Saturday, October 12, 2013

View from the Pacer's Seat (Pacing Oil Creek 100K)

"I don't know where you're going
But do you got room for one more troubled soul?
I don't know where I'm going but I don't think I'm coming home
And I said I'll check in tomorrow if I don't wake up dead
This is the road to ruin
And we're starting at the end

Say yeah
Let's be alone together
We could stay young forever
Scream it from the top of your lungs"
-Fall Out Boy

This past weekend I paced JD to a finish at Oil Creek 100K.  This was his big goal race for the year.  When he asked me to pace him for the last 50K of the race, I was honored, but I was also terrified.  A pacer's one and only job is to get your runner to the finish, and I was afraid that I would not be a strong enough runner to do this for him.  I was so afraid that I would let him down so after asking him about 100 times if he really wanted me to do this I trained like a mad woman and set a goal to be able to do a sub 8 hour 50K in order to be able to pace him well.  I felt pretty comfortable after Youngstown Ultra that I would be able to handle the last 50K at Oil Creek so we had consistently talked about the fact that he had to do 50K on his own and then we were just going to go out there an enjoy the course.  I also thought this was a great opportunity for me to get another 50K under my belt while getting familiar with the course at Oil Creek.

What I have collected here are lessons learned as a pacer that will hopefully help me and others.

1.  Know your runner's goal.
I knew that first and foremost our goal was to finish, but I also knew that he had a time goal in mind.  In the week leading up to the race, JD had handed me a handwritten sheet with distances and times through aid stations for a 17-18 hour finish so I knew what I had to do when we got out on the trail.   I folded that sheet up and kept it in my hydration pack and was able to consult it throughout the run, and keep us within our goal range even after it got dark.

We also had a few sub-goals.  A big one of these was to hit AS #2 and get some of the way to AS #3 before dark.  I was pushing to run as much as possible during the first section to make this goal.  In retrospect, I see that I ran a little too conservatively on this section because I was so concerned about making sure he had enough left to finish.  Now I realize that it was a lot of hiking once it got dark so we should have made more of our runnable time.

2.  Break the run into manageable chunks.
The size of these chunks will vary greatly depending on your runner and where on the course you are.  At the beginning we started out with getting to AS #2, but by the end of the race we were down to small goals (get me off the trail, get me to the next stop sign).
Focusing on getting to AS #2

3.  Don't lie to your runner about distances, but you don't need to be brutally honest about them either.
JD only wanted to know about really big mile markers.  He wanted to know when we hit 50 miles. Sometimes he would ask about distances to aid stations or how far we had made it into a section.  There were a few times where the truth was not going to help him so I gave vague answers about the distance or remained pretty noncommittal about it until we had made some good progress.

(Case in not correct him when he thinks he's a little further than he really is)
4.  Be organized.
This is particularly true if you do not have additional crew to rely on.  I had detailed lists of what we needed at each aid station and what was to be in each drop bag.  I had the drop bags organized and also had my hydration pack organized with the gear I would need. I had our drop bags and crew supplies well organized so that part of the day would run smoothly.  I packed and repacked hydration packs to make sure all of the supplies were there.  I had about 500 handwritten lists of what to do when.  What I lacked in physicality I made up for in organization

Bags waiting to go out to AS #2
5.  Know the course.
 This is really important because you may be leading your runner at some points.  You should know what the course markings look like and know the distances to the aid stations.  I had read a number of blogs, studied the course description, and was carrying a one page sheet with all of the aid station distances.  It would have been even better if I could have run part of the course previously, but that wasn't possible so I had to rely on my studying and preparation.
Course markings

6.  Take care of yourself.
 Pacers often forget to do this because they are so focused on the runner.  I was waiting around all morning and crewing a lot of the day.  I made sure to stay out of the sun as much as possible and to eat and keep hydrated so that I was fresh when I went out.  I also kept reminding myself to eat and drink when my runner was eating and drinking.  The terrific aid station volunteers at Oil Creek made my job much easier because they were great about tending to runner's needs so that I could take care of myself when I came into the aid stations.

Had to make time for a quick selfie
7.  Stay positive.
 This was the part that was scary for me.  I tend to go to Negative Town when things get hard on a run.  This particular race was a big challenge for me because I don't run well in afternoon, it was more elevation gain than I had ever done before, it was only my second go at the 50K distance, I was crewing all day, and I had no previous experience running trails at night (probably should have practiced this before hand). I had to work hard to keep any negative thoughts or complaints inside my own head.  There were a few spots after AS#2 where I was in a dark spot.  The first of these was going up Heisman Hill.  This climb was really hard on me, and I let it show.  JD saw that and started to worry about me a little.  After that climb, I vowed to myself that I was not going to let anymore weaknesses show on the outside.  So I cursed Rockefeller and his damn Revenge (Mother Fxxer Jones from Horrible Bosses visited us a few times), secretly hated the Boy Scouts (because I swear they moved AS #3), wanted to throttle Gerard for making the trail go up and down so many damn times, really hated the damn mud before Miller Farm Rd, almost crapped my pants when I smelled bear near the trail (better get that bell out), but I kept it all to myself.

