On Pacing

We all need help. To some degree, we are all social animals, and we find happiness in other people. This is especially relevant in times of physical or emotional distress, when our minds naturally leap (often irrationally in the modern world) to extremes of fear and confidence, companionship and abandonment, even life and death. From a scientific standpoint, our bodies and minds are attuned to mediate these extremes and find balance, because balance means security, and security means life. We still fear the approach of primordial predators. In this sense, the concept of running 100 miles illustrates the luxury that our modern lives afford – we can run our bodies and minds to their absolute limits in a safe and repeatable manner.

But these efforts don’t come without a cost. The uncertainties that arise in an ultramarathon are deeply rooted in our evolutionary past, and they bring forth many unknown and normally-unthought-of fears. Particularly at night, these instincts lurking in the shadows step into the foreground of our thoughts, reminding us of a distant past we no longer understand. So we take to the one source of protection that humans have relied on for millennia – the company of other people. No matter how good you are, 100-mile runners need help, and we take it in the form of pacing.

Of course, Troy Howard wouldn’t say he wanted a pacer for those reasons. Few ultrarunners would. But I still believe my reasoning is sound. The reason people change their rationale for using pacers, or even deride the use of pacers at all, is because humans are a versatile animal. We can learn and adapt with an astonishing plasticity. Someone like Troy doesn’t feel the same sense of existential fear when running 100’s as I have at all of mine because he has done it enough times to know what to expect. He is so good at the distance that he knows how his body will respond and can prepare accordingly to keep himself safe. He knows that as long as nothing out of the ordinary happens (such as a broken bone), he will be fine no matter how tired he gets. The fear of the unknown – that exhausting sense of gnawing terror that makes one long for comfort and stability – has been coated in a varnish of experience. He can run his body to its absolute limits without fearing the shadows, because his mind is strong enough to see through the shadows.

As for myself, I know that even though I often fear what I don’t understand, I also seek the unknown. That’s why I run ultramarathons. That’s why I climb mountains. If I had to guess, I’d say this is because uncertainty is no longer a fact of life. Once a staple of the human experience, these days we have to seek it out. Everybody challenges themselves in their own ways. For many of us, that way is by running long distances.

The desire to taste the unknown lies at the heart of mountain running, even if simply on a personal level. We seek less to be the first person to do things, but we try to do really difficult things just to answer the question of can I? The act of conquering the unknown is now less apparent to the observer, but much more widespread across the population.

The margins become thinner every year. When I first paced Troy Howard at Hardrock in 2009, he wanted only to finish as well as possible. This year, however, he wanted to beat his previous time of 26:01 and perhaps even win. He had completed the race before, so that was no longer the unknown. Now he wanted to improve. Still, no race is the same each time, and that is particularly true for Hardrock. The unknown always exists in some capacity. One of Troy’s biggest worries was going off course. That’s where I was able to help. Since I know the course so well, he could simply tuck in behind me and just worry about moving and eating. So I got my start pacing at about 10:30 pm on Friday night in Telluride, and ran with him all the way to the finish in Silverton, just after dawn.

Troy was actually the first person I ever paced. A mutual friend connected us in 2009 and Troy asked me to pace him at Hardrock, presumably because I knew the area better than he. I was excited to help out because I wanted desperately to run Hardrock myself and pacing seemed like a great way to get started. I ended up pacing at three different 100-mile races that year, then two more the following year. In the process. I saw people going through the incredible physical and mental stresses that 100’s provide, and gained a great deal of respect for those who can accomplish them. I wanted badly to complete one myself.

Interestingly, I eschewed the use of a pacer at my own first 100-mile race (the Bear 100, 2010). I wanted a simple, pressure-free run, and ran by myself with only one friend as a crew. This worked for about 50 miles, but after that I fell apart and had a miserable several hours suffering along in the dark. At the mile 85 aid station, I sat down and lamented my (self-imposed) fate until Scott Jaime and his pacer Josh Brimhall caught up. They let me run to the finish with them, in essence acting as my pacers, and their company stoked my spirit and kept me moving all the way to the end. I understood for the first time the power of companionship in times of high stress.

Because of that experience, I asked Troy to pace me when I entered Hardrock the following year. That experience is burned into my mind as an extreme case of trial-by-fire, of horror and suffering and complete physical and mental destruction. By the Grouse Gulch aid station at mile 42, I was already contemplating dropping out of the race. By the time I arrived in Ouray at mile 56, I was completely destroyed with no willpower left. But there I picked up Troy, and he was the only reason I reached the finish line that year. He was someone I could talk to, someone positive, someone who had an idea of what I was going through. As I write this, I’m having trouble putting my finger on exactly what value he provided. We didn’t even talk for much of the time. All I know is that having Troy with me allowed me to continue to try. And in a 100-mile race, that’s really all you need.

