The Art Of Pacing

AJW talks about the art of pacing.

By on August 28, 2015 | Leave a reply

AJWs TaproomOf the many characteristics I admire in successful ultrarunners, the ability to pace oneself intelligently and thoughtfully is perhaps at the top of the list. Particularly in events lasting over 10 hours, finding and sticking to the best pace can be a capricious undertaking. Yet those who are most successful, and indeed successful over many years, tend to be those who’ve mastered the art of pacing better than most.

I have been thinking about this notion over the past week especially as I begin my 25th year in education. The traditional rhythm of the school year has, over time, allowed me to find a pace at which to live and work which I like to think has been informed by my career running long distances. Indeed, in life as in a long race, we must find ways to balance those opportunities during which we can accelerate our pace with those times when it is better for us to take the foot off the gas.

Starting a new school year always provides me with a chance to both reflect and renew. I can take a moment to catch my breath and look to the past while simultaneously looking ahead to what I hope to be a promising future. I can take stock of my mental, emotional and perhaps even spiritual state to calibrate how it is I should approach the next leg in the journey. Looking back on three specific instances during my ultrarunning career allows me to land on real-world examples that can provide guidance to me moving forward.

First, I have a fond recollection of the 2006 Western States 100. For those who were there, it is remembered simply as ‘the hot year.’ Certainly, there have been hotter years than 2006 but for me, that year, it was the hottest I had ever encountered. I distinctly recall leaving the Last Chance Aid Station at mile 43 that year and hearing the voice of my longtime friend and running mentor Tom Nielsen emerging from a pit stop in the woods. After exchanging pleasantries, we both agreed that it was way too hot for either of us to race and we collectively and figuratively threw our split cards out the window. Over the next six hours we ran step for step together savoring the company and taking joy in our slower, gentler pace. Tom went on to finish third that year while I crossed the line in seventh.

Second, I can plainly see a then little known ultrarunner by the name of Geoff Roes inexorably pulling away from me at mile 55 of the 2008 Wasatch Front 100 Mile. Geoff and I had spent most of the first half of the race together and we came into Lamb’s Canyon together in the lead. He made a little bit quicker work of the aid station than I (back then Geoff routinely eschewed crews and pacers and preferred to just roll through aid stations quickly and efficiently) and as we made our way up the pavement to the bottom of Bear Ass Pass he slowly went out of sight. After trying a few times to increase my tempo to keep him in range, I realized that it would be foolish to do so. I dropped back into my comfort zone and proceeded to run the last 43 miles alone finishing second place 90 minutes after Geoff.

Finally, the memory of the pacing shift I made at the 2009 Hardrock 100 is indelibly imprinted in my mind. After nearly 23 hours of running, I came slowly up on my good friend and longtime rival Scott Jaime making his way up Grant Swamp Pass. I was close enough to see that he was laboring and he was close enough to hear me tell my pacer we could catch him. As I tried to pull up toward him, I realized that such a pace was just a little too hot. I pulled back and by the time I crested the pass and looked down onto Island Lake, Scott was gone. He ended up beating me by about half an hour.

Looking back on it now I, of course, wish I could have stayed with Tom, Geoff, and Scott on those occasions. But I also knew, viscerally and unapologetically, that I couldn’t. Having the presence of mind to know your limitations and keep your pace within range of your training is not always easy, or even possible. Especially when external forces may impel you to do otherwise. In running and in life, I believe that proper pacing can not only keep us healthy and whole, but can also teach us much about what it means to make it through this often complex and unpredictable life.

Bottoms up!

 AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio. Affectionately named after their river that once caught fire, Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale is an excellent American Pale Ale brewed in the tradition of some of the classic APAs around. Balanced at 6% ABV with a crisp hoppy finish, Burning River is a sweet late-summer brew.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you nailed your pacing for a race before? How and where and when did that come together?
  • And when have you messed up your pacing? Why did it happen?
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Andy Jones-Wilkins
Andy Jones-Wilkins finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.