The Mid-Packers

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!

There are 10 comments

  1. @AimforAwesome

    That's awesome. What made it better is that I didn't (on purpose) read who the author was of the article. I have to say, it didn't seem like Dakota, so I was surprised when I finished and checked to see who the writer was! Nine minute miles is still respectable! Hope I can crank that out someday! lol. Get better man, 2014 has your name on it.

  2. macdaddymike

    Great article! I laughed the whole way through. I also didn't know the author while I read, and looking afterward, made me laugh some more. It's a good Christmas read, while I wait for the kids to wake up. Great sacrifice on your part, to which I am grateful. Good material to laugh about on my next long run.

  3. @orrsh

    As always, a joy to read! Laugh out loud funny and even – gasp (Dakota's words, I think) – great commentary on the sport. It always impresses the hell out of me to see the determination of runners who finish in twice the winners' time.

  4. runningfoo

    The resentment I may or may not have held based on your performance and the resulting impact on my TNF50 prediction contest is wiped clean. Your down-right crazy for running with the flu, and showed immense guts.

    The real pearl of this sport is the inspiration that you and the 1% brings to mid-packers like me and beyond. There are few sports where the fan and the world-class, elite athlete can share the same field of play. Where the casual participant and the greatest can run together during the same events.

    Besides the apparent humble and giving nature of most runners – especially those at the highest level of our sport – our sport is great because we have these shared journeys. Our times will most often be radically different, but we all traveled the same trails. We all suffer and ultimately aim to triumph (or commune).

  5. kenmichal

    As much as I was surprised to see you on the Bolinas Ridge out and back section, it was great to see you slogging away with the rest of us instead of throwing in the towel!! It takes a lot more grit, resolve and strength to finish when things aren't going well and it was definitely inspiring to see you in the middle of the pack!!!

    All Day!

  6. benzultra

    Not even a shout-out for all the encouragement I gave you during the race?! Must be because I beat you by four minutes! (guy in the orange coat / white t-shirt who 'ran' the majority of the second half around you)


  7. steeltownrunner

    Little known fact – many people don't really know/ relate to other perspectives until they experience them.

    When are you racing Zach Bitter & Co for 100mi on a track or chasing any one of Kouros' records?

    -a midpacker w/ all sorts of ideas of what he'd do in another life w/ another pair of legs

  8. Shelby_

    That's a sweet glass of lemonade you made from your lemons, Prez. Maybe before another race you can infect yourself with a virus that will slow you down about 6 min per mile more (yes, there are finishing paces slower than bird watching!) so you can witness the invigoration of chasing cutoffs and suffering for the longest time allowed. It's a rush, I tell ya. Keep that bar low by aiming for an official finish so you can feel like a winner every time (every time you finish, that is!).

    I think you had 3 good races this year, Mr. I-came-in-under-the-course-record-at-the-Red-Hot-55k — even if some bearded guy had a slightly better day. 2014 is gonna be a great year for you. I mean, you're going back to HR… that's a sign of good things to come, I think. Happy holidays and new year!

  9. Andy

    Alienating, offensive, and blatantly patronizing. But with enough humor and humanity that it somehow comes across OK. Probably only because we mid-packers can't afford to take ourselves too seriously, and apparently neither do you. So welcome to our, um, elite, club. Hope we have the chance to jog together sometime in 2014, chat some, and maybe even lounge at an aid station. Front, middle, or back of the pack, it's all good.

  10. trailbrat

    So glad you got to see why an ultramarathon is like a mullet. All serious in the front and party in the back! Party on, Wayne…'er Dakota :)

  11. thethinslicewp

    Now come on Mr. Jones. Just because you are an elite runner doesn't mean you have to also be elitist. We are unknown only to your superior breed. But, to be honest, the mid-packers ARE ultra-running. Not the elites. They are celebrities and icons, but the meat and potatoes of the sport are the mid-packers. I'm sorry you had to deliberately debilitate your body so you could come down and join the unwashed masses. (Please note: This is said in good fun. But still…there's a point here.)