When I talk about existential fear and instinctual desires surfacing during times of extreme effort, I mostly refer to my experience during my first Hardrock. Every long race I have done has had elements of these deeply rooted instincts, but Hardrock in 2011 is where it all really came out for me. I was scared. I was emotional. I was deeply unhappy with the way I felt, inside and out. My legs hurt, my heart pounded. When night fell, I walked through streams and climbed up mountains and looked for the horizon and stepped gingerly down rocks and all the while my mind was focused on the finish line, far in the distance. Upon reaching that point, I knew I could stop this misery, put an end to the pain, and finally – finally – rest. My mindset could be simplified to one concept: the only way out was through. In reality I could have stopped at any time and been just fine. But to finish a 100-mile race, sometimes we have to convince ourselves that we have no other choice. Perhaps the value of pushing ourselves so hard is that life is reduced to a few extremes. In my mind, eating, drinking, and moving were what would keep me alive. Primal indeed.

While pacing Troy at Hardrock this year, I realized that I was watching the opposite race. I had the opportunity to witness someone who is really good at running 100 miles do what he does best. My value lay in route finding and, once, extra headlamp batteries. Beyond that, I was simply a spectator. But not simply a spectator of one man’s race. I was watching the whole panorama of mountain running play out before me. And since mountain running is one of our most primal instincts, one could even say I played witness to an ancient ritual acted out in the modern world.


Dakota pacing Troy at Hardrock 2013. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

When we stood on top of Putnam Divide at first light that Saturday morning, we could see laid out before us the San Juan Mountains. We saw great folds of earth, twisted and ground together into long ridges and sharp peaks, rolling tundra, and deep basins. A billion forces small and large acted in concert to create that landscape, and all we can do as humans is observe and respect the result. Far below us a bend in the road peeked out of the canyons, and one small car moved along it, headlights shining in our direction. In the other direction, thick clouds obscured the town of Silverton 4,000 feet below, the top of the layer flaking off in the heat of the morning sun. I could see so far, and I felt so much, and nothing came out of it. Just the birds singing in the grass and the sunshine on the clouds as I stood for a brief moment and watched Troy walk down the ridge, 94 miles into the greatest mountain race in the world, beginning his descent back to civilization. For a moment I paused and tried to take it all in, and felt so sad that I would never be able to capture that moment. But the moment existed nonetheless. So I just looked at the mountains, and watched Troy move down the hill, and listened to the birds singing, and far below us a single car moved along the road, headlights shining.

There are 33 comments

  1. Alex

    We all need help, yes. And I think think this also touches on the fact that, on some level, we all need to help. There is immense value in the experience for the pacer, not just the runner being paced. If I'd never paced, my exposure to certain aspects of the human condition never would have happened, my inspiration would be diminished, and my goals would be smaller.

    Very well articulated.

  2. Thomas

    Great thoughts; thank you for sharing. During Hellgate 100k last year I had begged everyone I knew to pace me the last third of the race. No one was able to for a myriad of reasons. After accepting my fate I entered the aid station to begin the final leg and my wife had found someone I didn't even know to pace me.

    I was in absolutely no mood at the time for the small talk that was required (why did it matter how many brothers/sisters I have?) but without question the companionship gave me a strength that I was unable to conjure up while alone just a few hours before.

    Perhaps it has to do with not wanting to let that person down.


  3. Dawn

    I think the value in having a pacer is primarily in the companionship in the face of fear that it provides. Having a pacer allows you to keep moving forward confronting the unknown knowing that while doing so there is someone there who "has your back", should for any reason you should need it. It allows you to be brave even when you do not feel so. Love your writing and perspective on running, Dakota. You should put together your thoughts in a book. Good luck with your race. I hope to do it one day.

  4. Ricardo

    Right on Dakota! Two different years, while running Western States, I picked up a pacer at Foresthill, only to lose them to injuries going down California Street. My reputation led me to discard the pacer part of my Hardrock plans… for three consecutive DNF's. On my fourth attempt, I inadvertantly hooked up with another runner and her pacer at mile 83. Working as a mini team was immensely important to my kissing the rock!

  5. Rob Youngren

    I'm sort of ambivalent about pacers. I totally understand and agree that part of what I enjoy about tackling tough events that scare me (the first time) is the solitude, patience and perseverience involved. I also agree that after the "new" has worn off that for performance related reasons having a pacer is a solid, strategic decision. If a race allows pacers, great; if they don't, great. While I typically race without a pacer I do, from time to time, like to share my experience on the trails with friends; especially if they have asperations to run the same event in the future. This is why I've invited friends to run sections of Hardrock with me over the years. Not because I needed the companionship but because it was fun to share the route with them; to watch and marvel at their reaction to seeing the awe inspiring course for the first time! I see a little bit of myself in these moments when I first encoutered the race for the first time myself!

