How To Choose Your Sidekick, AKA Pacer
[Editor’s Note: While some readers may prefer to run without crew and pacers, this article is designed for readers who are interested in employing pacers to assist with their ultramarathons.]
As many of you already know, running an ultramarathon (of any distance) is a large undertaking. You are devoting a ton of physical, mental, and emotional stress to a single experience or goal. This stress often intensifies as the race’s distance lengthens. So, how do you get through the what some may call ‘crazy’ distances without completely losing your shit? One simple way is to have amazing crew and pacers.
Obviously you need to be in physical shape to complete the distance. But still, your crew and pacers are cornerstones to keeping your mental and emotional game intact.
While a crew is fantastic for every ultra distance from 50k to 100-plus miles (hell, a crew can even rock for a 5k especially when it’s raining, cold, and you need a change of clothes at the finish line), a pacer can come in really handy during a 100 miler.
But, bear in mind that crewing and pacing are pretty specific jobs. And when you select them, take heed: Not everyone is cut out for just anything.
Exactly. There is a strategy for crewing and pacing that many people overlook. And the jobs are quite different, and therefore, should be reserved for different types of people.
For instance, you shouldn’t ask your training partner who is quick to soften up and bail early on runs when they get tough and long, to pace you. If you are struggling (which you undoubtedly will be at one point or another), you don’t want your ‘softie’ friend pacing. (He or she might encourage dropping early when they see you suffering.) Instead, give the softie a job on the crew where he or she can whisper (or yell) sweet nothings in your ear when you come through an aid station.
Or maybe that person is in charge of ‘nurturing’ things like preparing your food (if you are picky like me and really just want bacon and avocado roll-ups), dealing with blisters, handing you a change of clothes, and similar. All of the aforementioned jobs aren’t good for the friend that tells you months before the race things like: “We’re going to get you across the finish line even if you’re crawling” or “I don’t care how bad you feel, you’re finishing the damn race.” That’s, er, either a masochist or… a really good pacer. Are they the same?
Ashley and I know how to beat the shit out of each other during training runs. But we also know when to play nice. It’s taken some time, sure, but we’ve figured out the formula. In my opinion, it was a no brainer to pace Ashley at the 2013 Leadville 100. And in terms of our friendship, I figured it would be a true testament if we still had the ability to get along at mile 75 in a hundo.
I should step in for a minute here and point out that, while yes, it was a no brainer, at the same time, I was nervous about it. Gina and I know each other so well that we can easily find ourselves in arguments over nothing at all when we’re exhausted. Easy to take it out on the ones closest to you, right?
The end of a 100 miler created the perfect recipe for such petty nonsense. While I knew Gina was the perfect candidate to ‘stick to the plan’ and make me do exactly what I wanted to do, I worried I’d get mad or push back. Or worse still, tell her she was following the wrong plan. Eh, I might have done that last one.
The point of all of this, though, is to think hard about who you want out there by your side in the wilderness and why. And while Gina was, in the end, a solid choice, when you’re thinking of throwing in your best friend, it could go either way. Thankfully, Gina takes plans—and jobs—very seriously…
From my experience as a pacer, I had three specific jobs:
- Remind Ashley to eat every 30 minutes. Umm, not as simple as it may sound. Trying to convince your runner to happily swallow the same goop they’ve been consuming for the past 15 hours is no easy chore. I think this was the only thing Ash may have quarreled with me about.
- Control the pace. Before the race began, Ash and I talked about what timed pace I should keep her at for the last quarter of the race. This again can be a battle. Your runner will experience highs and lows and the best thing you can do to prevent a blow-up is to keep an even pace. Let them throw down the hammer the last five to 10 miles if they’ve got it… otherwise, stick to the plan.
- Revive the sanity. By the time your runner hits the last quarter of the race, they’re bound to start loosing marbles. I called this period the ’50 shades of Ashley.’ As the pacer, it is your job to help them stay even keeled, positive, focused. At one point, Ashley was convinced she was hearing voices in the woods. It was at 11 p.m., which made things creepy. I had to convince her that it was just the wind in the trees so she wouldn’t be freaked out that we were being chased. (Since she was leading, I guess we were technically being chased.)
So, I haven’t actually paced Gina yet. Well, unless you count long runs or workouts. We pace each other on those things. I’m finally getting to return the favor, though, this February in Arizona at the Black Canyon 100k, when Gina vies for a spot in the 2015 Western States 100 at this Montrail Ultra Cup race.
And that’s another thing. Pacing has a certain karma to it. You can’t just hog all the pacers and never pace anyone else. Pacing is a giving role. Racing is a taking role. There is a certain balance between the two you must obtain. I’ve been running ultras long enough that I’ve scooped up my fair share of crew and pace people. It’s my turn to take some time to balance out the scales…
Perhaps Gina should expound on this a bit…
Ash and I were at Upslope Brewery in North Boulder, Colorado post-run one day, indulging in an IPA and race talk. I got on the topic of the Black Canyon 100k, and how it would be great to have a crew and pacer. Secretly I was hopeful that Ash would be my sidekick for the trip, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Five minutes later, though, to my surprise, she booked a flight and told me how she wasn’t going to let me leave that race without putting it all out on the trail. This was just the type thing I need and want to hear from a pacer.
I’m sure I’ll get annoyed with her at some point during the race and will want to push her down a canyon, but if there is someone who knows how to get me into the right gear when I’m in a funk, or even when I’m not, it is Ash. Knowing your sidekick, and knowing that your sidekick knows you could be a major key to having a successful race.
I guess we will see how things turn out on February 14! If there are no more Trail Sisters articles after that time, you will know how things went.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- If you have had a pacer before, what have been her or his best qualities for you?
- For those of you who have paced, what are some things you’ve learned you should–and shouldn’t–do?
- Finally, have you paced or been paced by someone you’re really close to, like a spouse or best friend? What was the experience like?