by Theresa Daus-Weber
While Pacing in the Marathon is Frowned Upon and Often Illegal, in Ultras It Is an Art.
© 2001 42K(+) Press, Inc.
Often, the image that comes to mind when you think of ultrarunning is the lone, dedicated runner covering vast distances over mountain trails, deserts, or endless miles of roads. But in reality, most ultrarunners don't cover those great distances alone. They are often accompanied by a pacer.
But the pacer who accompanies an ultrarunner is not what traditional road racers think of when they hear the word "pacer." In the traditional sense, a pacer is a runner participating in a race to help another runner maintain a particular pace—usually a fast, demanding pace that may be too strenuous for the runner to achieve alone. But a pacer in an ultrarunning event has many roles, some of which we'll discuss here. We'll also talk about some of the many demands and rewards of ultra-pacing.
What Is a Pacer?
An ultra may define pacers as "trail companions," as they are in the Western States 100, America's oldest 100-mile trail race, which runs through California's beautiful Sierra Nevada and through hot, deep canyons along the American River. As a "trail companion," the pacer is expected to accompany a runner during the late stages of the race to help him or her stay on course in the dark and keep the runner safe while negotiating trails in the waning miles of a long race. But, depending on the race, a pacer may be much more than a companion. When the race does not restrict the role, the pacer may function as a "mule," carrying the runner's water bottles, extra clothing, and lighting for the night sections of the race. For instance, the 19-year-old Leadville Trail 100 (LT 100), which starts at 10,125 feet in Colorado's Rocky Mountains and twice climbs to 12,600 feet on a 50-mile out-and-back course, maintains its independent, Wild West character by allowing—even encouraging—pacers to assist their runners by muling. During the mandatory pre-race meeting, race director Ken Clouber scoffs at other ultras' strict pacing rules, announcing that in the LT100 no one really cares when the water bottles carried by the pacer cross the finish line. What matters is when the runner crosses the finish line.
Along with defining the role of the pacer, a race also identifies the points where runners can be joined by pacers. Unless there's a special consideration (such as a runner's mature age or a health condition that requires a pacer from the beginning of the race), ultrarunners generally complete about half of a long race on their own before being joined by their pacer. Knowing that they'll have some company and assistance for the later miles often adds incentive as runners rack up the miles toward the middle of a race.
Race management decides how many pacers a runner can have at any one time and identifies points on the course where pacers may enter and exit—usually at designated aid stations. To comply with insurance requirements, pacers must be listed in the race as pacers. Through the identification information and the liability waiver that the pacer signs, he or she becomes an official participant in the race, wearing a bib number that matches the runner's bib number but which also features a unique marking or color to identify the participant as a pacer.
If a runner has more than one pacer, which is advisable for keeping the pacer as fresh and alert as possible over huge ultra distances, the pacer's bib number is transferred from one pacer to the next as their pacing responsibilities are completed.
Race management may also define other rules about pacing, such as how close the pacer needs to be to the runner. It may be against the rules for a fresh pacer anticipating an upcoming aid station to run ahead of a fatigued runner to fill water bottles and snatch needed gear from the runner's drop bag or crew. This may be seen as an unfair advantage that might affect overall finish time.
Although each ultra establishes its own rules governing pacers and their roles, a few basic pacing concepts are common to most events.
Psychologist, Doctor, and Coach
No matter how a race defines a pacer's role, there are some functions a pacer nearly always serves. "Friend, doctor, nursemaid, entertainer, and whipping boy," are the functions champion Colorado ultrarunner Adam Chase claims as he paced five-time Leadville Trail 100 champion Steve Peterson to his first LT100 victory in 1998.
Peterson, an even-tempered, focused ultrarunner, took Chase's friendly encouragement and feedback regarding the speed of descents and other milestone accomplishments within the race. To provide a psychological boost, Chase suggested that Peterson consider him a television with easily changeable channels. At Peterson's request, Chase might babble on with lighthearted "cartoon channel" amusement or provide PBS-like educational programming complete with feedback on technical aspects of Peterson's running form, pace, splits, fuel, hydration, and so on. Other participants in the race were grateful that Peterson never requested the MTV channel.
