I first became friends with Jesse back in 2015 when he and a few friends ran the inaugural Hot Hot Hundred 100K Relay. Since then we’ve formed a tight bond and talk daily about family, life, and (of course) running. Jesse and I have been there for each other through some of our own biggest challenges over the past couple of years. He and our great friend Will crewed me at the Georgia Death Race 72 miler in 2016. Will and I crewed Jesse at the Cloudsplitter 100k. I also paced Jesse for 10 miles or so of that race before Jesse made the decision to drop. We learned a lot from that experience, and the two of us talked at length about the dreaded DNF monster as I also have DNF’d a big ultra.
Now Jesse is preparing for the second time to tackle a race longer than 50K at the 2017 Big Turtle 50 Miler. Jesse and I chatted about his struggles finding a pacer for that race, and we thought you would like to see a little bit of our conversation. Enjoy!
J: Thinking of having a pacer for the Big Turtle 50 Miler. What do you think?
M: You don’t need one. You’ve got enough experience, and you know the trail. You don’t need it.
J: hmmmm…..need vs. want.
M: Why do you think you need one?
J: that’s actually a really good question. Never thought about it besides all the obvious reasons: support, fellowship, camaraderie, and just the overall fun of running with a buddy in a race situation. But,...”need”? To be open and honest, anything past 40 miles IS uncharted territory for me. So much of an ultra past a certain point is mental. A support pacer can really help you manage the mental aspect of what you’re going through for the last few hrs of a race. They can talk, tell a story, take your mind off the suck.
M: Let’s just say you couldn’t find one. Maybe someone backs out on you at the last minute - like I did with you at Yamacraw:). What then?
J: That’s a very real possibility. I don’t currently have any real prospects for a pacer. At that point you just have to shift your race week preparation somewhat. I’ll spend a lot of time visualizing 10-15 miles alone to end the race. I’ll just really have to prepare mentally and get the most I can out of if/when I see my crew at the aid stations. Mental prep., mental prep., mental prep.
M: You seem really concerned about yourself mentally. Why? What do you struggle with mentally during races?
J: Wow, I could write a novel. I’ve only hit tough mental spots in races once or twice in my running career, which is still relatively a short one, all things considered. I’m going on 4-5 years in distance running. Strangely, the Yamacraw 50K this past weekend challenged me mentally somewhere between miles 17-22-ish. Weird, only because Yamacraw was my 4th 50K to date not to mention the times I’ve been 31 miles/time on feet in training (and my failed 100K attempt, which I dropped at mile 40-ish after 11 hours). But back to your question, I think I have a strong mental game when I am prepared for a race. I came into Yamacraw undertrained due to normal life circumstances, few weeks of sickness, and other family obligations. During races I can struggle with the desire to just be done. Like, “I’m done with this, why am I doing this to myself?”. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I’m sure most runners go through this at some point. By default, maybe I feel like if I was undertrained for Yamacraw, I’ll be undertrained for BT. Somewhere in the back of my mind I know a short break or season off is coming. I am not burnt out at all with racing, I still enjoy the challenge and experience, but I don’t want to get burned/burnt (whatever) with it. Implementing a self-imposed season off to go spin, do yoga, strength train, hike, whatever, can be a really valuable thing to sustain your passion for trail running. Even though I learned a lot from dropping at Cloudsplitter last year, and value that experience, it still eats at me somewhat. The idea of dropping from an ultra again doesn’t sit well with me. There’s that pressure again.
M: That all sounds much bigger than any one race. How would having a pacer address any of those problems?
J: I guess the best way for me to answer that would be to go back to the top and say a pacer could provide support, fellowship, fun, and someone to help take your mind off things if/when they go south. A good crew or pacer can help talk you off the ledge, so to speak. Why NOT have someone in your corner to support you?
M: How dare you ask me questions. I’m doing the asking here!
J: [Blank stare]......[Not amused]
M: Ok, you want my honest answer? Because the whole allure of running for me is that I GET to be alone. It’s solitude in all of it’s glory. The last thing I want to do when I’m running - let alone racing - is to deal with someone else. When I race, it’s about me. It’s about serious work that I need to do. It’s about me against the trail. Me against the woods. Me against the weather. I just want to run! I don’t want to have to talk to anyone. I don’t want to have to worry about whether or not I’m going too fast or too slow for my pacer. This is something I need to do. If it gets hard and I start to struggle, the last thing in the world I want is encouragement from someone else. The last thing on earth I want to hear is someone telling me it’s not that bad or I can push through it. I’ve been to this puppet show and I’ve seen the strings. So I know how this works and I just need to get through it. But that really just speaks to my personality more than anything. As an introvert, I would just rather be alone.