I also used others on the trail to help keep me upbeat.  Tom Lane at AS #2 was awesome at motivating us as we were leaving the and heading out.  Jeff Nelson also provided a much needed pick me up on the way into AS #3.  I was doubting my pacing abilities, and he had some encouraging words that buoyed my spirits to help with a strong finish.  It also helped to know that it took us until AS #3 for the lead 100 miler to pass us and no other runners passed us after AS #2.

Might as well enjoy the scenery!

8.   Do not linger in aid stations.
Although aid stations provide a much needed break from the trail and comfort for you and your runner, they are very tempting.  At OC 100, runners were dropping like flies at the aid stations.  I made it my goal to get us in and out of those aid stations as fast as possible so that JD was never tempted to entertain thoughts of dropping.  I checked on what he felt like he needed as we were approaching the aid station and started working on getting those needs met as soon as we hit the station.  I know it sounds callous, but I also tried to avoid contact with dropping runners.  I wanted to avoid any negative thoughts and keep the focus on the finish.  At one point one of the volunteers got confused about who was and was not dropping and was about to write JD's number down as a drop so I came racing into the pavillion like a crazy person yelling that 635 was NOT a drop.

Along the same lines, don't indulge your runner by dwelling on his complaints.  If JD would mention that something was hurting, I would acknowledge it and then change the topic to start talking about something else or change the pace of the run/walk to help him focus on something else.

Coming into AS #1

9.  Know what motivates your runner and how your runner wants to be paced.
 Since my runner happened to be my husband, I had an in-depth knowledge of what he needed to be motivated.  We had talked a lot about whether he wanted me to run ahead or behind, when and how I should push him, whether I should be tough, how much talking he wanted, etc.  Having said that, remember that things change on the trail.  JD is usually pretty talkative so I was prepared to keep a running dialogue out there for as long as it took.  However, I sensed that he was getting tired of talking at one point so we took a break from the chatter and just ran in silence (except for the incessant ringing of the bear bell-did not want to meet mama bear) for a bit. 

My runner was motivated by the promise of porta potties and noodle soup.

10.  Improvise, adapt, and overcome.
Stealing this one from the Marines!  As much as you study, prepare, and plan, not everything goes according to plan.   Mother Nature threw a curve ball at us and dropped some unseasonably warm weather in our lap so we had to adjust our hydration and electrolyte plan as well as be prepared to slow the pace.  Despite checking the packs multiple times, I forgot the handheld flashlight.  This would have made my night running much easier, but I had to shake it off and move along with only the headlamp.

We forgot the knife so we just dipped the bread in the jar.
11.  Celebrate the small victories.
 JD is still laughing about the party I threw when we came off of the trail at the Drake Well Museum.  I screamed and yelled and jumped up and down like he was Wilson Kipsang running a 2:03 marathon.  I knew he was exhausted at that point and that we were so close so I had to throw some energy into it.  I think I woke up the poor tired volunteers at the Jersey Bridge.  I also partied it up when we hit AS #2 with lots of celebrating about how we were headed home.  I also had quite the celebration when we could finally hear the hit and miss engine at the museum because that meant the end was near.

We are also still laughing about how I was sometimes giving him his pace and made the biggest deal when he hit a 15 minute and 13 minute mile back to back.
Pirate party at AS #2

12.   Have fun!
Because if you aren't having fun, then why are you out there doing it.  This was one of the best running experiences of my life, partly because I got to help my husband fulfill his dream, but also because I learned so much about myself along the way.

We did it!

My section of the run was 10 hours 23 minutes with about 6.5 of those hours in the dark using headlamps. In retrospect there were things that I could have done better and a few mistakes that I made, but I am excited to get back out on the trails and learn some more.  I met so many great people from the other crew and pacers to the runners to the amazing volunteers.  My job was made easy by the amazing course marking.  Not once did I ever have to search for a flag or worry that I was off course even in the pitch darkness.  Special thanks to the Boy Scouts for their adorable signs and spending the night in the woods just to keep us going (even though I'm still convinced that they moved the aid station).  Also special thanks to Tom Jennings and the finish line volunteers who made sure to congratulate me on finishing 50K.  Being a pacer can be a bit of a let down as your runner finishes and gets a buckle and applause.  Tom and the finish line volunteers made sure to cheer for me as well which made the finish even more special for me (plus the buckle is in our house so I at least got to go home with it too).


  1. You are truly amazing athletes. I am in total awe of your badassery! Cheers to you both. I'm out of breath just reading about it!

  2. You were an awesome pacer. Give yourself a pat on the back for doing a great job. And tell JD to buy you some jewelry or something for all your hard work.