ROOKIE MISTAKES: CREWING AND PACING MY FIRST ULTRAMARATHON

Trail running is what we do here at Next Opportunity.  That is our bread and butter.  We use trail running - specifically long distance trail running - to present people with opportunities for optimal experiences.  Trail running and ultramarathon running are great sports because they challenge each individual in a very personal and emotional way in addition to the obvious physical challenges.  It is a very solitary activity that forces the runner to explore parts of themselves they have never faced.  On the flip side, however, many runners love ultrarunning and trail running because it isn’t something that you have to go through alone.  There is a rich community of runners at all skill levels and all walks of life that share these experiences together.  That is rarely more evident that in the case of a runner and his or her crews and pacers at an ultramarathon race.

I’ve run a few ultras that have required me to have a crew, but I’ve never had a pacer for a number of reasons.  I got into some of those reasons in an online chat with my buddy Jesse.  We published that conversation as a blog post earlier this year which you can read here.  So I don’t know what it is like to have a pacer from the runner’s perspective, but I have experienced an ultra race as a pacer.

In the fall of 2016, I had the opportunity to pace my friend Jesse at the Cloudsplitter 100k in eastern Kentucky.  It was Jesse’s first attempt at 100k.  In fact, it was his first attempt at anything over 50k.  So it was a very important day for him.  I had never paced anyone before, and Jesse had never run a race with a pacer.  So this was uncharted territory for both of us.  Ultimately, the day was a tough DNF for Jesse after a little more than 40 miles.  I won’t get into how his race went, but I am going to explore a few things I learned in my rookie outing as a pacer and crew member.


Rookie Mistake #1:  Not discussing what motivates my runner

We are all motivated by different things.  Some runners might thrive on positive reinforcement and encouragement.  

“You can do this!”
“You’re doing great.  Keep it up!”

Some runners might need more of a kick in the pants.

“Quit whining!  Suck it up!”
“Get your ass in gear!”

Other runners might need a little shame to get them moving.  Believe me that works for some people.

“You don’t want to disappoint everyone do you?”
“The rest of the crew is waiting for you at the finish line.  Let’s not let them down.”

Practical reminders are also a big motivating factor for some people.

“We paid a lot of money to run this race.  No quitting now.”
“We flew out here, so you need to keep going!”

Then there are those that don’t need motivation at all.  I fall in that camp.  These runners just want to get into their own head, dig deep, find their own motivation inside, and push on.  They don’t need or want anyone telling them anything.  ANYTHING.

Will and Jesse double checking all the crew gear before J heads off to the start line.

My overall mistake in pacing Jesse at Cloudsplitter last year was that we didn’t have an honest conversation in advance of the race about what type of motivation he would respond best to.  I knew generally what to say when he was in the crewed aid stations.  My crew partner Will and I gave the standard “Looking good” and “Keep it up” feedback, but Jesse and I never discussed his motivational needs for when we were actually running out on the trail.  So when things started to get tough, I didn’t know what to say.  Do I offer some encouragement?  Do I scold him like a drill sergeant?  Do I talk about his kids being proud of him?  Do I try to just distract him from the task at hand?  I just did not know what to say or do.  

Lesson:  Have a detailed and honest conversation before the race with your runner about what type of motivation the runner responds to best.

Rookie Mistake #2:  Not discussing how we would actually run on the trail

Trail races have all kinds of terrain.  Over the course of 62 miles in a race like Cloudsplitter, you will see narrow single track trail, wider paths, gravel roads, dirt access roads, paved public roads, and even more.  This may sound silly, but I when I jumped into the race at the halfway point to pace Jesse I wasn’t sure where to run in relation to him.

I again wrestled with questions.  Do I run in front of him and try to “pull” him along?  Do I run behind him and let him set the pace?  Do I run beside him when possible?  This may sound silly. It may even sound obvious.  Some of you may even be thinking, “Who gives a shit?”  Well, in a 100k race even the smallest details make big differences in how a runner feels physically and psychologically.  

At mile 15 Jesse was a bit behind schedule.  Will and I got a little concerned!

There are two things we did not discuss prior to the race regarding this issue.  First, we didn’t talk about his preferences for leading, following, or running side-by-side.  Second, we didn’t talk about how we would talk about it during the race.  Sound confusing?  Put yourself at mile 40 of a 60 mile race.  You’ve been running for 11 hours.  Your mind isn’t as sharp as it is at 8am after that hot cup of coffee and quiet night’s sleep.  So when your pacer asks “Do you want me in front or in back?”, do you really want to have to consider all the options and weigh the pros and cons of each mid race?  Of course, not.  Talk about it ahead of time.

Lesson:  Talk to your runner ahead of time about his or her preference for leading, following, or side-by-side running.  When do they want to do each?  What questions will you ask during the race?  What will the responses from the runner be?  Have a clear plan of attack.  The more little things like this that you don’t have to think about the better.

Rookie Mistake #3:  Not being brutally honest about being brutally honest

By now you are noticing a trend in this list.  We just didn’t have the right conversations leading up to the race. Sure, we talked about gear and food and how we would manage things at the aid stations.  We talked about pace and when to expect Jesse at the crew points.  But he and I did not have the proper conversations about how we would manage each other as pacer and runner while on the trail.  We weren’t brutally honest, and that is what is required in an ultramarathon race.

