WS100 Pacing Lessons Learned
|June 28, 2017||Posted by Melinda under Ultra Running|
Two years ago I was hugely pregnant dreaming on my first 100 miler, watching the runners go through Foresthill with Lucy while trying not to feel like a has-been runner. That year Lucy and I met someone named E* who was crewing for her friend J* and we jumped at the chance to help out.
He finished, they flew back to the east coast, and occasionally I saw them pop up on facebook.
I honestly thought that was the end. The story of that time me and Lucy got to crew an *actual* runner from the east coast at western states…SQUEEEEEEEEE.
But of course it wasn’t because I’m writing a post about it. Two years later, the same players come back with slightly different roles.
- E* got the chance to run WS100 herself
- J* got a chance at a second buckle
- I have a little human walking around, two years worth of tickets in the WS100 lottery. AND…..instead of being a hugely pregnant 100 mile runner wannabe…..I GOT TO PACE.
Whew. Settle down. Take a breath. There you go squirrel-brain Mel, use your words and less capital letters……
J* (and E*) each have a history of “git ‘er done” at ultras and while there was some discussion of me perhaps pacing someone, it was generally agreed that I wouldn’t be needed. J* was planning on running essentially unsupported and E* had a crew. Lucy and I were the “redundancy” – the acknowledgement that not everything goes to plan. We were local, knew the trail, were going to be at the race regardless of whether we were needed.
My brain really didn’t want to devote any energy towards prepping for something unlikely to happen.
Mel: OOHHHH don’t forget stuff for pacing a night section
Brain: *Yawn*. Why bother….
Mel: OK, let’s see here – shoes, socks, shorts…..
Brain: *Checks Facebook*
Mel: OMG a headlamp. For the love of God don’t forget a headlamp!!!!!!
Brain: How about batteries? Never mind, I really can’t be bothered.
I assured the husband I would be back in time to watch Fig during his Sunday morning flight lesson (5am) since my pacing duties weren’t needed and took off for Robinson Flat.
The first clue that things were not going to plan was most runners were 45-60 min behind predicted times. First the runners were greeted by snow (no trekking poles or spikes allowed at WS100), then mud, and about the time the footing was OK it was the sun’s turn to “shine”.
Despite all that, J* and E* looked GREAT coming into RF. (Seriously, if you didn’t click the snow link above, go watch it now so you have an idea what these two went through).
E* powered through the aid station looking strong and obviously was “getting this thing done”, and after a couple minutes of resting and eating we shoved J* out to join her.
After much fiddling with pace charts Lucy and I determined (OK, mostly Lucy) that if we high tailed it back to Foresthill (62 miles) we could see the front runners come through and still make it to Michigan Bluff (55.7 miles) to catch J* and E* again.
We kept an eye on the splits of our runners and determined that even though J* was slower before Robinson compared to his 2015 time, he was now consistently hitting the same splits for the trail sections. Woot! Despite the early slow down, he had a comfortable cushion to finish as long as he kept moving.
WS is a little different from other ultras I’ve been to. It’s official and there was only one place to sign up as a pacer, even if you were meeting your runner at a different aid station, and you had to sign up before a certain time. I didn’t know if J* needed/wanted a pacer but if he did, me and Lucy were going to be prepared.
Most of the time you can’t pick up a pacer until FH (62 miles). However, if a runner leaves Michigan bluff (55.7 miles) after 8pm, they have the option of having a pacer at that point. J* was going to be very close to this time frame. I changed into running clothes, packed my vest with water bottles and trail food, forced my squirrel brain to take this seriously.
Me: Slow down and focus…
Mel: Electrolytes, ibprofen, applesauce…
Brain: HEADLAMP! BATTERIES!
He probably wasn’t going to be mad that I signed up – but just in case we tucked the yellow bib away where he wouldn’t see it, along with my vest.
