The Mid-Packers

Dakota Jones reports on running with the middle of the pack at the 2013 TNF 50.

By on December 25, 2013 | Comments

Little-known ultramarathon fact: they are mostly composed of runners who are not trying to win the race.

What this means is that the people we see and hear all about (leaders, winners, those who look appealing and/or fast) comprise at times as little as one percent of the whole field of a race. Those people run fast up front, but behind them trek the vast majority of the participants. When I discovered this, I was appalled. That such a large group of like-minded people could have completely flown under the radar for so long was incredible to me. So, being the muckraking human-rights activist that I am, I decided to go underground to find out just what this group of people was really all about.

To do this I had to sacrifice my own desires for a quality race at the front of the uber-competitive TNFEC 50. This was a difficult decision to make, but I reasoned that in light of the massive benefits to be gained society by shedding light into this heretofore unheard-of sect of ultrarunners, my own racing ambitions could take a backseat for a short while. Thus, in the days leading up to the race, I deliberately infected myself with the influenza so that I would have a ready excuse not to race as hard as possible and which would give me the chance to spend a whole 50-mile race amongst–that’s right–the mid-packers.

I played my part well. Within a mile of the start I moved up to third place overall, surprising no one given my… two? … quality race results this year. As us leaders climbed the first hill, I slowly allowed the real competitors (Future Race Leaders of the TNF 50 – FRLTNF50) to catch up and ooze by me, their slimy competitive drives leaving a trail of ruthlessness behind them. With pure purpose and a chest cold leaving its own icky wake, I quietly slipped my way behind them. By five miles, I was running with the top women. Four miles later, I began the real work.

Some observations came quick as lightning. While I hacked and coughed on the side of the Coastal Trail, watching dedicated runners hike and run past–while talking, for Pete’s sake!–I observed that maybe I didn’t need to actually get the flu. I could have simply faked it, which would have perhaps given my observational abilities more acuity. I reasoned that being truly sick meant I didn’t have to lie to anyone, but at the same time–nobody wants to stand next to a sick person. I reasoned that I could have thought of all this much earlier and would have been better off for having done so.

Another thing I quickly noticed was a sense of spoken camaraderie between runners. Lots of people were talking to each other as they ran, discussing the race, their gear, their lives, and their families all while climbing up and down the steep hills of the Marin Headlands. To speak to your competitors with more than simple grunts seemed appalling to me at first. But gradually the benefit of this quality showed itself. Much like music, talking can be a distraction. But it is so much more than that, too. It is a chance to meet and share with others. While ‘being friendly’ seemed perhaps a dubious and suspicious attempt to gain the confidence of competitors in order to crush them later, it also was nice. Quite nice, in fact. I kept moving along, doing my best to soak in such insights and maybe, occasionally, to even be friendly.

Climbing up to the Cardiac Aid Station I–ahem–let myself be passed by several runners, all of whom displayed an impressive wisdom in pacing themselves. At the front of the race, we often go out more or less as hard as possible, with a faint hope that maybe we can continue to run something like that pace at the end of the race too (this of course excludes Mr. Krar, whose early 6:00 minute-mile pace is only a prelude to his 5:00 minute-mile pace 50 or 60 miles later). The mid-packers, however, begin at a reasonable pace, something that can be maintained for hours. And then, amazingly, they maintain it. For hours. I could hardly believe what I was seeing.

As I staggered out on the out-and-back section, I found that the views were incredible. Better yet, I found that I was not alone in thinking that. Everybody around me ran along taking in the view and enjoying the rather cold but outstandingly beautiful views of the ocean far below us. Being able to take the time to enjoy the views–gah! It seems like blasphemy. But it also felt a bit like a training run. Rather than competing with the people around them, these mid-packers were intentionally running with them, sometimes speeding up or slowing down so as to run with their friends. Nobody tried to beat anyone else. They all had personal goals that were just as fulfilling as trying to win the race. Despite my best efforts to maintain a competitive drive and feel bad for these poor saps who think they don’t even want to win, I eventually realized I was having fun. I fought that, too, but it didn’t help. I guess good people are good people, no matter where you find them.

I rumbled along through the redwood forests. Much like my laughable UTMB performance of several years ago, I found that I was going slow enough that spectators weren’t always sure if I was actually in the race. They’d cheer for all these people around me and then give me curious looks until they saw my number. Then they’d say something like, “Oh, he is running! Well, good for you.” And I’d jog past sobbing while they returned to their sandwiches and iPhones and self-respect.

What keeps many mid-packers going to the finish are the aid stations. After endless miles stretching through the hills and forests, all of which I trundled through at a pace relevant to birdwatching, the aid stations burst out of the woods like a stripper from a cake. And I would have been far less happy to see a stripper, because late in a mid-packer’s race, the food, drink, and company at an aid station are far more appealing than reproduction (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for greater detail on this point. Or not).

I found that actually stopping at an aid station is one of the best parts of an ultramarathon. Having never done so previously, this fact had escaped me entirely. But I soon found that aid stations are more like life stations. They’re invigorating and fulfilling on many more counts than simply food and water. They give emotional sustenance with their encouragement; spiritual sustenance with their placement in time and space (“four miles to the next aid, 15 to the finish!”); as well as the extraordinary physical sustenance to be had in Coke, Oreos, gummy bears, potato chips, soup, M&Ms,and the multitude of other goodies to be found on every aid-station table and almost no ultrarunner’s dinner table. The time I spent at aid stations was the most memorable of the whole race. The leaders primarily rely on crews for aid and barely notice the aid stations. But for the mid-packers, aid stations are everything.

As the final miles of the race wound down, the camaraderie aspect resurfaced. For one, Reese Ruland paced me for the last 10 miles, which was awesome because she’s awesome and having continuous company for the final miles was awesome and definitely made me walk faster. I also came back into contact with several runners with whom I had talked and run and lamented far earlier in the race. Much like old soldiers meeting after many life-altering battles fought together, I found in the continuous, dead-eyed march of my comrades a solidarity not to be found elsewhere. We had been through much together, and would soon part. But for the time being we were brothers.

Let’s end this disaster. Upon finishing, I found that over the course of the TNFEC 50, I ran almost exactly four minutes slower than Rob Krar… for each and every mile of the race. But that was a worthy sacrifice, since I have now been able to show the world all of the mysterious and wonderful aspects of racing with the mid-packers. Unfortunately, since most of the readers of this website are statistically mid-packers, I have probably alienated and offended every one of you. But the truth must be told! I stand by my observations as an interested and enlightened member of the journalistic profession, dedicated only to disseminating truth wherever it may be found! To progress!

Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.