19 June 2012

How to be an Ultra Pacer

Part 2
Part 3
Dream pacer.  Jenn Shelton.  Photo Bad Ben's blog
With Western States 100 this weekend and Hardrock 100 just around the corner, I'll be on both sides of the rusty razor barbwire pacing fence, pacing a friend at WS and being paced by a friend at Hardrock.  So I felt it appropriate to discuss the act of pacing.

One of the most selfless acts a human can perform is pacing another person in an ultrarunning event.  Mother Teresa never paced, nor did any of the popes.  It transcends all mundane humanity and will surely secure you a ticket in heaven (I visualize heaven as an all day BBQ on the 4th of July with the majority in attendance being thin twenty year old women - you get your own heaven).

Becoming a pacer is the easy part.  With the abundance of novice (read: scared petrified) ultrarunners bravely signing up for races so far in advance that it never occurs to them that the race will actually take place until they get the final instructions letter from the race director warning them of injury, wild animals, lightning strikes, kidney failure, and, of course, running in the dark, there are plenty of pleas for pacers to be found.  This is where you come in, cape embroidered with a big "P", tautly flowing from your broad shoulders and say, "Uh, I can pace you."  The rush of relief and gratitude is palpable through the email response and you feel like you just kicked five Ninjas' asses and saved a baby from a burning yurt.

Once the emotions settle, you and your runner have to figure out a few things.  Where along the course will you start your pacing duties?  Are you in good enough shape to pace for 50 miles?  Is your runner faster than you, even with 10 hours of running on his/her legs?  Will you lead or follow your runner?  Should you talk or stay quiet (or sing TV show tunes)?  Are you prepared to give the runner all your clothes and finish the race naked in 25 degree weather?  Are you ready to simultaneously feed a gel to your runner while he's squatted with diarrhea? (I draw the line at feeding and wiping).  Can you stomach walking at 2 mph for 20 hours when your runner falls apart but is stubborn to finish? (tips on how to subliminally convince your runner he's wasting his time and should DNF coming later).

There are a lot of things to consider before you take on this seemingly simple task.  Once you figure them all out, you can forget about them because nothing will go as planned and you'll need to ad lib the pacing gig as it unfolds.  This flexibility in planning comes into play as soon as you meet your runner for the first time.  You have played and replayed the scenario of him scampering into the aid station, switching out bottles, sponge bath, eating gels, all while in full stride running at you yelling, "Let's do this!" in a college football coach voice that sends chills down your spine.  You latch on to this running machine and the two of you bolt out of the aid station and onto endless ribbons of singletrack trail with the finish line as the one gravitational force.

By the time your runner shows up you're amped up like a rabid squirrel that just shot an eight ball mixed with white heroin.  Your runner, on the other hand, looks as though he just fell off a 1,000 foot cliff onto a ten lane highway and got pummeled by speeding traffic.  Balancing this odd mixture is an art form and imperative if you want to make it twenty feet together, let alone 40 miles to the finish.

Here's Part 2 of "How to be an Ultra Pacer":  How to lie and how to not kill your runner.

Here's Part 3 of "how to be an Ultra Pacer": The Case Study


  1. Speaking from personal experience I have to say that you know your sh!t on this subject. I couldn't have dreamed of a better pacer for my first 100.

  2. I'll never forget my journey with Craig at SD...beyond rewarding! I'd pace him again anytime; you on the other hand are too fast and I'd be worried if I could keep up even after you have 10 hours on your legs!

    Have fun at WS and kill it at HR!


  3. Thanks Lucho! That was one of the best days I ever experienced in running.

  4. How to be a dream pacer? Have a nice ass!

  5. "One of the most selfless acts a human can perform is pacing another person in an ultrarunning event."

    Word. This last weekend, three of us from the neighborhood here entered and ran the Bighorn 50 in Wyoming. For the other two guys, it was their first attempt at the 50 mile distance. One of them is a 3 hour marathoner like me and we both figured we'd be okay and essentially be pacing the third guy who just turned 50 (the silly reason behind the entire trip).

    Well we failed. The 50 year old fell behind the cutoffs by about 20 miles in, but he felt good enough to send us on to try and catch up so we could at least finish. For the second time in my life I drank HEED as that is the sports drink they offered...and just like San Juan Solstice for 4-5 hours I drank about 100 ounces but didn't digest much of anything. By the time I realized all this I was 10 pounds down, out of energy, and throwing up everywhere.

    The third guy in his first 50 attempt was having a great run and could have finished easily 1 hour ahead of me and probably 3 hours faster had he not helped try and pace the older guy. But he threw it all away to help both of us one at a time. He may never have a chance again to run a mountain ultra and have a great day like that and he threw it all out to help other people.

  6. Tim,

    Good post. I've had the joy (and pain) of pacing both someone doing well and someone hiking the last 38 miles of Wasatch...I've never been so cold. Always pack more than enough when pacing. Yah, mule!

    I personally don't like having a pacer. I find I check out a bit mentally and then I have someone to complain too. I've only had a couple of pacers in my 13 hundreds. I like being solo. And, run stronger without one. I recommend everyone try it sometimes. You definitely have a heightened sense of awareness at night when you're solo and you know it's your arse on the line with no one to wipe it.

    Good stuff. Giddyup.


  7. Have to agree with you, Bronco. I enjoy the solo run, not because it's some manly statement but it just seems to be easier dealing with myself instead of worrying about someone else having to deal with me as well. Hardrock is about the only race I feel it's a better idea to have a pacer with you.

  8. I don't know that I'm anti-pacer, but I will say that at Pine to Palm in 2010, when I was running with Brian (well, we'll call what we were doing "running"), he was miserable too, and so I didn't really complain much. Then he dropped and I picked up my pacer at 65, and I immediately put on my most whiny pants, turning into a Complaining Machine. (Victoria)

  9. I think your idea of Heaven is right on because I heard that Hell is every toilet on the 5th of July.

  10. I think, like anything else in racing, you need to train with what you'll do in a race. I don't think many people train with a pacer and that could be the reason why some are more comfortable racing solo - because that's what they've practiced in training...

  11. Ready to see you live in action with B!

  12. I bought a sports bra and tighty shorts today in preparation. I will shave my legs and start practicing talking dirty too.

  13. Very nice post(s) .... some good stuff as I (trail/ultra newbie) look forward to pacing OOJ (last years M9) in < 3 weeks at WS.


  14. Good to have this article and the comments too. About to pace my first runner in the Georgia Death Race (68 miles on trail) I'm a bit intimidated but the guy who is running is such a great guy I really want to be a help to him. Cheers all.