As J* came into the aid station, right when we predicted, I jogged besides him and tried calmly say: “I can pace you if you want company to Foresthill. I can do that. Just think about it”.
I really didn’t want to pressure him. I would LOVE to pace. Pretty please let me pace…..but it’s about what works for HIM. If he didn’t want a random stranger pacing him and wanted to be in a different zone….I didn’t want him to feel at all obligated to take me along. But I also didn’t want him to think he was causing any inconvenience or making me do something I didn’t want to.. In the end I was striving for a very neutral – “I’m here for you, but there’s zero pressure to make a decision either way”.
Turns out it was a very good thing Lucy and I made the executive decision.
After sitting in a chair, puking, and having a worried looking medic/volunteer hovering around, everyone looked very relieved when I pulled out my *VERY OFFICIAL* yellow pacer bib with HIS name and number on it.
Turns out J* would love some company to FH.
YESSSSSSSSSSSSS. I’m officially pacing Western States!!!!!!!
Who cares if it was only a small 6.3 mile section?
There were many reasons that pacing wasn’t a good idea, most of them I kept to myself.
- I had a UTI that had gotten bad enough that the morning of the race that I “acquired” some antibiotics since it was definitely heading in the kideny-infection-yet-another-urgent-care-visit direction
- I had a weird heat/stress head ache all day that I couldn’t shake.
- I hadn’t run a double digit run in 2 months
- I had never paced anyone before.
- I didn’t have a pace chart, a list of aid stations, or mileage (it differs from Tevis)
- I had a “hard” time that I *had* to leave by (Yes honey, I will ABSOLUTELY be home by 5am to take over child care duties)
- My watch band was totally unuseable and I had to carry it in my hand.
- There was some life stress….That morning me and my vets decided Farley was going into surgery and needed to be dropped off at the clinic the next day.
There was only one thing I had in my favor
- I knew the trail really well. My runner didn’t.
Does it count that I’ve been paced (by some really good pacers) and have spent a lot of time thinking about how to do it “right”? Also I’ve listened to podcasts about pacing……
So here I am pacing someone I don’t know, who has WAY more ultra and 100 mile experience than me…what the heck can I do?
Here was my list of goals and rules as a pacer:
- Commit: If I commit as a pacer, do it without excuses or reservation. Don’t tell the runner all the reasons I shouldn’t be out there. I knew with 100% certainty that I could put aside all the things on my mind and the physical stuff and get through the section and get the runner through the section. So, the rest of it didn’t matter and wasn’t the runners problem.
- The Talking Part: It’s all about the runner. Don’t complain about anything. Not when you eat too much aid station food because you didn’t bring enough trail food and feel nauseous. Not when you realize that not lubing was a huge mistake. Not even when you continually jam your ankle that has a low level sprain on the rocks because you forgot a hand held in addition to the headlamp. Figure out when to let them do the talking, when I need to do the talking, and when to be silent.
- Be a Cheerleader: Encourage but be honest and don’t be annoying. Figure out what’s motivating and what helps their mental game.
- Navigation: Don’t let them take a wrong turn.
- Pacing: Reassess pace and expected splits often. Never make the runner modify pace for me.
- Crew: Plan for aid stations, time the aid stations, crew in the aid stations. Remind them to eat on the trail.
As we approached Foresthill I must have not done a terrible job because when I offered to take him to the river, he accepted.
It was magical. Despite my lack of lube, copious amounts of chafing, crappy lighting, and the amount of huffing and puffing I did in the first 3 miles due to not using my inhaler prior to the run.
I tried my best to give him the support he wanted and needed, and in exchange, For six hours I got a chance to run behind, observe and visit with an experienced 100 mile runner. Here were the lessons I learned that night.
- Forward motion is what really matters. J* power hiked most of the time we were together and he never lost time. We stayed 1 hour ahead of a 30 hour finish time just through relentless forward motion and careful aid station management. He practices his power hiking around the neighborhood at least 1x per week, and I can too. I’ve been told I have a decent hike, but after a couple hours of hiking his pace, I had to start run/walking to keep up! It’s definitely a skill I can hone.
