The Art and Science of Pacing

AJWs TaproomLast weekend I had the honor and privilege of pacing 25-year old Arizonan Nick Coury at the Grindstone 100 Miler here in Central Virginia. My assignment was to pick him up at Mile 66 and run with him to the finish. Given the unique format of Grindstone this meant I could actually watch the start, return home for dinner and a full night’s sleep, and get on the trail with Nick at around 6:00 am (12 hours after he started).

The plan worked perfectly and at 6:00 am sharp we ran out of The Wild Oak Trail Parking Lot and began the last leg of Nick’s journey back to Camp Shenandoah. For the first few miles we chatted off-and-on about the race, the competition, the weather, and the warmth of the rising sun. Then, about a mile before the 72-mile aid station, I noticed Nick’s pace drop just a touch and our chit-chat ended. At that point I dropped back a bit to see if he would drop back with me and he did. Then he said, “I think I need some food other than sugar.” Nick, it turns out, was having the dreaded “sugar bonk.”

I came up alongside him on the double track run-in to the aid station and asked him what he would need when we rolled in. He said, “food and water.” Ah! The simplicity of ultrarunning, I thought wistfully. When we got to the aid table Nick wolfed down half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and stuffed two more halves into his pack. That, coupled with the fact that we learned that we had gained 10 minutes on Neal Gorman, the second place runner, got some spring back in Nick’s step and we cheerfully left the aid station.

The next 8-mile section to Dowell’s Draft had some great runnable sections and for about the first 5 miles we were making really good time. However, Nick’s bonkiness continued off and on and we played a little bit of cat and mouse with his nutrition. His quads and feet were holding together well, but the stomach was on that fine line between success and failure. We rolled into the aid station feeling good and Nick took a little more time here, this time eating about 15 orange slices. I grabbed a bunch of gels, filled bottles, and asked about the guys in front. They were gone.

Nick left the aid station ahead of me and I decided to let him run away from me a bit here. Knowing that his climbing legs were beginning to fade, I thought he might get a bit of lift by gapping me and maybe he would even play a game with himself to see if he could drop me. It was not something we had discussed, but I know from experience that dropping a pacer can give a runner a jolt of adrenaline and perhaps Nick could get one if he ran away from me a bit. I rolled back up to him about 2 miles into the 7.5-mile section to the next aid and, indeed, he had been moving well. Curiously, once I reached him, he began to slow down. I urged him to take a sandwich and he did. Immediately the pace picked up. Then, from behind, Jason Schlarb, who had been running fourth all night, passed me. He tucked in behind Nick and Nick pushed the pace. Sensing this was a bad idea I let them go. 200 yards up the trail Nick let Jason pass and I ran up to Nick.

“Dude, no worries. A pass this late means there’s something left in the tank. Jason’s strong today,” I said, “Just run your race.” And, for the remainder of the day, he did.

As we traversed the last few ridges Nick see-sawed between energy bursts and by the end we were once again chatting away, enjoying the fall foliage and telling stories like we were out on a relaxed 20 miler. Nick finished strong in 19:08 and said to me that with the possible exception of his 31:06 at Hardrock in 2008 this was his best race. We celebrated a bit at the finish and then went our separate ways.

I do not relay this story as a ‘pacer report’ (although up until now it appears that way) but rather as an attempt to illuminate the art and science of pacing. You see, as much as pacing is a somewhat controversial topic, it is also provides fascinating emotional and psychological analysis. Think about it, how many times does one have a firsthand encounter with an endurance athlete 14 hours into a mountain trail race? Not many.

Add to that the following from the example above:

  • Nick and I barely knew each other before Saturday having met twice in passing over the past five years.
  • We spoke once, for about five minutes, right before the start.
  • I am 20 years older than Nick.

Nonetheless, over seven hours, we intimately shared the ups-and-downs of a 100-mile mountain race, together.

From the ‘science’ standpoint I stayed on him about fluid, calories and salt while making sure to get information from him about his fatigue level, his ongoing pain threshold and his erstwhile stomach woes. I kept him focused on up-to-the minute mileage estimates and listened to his breathing and voice to see if I could discern any distress. When I did, I told him.

From the ‘art’ side I played a few games with him to keep him alert and on task while also attempting, when appropriate, to get him to disassociate from the immediacy of the experience. I tried creative ways of getting him to ignore the pain in his feet and legs and I made the best of the aid-station breaks to provide banter and emotional uplift.