  6. Steve Pero

    I ran Hardrock this year without a pacer….but I was not alone. I was with my fellow runners that day, so in effect had many pacers. If I felt I needed some company, I'd just slow down until someone joined me, if I wanted to be alone (many times, even late in the run), I could be. If I had a pacer with me during those last 5 miles, I never would have enjoyed the hallucinations as much as I did ;-)

    On the other hand I love to pace friends and now that I am done with running Hardrock (got both directions), I hope to pace some new runner towards kissing the Hardrock, sharing all the knowledge I've gained over the past 13 years there.

    1. Shelby

      Steve, I would have been honored to hear your hallucinations and I think it would have been more fun for you to have heard my responses to them! :-)

  7. jenn

    One of the things I like most about pacing has come from reading blogposts of the pacers themselves, where they write about how much the act of pacing someone has inspired them in some way – to take up trail running, to run an ultra … the things folks have mentioned are varied. I'm sometimes a little ambivalent about pacing when I just think of the racer's experience – there's a part of me that really values someone doing the race by themselves, and there's a part of me that replies, oh shut up, stop being an ass, it's the journey, the experience that matters. But when I think about both sides of the pacing equation, to see how valuable it can be to both pacer and pacee, I become wholeheartedly supportive of it. I don't know, maybe the phrase I want is – it seems to help foster community.

  8. Devin

    Very cool article. I have paced Leadville and Bighorn and absolutely love doing it. I still have aspirations of doing a 100 some day.

  9. StephenJ

    "No matter how good you are, 100-mile runners need help, and we take it in the form of pacing."

    Bullshit. If you think you need help, you just need to dig deeper.

    "All I know is that having Troy with me allowed me to continue to try"

    No you don't. You probably could have done it on your own, but you'll never know. Saying for sure that you couldn't have continued without help is just a way to keep from forever wondering what you might have been able to do.

    What if someday you won the Hardrock, but Karl Meltzer finished 2 minutes behind you. Wouldn't that drive you crazy thinking about whether or not you could have beaten him without help?

    There are lots of great reasons to have a pacer, but to convince yourself that you need one is only selling yourself short. There's something very rewarding about solving all the problems yourself. Get out of your confort zone. Face your fears alone.

    Two weeks ago I was 47 miles into the 80 mile Uintah Highline trail, all alone, currled up under a bush in an emergency bivi, while lightning lite up my next pass and thunder shook the ground. I hadn't seen any other people for at least 10 miles, and the nearest trailhead was 15 miles away. I can't even begin to explain all the thoughts that went though my head at that moment. Two days ago I returned for another attempt. When I ran by that spot, the spot of my only DNF, I pointed to the bush that provided my protection and said out loud, "that was it", and pointing to pass ahead, "and you are mine." It would have been easier to run it with somebody else, and maybe even more fun, but it would have been nowhere near as rewarding.

    Pick a tough mountain race you haven't done, and do it sight-unseen without pacers or a crew. You can do it. And when you do, the reward will be extra sweet. Even if you don't cross the finish line first.

    1. olga

      That was pretty good. And what Steve Pero said. And Robert. At the end of the day, this article is an opinion of one. As long as it's delivered as such "I think…" in these kind of terms.:) But beautifully written, indeed.

  10. GMack

    The article makes an effort to romanticize being paced, which is something most ultrarunners in the U.S. can nod to in agreement. But this concept seems to be non-existent in the rest of the world. If anything is romanticized elsewhere, it’s “a real self-sufficiency for autonomy in the mountains”, as UTMB puts it.

    Eventually, the sport in the U.S. (the only place where pacers are commonly used) will gravitate to what’s happening internationally, but old habits are hard to break. Maybe the reason it’s so common here and uncommon everywhere else is that the sport really grew up here. There were once safety concerns about running ultra long distances and pacers were an answer. The safety issue has largely been put to rest, or addressed with course sweepers, and pacers are now used as a crutch for runner comfort or for a competitive advantage. (‘muling’ and ‘guide-dogging’).

    The practice is so ingrained here and used by every ‘major’ 100 mile race that you probably wouldn’t see any race’s management unilaterally eliminating pacing. What needs to happen is for events like WS, Hardrock, Rocky and some other big ones to go ahead an abolish pacing to set it in motion for the rest, but I won’t hold my breath on that.

  11. Melanie

    I completely understand the debate for pacers vs. no pacers for the top competition. But that aside, what about the rest of us? Pacing is fun. Having a pacer can be a total blast. I run to have fun. Makes sense to me.

