Recently I have seen a lot of talk about how to be a pacer and/or how to choose a pacer so I thought I would share some of my thoughts and experience from past 100 milers and also talk about Crew too, since I have been on both sides many times.
So you have signed up for your first 100, you have trained for weeks and weeks, your taper is close so you start to create a race plan, but realize you’d like crew and pacers! What to do? First, congratulations on getting this far and staying healthy! Next: do you want crew and pacers? I love to share my experience with others close to me, but I have run 100s both with and without pacers and have survived either way. 🙂
- pros; company, a second brain to remind you to eat, someone to talk to, someone you can rely on when you start to hallucinate, another pair of eyes to find trail markers in the dark, a pacer can have a fresher memory for directions, also for some people it might be comforting to have someone there in case of wild life run ins.
- cons; there can be personality conflicts, maybe you like being alone, maybe your pacer isn’t in shape and now you are dropping them, perhaps your pacer can’t stand to see you suffering and is trying to talk you out of dropping now, worrying about someone else paying for travel to a race they aren’t actually racing.
- Hopefully with some forethought you can avoid most of the cons.
Once you have decided you would like a pacer there are things to think about like the person’s fitness, your personalities, your goals, also who can afford to travel to your race.
- Personality; this is usually where I pick training partners, we have already shared many miles together so I already know that we can be alone in the dark when the weather is crappy and we will still get along. In addition to this, sometimes no matter how much you love your spouse or parent, its often hard for family to see you suffer…so perhaps keeping family to crewing or pacing the last few miles is best because there will be SUFFERING!
- Fitness; again training partners. How far do you want a pacer? If you have a few you can worry less about their fitness and break up sections with a different person each section. Picking someone your pace or slightly faster is good, but remember if you pick your super fast marathon friend they might not be able to keep up with mountain climbing, hiking….fast running and hiking are two different skill sets, choose someone who is able to do the terrain.
- goals; make sure you communicate your goals clearly before the race. I jokingly talk about having a “safe” word because I instruct my crew and pacers to push me if they notice I am slacking. At the same time, if your goal is just to do nothing stupid and finish, make sure your pacer knows so when they start “cracking the whip” and when you resist there’s no surprise. After DNFing a 100 mile I still needed to finish one to keep a ticket in the Western States lottery, but the only race left was 3 weeks post 100 blow up, where I made it 70+ miles before dropping. In that case I let both my crew and pacers know that I was literally going to be taking it much easier than ever because it was just my “do nothing stupid, just get across the line for Western States lottery.”. That way my crew and pacers knew that I would be much slower than the year that I’d raced the same 100 and that was my goal; there would be no speed, no need to push, and no crew wondering why it was taking so much longer..was I hurt, lost? nope…just enjoying the miles and being zen.
- Travel and the cost associated; As much fun as it is to have friends come along, it also costs them money to travel to your event. This is probably something to discuss when signing up for a race beforehand if you want a specific friend to crew or pace. I do try to pay for lodging and a meal for my crew and pacers.
Have a plan for your crew and pacers to make things a little easier for them. I have a friend who will put together a whole binder full of maps, and notes, food needs, and estimated times in and out of each aid station. This may sound like overkill, but honestly, its great for your crew to have so they know when to expect you at each aid station. Things may change during the race, paces may slow down, but a general outline and directions to each aid station take much of the panic and burden off of your crew to figure out your race prep. Also you crew will know the distances between each aid station and can calculate your actual paces so they know if they should worry if you get off pace, or if you are moving faster they can be prepared earlier at the aid station. Have an A, B, C goal and time splits worked out for them. You can also write out your nutritional needs that you expect to want at each aid station, or what hydration packs you want and when.
I try to keep a list of equipment that is in my bag available so there isn’t confusion as to what item is where: pink windbreaker in the blue bag, for example.
People seem to also be concerned about running or pacing at night. If you trained correctly for your 100 mile race you have already done some night runs and have figured out your headlamp/night needs. For instance, I run with two headlamps, one on my head, one around my waist…it helps with my depth perception. Other people like a handheld, or just one on their head. If you are pacing at night, same goes for you…practice running at night after a long day of work. Running after a full day of work will simulate (somewhat) being tired and having to run in the dark. Trial and error I have found that I don’t need caffeine to stay awake at night, it usually just makes me have a BM, but I know plenty of people that need caffeine to get them through until the morning. Another thing about doing an overnight run is that you get to experience the full spectrum of it, the sun setting, the sun rising. Most people get a boost as the sun rises, and feel low at night. Plan for that, know that your pace will slow in the dark.