Doritos and Coke, baby!

This mistake had a simple solution.  Jesse just needed to know that it was ok to say whatever the hell he wanted to say to me during the race.  I’m a big boy and an experienced ultra runner myself.  I know how hard this is, and I know how hard it is to maintain your manners and composure when you are deep into an endurance activity like this.  In an ultra, there are times when the runner just needs the freedom to be able to say ANYTHING without there being any repercussions later.  There needs to be an agreement between pacer and runner that nothing said in anger, frustration, or exhaustion is personal and will not damage the friendship after the race.  If you are a pacer, give your runner permission to be brutally honest during the race.  

“I need you to get the fuck away from me right now.”
“I just want you to shut up for a while.  I need silence.”
“You are going to fast.  You need to slow down.”
“I need to walk for a little bit, and I don’t want you to say anything about it.”

Now, Jesse is not the type of person that would typically ever say any of those things.  But as his pacer, I should have given him permission and even encouragement to say those types of things to me during the race.  On the flip side, the pacer should have permission from the runner to be brutally honest at times as well.

“You’re being a baby right now.”
“You are just looking for things to complain about, so let’s stop talking for a while.”

Lesson:  Give each other permission to be brutally honest.  Agree that it’s not personal and nothing will impact your relationship after the race is over.

Rookie Mistake #4:  Not discussing specific conditions for dropping from the race

When is it ok for the runner to drop?  Whenever the runner says he wants to drop, do we just call it a day then?  This relates to mistake #1 above to some extent; but another conversation that Will, Jesse, and I never had was the issue of dropping out of the race and the conditions for making that decision together.  Ultimately, it is always the runner's call.  As a crew and pacer, though, I did not know how to respond to Jesse’s thoughts of quitting.  Will and I also, as his crew, did not know specifically how to motivate our runner while he was in the aid station having thoughts of quitting.

Here is an example based on my experience as a runner.  I once DNF’d a 70 mile race after 40 miles.  My feet hurt and I was probably a bit hypothermic.  So I just said, “I’m done.”  Looking back after the race was over I realized that I was a good 6 hours in front of the cut off at the aid station at which I dropped.  I could have done a lot of things to stay in the race.  I could have gone to the car and turned on the heat until I warmed up.  I could have even taken a nap for several hours and then continued on.  I was in the aid station for less than 10 minutes before I decided to quit.  After the race, I told Brandy who was crewing for me that day that if I came back next year we would have one rule for dropping:  I would not drop from the race unless I was up against a time cut off.  Otherwise, I would commit to waiting it out if I had any thoughts of quitting.

We didn’t have that conversation with Jesse at Cloudsplitter.  So when he and I reached mile 40 and he said “I’m done” I had no good response other than, “Are you sure?”  

Lesson:  Crew, pacer, and runner should collectively make a list.  That list contains the conditions under which you all agree that a DNF is acceptable.  

Rookie Mistake #5:  Not discussing aid station protocol with the runner and other crew members

Will and I were able to meet Jesse as his crew at three aid stations along the Cloudsplitter 100k course:  miles 15, 30, and 45.  Will and I met him at mile 15 and 30.  I jumped in as pacer at mile 30, and the plan was for Will to meet us back at the mile 45 aid station.  Unfortunately we didn’t make it that far.  Prior to the race we discussed all the logistical aspects of the course and what to do at the aid stations.  We knew Jesse’s expected pace and when to expect him at each aid station.  We knew he would want Doritos and Coke.  He always wants Doritos and Coke!  We knew we needed to have a fresh bottle of Tailwind ready for him and that one of us would take his other empty bottles and fill them up while he stuffed Doritos in his face.  

While the J-Train was running the trails, Will and I had time do some crew-sploring and catch some amazing views from the top.

We didn’t talk about what to say and how to behave.  Now we are talking about the motivation thing again, but it goes deeper.  Do we allow Jesse to sit down?  Do we let him lay down?  What do we do if he starts talking about dropping?  

At mile 30 Jesse was already in rough shape.  He had been sick leading up to the race.  He rolled into the mile 30 aid station and was already dropping hints of quitting.  He sat down and said things like, “I don’t want to quit now, but I don’t know if I’ll make it all the way to the finish.”  What do we do?  What do we say to that?  I was already dressed for running as his pacer at that point.  Again, do I offer encouragement?  Do I tell him to get off his ass?

Lesson:  Crew, pacer, and runner.  All of you need to know how you will interact with each other under a variety of circumstances.  Sit down around a table and write down various scenarios and how you will collectively respond to each.


Every time I participate in a race I learn something new.  It doesn’t matter if I’m a crew member, a runner, a pacer, or the Race Director.  Each ultramarathon or trail race is an opportunity for me to push my limits in some way and learn something new.  I’ve been chewing on that first pacer experience for several months now and reflecting on what I learned.  If you ever run a race that allows pacers or have the opportunity to serve as someone else’s pacer I hope that you will take these lessons into account and have a great race!

-Mike

Michael WhismanComment