UltraPacing for rookies

We’re living through the Big Bang in the ultra-running world; as more runners conquer the marathon, they’re trading up to ultras. Ultra-marathon finishes have increased a whopping 400% over the past five years.
With so many first-time ultra runners entering the sport, there are likewise more first-time pacers and crew. The request of a new ultra runner for a crew often falls on the innocently willing shoulders of a friend, family member or running buddy who may have little experience with ultras. The task of the crew can become surprisingly critical in some races. With some planning, first-timers can do a stellar job.

The Basics
Ultra-marathons are races of any distance greater than the classic marathon distance of 26.2 miles. They come in sizes of 31 miles (50K) all the way up to 3,100 miles (Yes, really. The Self Transcendence 5000K in New York.) California hosts several world-class ultras, the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon through Death Valley and the Western States 100 in the Sierras, in addition to dozens of lesser-known but extremely challenging races.
A first-time crew or pacer is most likely preparing to support a runner in a 100-miler or other overnight event, since support is not needed for a 50K.

Crewing refers to managing the runner’s supplies of fuel, fluids, first aid, fresh clothing and the like: getting the runner what he needs, when he needs it.

Pacing refers to running with the runner, providing encouragement and keeping the runner on-goal.

Train the Distance
Ultra-marathons normally have a point late in the race after which it is permissible to have a pacer. Your first task to prepare for pacing is to be supremely well-trained for the distance. If you are joining him or her at mile 80 in a 100-mile race, for example, you should be very easy with a 20-mile run. You don’t want to be tending to issues of your own when you are there to support a runner who needs you to be at peak efficiency.

Mental/Emotional Support
The Golden Rule of Ultra Crewing is: BE POSITIVE, even if it requires gilding the truth a bit. Your runner already knows how bad they feel; they need you to provide something hopeful. How many different ways can you say: “You’re doing great”? Assuming your runner is well-prepared for the race, the unrelenting positive attitude is not unfounded.

You may be a mobile data feed for your runner. As you relay pace data, mileage, fluid input/output and the status of any particular rivals, even these objective facts should be conveyed with a positive spin.
Or you may be an entertainer. “You’re their radio, “says Sunny Blende, San Francisco veteran pacer of several dozen ultras, including several Badwaters. Have some stories, jokes or songs ready. Stay attuned to the signals your runner gives off, and be aware that they may change. Chatter may be irksome at twilight but welcome in the deep night, or vice versa.

Ultrarunning veteran Rochelle Frazeur tells the story of how gentle, but firm coaching helped her through her first ultra. At mile 82 of her first 100-mile race, when she was exhausted and ready to quit, she and her pacer had this conversation:
Pacer: “Feet hurting?”
Runner: Yep!
Pacer: “Check. Back aching?”
Runner: Yes!
Pacer: “Check. Tired and want to go to sleep?”
Runner: “Yes, please!”
Pacer: “Check. Don’t want to run anymore?”
Runner: “No, I just can’t do this.”
Pacer: “Check. You are feeling exactly how you ought to feel after running 82 miles! So how about we pick it up and finish this thing so you can give those feet a rest?”

That exchange was enough to get her forward to mile 93, where the sun broke through the night and gave her the necessary energy to finish. She says a more forceful attitude from her pacer would have caused an emotional backlash; a less direct attitude would have allowed her to quit.

In the “dog hours” of an ultra, an exhausted runner may experience doubt or even despair. That’s precisely when the pacer and crew can work their magic.

Blende advises breaking things up into manageable bites. Say your runner talks of quitting. You, as pacer, can say, “All right, we’ll need to walk up to the next aid station to get a ride in.” By the time the runner reaches the next aid station, they may find untapped resources and be ready to continue. If not, the pacer can coax them along mile by mile, until the reserves kick in.

Every ultra runner wants to finish. A burning desire is what made them sign up for this crazy adventure in the first place. While the runner may lose touch with their initial desire sometime in the middle of the night, the pacer holds that desire like a torch. You are the Keeper of the Flame. Whatever you can concoct, within reason, to keep the runner making relentless forward progress is a service to your runner.