Another thing about night, its hard to see your crew in the dark, have a plan of how you will find them, maybe you have a red chair and they hang a headlamp on it with a shirt or banner or have a sign you can keep an eye out for. My friend will turn his red light on his headlamp and I will be able to find them in the dark. (also since I wear two headlamps they can usually spot me easily.)
Lastly, be kind to your crew. I know you love them and they love you and when blood sugar gets low and you hurt its easy to lash out, let them know beforehand as well as after how much you appreciate their selflessness.
CREW AND PACERS
Your favorite running friend has asked you to be part of your crew and pace! Yay, but now what?
- Pre plan: hopefully your runner already has a plan, but if not, get together with them (not on the trail) and discuss what their race plan and goals are so you can be on the same page.
- Goals and expectations: what do they expect their goal time to be? What do they expect from you?
- Read and learn: Read up on the race’s rules. Most are the same, but some are more strict about pacers. Most races don’t care if you are in front or behind or beside as long as you are a few paces away from your runner, but some races want you behind. Mule-ing is a no-no, though perhaps your runner forgot chapstick and you have some, know what the rules are for borrowing gear or even food. Know the rules about aid stations. Some happily plan to feed both race and pacer, others only have food enough for the runners so plan accordingly.
- Expect the unexpected: Puke, getting lost, batteries dying, rain, hail, mud, bathroom stops. Plan and pack your own gear as if you are going to be hiking/slow running for many hours. Also remember, you are usually joining someone who has already run 50 or more miles, so dress like you are going to be death marching. You may be able to run an 8 min pace, but your runner maybe trucking along at 20 +min, dress like you’re slow walking, and take off layers if your runner is able to move well again. The first time my husband joined me to pace it was like final 16 miles of Grindstone 100. We have shared many 15 mile runs together but as he joined me I noticed two things, one he had no hydration/food, and two no jacket and we were going up,up,up into the wind and night was coming quickly. I very clearly told him to run as fast as he could and get food, water, and a jacket because my usual pace was slowed down to a hike as we were going up to one of the highest points on the course and 15 miles would be taking much longer than he was thinking… and no, I wasn’t sharing my jacket 😉
- Be prepared to watch your runner melt down/be elated/zone out: Are you a parent? Don’t be surprised if your tough as nails best friend suddenly becomes a whining, needy child at some point in the race. Lack of sleep and calories do funny things to people. Some get giddy and silly, others weepy, petulant and downright stubborn.
- Bribery; again with the child comparison, if you can break down the race into smaller parts and bribe your runner it can help them from being overwhelmed. “Lets run this next 5 minute section, and once we get 5 min of running in, we can walk,” or “lets hike this climb hard, and then take it easy on the downhill.” Keep them motivated to move, bribe them with “letting them take it easy in a few minutes” often if they get moving they will feel better.
- Give them options, but not many. Keep it simple. “hey runner, you need to eat, its been 30 min since you took in any calories…I have this bar A or this bar B, you need to pick one.” Asking “do you want a sandwich, a snickers, a doughnut, candy, etc” can be overwhelming and take up time. Give them fewer options and make it easier on them. Making choices 80 miles into a race takes up a lot of brain power and can cost time and add stress.
- Keep an eye on your nutrition as well as theirs. Eat when they eat, don’t forget to drink.
- If they are having a rough patch, be patient, it will most likely pass….also when it doubt…”hey runner, I have this bar A or this bar B for you to eat” Many times a little calorie boost can help. Many emotions can unexpectedly come up late in a race, let them get it out of their system and them move on, don’t act shocked or weirded out…what happens during a 100, stays on the course!
- Keep them entertained. My very first 100 my friend read a bunch of articles before the race and told me all about them, it was interesting, It took my mind off of things, and I didn’t need to actually respond if I didn’t want to. It helped the miles tick by.
- Be positive and supportive. No matter how slowly your runner is moving, be sure to keep positive. I mean com’on, they have made it 70, 80, 90 miles that’s impressive even if they are slogging it in. Don’t remind them of your sub 3 hour marathon, tell them how proud of them you are., help them remember that they are amazing for getting to where they are.
