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.
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.