Over the years I have had wonderful experiences with my pacers. In fact, they are some of my closest friends to this day. And, while I certainly understand the value of long solo efforts in the mountains, I also think the runner/pacer relationship and the experiences it inspires is one of the great gifts of our sport. I, for one, was glad to share in that gift last weekend.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

With the Great American Beer Festival wrapping up today in Colorado it is only fitting that this week’s Beer of the Week comes from Colorado on the recommendation of Colorado’s own Scott Jaime. Scott texted me the other day from the festival recommending Upslope Brewing Company’s IPA. I have to admit I haven’t tried it yet but if MexiFast thinks it’s good, it’s probably awesome!

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What tricks have you used as a pacer to help your runner along?
  • Has a pacer ever got you going unexpectedly?

There are 53 comments

  1. Elena Makovskaya

    The races where I crewed and paced my friends are some of my best and most memorable race experiences! It is just as exciting as racing for yourself! In the last one I got to pace the overall male winner of Virgil Crest 100 and I was sure as hell he would drop me.. He really made me work hard, but I was able to keep up and now consider that as an achievement of my own! After the race both of us were in "life just cannot get any better" kinda mood.. :)

  2. Jim Skaggs

    I had a great time pacing a friend at the Bear this year to his first 100 mile finish. I don't often get to pace, but it's always a good time for me and I love watching my runner cross the finish line.

  3. OOJ

    Brilliant stuff! Great work out there.

    Salient post for me, because since Waldo, I've been struggling with what I'm going to do at WS '13. Who's going to be able to do what BGD did this year? What personality type, experience, strengths, will work best? Two pacers? NONE?

    Thought-provoking, indeed. And a fun read, too.

    1. AJW

      OOJ, I'd offer to help you out but, alas, I hope to be running. Although, come to think of it, given that, I'll be in your head anyway:)

      1. OOJ

        Thanks – I hope you run, too! And if you're not, I'd rather have you "omnipresent" on the course as you were this year. That energy was pretty thrilling for a lot of folks out there!

        1. AJW

          On a serious note, I really do think two pacers is the way to go when you're running fast. I know Jake is a special case but having two on tap just makes it a sure bet they'll finish with you.

  4. GMack

    Nearly every pacer race report involves the pacer describing what great help he was to the runner and what an exhilarating time it was. And nearly every race report by the ‘pacee’ either downplays the role of the pacer or never mentions him at all. For the runner, it’s not ego-boosting to recall how you were helped to achieve your big accomplishment.

    If you want to finish an ultra as fast as you think you can, or want a safety net, or need companionship to persevere, then use a pacer. Like using pre-placed bolts to secure your ropes while rock climbing, the effort may be made easier, though the completion of the event becomes an experience of spiritual materialism.

    If you’re out their, as Polish climber Voytek Kurtyka wrote, “to unravel and accept their mysteries,” then go without a pacer. Ultrarunning is personal and mental. To experience the true (to use AJW’s phrase above) “simplicity of ultrarunning,” do it un-paced.

    1. Reid L.

      Boy, I sure am grateful for my crew & pacers this past weekend. Anytime someone says my time was really good, I point to my crew & pacers. My race report DEFINITELY includes them. I probably could have done it without them, but I sure enjoyed my experience with them. You say "spiritual materialism," I say "spiritual sharing."

    2. Speedgoatkarl

      Amen GMack……Amen. personal accomplishments should be done alone. In the US, it always seems as though the "pacer" helped the runner. In my eyes, it's muling, even if they don't carry anything. What I really laugh at, is in some rules, they mention the "pacer" cannot provide extra light to his runner while running in the dark. :-) Does that mean the "pacer" has to run backwards behind their runner?

      Too many folks rely on others to get things done, it should not be that way. I take great satisfaction when I run a race, win it, and I"m the only guy who did not get "on trail" assistance, it's far more rewarding that way.

  5. Benjamin Nicholas

    I truly want to do as a race and either pick up a pacer or be one myself. I know how mental ultra running is, and the fact that you can have a friend to share your pain and get you through the hard times is one of the beautiful things involved in this sport. I know there are many times when I truly could have used a pacer!

  6. BGD

    Great article AJW!…..The two times I have paced so far (Clarkie WS '11 and OOJ WS '12) were incredibly rewarding experiences by simply being a servant out there and pouring everything into my runner….Hoping at WS '13 Joe and I will get to do a bit of running together, but like we've agreed, from HWY 49 to the finish, it's an all-out war!!!:)

  7. KenZ

    I don't disagree with you per se, but it's a personal thing. I have never had a pacer, and don't plan to. But I've been a pacer, and it was, according my racer who actually did extoll the virtues of having me there, a better experience for him that way. ( Plus, we had a great time playing in the mountains.