If general fatigue progresses to severe disorientation or dehydration or if your runner suffers a serious injury, alert a forward aid station via a passing runner. Some runners may refuse medical help, as in races that disqualify runners who require a certain level of care. In that case, you will have to help them to see that it’s to their benefit to consult the medics. A disoriented or severely exhausted runner is not always long on reason.

Don’t expect your runner to be his or her ordinary self in the late stages of an ultra. A normally stoic person may dissolve in tears; a usually placid person may erupt in temper. Longer races break down the ordinary defenses in a personality, which is at once both the appeal and the onus of ultra distances. Like entering combat, a runner doesn’t know for sure what’s down deepest inside him until circumstances strip him down. It’s called “seeing the elephant.”

Be “for” the runner
While crewing or pacing, you have the rare opportunity to forget your own agenda, and be all about your runner. Picture yourself packing up your own judgments and priorities in a box that you won’t see again until your runner reaches the finish. For the duration, you exist “for” the runner.

When a runner takes on a pacer, trust is invested. Once the race is in motion, it’s too late for the runner to shift back. One highly experienced ultra runner tells of a pacer who left her in the late stages of a race, convinced that she was on-pace and didn’t need help. But even though the runner was doing very well, she had developed a childlike dependence on her pacer due to exhaustion. By that point in the race, she couldn’t access her “solo game” and she suffered an emotional bonk, affecting her finish time significantly.

Think long and hard before you agree to pace a spouse. You care more about the runner than anyone else (assuming the runner’s mother hasn’t volunteered) so you’re a natural. But you’re going to have a harder time watching equably while your spouse retches at the side of the trail, unveils raw, bloody feet, stumbles drunkenly on the smallest of pebbles and reports visions in the night, all common experiences in an overnight ultra.

Seasoned ultra runner Melissa Berman, who has been paced twice by her husband advises, “Your spouse will be their usual self, only more so.” Take hard stock of your personal qualities, and decide if those qualities, magnified, will help or hinder your spouse in pursuit of his or her goal.

Logistical Support
Crewing an ultra, especially an overnight or multi-day, requires organized planning. This is where an obsessive/compulsive personality becomes an asset rather than a pathology. Don’t depend on the race organization to supply your needs; ultras are for independent runners. Be prepared.

Sunny Blende has a standard “bento box” that she prepares for every pacing assignment. It is laid out exactly the same every time so that supplies are easy to locate… all the gels in one place, all the foot supplies in another, etc.
If aid stations have race officials or Search/Rescue personnel tracking runner numbers, be certain that your runner has been checked in. You can call his number as you approach, “Runner 185, needs water and Powerade.” Know which aid stations have required check-ins.

Study maps and elevation profiles ahead of time. If you can’t personally visit the course, take a virtual tour online at the race website or on Google Earth. Be familiar with the system of trail markings being used.
The general rule for pacing is to run behind the runner during the day so that he is setting the pace, and ahead of him at night so that you can light his path. Check with your runner for his preference and be sure to conform to any rules that particular race may have.

Crewing or pacing a runner to a successful finish is a profoundly satisfying experience, like directing an Oscar-winning actor. You get to participate in another person’s dream, sometimes contributing significantly to it. Life becomes blissfully simple when the only things in the universe are a runner, a trail and a finish line.

Sheryl Collmer - writes, rides and runs in San Luis Obispo, California. She has crewed two Badwater ultramarathons.

Ultras Accessible to the Central Coast
California is host to several world-class ultramarathons, and many smaller races of varying distances. Check out a full list at: marathons.ahotu.com/calendar/ultramarathon/california
American River 50M
April – Sacramento
Born to Run 50K, 100K, 100M
May – Los Olivos
Miwok 100K
May – Marin
Western States 100M
June – Squaw Valley
Badwater 135M
July – Death Valley
Bulldog 50K
August – Calabasas
Spooner’s Cove 50K
November – Montaña de Oro State Park
The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K, 50M
December – San Francisco