A large part of a pacer's success is his or her sensitivity to the runner's emotions. Knowing the runner well allows the pacer to provide different incentives at different times. And it helps for pacers to understand the peaks and valleys any ultrarunner experiences while covering many miles over long, lonely hours. Sometimes a runner might be encouraged by praise for a fast split between aid stations or a great climb. At other times, simply mentioning the amount of distance covered or the "measly" 22 miles left to go might spark a wrathful reply from a fatigued, nauseated ultrarunner. At such times, the pacer needs to use his or her best psychological skills to redirect the runner's venting and refocus him or her on the task and goal.
Over the long miles and hours that an ultrarunner is racing, a pacer should remind the runner to stay hydrated, eat on the run, relax tense muscles, and breathe regularly. Often, the pacer needs to manage the runner's intake of upset-stomach remedies and pain relievers for sore, tired muscles. Sometimes the pacer plays nursemaid, zipping up a rain jacket or tying a shoe. Over 27 hours of running, the mind can become feeble and forgetful, and even small, automatic tasks become laborious for the runner. A good pacer will step in and take over as necessary.
The Pacer Runs For Two
As exciting and challenging as it is to assist an ultrarunner in his or her goal to cross the ultra finish line, a good pacer needs to keep perspective and take care of himself over the long distances. In a way, the pacer is running for two. Although the pacer is fresher than the runner, he or she is focused on the runner's performance and needs, not his or her own real-time running feedback. Plus, the pacer can be carrying the weight of the runner's fluid, fuel, and gear along with all of his or her own supplies. It is not an easy job. Pacers must be fit runners themselves, able to perform all necessary tasks without ever slowing the runner down. There are times when mismatched runner/pacer teams have split when the runner, stronger than the pacer, takes off and leaves the overcommitted pacer on the trail.
But the rewards of pacing are great. Says Chase: "Pacing is a way to give back to the sport because you can have an impact and you get a great workout while pacing. Plus, you vicariously get to participate in an event that you may never intend to run yourself." But he identifies the problem of some circumstances being beyond a pacer's control. Sometimes a runner simply cannot respond to a pacer's suggestions or attempts to help. "You can only whip a tired horse so much, and you can't fault yourself," Chase advises.
Some Pacing Tips
To ensure success in long ultraraces where time and distance compound the variables that affect the outcome, having a strategy is critical—and that includes a strategy for pacers. First of all, when possible, use several pacers in a leap-frog fashion to keep each one fresh for a longer time. The fresher the pacer, the better job he or she can do.
Remember that during the peaks and valleys of mental and physical sensations that a runner experiences over an ultrarace, whatever was planned as a good strategy in the clear, lucid thinking before the race is generally not as appealing at mile 87. Expect this and behave accordingly; don't let a muddled head spoil a plan. The plan was made for a good reason, presumably, so stick to it as best you can. The pacer should help the runner avoid straying from the planned strategy.
When planning pacing strategy with pacers, be sure to clarify any possible confusion and to answer all questions. Pacers might ask, "Should I run in front of you or behind you?" "Do you want me to take care of everything for you in the aid stations?" "Do you want me to talk to you while we're running?"
The answer to this last question may be the make-or-break strategy of the race. Some ultrarunners find the companionship of their pacers a psychological boost during the hard effort of an ultrarace; others prefer to avoid distraction and the energy expenditure of conversation.
One key point: no matter what the talking plan is between the runner and the pacer, remind him or her not to hold you accountable for anything said under the strain of racing ultradistance. Many ultrarunners, cursing the depth of their misery deep into the dark and fatigue of an ultrarace, question their sanity. "Why am I doing this?" Under extreme distance, they might forget the thousands of miles, dollars, and hours of training they have invested toward this goal. All doubt and second thoughts spoken during the race are instantly forgotten upon crossing the finish line.
Probably the most universal tip for pacers is never to ask the runner how he or she is doing. No matter how long an ultrarace, there's not enough time for the runner to list the litany of pains, stomach discomfort, psychological doubts, and misery he or she is experiencing. No one gets to complete an ultradistance race without these experiences, but that doesn't mean they merit discussion during the race.
Some Pacing Tricks
When the basic pacer roles of psychologist, doctor, technical coach, companion, and entertainer are not enough, the wise pacer resorts to the role of magician. To be honest, this is not a difficult role for fresh pacers to assume for their tired ultrarunners. An ultrarunner's cognitive faculties seem to be the first to go during the exertion of an ultrarace (and some suggest that these faculties leave ultrarunners at the time they sign up for the race!).