  12. DistanceDan

    Dakota, Thank you for writing this article. I would also like to thank the ambassasorship of Karl Meltzer and Scott Jurek as well as other elites who are known to stay at the finish of races to congratulate the mid- and back- of the pack finishers… making us all feel like champions. Happy Holidays.

  13. bloodyben

    I think for many, just completing the task-at-hand is difficult enough. My dad (age 58) just started taking up ultrarunning after 20+ years of no running whatsoever. It's only once you start getting comfortable with the distances that you can start getting competitive. This has been my observation after running these ultras for over 6 years now. The camaraderie experienced by people "just getting it done" and the moral support you get at an enthusiastic aid station have been enough to keep me in the sport and having a memorable time of it. Cheers boss, we'll see you out on the trail!

  14. Maryellendvm

    I loved this article. It was great fun to read. However, Mr Jones, some of us mid packers are seriously racing too…perhaps for a finish, a PR, or an age group place. We are watching our pace, albeit slower than yours, not wasting time at aid stations, and staying focused. Our legs just do not turn over as quickly as your :-) Best wishes for a great 2014 season, and do not stop writing. Mary Ellen

    1. AtomLawrence

      How much does one's ultrasignup rating matter? My guess is potential sponsors pay much more attention to one's recent performances at competitive races. The rating is fairly artificial in any case, since it's generated purely as a percentage of the winning time. Overall placement doesn't matter, overall competitiveness of the event doesn't matter. Cherry-pick relatively soft local events, and a good runner can generate the rating of an elite.

      1. lstomsl

        Mine doesn't matter a bit. There are at least three other people with the same name and age as me so our results are combined and seems unable to separate them. Sorry about the lack of sarcasm tag…..

        And apologies to all the other 48 year old ultra-runners named Mike Miller for consistently screwing up your ratings with my own mediocre mid-pack performances…..

  15. AtomLawrence

    Thanks for this. You're the man…sorry TNF and Japan were hard on you! I had the novel experience of running towards the front at a friendly local 50k lately, and the complete absence of talking was one of the things that stood out. It was a lot of fun, and I hope to do it again sometime, but definitely different from my previous races.

  16. senelly

    Kudos! Aside from the patently patronizing tone from a former superstar, the writing was grammatically correct (mostly) and believable (mostly). I for one don't often resort to the "sick-as-a-dog" schtick when I do less well than expected, but its use here is appropriate since the next excuse we;ll hear will probably have something to do with age, as in, "I won my age group". Dakota, Dakota, you need no excuses. Once upon a time you were really good at this. Now, at your advanced age, with your well-documented maladies, you are history. We all have to face decline. Live with it. Your race next year at Hardrock, against the current crop of superstars, will undoubtedly be memorable… no matter how far back you finish. I know, because for over a decade, I had the slowest official Hardrock time in history (47:59:35). Everybody knew my name… that is until some clever woman finished 10 seconds slower. She claims she had the flu.

  17. andymxyz

    Personally, I found this article condescending.

    Maybe someday, Byron will invite me to write an article about how educated and successful I am, and how one day I decided to slum it with some college dropouts and report back on what it's like to be dumb. But I doubt it.

    1. thethinslicewp

      I'm with you. I'm glad I read it though. It has finally broken my blind admiration of elite athletes (except Roes of course…). I realize now that they are not really in the same sport, nor do they consider us a part of their sport. If anything, the "elite" mindset will turn ultra running into something more closely resembling triathlon culture. I don't want that. So…as they say, we must "kill our heros," and be our own.

  18. thethinslicewp

    Some people have said that the growth of the sport will threaten the culture. If by that they mean the numbers of newcomers, I think they're wrong. What threatens the culture of the sport is the growth of the elite field. I came to ultras to escape the road and tri mentality. I'd like to see the culture be dictated by the majority of the field and not the new "conversation of sensationalism" that has started to spring up. I love all the podcasts and websites and interviews as much as the next person, but like MTV in its heyday, this elite-worship media is going to dictate to us what our culture should be and we will conform to it. This is the biggest issue with ultras growth. Sorry if I'm getting too deep. I don't mean to sound jerky. Just had to put it out there. So you can flame me, it's all good. Take it easy. CV

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