    I prefer to not have a pacer as I do like the solo experience and having to rely on my own wits to keep myself on trail, and, frankly, awake. But even if having a pacer is tantamount to muling… does it matter? I know I don't care. Granted, I'm not winning these things, so any sense of "unfairness" never enters my mind. But I do usually come in the top 5-15, sometimes passed by racer and pacer near the end as my mind is worn down. But again… I don't care. It's my journey, and I'm doing mine the way I want to. Someone else having a pacer does not take away from my sense of accomplishment doing it alone.

    I think it only becomes important if it disproportionately affects those in the top 5 who actually care (if they do) about their place or if due to land use issues, the use of pacers reduces the number of racers who can participate (and thus it affects all potential racers who might want to get in).

  8. Josh

    Loved the post AJW.

    I struggle with some of the commenters and the anti-pacing rhetoric. Isn't this really just "my way is the best and i'll justify it with the label 'pure'"?

    It's is a completely arbitrary line in the sand. Road races are obviously more artificial … why not call for banning them? Should take trail running to a level where we all strip completely naked and run over trackless terrain, obtaining sustenance only from what we find on the way?

    Some people like pacers. Some people like pacing. Is it easier? Yes. But that is NOT inherently wrong. Lets be real here … we're talking about 100 miles! It is an impressive feat by ANY measure. Is it less "pure" when run through downtown Manhattan? From the perspective of a wilderness ethic, yes. But also NOT inherently somehow wrong. Honestly, the petrochemically derived garb most of us wear when we run is just about as far from pure as you can get. It's also far more worrisome in a very real way, given that we're fighting wars over oil. Despite that, I'm not about to start raising my own sheep, shearing them, and running in my own hand-knitted shorts.

    Running with a pacer is just different. Even if it's easier different, everybody is entitled to their preferences within a race director's discretion. You don't have to like it, but allow others to run the way they choose, just the way you do.

    For those that choose to run with a friend, good on ya. My 2 cents.

    1. Benjamin Nicholas

      What? Whether or not pacers were used? Interesting thought…! I think there would be a lot more DNF's in the harder mountain ultras without pacers.

  9. MonkeyBoy

    I think Pacers are like Punters. They should be seen and not heard.

    That said, the article isn't debating whether or not runners should be allowed Pacers in Ultra races, it's about the relationship between the Pacer and Runner that can exist in 100 mile races. It can be intimate and unique, which I think A Jizzle Wizzle does a good job of highlighting. It's not about whether or not a Pacer should be there.

    Maybe Bryon should commission an article/debate each separately written from the Pro and Con perspective and let folks make their own decision.


  10. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJ

    Great thoughts on the pacer-pacee relationship. I was going to comment that I think it would make a great column/debate to discuss the merits of pacers versus no pacers. It's obviously a divisive topic and it would be interesting to see a civil discussion from the iRunFar community.

    From a social standpoint, I think pacers are great for the sport, but I can certainly see how they affect the more competitive performances at the front of the pack and place more strain on race resources. I've finished longer races both ways, with a pacer and alone; as a slower runner, my perspective is that solo (and in the case of the Susitna 100, nearly self-supported) ultras aren't necessarily more difficult to finish or even physically tougher. They're just perhaps a little less "fun."

  11. Mike Hinterberg

    Given the nature of a controlled, mapped, marked, aided course with hundreds of people often not that far from civilization, I reject the true relation to wildness of many races. You may agree that personal projects and training runs — often alone — may come closer to this aesthetic.

    This wasn't the topic of the essay, and I have both no problems and respect for people that choose not to use pacers, and special respect for great finishes and wins under those conditions, but I still don't get the adement and, in my opinion, misguided disdain exhibited by Glenn and Karl's comments….not in being "incorrect," but by rejecting possibly equally valid alternatives.

    As for races and pacing, it would take pages and perhaps a few beers to describe, but I've had experiences with great friends and family pacing (or being paced) that indeed unravel the mysteries of life, relationships, and the human spirit. Based on witnessing the same in races, and other comments, discussions, and blogs, this is not unique. I'll grant a beauty in the simplicity of unpaced running, and the raw thrill of personal competition, but I hope you'll grant the beauty of human beings sharing an amazing moment together.

    You may be familiar with Chris McCandless: "Happiness only real when shared." There is a manyfold path to truth and beauty.

      1. Mike Hinterberg

        The more the merrier: 10-person relay teams! (Joking)

        The opposing extreme would be as much self-reliance as possible: no crews, no aid, no markings. No tunes. No prototype shoes, gear, nutrition. Stuff you make yourself is OK though.

        Just as the self-reliant argument isn't going that far, neither is mine: just arguing for support of traditions and enjoyment by a good number of people. I don't see the reason for knocking other people for it when it's in the rules and people are having fun.