- Having a pacer that knows the trail can help the runners mental game. Every time I run the California loop (the section between Foresthill and the river crossing) it feels shorter and the climbs more manageable. This seems independent of fitness. It’s a brain game. I also knew with 100% certainty my runner was on course and I made sure we didn’t miss a couple of tricky turns (yes it’s well marked, but runners are tired and it’s dark. In fact, I think J* told me that 2 years ago him and his pacer missed one of the turns). If I don’t know the trail well and a local offers to pace me, it’s worth considering.
- There’s a Garmin GPS watch out there that has a 18-20 hour battery life, has all the bells and whistles I need for trail running, and is old enough you can pick it up for around $100 or less. Thanks J*! I bought one yesterday!
- A complete pace chart is really important. I grabbed one from Lucy that had absolute cut offs and the 30 hour finish pace “cut off”. As a runner I make one up that has some some extra numbers on it so I don’t have to use math when I’m tired. As a pacer I was able to do the math on a simple one to reassure my runner he was on track and likely to finish based on last years splits and how we were moving on the trail.
- The brightness of your light makes a HUGE difference. I have a really nice headlamp – the problem is it’s rechargeable. It’s a good thing for training, but on a long race I can’t easily swap out batteries. For long races I’ve been using my older headlamp with batteries with a small hand held light and I’ve been happy….mostly because I wasn’t comparing it directly to my new rechargeable headlamp I would leave at home. For this I used my new headlamp for as long as possible until it went dead and WOW!!!!! What a difference. I felt blind when I had to go back to the old one, even with fresh batteries. Also, I forgot a second hand held and it was quite embarassing when I had to use my runner’s secondary light to change out batteries. For Christmas I’ll be asking for a headlamp similar to my rechargeable one, but with a battery pack.
- The danger of the chair isn’t that you aren’t going to get back up again. The danger is that when you sit down, the minutes slip by faster. It seems like your sense of time changes too. When you sit, 6 or 7 minutes slip by and feels like 3. When you are standing in an aid station and doing your thing, 3 minutes feels like 3. Sitting is fine if that’s what you need but setting a timer or having someone keep you honest is CRITICAL.
- It doesn’t always get worse. “Oh you were that person that was puking that I reported to the medic because it looked BAD” said one person we were running by. “I was on the same puking schedule as you!” said someone else as runners compared where they puked. And yet, here we all were, running after dark and on track to complete and looking good. Make changes, keep going, don’t lose heart.
- My Saucony Peregrines are my favorite trail shoes. However, just like I suspected, they are happiest with distances (or time) under marathon distance. Their close fit, superior traction and incredible feel makes for a fun, agile shoe that makes me feel like a ninja over trails, however they just don’t have enough cushion for longer stuff. I was loving how nimble and sure footed I was over some of the loose rock and rocky single track early on. I was loving them less near the end on the jeep road and they beat up my feet pretty bad by the end. I like my Hoka’s and they do a fine job on ultra distances and this run reiterated that.
- The crew needs a plan. It’s important to have a logistics plan for aid stations. What seems to work well is for the crew to meet the runner coming into the aid station and touch base quickly (take water bottles to refill?), then meet the runner after they go through the aid station for the “crewing”.
In the end, I hugged J* good bye at the river crossing, got home at 4:55 am (woot!) and got to sleep for an hour on the couch before Fig woke up. I obsessively refreshed his tracking at ultralive.net until him and E* finished a couple hours later. Woot!!!!!!! Good work runners!
I still have a sleep debt, accepted a new job yesterday, picked up Farley from the clinic post surgery (details coming!), and trying to prep for Tahoe 50 mile run (I got in!) so please excuse any errors or rambling above :). ‘Tis better to post something now than wait a month and not post it at all :).