- Have patience, Ultra crewing/pacing is all about patience. There is a reason people say crewing can be summed up on the phrase, “hurry up and wait.” You rush to the aid station, set up your runners gear, and wait, and wait, and wait for them to come. Even once they have come sometimes you continue to wait while they nap, or eat, or whatever it is they are doing. However, don’t let them linger too long in each aid station, don’t rush them so they forget something important, but don’t let them dilly dally…keep and eye on cut off times!! <—– that an important one, know the cut off times, and make sure your runner is staying ahead of them, and most important, do NOT let them time out at an aid station (unless they mean to, and yes that has happened to someone who will remain nameless..)
Two other things about crews, pick a crew captain. You’ve heard of too many cooks in the kitchen, its also true in crewing. Before the race, let your crew know who is the crew chief and make sure everyone understand that person is the person with the final word. My friend ET is always my captain, she’s organized, can read maps, good at trouble shooting, is anal about being at aid stations on time, and has crewed almost every one of my 100milers…she knows what’s up and I trust her. It just eliminates any crew confusion, I usually talk to her the most so she knows all the ins and outs of my race, even though she’s never run a 100, she’s still the best! This segues nicely into my next comment about crew, while its fantastic to have someone that’s run every 100 miler from mountains to roads, not everyone knows that person, someone who is good at trouble shooting, isn’t afraid of bodily fluids or scared of nasty feet, dirty clothes, spiders, snakes, and other things that go bump in the night is just as good. There are plenty resources to read up about 100 mile experiences and someone who is willing to look up things like, what is a sign of hypothermia, dehydration, how do I deal with blisters etc can be every bit as good as a veteran in a pinch.
Let me share two pacer stories as an illustration of what has helped me out in different races.
One pacer attribute that sticks out in my mind is the encouragement I have received in really low spots. Two times come to mind. The first was in the last 15 miles of my first 100, Pinhoti 100. Earlier in the race I wasn’t ready to be pushed, and I had gotten mad at my pacer who was trying to push me along at mile 60, I just wasn’t ready to “race” yet, and I switched pacers to one who was more relaxed. However, in the final 15 miles I knew it was time to put my head down, and I asked my friend to join again and push me in. I knew that no matter how down on myself I got he would just push and push and ignore my stubborn lack of confidence that creeps in when I get tired. He was confident I could run it in, so when we were too fast and missed my crew at an aid station I got worried and started to linger and wait for my crew, he confidentially told me we would see them at the finish and we needed to get going. The last 5 miles were HARD, my brain wanted to stop, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Physically I was fine to run, and he could tell that, and he kept creeping the pace a bit faster and faster…telling me we only had a mile left (with probably more like 3) so I would push harder. I was so excited to run a sub 23 hour race my very first 100, and without someone else’s belief in my ability I might have decided to walk. I have kept that in my head ever since and instead of walking when I don’t feel confident, I remember the sub 8 pace I ran for the last 6 miles of my first 100.
The second was in a 100k, it was my first time at the distance and while the course was runnable I wasn’t sure that I should/could run it all. It was 7 laps and by lap 5 I had picked up a pacer. This lap sucked. It had turned cold and rainy and the course had become nasty, sloppy, slick mud, but my ever positive pacer kept me steady. He had broken the course up into thirds and was talking me through it. Lap 4-5 were the “just hold steady” laps, in the middle, not the start, not close enough to finish..kind of stale, but steady. When we got to lap 6 he reminded me that we were in the last 3rd of the race when the real race begins and now was time to put my head down and grind, and then lap 7 he was like “this is the victory lap…leave everything out there on the course!” Thanks to him I won my first 100k. Sometimes just having someone believe in you and not letting the self doubt creep in is just the thing that gets you to a break through performance.
On the other side of the crew/pace table, several years ago I helped crew and pace several friends at a very wet all day rainy mud slog of a race that was an out and back 25 miles 4 times so the puddles were crazy towards the end of the 100. There was a lot of sock changing and foot washing and diaper cream reapplying going on and everyone’s feet were pretty gross. Suck it up buttercup, I still have friends to this day remind me of how great it was that I was so professional about cleaning their feet and liberally applying the cream, even between their toes. Sounds gross, and it was, but it was what saved many of their feet. Don’t hesitate and be squeamish about ultra feet, they stink and often only have 7 toes, but that is part of being crew.
Honestly, pacing and crewing someone is such a fun, and amazing act of selflessness. If you are prepared, and know the rules, the course, remember to dress appropriately, aren’t too thin skinned, good at trouble shooting and feed yourself as well as your runner you are going to have an experience of a lifetime!