The Art and Science of Pacing

AJW explores the fine art of pacing at an ultramarathon.

By on October 12, 2012 | 53 comments

AJWs TaproomLast weekend I had the honor and privilege of pacing 25-year old Arizonan Nick Coury at the Grindstone 100 Miler here in Central Virginia. My assignment was to pick him up at Mile 66 and run with him to the finish. Given the unique format of Grindstone this meant I could actually watch the start, return home for dinner and a full night’s sleep, and get on the trail with Nick at around 6:00 am (12 hours after he started).

The plan worked perfectly and at 6:00 am sharp we ran out of The Wild Oak Trail Parking Lot and began the last leg of Nick’s journey back to Camp Shenandoah. For the first few miles we chatted off-and-on about the race, the competition, the weather, and the warmth of the rising sun. Then, about a mile before the 72-mile aid station, I noticed Nick’s pace drop just a touch and our chit-chat ended. At that point I dropped back a bit to see if he would drop back with me and he did. Then he said, “I think I need some food other than sugar.” Nick, it turns out, was having the dreaded “sugar bonk.”

I came up alongside him on the double track run-in to the aid station and asked him what he would need when we rolled in. He said, “food and water.” Ah! The simplicity of ultrarunning, I thought wistfully. When we got to the aid table Nick wolfed down half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and stuffed two more halves into his pack. That, coupled with the fact that we learned that we had gained 10 minutes on Neal Gorman, the second place runner, got some spring back in Nick’s step and we cheerfully left the aid station.

The next 8-mile section to Dowell’s Draft had some great runnable sections and for about the first 5 miles we were making really good time. However, Nick’s bonkiness continued off and on and we played a little bit of cat and mouse with his nutrition. His quads and feet were holding together well, but the stomach was on that fine line between success and failure. We rolled into the aid station feeling good and Nick took a little more time here, this time eating about 15 orange slices. I grabbed a bunch of gels, filled bottles, and asked about the guys in front. They were gone.

Nick left the aid station ahead of me and I decided to let him run away from me a bit here. Knowing that his climbing legs were beginning to fade, I thought he might get a bit of lift by gapping me and maybe he would even play a game with himself to see if he could drop me. It was not something we had discussed, but I know from experience that dropping a pacer can give a runner a jolt of adrenaline and perhaps Nick could get one if he ran away from me a bit. I rolled back up to him about 2 miles into the 7.5-mile section to the next aid and, indeed, he had been moving well. Curiously, once I reached him, he began to slow down. I urged him to take a sandwich and he did. Immediately the pace picked up. Then, from behind, Jason Schlarb, who had been running fourth all night, passed me. He tucked in behind Nick and Nick pushed the pace. Sensing this was a bad idea I let them go. 200 yards up the trail Nick let Jason pass and I ran up to Nick.

“Dude, no worries. A pass this late means there’s something left in the tank. Jason’s strong today,” I said, “Just run your race.” And, for the remainder of the day, he did.

As we traversed the last few ridges Nick see-sawed between energy bursts and by the end we were once again chatting away, enjoying the fall foliage and telling stories like we were out on a relaxed 20 miler. Nick finished strong in 19:08 and said to me that with the possible exception of his 31:06 at Hardrock in 2008 this was his best race. We celebrated a bit at the finish and then went our separate ways.

I do not relay this story as a ‘pacer report’ (although up until now it appears that way) but rather as an attempt to illuminate the art and science of pacing. You see, as much as pacing is a somewhat controversial topic, it is also provides fascinating emotional and psychological analysis. Think about it, how many times does one have a firsthand encounter with an endurance athlete 14 hours into a mountain trail race? Not many.

Add to that the following from the example above:

  • Nick and I barely knew each other before Saturday having met twice in passing over the past five years.
  • We spoke once, for about five minutes, right before the start.
  • I am 20 years older than Nick.

Nonetheless, over seven hours, we intimately shared the ups-and-downs of a 100-mile mountain race, together.

From the ‘science’ standpoint I stayed on him about fluid, calories and salt while making sure to get information from him about his fatigue level, his ongoing pain threshold and his erstwhile stomach woes. I kept him focused on up-to-the minute mileage estimates and listened to his breathing and voice to see if I could discern any distress. When I did, I told him.

From the ‘art’ side I played a few games with him to keep him alert and on task while also attempting, when appropriate, to get him to disassociate from the immediacy of the experience. I tried creative ways of getting him to ignore the pain in his feet and legs and I made the best of the aid-station breaks to provide banter and emotional uplift.

Over the years I have had wonderful experiences with my pacers. In fact, they are some of my closest friends to this day. And, while I certainly understand the value of long solo efforts in the mountains, I also think the runner/pacer relationship and the experiences it inspires is one of the great gifts of our sport. I, for one, was glad to share in that gift last weekend.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

With the Great American Beer Festival wrapping up today in Colorado it is only fitting that this week’s Beer of the Week comes from Colorado on the recommendation of Colorado’s own Scott Jaime. Scott texted me the other day from the festival recommending Upslope Brewing Company’s IPA. I have to admit I haven’t tried it yet but if MexiFast thinks it’s good, it’s probably awesome!

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What tricks have you used as a pacer to help your runner along?
  • Has a pacer ever got you going unexpectedly?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.