States in 2012 to crew for my friend, Jez Bragg. It was fantastic to experience the front end of a major race such as this. Somewhere I would never be if racing myself. It was exhausting, especially with jetlag coming from England, but was also one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

    I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to see the sharp end of a race or if planning to run that race yourself one day, for any race.

  3. Charlie M.

    Great article. I've paced 12 times, and my runner has gotten lost all 12 times. I've crewed 17 times, and I've mixed up my runner's drop bags all 17 times. I've run 11 ultras without any help and everything has gone perfectly.

  4. Wes Neubeck

    There is no other sport like this where people selflessly sacrifice time, money, and physical strain to help others finish. I understand how some races don't want to have pacers, but man its fun to run with a friend after 60+ miles of being alone. This has me coming back each time.

  5. Patrick Krott

    Yup, crewing sucks, but it's very important and it's our duty to do it for our friends because we know they'll do it for us.

    I honestly think it's easier to run 100 miles than it is to crew.

  6. Shelby

    I've paced several times and helped crew at a few stations and pacing is definitely easier! Aid stations are so fun, possibly as much fun as pacing.

    I think that any front runner that has a chance to pace someone in the mid-pack or back-of-the-pack gets a golden opportunity to see the race from a very different perspective. Those in the back are basically racing against their past times…against themselves. The great camaraderie among all the runners makes the time go faster and I've found myself remembering the great conversation during the hard parts, rather than how hard it was.

  7. Ken Sinclair

    Well said Geoff, I've crewed/paced at several 100's for my wife and friend and I find it a very refreshing and satisfying outlook on my own running. Glad you too got to enjoy the other side.

  8. Brian

    Great article Geoff…an interesting and spot on assessment of pacing and crewing. Awesome to hear that you are working your way back into things with a 33 mile run!! The best to you…and hoping you continue on your path to a full recovery.

  9. Todd

    Besides your race report from Iditarod I think this is your best piece to date. Thank you for sharing. I feel as though through crewing/pacing/aid station volunteering we in fact become better runners with a more holistic view of ultras.

  10. Ethan Veneklasen

    Excellent post Geoff. I have posted quite a bit about how important it is for experienced ultrarunners and race directors to help educate new comers (both fast and slow) about some of the traditions of the sport. I really appreciated your honest reflections on your introduction to the sport.

    I LOVE pacing. It is WAY harder than most folks think for all of the reasons your outline, however it is a great gift to be able to share the experience of a 100 with a friend. Congrats for all of your accomplishments and have a great time at UROC!!!

  11. LjD

    I paced for the first time last month and loved it. It was great to see someone accomplish their goal, but also, as Geoff said, a great learning experience and way to preview a course and get a good, long training session in. Definitely something I would do again.

  12. AV1611-Ben

    Geoff. One thing. The *entire* ultra community really, really wishes you all the best on your road to recovery. We all want you back out there racing again – and healthy in doing so! You have the ability to inspire all of us, and that ability is rare.

  13. Scott

    Without sharing any of these new insights you experienced I am left feeling as if I was just talking to a runner who wants to keep all his secrets to himself while claiming to be "in it for the sharing". Just my 2 cents.

  14. mc

    hey geoff – P2P happened to be my first 100 and my first experience with a crew and pacer. you articulated so well what a pacer and crew must go through to get their runner to the finish. i was so grateful for them. i happened to hear that you were pacing and i was happy to see you are slowly getting back. i hope you enjoyed the trails as much as i did and the view from dutchmans peak.

  15. Bryan Hitchcock

    And thanks again to you Geoff, and Deb and Sidra, for your support all day and night! It was truly special to share the experience of a 100 with my family and one of my best friends. For only seeing crew briefly during a 100 it is amazing how much energy and motivation it can bring both coming into an aid station and leaving. Knowing I was picking up not only a pacer, but a great friend who i've spent many hours and miles with was HUGE. I kept telling myself all day, 'get to Geoff in decent shape so he doesn't have a total train wreck on his hands'. Well that kinda worked, thanks for keeping me together. I truly look forward to returning the favor as crew or pacer someday, hopefully soon.

    Cheers,

    B

  16. M.E.

    One of the most rewarding experiences I've had was crewing for a friend at the Bryce 100 earlier this summer. Seeing an ultra from that side made me appreciate the hard work that goes into it. I was a crew of one and had a fantastic time helping runners in and out of aid station while I was waiting for my runner. Everyone should crew or volunteer at an aid station. You may not get a buckle, but you'll get a warm fuzzy feeling and the thanks of all those you see.

  17. Davide

    Great write up.

    I'm from Italy, where we don't have pacing and crewing is limited or non existent.

    First time I got some kind of help, was during UTMB 2011, my first hundo. I knew my gf and her brother where coming to the race, and I expected them to be at Coumayeur where I arrived in a bad state after a long night.

    Unfortunately they weren't, and, as stupid as it might sound, I felt completely crushed. I sat down on my own, refocused and also thanks to some chit chat with Bryon(yes, that Bryon) I kinda got some spirit and went out for the hard climb to Bertone. Closing in to the AS I finally saw them… It brought a smile on my face, and from then on I just gained momentum and finished in a completely unexpected time also thanks to their support through the night.

