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?

There are 30 comments

  1. Josh T

    Bravo! Well said!! Your line about sharing your journey and struggle challenged and inspired me to be more open about my own. Cheers

  2. Andy M

    Never nearly as fast as you, when I started running ultras 10 years ago (in my 40s) I was a mid-packer. Now, pushing 56, I have slid to the back of the pack where cutoffs are enemy #1! At the VT100 (which, if memory serves Andy, is among your 100-mile wins), there is an award that goes to the last finisher who has the honor of enjoying the beautiful VT countryside for the longest! And of course, there is the WS “golden hour.” See, there are many advantages to slowing down — it’s just a matter of perspective. Welcome AJW!

  3. Kirk Apt

    I’m with you stride for stride on this AJW! Even when I finished in a competitive position, I’m really not very competitive by nature. So my “slide” into the mid pack, and now probably even to the back of the pack, has been pretty easy. I’ve seen enough of my old running friends break down and no longer be able to run at all, so it’s easy for me to feel grateful to still be out there. Over the years, running has become less of a sport and more of a lifestyle that I rely on to feed my soul. And just like life in general, once I got to a certain age, I recognized that, The End of my ultra “career” is way closer than the start, so I make it priority to love every outing-even if I’m struggling physically, there’s always something Out There to recognize and appreciate.
    If you’ve slowed down enough, I look forward to sharing some Hardrock miles with you next July! Be well.

    1. Greg Loomis

      Kirk, I couldn’t agree more with your comment. Over the last 20 something years ultras have indeed become “less of a sport and more of a lifestyle” for me as well. And a wonderful life it is too. I now also try to appreciate every event and am trying to get to the most beautiful ones around as a priority. I am fully aware the amazing ability to do these events may go at any time. It has been a gift all along! Better get to as many as possible before that time comes! See you in Colorado next summer.

  4. Jon

    A friend of mine who is a musician and actor has a song with the lyrics “We learn to love by slowing down”. It’s something I often think about on runs and try to take to heart. Maybe it is getting older. Maybe it is getting wiser. Maybe it is just realizing that any run could be your last one. Being able to run is a gift in and of itself. Sure I have those runs where I want to be fast and get a hard workout in…but they are being replaced more and more by the runs where I take the time to admire the beauty of the world that we live in and surrounds us. Sometimes it’s a sunset. Other times it’s the absolute quiet of a morning run…or the dew on the high grass hitting your legs…or watching a deer scamper off into the woods…or yes, the brutality of an east coast summer with the heat and humidity!

  5. Tim S.

    Another benefit of you joining the mid-pack is the boost it provides us front of the mid-packers when we have the chance to beat “Mr. Western States”! ;) Doesn’t matter how slow you get–you are still AJW and for many of us, beating you to the finish line is both carrot and prize. Thanks for all you contribute to the sport!

    1. AJW

      Hey Tim, now that is a funny comment. And, one I appreciate. Thanks! I am more than happy to be joyously beaten provided it means I can still be out there doing what I love!

  6. Alan Doss

    This article couldn’t have come at a better time in my life than now. As a new 60 year old this year, I also am struggling with the training, & dedication to keep up with the results from a few years ago. I still want to try to be competitive, but maybe will also try to just enjoy my place in the pack. Cheers & thanks AJW….

  7. Catherine

    I first read your headline as aspirational, as becoming a mid-packer is an aspiration of mine. I have never had a problem in shorter ultras, but out of 6 attempts at 100 miles I DNFed four times (all due to cutoffs) and missed the final cutoff on one of my 2 finishes. That is to say, I am back-of-the-packer. Working my way to the middle would (will?) be a huge triumph. Of course I still have big buckle and podium dreams, but for now I’m just shooting for, say, top 90th percentile. :)

    1. Sam Petitto

      I’m with you, sister. I was DFL at the 2012 Kendall Mountain Run, second to last at the 2018 Dead Horse 50k, and third to last at the 2019 Javelina 100k. Those were all victories for me, and the incremental improvement is enough to keep me working toward faster times and longer races. I think ultras are gaining popularity because they simultaneously offer something for elite racers, cutoff chasers, and every runner in between. Back-of-the-pack transitions to mid-pack happen just like AJW’s move from the front to the middle: slowly, and one race at a time. Aloha!

  8. Chris

    Being midpack or back of the pack is also very challenging. Finishing a 100 in 20 hours (or less) is a heck of an accomplishment but, to me at least, it sounds a heck of a lot easier than going 36 or even longer! The mental strength to keep going when you’re racing the cutoffs, especially when combined with the sleep deprivation, is pretty freaking impressive!

  9. Patrick M

    AJW, great article. I myself am fighting to keep one toe in the top quartile of most races which is where I started seven years ago at age 48, but now at 55 it’s getting a lot tougher, especially to get in the training miles while balancing work and family, handle injuries that happen more and more often, and keep motivated, which feels like a slow deterioration just like anything that has been exposed to the sun too long.

  10. Tom

    Awesome article AJW. Now in my 50’s I’ve also joined the mid-packers. I found it hard to let go of the past at first, but now I’m enjoying running more than ever. As others have mentioned, it’s truly a gift to be able to run at any pace. I now run on feel and have no real goal other than making it to the start line and enjoying my time outdoors. With each passing year I find myself mixing it up more. From my teens to mid forties it was all about running. These days I mountain bike and paddle board just as much as I trail run.

  11. Hans

    My internal struggle is that calling myself an “ultra”runner seems to come with some sort of performance requirement. And be honest–a lot of “ultra”runners are driven by this need to differentiate. But if, in the final analysis, you’re just mediocre at it all, what’s the thrill? And what’s there to be proud of? *Anyone* can be that. Ultrarunners want to exist in this Lake Wobegon space where we’re all some kind of above average cyborg, and mid or back-packing can really call that sense of ourselves into question.

  12. Trevor

    as someone who’s been ‘up front’ only a handful of times, where no one talks for lack of breath and is paranoid someone will pass you and take their position etc;; even though that is a real competitive high i can definitely say with my more relaxed or less than stellar efforts middle and back of the pack people have WAY more fun. its just like a different event outside of the top 20 or 30 people….

    also I just want to say thanks for this article. Nothing annoys me more than seeing top athletes who start to slow down and just quit running events altogether. Like what is that? If you can’t be #1 then don’t run ultras? Not very relatable for most of us.

    1. AJW

      Thanks for the comment Trevor! I appreciate the sentiment. I remember telling one of my running buddies about 15 years ago, “You know, one of these days I’m gonna have to pay my own entry fees, buy my own shoes, and chase cutoffs. And, I’m just fine with that.” I am happy to say that those days are now here and I am rather enjoying the process.

  13. Sander Bessels

    Replace “Running speed” by “Income” and you have a whole new perspective on society :).

    I’d like to think that in the mid-pack it’s more about running with each other instead of against each other, but why should that attitude be restricted to one part of the pack?

    Everyone who participates and has fun in some way is a winner. But… It’s also really fun to run your ASS of and crush the competition! You just shouldn’t take it too seriously ;)

  14. Richard Senelly

    Thanks AJW! We all slow down (and eventually stop)! Right now, I am among the slowers who are immensely grateful to still be moving forward… which, unlike the seeming meaning is not at all about the future. It’s about here and now, moment by moment. I am reminded that the present is a moving target… always on the move… carrying us along for the ride. Yee haw!

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