Becoming a Midpacker

AJW's TaproomBack in my thirties and forties, I was a relatively fast ultrarunner. During the 10-year period between 2003 and 2013, I competed in over 50 ultramarathons and placed well in just about all of them, even winning a few. Then, beginning in 2014, in my late fortiess, I began a slow decline. In the summer of 2014, I was beset by all manner of things; injuries, lack of motivation, job and life stress, and general slowing down both in running and life.

During this rapid decline, I struggled with my confidence and sense of self. I found myself routinely questioning why I continued to run, and I sought to rationalize my decline as a phase I simply needed to weather. Along the way I had two major hip surgeries, one in 2015 and another in 2018, and through them I realized that I would never be the same runner again.

Having seen other runners go through this, I wondered what would be my fate. On the one hand, I saw some of the former fast guys and gals with whom I used to compete simply leave the sport and move on to other things. Others held on and contributed to the sport in different ways, through volunteering, crewing, and other sidelines-based involvement. In my heart, I didn’t really like either of these alternatives. I wanted to continue entering events, being part of my beloved community as a runner, and to do so with joy and passion, two things that had always been part of my running life. In order to do that, I had to do something that I hadn’t seen too many others do. I had to become a midpacker.

I want to say clearly that this article is not meant to demean the multitude of runners who are positioned in the middle or back of the pack. Rather it is simply an attempt to explain and describe how it was for me to make a transition from one kind of running to another and, indeed, how it is proceeding to this very day.

I first knew my midpacker days had begun when signing up for races. While in my fast past, I would typically scan race results and course records. Now I found myself scanning race websites looking for cutoff times. I’ll never forget the first time I did this at the 2017 Bighorn Trail 100 Mile. I was like, “I can’t believe I am so close to the cutoffs!” But the reality quickly began to sink in.

The next hump to get over was a little more difficult. In my first few races as a midpacker, whenever I came across someone I knew, they invariably said something like, “AJ, are you okay? What are you doing all the way back here with us?” At first, this hurt my self-esteem and caused me to ask myself, What exactly am I doing back here? But with time, I gradually came to embrace these circumstances and used them as opportunities to share with others my journey and struggle.

In races, I also learned what picked-over aid stations looked and felt like. The old me typically experienced fresh aid-station tables with plentiful piles of supplies and chipper volunteers. As a midpacker, I experienced aid stations that had run out of stuff, volunteers who were frazzled, and chairs off to the side filled with weary runners. My crew also had to learn that parking and traffic issues were real for midpackers and the days of being able to drive right up to the aid station were clearly over. It is a different world in the middle of the pack!

Finally, while all this sounds a bit negative, let me assure you that my journey to midpackerhood has not been all bad. In particular, I have learned one thing above all else: midpackers have more fun! In my dozen or so races over the past few years, I have had such a wonderful time in races getting to know people, swapping stories, grouping up in challenging conditions, and hanging out in aid stations. All of these things were certainly not part of my experience in my fast past but they are my reality now, and I have to admit, I love it.

So, here’s to the midpackers! Thank you for welcoming me into your world! I hope to stay here for awhile and enjoy this calmer, slower, and more fun stage in my running life. After all, at this point, I don’t really have a choice.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Last weekend, I had my first taste of Tennessee ultrarunning at the Walking Tall 50k at Big Hill Pond State Park. Put on by local trail legends Brian Williams and Sean Hilsdon, this second-year event has quickly become a ‘must do’ on the local calendar. The post-race party here is one of the best I’ve been to, even rivaling Tropical John (Medinger)’s at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. And a big reason why is that the race is sponsored by the Hook Point Brewing Company, which supplies ample cans of this week’s Beer of the Week, Flat Hat American Ale, to all of the finishers. This classic American Amber Ale, at a modest 4.8%, is hearty and nutty, with a mild hint of sweetness. It is a perfect accompaniment to a tasty Mexican lunch after a long day on the trails.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

As your relationship with our sport has lengthened, has your position within the field at races shifted? That can be both moving forward or backward in the pack. If so, what has the experience been like for you?