When his runner complained about muscle soreness while climbing the final ascent of the Leadville Trail 100 at mile 81, pacer Charlie Hayes suggested that she take some ibuprofen to get her over this last 11,600-foot climb. Julie Westland-Litus, a veteran of ultraruns on various continents, mumbled her acceptance of Hayes's suggestion. To maintain the momentum of the climb, he instructed her to continue power-hiking, while he took off the daypack and rummaged in the dark among its contents of flashlights, water bottles, energy bars, rain jackets, gloves, hats, and so on. After disassembling the entire pack on the side of a dark mountain as his runner moved farther and farther ahead, Hayes could not find the tablets he had recommended. Breathlessly catching up to his runner after about 10 minutes had passed, Hayes cheerfully asked the tired runner if the ibuprofen was making her legs feel better. "I guess so," was all Westland-Litus could utter between lumbering steps up the steep slope.
The point is, first, be prepared for all requests that a runner may have, and if that fails, be creative. It doesn't take much to redirect a tired runner's limp mind.
On the other hand, recall that the wrong kind of suggestion might annoy a runner, as Chase recounts of LT100 champion Steve Peterson at mile 84. After Peterson picked himself up from a stumble on a very dark, rocky descent, Chase attempted to redirect the pain and the adrenaline of the fall by enthusiastically reminding the champion of the enormous distance he had covered and the comparatively small distance remaining. The stoic and fatigued Peterson did not succumb to the suggestion. Staying in the present despite the uplifting suggestion, Peterson requested, "Can we not talk about distance right now?"
A Pacer's Practical Requirements
Along with the many typical roles, a pacer also needs to meet certain practical requirements. These include a certain level of running experience, comfort in remote outdoor environments, a good sense of direction, overall strength, understanding of ultradistance events and athletes, and a personality that welcomes challenge and on the spot problem-solving.
For very experienced ultrarunners, a local pacer's main responsibility can be familiarity with the race course to prevent the runner from getting lost. A pacer who can accurately remind a runner whose quads are burning that "You only have 15 more minutes from this creek bed to the top of this climb" can be invaluable at that moment in the race.
Because a pacer runs for two, he or she needs to be fit enough to focus on the runner and the race and not worry about his or her own running effort. Often pacers are shorter-distance runners who are friends of the ultrarunners and are intrigued by the ultrarunner's endeavor. In these situations a pacer is asked to pace a short segment of the race, rest for a few hours, and jump back in the race later to pace the runner for another segment, relieving the second pacer.
The practical knowledge of ultraracing gear is also essential for a pacer. Often, the tired, swollen fingers and fuzzy mind of the ultrarunner are no match for a water bottle belt that fit just fine when in the bright sunshine seven hours earlier. Now the belt needs to be expanded to accommodate an expedition-weight shirt and jacket during a midnight downpour. The knowledge and ability to quickly adjust gear to prevent chafing and blisters and maintain body warmth and "comfort" are valuable pacer assets.
If duties require a pacer to run during night segments of the race, the pacer needs to be familiar with the experience of running trails during the night and the science of trail-lighting equipment. Whatever lighting gear the ultrarunner uses to illuminate dark trails and course marking at night, the pacer needs to be familiar with it in case the equipment fails. To avoid time-consuming lighting repairs on the trails, the pacer would serve the runner best by carrying fully operable replacement lighting.
If you're enticed by the challenges and rewards of pacing ultradistance run-ners and confident that you can perform the roles and meet the requirements, you may next wonder, "Where do I sign up?"
Often long-distance races have an organized "Pacer Central," where runners seeking pacers and pacers seeking runners register. It's sort of like the personal ads in the newspaper, where each party describes running needs and attributes. You might also check any running clubs in proximity to the ultraraces. Word of mouth is the most common method of finding pacers.
A less reliable, though sometimes worthwhile, method is for the runner in search of a pacer to run into an aid station during the race and ask if there are any pacers available. Pacers committed to runners who withdrew from the race are prepared and psyched to pace and might jump at the opportunity to pace after the disappointment of their runner's DNF. It's a way to meet new friends or at least to get the job done.
Regrettably for the ultrarunner who finds a great pacer, the pacer is usually lured to experience the race directly as a competitor. Many great pacers become runners seeking their own pacers at the following year's race. So, if you're considering the challenge and sense of accomplishment of ultraracing, pacing an ultra can provide you a real-life view of a running adventure that few can even imagine.