    Year after, I got in WS (I know, lucky bastard). When in the States, go as the Yanks, isn't it? Therefore I enlisted for a pacer. A guy contacted me, and he immediately sounded great. You know when you have the feeling that you just met someone you get along perfectly? Once I arrived in Auburn we finally met: Chris had organized EVERYTHING for me! He was splitting the pacing with another great guy (and former Auburn Running Company employee Carey), he got me a cooler and two chairs, all the infos possible, being a previous finisher, and he introduced me to the local comunity. He came on Friday to Squaw to make me a surprise visit and on Saturday morning I was 100% sure at the start that I had all what was needed to come the other way round. He just gave me incredible confidence to have Chris, Carey and my gf crewing and pacing for me. I did ok until Michigan Bluff, and I hold on 'til Bath Road: when I saw him, it was like someone took a weight off my back. We started running, met his friends and Carey in Foresthill cheering and once on the Cal Loop we simply took off at a crazy pace. The more we run, the more I wanted to go faster. We talked about running, life, family, everything. We arrived at Green Gate and nobody was there. Panic. I just went on and told Chris to meet me at Highway 49. Some dark thougts came to my mind but I pressed on and after 30 mins someone's calling me from behind: Carey catched up with me after hitching a ride to the station due to a broken bus. Laughters, relax and we went on, bonding like I did with Chris: just two old mates on a run. Well, the finish mile in the middle of the night with both of them and my gf, still rates as one of the best moments EVER. I felt privileged to be the one crossing the line, getting the buckle and the attention, when, from my point of view, they were the one who got me there.

    To cut the story short, from that moment on, I feel like I have a commitment to the ultrarunning scene: I know I have to put some time to help other runners,to help organizers, to help guys who are just coming to the sport. And once I started, I discovered is as much fun as actually running a race firsthand. It's the biggest lesson I've learned from ultras.

    Chris and Carey became two friends and we obviously keep in contact, but if they happen to read here (which might be since they're running geeks like me): thank you again, memories from my WS will always stay with me (still hope to run it few more times, eh). Hope I'll exchange the favour sometime soon guys!

  18. Kurt Decker

    Wow what a great write up!! Like you said most people do not see how hard both pacing and crewing can be. Then add something like working a aid station and your feeling as a runner changes forever in a good way. Keep at it Geoff and all this will make you a even better runner.

  19. Linn

    I recently crewed my husband at the TDS. I'd crewed ultras lasting over 20 hours before, but never in foreign countries and certainly not by myself. I'm have to say that I it was one of the best race experiences that I've ever had, and certainly the toughest. The Haute Savoie region is stunningly beautiful and I quite possibly would have never made it there had it not been for this race. I do get very nervous driving on switchbacks, and I had many hours of them, most without guardrails, and many in pitch blackness. My GPS failed me time and again, so I stopped even trying it, and relied on my trusty maps and France's fantastic directional signs. I am happy to report that I didn't get lost until the very end, when I was trying to beat him to the finish line in Chamonix, a town that I had walked for days and should have known by heart! (It was 4am, I'd been up for 24 hours, that's a good excuse, right?) UTMB just announced a shorter race next year, the OCC, and my husband wants me to try for it. There were many times during UTMB week that I dreamed of being one of the participants, but now I know I am, whether I run or not.

  20. Rich

    Geoff,

    Thanks so much for this and your other thoughtful pieces on this phase of your running life. I'm facing spending the weekend at UROC not racing as well, so it's great to think about what I can learn from being on the other side as well!

    Cheers,

    Rich

  21. Dvroes

    I would like to relate a story about my most memorable crewing experience. Geoff's brother, Shawn, and I crewed for him at W.S. 2010. We flew into San Francisco and rented a car. Geoff was camping, in the mountains, near Truckee. Our first job was to get to Geoff's camp site to wake him at around 3:30, in time for the opening ceremonies at Squaw Valley. We arrived with a few minutes to spare. We discretely came into the campground with our lights off so that we would not disturb the other campers. We got out of the car and started to change into some warmer clothes when the car alarm was set off. We were not much of a hit in the campground. After that it was a bit hectic getting to all of the spots where we could crew before he arrived. I felt like Geoff did most of the crewing and we were just there with whatever he was instructing us to have for him. the most exciting times were the river crossing, where he dowsed himself with water and then jumped right into the river. This seemed to totally rejuvenate him. The other being when he gave us high fives when entering the track at Placer High. I've never run an ultra but it is pretty exciting and gratifying from the other side. (and hectic)

  22. Rachel

    I am new to ultra running (only 2 years) and have only done 2 ultra races. I have many friends who are far more experienced racers than I (even those who have been ultra running for as long as I have but just have raced far more), and they have paced and crewed races. It always looks like so much "fun" and quite an experience. I would love to be able to take part in both crewing and pacing but feel I should have more experience as a runner if I am going to be expected to look after another person. I realize pacing doesn't mean I have to pace someone for 20+ miles…but I suppose there always has to be a first time! Hoping I get that opportunity in the next few years.

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