J: And that’s a very interesting perspective, one I greatly respect. I think it just completely speaks to individual personalities, right? For ex: you have some ultra runners who won’t even run a race unless they have a friend to start with, run, and finish with. They spend the entire day together. Then you have runners somewhere in between, who just want a pacer later in the race, and lastly, the runner like yourself who wants to go it completely alone. I think the important thing to remember is the one thing all three (different) runners have in common is that they each completed the same distance, on the same day, using only their mind, body, and feet. No one accomplishment is any greater than the other, just because you happen to not use a crew or pacer, IMO.
M: Or in other words: my nightmare. :) Let me ask you about one thing you said above: fellowship. Isn’t there a time and a place for that? The way I see it, when you are in a race it is time to race. Not fellowship. We can grab a beer and head to the local watering hole afterwards for that. Is it really about just hanging out with people, or is it more about having someone around to take your mind off what you are doing?
J: (Yes to having a beer) Who said racing and fellowship have to be mutually exclusive? Or that racing and,...listening to music can’t co-exist, or racing and,...anything? Fellowship can be spending time with someone anywhere doing anything. If you enjoy a certain person and a certain thing or activity, combining the two together should prove equally as enjoyable, i.e., running w/a friend, or having a beer with a buddy. If your theory were true, no one would ever go to a movie together. Why do people do that? You can’t see the person, talk, conversate, or connect. You just sit there in the dark for two hours. The answer is that there is something exciting about going on a journey with another person, connecting and sharing in an experience. Whether it’s the next Star Wars film, the last ten miles of an ultra, going to church, or participating in a protest march - all the same thing, really. A memory was created, there was a shared experience, and a human connection was made. I think a lot of it goes back to why humans exist and what we’re all searching for but that may be a conversation for another time. To your second question: “or is it more about having someone around to take your mind off what you are doing?” - Yes. Ultras are freaking hard.
M: And this is why we are friends. Because we can have these conversations. At the end of the day, you’re an extrovert. I’m an introvert. You love company. For me, I find interaction with other people highly stressful and exhausting. So the answer is: I said that racing and fellowship must be mutually exclusive! :) I’ll differentiate here between just “running” and “racing”. At a race I am there for a very specific purpose. I must get from Point A to Point B, and I must get there before everyone else. Therefore I must focus 100% of my effort and attention on that task. No time for chit chat. Obviously, I’m not an elite runner; but that’s my mindset going into a race. To get there faster than the other runners. Otherwise it’s just a fun run. These are also the reason I HATE going to the movies. I want to enjoy a movie in the privacy of my own living room with no interruptions and no interaction. That is bliss. It’s not a theory. It’s my preference for going through this life. For me, your statement about “combining the two together should prove equally as enjoyable” doesn’t work. For me that means I am taking the focus away from one or the other. Not that I don’t want friends. You know this. Of course I’m not going to go off and live like a hermit in the woods (that does sound pretty sweet though). But after directing a race I feel as though I could sleep for days! It’s not the physical exhaustion. I can handle that. It is the mental exhaustion of constant hour after hour interaction. It’s an interesting conversation. For you when the ultra gets hard you need a distraction to get through it. For me I need to focus on the task at hand to get through it. Neither is right or wrong. Neither is good or bad. It is just what works for the individual.
But I’m not the one with a race coming up. You are! So what are you going to do?
J: I honestly don’t know yet. I have a precious few days to decide. Do you have anything going on that day? :)
M: Yep. I’ll be smiling and meeting new people and making announcements through a PA system and high fiving finishers and talking to strangers all day. All things that terrify me but are essential to giving people their optimal race experience.
J: I’ll likely put some feelers out and if nothing sticks just push through those last few miles and really enjoy the experience. Still to this day I consider it a huge blessing that I’m even able to attempt these things, to get to the starting line, and to cross the finish line when there are so many millions of people who will never even attempt it. I have a theory that all ultra runners are in fact in an ‘elite’ category.
Our conversation trailed off at that point. Doubtless, we began discussing our latest craft beer score or planning when we could make it back out to the Gorge for another long run in the woods. We all go through these mental debates with ourselves, and sometimes it is good to have someone to just bounce your thoughts off of. Hopefully, if nothing else, this conversation has reassured you that you are not the only one that fears, doubts, and absolutely loves to race ultras.
Mike & Jesse