        1. Le Manchot


          Agreed in reference to tradition, but if the pacing is key to performance and the pacer is selected by the competitor, then it should somehow be accounted for. I do not think that anyone is "knocking" others, they perhaps are just making the point that pacing seems a bit undefined and diffuse at the moment, at least with respect to the structure of the sport. If it is a fundamental element to the sport then the pacing should be required, if it is not then perhaps it should not be allowed. Leaving it to discretion will be problematic as the sport grows.

          I am all for tradition but as in all things, such a "tradition" can be taken to extremes… for example, we are not that far from robotic drones able to traverse the terrain we race (and the drones can be made to appear very human-like). Combine said drone with a downloaded GPS route, real-time positional correction, heating, lighting, etc. etc. and there may be an advantage- follow the drone!… follow the drone!. I should be in favor of a movement toward no pacing and limited/no interaction from a "crew" as a means of avoiding complications in the future. Keep it simple- a runner, a trail, the given markings (which are evident for all competitors), and limited interaction in aid stations (a drop bag and any needed medical). Of course one can argue that this gives advantage to the "loners", or those who perform better without any outside influence/help, but therein lies the question- Is the sport a pure "competitor against the clock" endeavor or is it a "team against the clock"? Either way is sporting, just different. Right now I think that most would say that it is a "competitor against the clock" sport, but the problem is that some "competitors" have teams behind them.

  12. Mark Conrad

    Oh Karl, puh-lease. Congrats on your win at the RRR110 – it was awesome to see you get another tough win over a younger field. However, when you caught and passed me (tortoise) at mile 40 (actually 43.5) your crew, uh, err, I mean "off-trail-assistance" party, met your needs very well at the Olympian AS and you went on your way to another awesome single-handed accomplishment. I suppose the Pony Express run was another sample of your army-of-one personal accomplishments. The list goes on – and its as impressive as it is lenghty. We all have our opinions, and yours should certainly count more than mine in this arena, but please don't express your disdane for those participants using pacers. Trust me, I felt as much personal accompishment finishing that SOB with a pacer, as you did when you crossed the finished line "alone" or sans any "on-trail assistance". Again, nice win Karl. I hope you thanked all those who didn't help you.

    1. Speedgoatkarl

      where was my "on trail assistance". I had crew, not a pacer and I'm not sure how far outside an aid station I was when I was "assisted", maybe 30 feet?

      Crewing is not pacing, and honestly I'd be even more psyched if raced didn't allow crew. Even in Europe crewing is accepted, but pacing is not. It's just personal preference. Good stuff Mark. :-)

  13. LB2

    I had two pacers at Rocky Raccoon this year to finish my first 100 miler. The first guy was an experienced ultra runner, and I learned alot from the way he paced me. I am certain miles 60 to 80 would have been a little slower without him. As I was reading this report, I identified several things that he did with me that AJW did with Nick (eg. making sure he knew what I needed before we got to the aid station; letting me move on ahead out of the aid station, and keeping me focused on running my own race). My second pacer was my brother, an inexperienced ultra runner. It was in the bag by the time we got to mile 80, but he did a great job taking care of my needs on the go after working the start/finish line all day and into the night. I have one more 100 miler this year, and my primary focus next year is to help him and maybe a few others through their first 100 miler. I love this sport.

  14. Scott S

    While I haven't run a 100-miler yet, I have had the pleasure of pacing a friend for 26 glorious night-time miles at Leadville two months ago. I think that we both benefitted from the experience. I missed the crew/pacer meeting, but my buddy Nick was sure to tell me that if the runner feels like puking to just encourage them to get it down and move on. Well, as luck would have it, Nick spent a good deal of time puking on this run. Each time he looked up after puking I would simply say "done yet, let's go!" As sick as it is, I'll remember that for a lifetime; and so will Nick I suspect.

    On the other topic that has sprung from this wonderful article … But since we're just participants competing against the clock and our own expectations, pacing is entirely different than the pacing of the front-runners. In the end, I'm all for the experience. But if this is truly a race, then in my opinion, no pacers allowed. On a personal note, I will be attempting my first 100-miler at Javelina in 9 short days solo. Since this race is conducted over a 15.4-mile loop run in alternating directions, I expect to see a lot of people; so, I certainly won't be alone.

  15. Mark Tanaka

    I see that this year Massanutten 100 finally listed finishers in their "solo division– unpaced, uncrewed" (how I've run 90% of my 100 milers) in the results (and not just give an award to the "soloist" who finished first. It would be nice to get some token credit in other races.

    Having said that, two of the three times I've been paced, when I was offered to be paced rather than look for one prior to the start, I was beyond help.

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