    I ran a (pacer-legal) 100 where my pacer and I came up onto a pacer-less runner. He made a point to ridicule me for having a pacer, while not letting me pass so he could lecture me about how pacing was cheating. We weren't able to get around him until an aid station. We were ~30hour finishers. No matter how anti-pacer you are, please, don't be That Guy on the trail- he was a real bummer!

  12. Greg

    So much for support from fellow competitors. You handled it better than I would have, Melanie! I would have told the guy, in no uncertain terms, where to go. I've never used a pacer, but I don't begrudge those who do. Different strokes, right?

  13. lstomsl

    The thought of not allowing pacers in a race like Hardrock, as some have suggested is a bit frightening. Someone on 45 hours with no sleep, hallucinating, exhausted, maybe with altitude sickness, no oxygen in their brain, trying to stay on a sometimes barely marked course in the night, wanting to finish as an electrical storm moves in, on crazy steep terrain where you might fall hundreds of feet or not be found for many hours if you zig when you should have zagged. Its a definite safety issue on some courses.

    I like the approach Run Rabbit Run did it last year. The elites who are going for the money can't have pacers. The rest of us who are just out there to push ourselves for our own goals are allowed to run with a friend if they want.

  14. Kirstin C

    Loved this piece and your thoughts.

    I think there's an argument for pacers and against in racing. And there are definitely races where I want one, but I think my best moments on trail have been when I was out there alone.

  15. Ian Sharman

    I like having a pacer to stop me getting lost on a route I'm not familiar with. If I know the route it's often easier (for me at least) to be out there on my own to go at my own pace and push myself through the tough parts. Course knowledge is the main advantage I can see in a pacer, particularly on a poorly or non-marked course. But everyone gets different benefits from a pacer as they do from running itself.

  16. George

    In some form or fashion, pacers help the runner, even if its with just night navigation and companionship to reach the finish line. With regards to elites and pacers, I like the concept of RRR in that the elites help set the bar, not only in their course speed, but also in showing that solo navigation can be done and done well. Its a little odd, at least to me, when I see some folks on the slow end, choose to opt out of having pacers while the elites who flew by, hours earlier are accompanied by a pacer (typically also an elite). To my thinking, one earns the distinction of being an elite not only by running with the top dogs, but also by showing others that a solo start>finish is possible, albeit harder on the psychologically. I liken it to going to the pros in almost all other sports: it doesn't get easier. It gets faster, harder, involves more suffering, is more dramatic, cut throat and sometime more competitive. Like leaving the training wheels at home. I don't have an issue with anyone using pacers, I'm just of the opinion that certain level of ultra runners shouldn't *need* pacers any more….

  17. George

    And especially since its a race, which includes: various aid stations, registration so they know you're out there in case you get lost or stop, on the course with many other people who could provide aide, typically do not include(in the US) full night running, some kind of course markings, provide various points of exit….

    I'm just saying, its not like you'd be out on some solo mountain excursion with no one knowing you're out there….

  18. Duane VanderGriend

    Thanks for the great article Dakota, and for the comments you'all. Interesting that world record women's times in the marathon must be set in women's only races because of the advantage in mixed male/female marathons of the lead woman generally being able to tag along with some of the faster men, whether for drafting or pacing. Somebody correct me if I'm wrong on that. Is there a correlation with ultra running? Probably not the drafting part. Probably the pacing part. Should we copy the nature of that anal marathon rule in ultrarunning? I don't think so! I like the more laid back, social culture of ultrarunning. Here's an idea…maybe competitors should not be allowed because they give the leaders the unfair advantage of pushing eachother. Actually, in all seriousness, I have one question…somebody used the term "mule"…are pacers routinely acting as mules in ultrarunning? I thought not. I was taught that that was generally considered cheating.

    1. Alex

      "Muling" isn't allowed in most races – Leadville is a noteworthy exception – but of course, that's a difficult rule to quantify and enforce. Is it technically against the rules? Yes. Does it happen anyway. Pretty much.

  19. Daniel

    I have recently been asked to help crew for and pace a friend through the last marathon of her first 100 miler. I have no idea what is expected of me. Any tips, suggestions, or references to learn what is expected or anything else would be awesome. Maybe a topic for an upcoming article?

  20. Billy

    "one simple concept, the only way out was through."

    so absolutely true…..long difficult adventures, thru hikes, running 100's, especially Hardrock have given us insights we could only have by making the choice to go through. There is no shortcuts to the kinds of insights you shared in this post.

    Congrats to Troy on a great effort.

    You express yourself beautifully Dakota. Keep living and keep sharing.

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