Seeing Things from the Other Side

When I began running ultras in 2006, I jumped into racing with no exposure to the sport. I ran a few low-key races in Alaska (one 50k, one 50 miler, and one hundred miler), and, then, I began travelling from Alaska to the lower 48 to run whatever races happened to pop onto my radar. I knew nothing of the history of the sport, and nothing of the racing scene and culture.

To illustrate how little I knew, I can recall that when I ran my first ultra in the lower 48 (Miwok 100k, 2008), a few minutes into the race I was running side-by-side with a tall guy with a full head of curly dark hair. I remembered him introducing himself to me as “Scott.” It was only days later when reading some news online about the race that I realized that he was one of the most accomplished and well-known runners ever to take part in the sport.

As another indication of how clueless I was about the sport I was beginning to take part in, I remember when I finished Miwok that day, I was immediately approached by Greg Soderlund, then-director of Western States. When he congratulated me on my third-place finish and asked me if I was aware that I had just qualified for a guaranteed entry into his race that would happen in seven weeks, not only was I not aware of this fact, but I really didn’t even know what Western States was. I seem to recall that I had heard of it at the time, but, certainly, I knew nothing more about it, I didn’t even know where it was.

There was one more thing that occurred that day that was even more telling of how clueless I was beyond me not knowing who Scott Jurek was or what Western States was. 2008 was the year that Dave Mackey set the Miwok course record. (Easily one of the two or three best performances I have ever witnessed.) Dave was on fire right from the start and it was clear that no one was going to stay with him that day. I was running pretty comfortable in second place most of the day, but began to struggle around mile 50 as the accumulated fatigue of so much running was starting to set in. Compared to everything I had run in Alaska, the Marin trails are very smooth, very hard packed, and thus very runnable, and my legs were feeling this extra impact of having run nearly every step up to that point. Somewhere around mile 50, Jon Olsen and his pacer went blowing by me. The thing was, I had no idea what a pacer was, so I assumed that I had just been passed by two runners (one of whom looked amazingly fresh). I remember feeling really dejected by this. I felt like I could handle being passed by one runner at that time, but two of them seemed like just too much. I was frustrated and tried to find another gear to chase them to the finish. Unfortunately, the only other gears I found in the remaining 10 miles were even slower. I plodded along and finally made it back to the start/finish area. When Soderlund came up to me to congratulate me on my third-place finish, I assumed that someone ahead of me had dropped out of the race, or that he was simply mistaken, and that I had, in fact, finished in fourth place. It wasn’t until weeks or months later when I learned what a pacer was that it suddenly popped into my head, “Oh, that’s why I finished third instead of fourth at Miwok.”

After this, I went on to race nearly 30 more ultras in the next four years, in a couple of them I even used a pacer myself. However, because of the way I jumped blindly into the sport, I had never actually paced (or even crewed) anyone in a race myself. In fact, it wasn’t until sometime in the past year or two that I had ever been to a race that I wasn’t taking part in myself. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in other runners, and doing what I could to improve their experience, but rather, I was just so into racing myself that, if I was going to go to a race at all, I was going to race.

This mindset, of course, took its toll on my body. I have now spent the better part of the past 18 months recovering from severe physical effects of compromised health likely due to over-racing. As a result, I have had many more opportunities to attend races that I wasn’t racing myself. With my health improved enough now, I was even able to pace a friend for the last 30-plus miles of Pine To Palm 100 a couple weeks ago. In many ways, I feel like my experience of pacing brought me full circle back to the opposite side of the point I was at more than five years ago, when I didn’t even know what a pacer was.

Through pacing and crewing, I was able to see what it’s like for other people to run hundred milers, not just what it was like for me. As the runners came through the aid stations, I found myself often noticing little things that I never realized runners commonly did during races. I always assumed that I did things more or less the way everyone else did. In some cases this was true, in many cases it wasn’t true at all. I saw all these really obvious things for the first time that most people observe early on in their involvement in the sport if they attend races as spectators, pacers, and/or crew. Not only had I never watched a 100-mile race, but rarely had I run a 100-mile race in which I was running with other runners for very much of the race, and never in the second half of the race.

The actual experience of pacing was in some ways entirely familiar and in other ways entirely different than running those same miles as part of my own race. At times, I was aware of my own body and my own needs, and, at these times, it didn’t feel that much different than racing my own race. The majority of the time, though, as a pacer you are observing and assessing what your racer is doing, and completely ignoring your own body. It is in these moments that the whole thing becomes an entirely different experience than I have ever, or could ever have running my own race. In doing so much to take care of someone else’s needs it becomes almost easier to deal with our own situation, because we simply stop thinking about our own situation. This isn’t to say that pacing is easy on any level, but in hindsight it is kind of funny that I was stressed about how much I might struggle to run 33 miles, as this would be the longest run I had done in about 18 months.

Certainly it was a very demanding thing for me to do, but in the moment none of this mattered, I just selflessly made sure everything was going as smooth as possible for my friend who had been grinding out the miles for the entire day. My experience still mattered, and I needed to be sure to take enough care of myself to be able to make it the distance, but his experience mattered so much more, that it somehow made it all easier for me. A pacer is there for the benefit of the racer, but having the racer there as a diversion certainly makes the experience much easier for the pacer. A wonderfully effective and satisfying symbiotic relationship.

If pacing surprised me by being perhaps more satisfying, and in a weird way easier than I expected, crewing certainly had the opposite effect. Crewing for a runner in a 100-mile race is an exhausting experience with only a few short diversions offered by your runner. It’s waking up at 4:00 a.m., spending the majority of your day in the car looking for out-of-the-way aid stations on secondary roads which are likely not on the map, stressing about whether you’ve missed your runner, and forgetting to do much of anything to take care of yourself.

One of the hardest things about pacing is that you typically crew your runner all day before you start your pacing duties. When I actually began to run with my friend shortly after sunset, I felt nearly as exhausted as I might have expected had I run all day. Within minutes of pacing, though, everything just melted away. Without question, the most relaxing and effortless hours of the nearly 22 that my friend spent running Pine to Palm were the seven-plus that I spent running with him.

In one way, I found crewing to be a lot like racing: large portions of the overall fun come in the satisfaction of being successfully done with it as opposed to actually enjoying every moment of it at the time. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the crewing and that I don’t intend to crew for him or other friends in the future, but more to observe just how much everyone is giving that has done this for friends and family in the past.

In the end, I was just hanging out at a race all day, and there were a lot of things about that that I understood and expected, but certainly I was in a unique position having run so many races, but having spent almost no time at races that I wasn’t running myself. I learned a lot of subtle little things that I was never aware of. A lot of things that will make my experiences at races (as a racer or otherwise) in the future a lot more complete, and a lot more satisfying. This coming weekend I am going to be at UROC, helping run one of the aid stations. I look forward to seeing what I find out from looking at things from that angle, another aspect that I’ve more or less missed out on by always competing in the races that I’ve gone to.

I’ll end by saying thank you to my friend Bryan for letting me run those last 33 miles with you, and saving me from the grind of crewing for several more hours. And to my friends Deb and Sidra (Bryan’s wife and daughter) who did crew for several more hours, you two were amazingly selfless and patient all day and well into the night. It was great to see the crewing/pacing side of a 100-mile race from the inside rather than from the outside looking in. All of you that have ever done it are incredibly generous, and are impressive endurance athletes in your own right.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When you turn from runner to volunteer, crew, pacer, or anyone who supports the running efforts of others, what do you learn from and notice about the runners you assist?
  • What do you think is harder, running or crewing, and why?