Running up, over and through the cogs

Purposeful Pacing: Some Thoughts on Getting Your Runner to the Finish Line

Hanging with Jen at the Kettle Moraine 100 finish line. (Image courtesy of Martha Manzo-Walker)

Hanging with Jen at the Kettle Moraine 100 finish line. (Image courtesy of Martha Manzo-Walker)

It’s been over 72 hours now since I watched Jen Birkner cross the finish line at the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run, and the smile her accomplishment put on my face still stretches proudly across my cheeks.

What.

A.

Performance!

Jen overcame the intense morning humidity, the marshy sauna of the meadows and over 50 miles of macerated, blistering feet to still cross the finish line like a champ, proving once again that the ultimate test of one’s abilities is the strength of his or her thoughts.  Her achievement was mind over matter, relentless forward progress at its best.

And I couldn’t be more proud.

Jen’s accomplishment also makes me a perfect 3-for-3 in 100 mile pacing duties.  And in each case, getting my runner to the finish line has required a great deal of focused energy and thoughtful preparation.  Pacing gig number four is coming up at the end of the month as I pick up Siamak for the last 38 miles of his epic adventure on the grandest ultrarunning stage of them all — The Western States 100 —  and thinking about what it takes to be a good pacer, I thought I would share some basic ideas that have helped me fulfill my duties thus far.

In no particular order, they are:

KNOW Your Runner
Before pacing someone, you should know if he or she prefers you run in front or back, if she likes to talk or keep quiet, if he wants to power hike the hills or charge right up them.  You should know how she fuels.  You should know what he expects out of you.  There should be no surprises.  Communication is key, and I would consider being able to read body language and emotion an essential element to that communication.

Be Comfortable Knowing This Is Not YOUR Race
Your own wants/needs/dreams have no place in your role as pacer.  This is your runner’s race, and the pacer serves best as a shadow of his runner — a very cool, strong, receptive and determined shadow, of course.

Talk to People Who Have Paced Before
What better way to know what you are getting yourself into than to ask those who have already had the experience?  In the lead-up to all my pacing, I have made it a point to pick the brains of those who have already succeeded in such a role.  Race specificity is key too.  Talk to those who have already run the course.  Know what to expect ahead of time.

Know/Study the Course
Though this seems obvious, I mention it still because there are going to be times when the pacer must be the voice of reason for a super-tired runner, and if he or she knows all that the course will throw one’s way, this makes those future decisions just that much more informed.

Go Over the Game Plan with Your Runner BEFOREHAND
Really take the time to sit down with your runner and discuss his or her goals before the race.  I think it’s important to know what he or she is thinking, what direction she wants to go.  Remember, as a pacer, this isn’t your race.  It’s your runner’s race, and his or her game plan is what needs to be followed.  Knowing the A goals from the B and C goals will also help you make important decisions during the race that the runner may need some encouragement and/or help making herself.

Be Prepared for Whatever Nature Throws Your Way
At Kettle, for example, we knew that thunderstorms were a likely scenario.  Though they never came, Jen and I discussed beforehand what we would do in the event of a thunderstorm.  We talked about visualizing that situation, so that if it did happen, we would be ready for it and it would not get us down.

Eschew Negativity
I liken this concept to the “rule of positivity” my friends and I used to practice back in our youthful *ahem* partying days.  Nothing kills a buzz (running or dance club induced) quite like negative thoughts.  Even when your runner is in a bad spot — and he likely will be at some point during a hundred mile race — try to focus on the positive as much as possible and leave negative thoughts for another time and place.

Think Before You Speak
This goes along with the previous point, but it is important enough to be singled out alone.  People can interpret things in different ways, so before I say anything to my runner I try to imagine how she might hear what I’m saying.  If anything I might say could be interpreted as a negative thought, I keep it to myself.

Know How to Do Split Math In Your Head
Have a watch.  Pay attention to what time you leave each aid station.  Be prepared to throw out split times, estimated arrival times and cut-off times so your runner can concentrate on just running and not have to fuss with calculations.

I got jokes with Jen at Bluff Road during the Kettle Moraine 100. (Image courtesy of Kelly Gaines)

I got jokes for Jen at Bluff Road during the Kettle Moraine 100. (Image courtesy of Kelly Gaines)

You Are Not Allowed to Hurt, Not Allowed to Complain
Your feet might ache.  You might have a blister.  You might have a chapped ass.  That’s fine.  Just don’t say anything about it.  As a pacer, and following the “no negativity” rule, I think it’s best that you leave your own issues out of any conversation.

Get Plenty of Rest
Especially if you are going to be running overnight, I highly recommend you sleep as much during the day as possible so you are alert and thinking clearly during the hardest late night/early morning hours.

Monitor Your Runner’s Fueling
Ultimately, I think it is up to the runner to fuel himself properly, but it doesn’t hurt to monitor it as a backup, especially as the late hours and extended fatigue set in.  A bonky runner is an unhappy runner, so it’s best to just avoid that altogether.

Keep Aid Station Stops Short and Efficient
It is quite easy to dabble at an aid station.  A lot of time can be lost.  When my runner and I are approaching an aid station, I make sure to go over everything we need and everything we need to do, out loud, so once we get there we’re not standing around scratching our heads.  Apply Bodyglide, change socks, eat something… knowing what to do beforehand will make the stops quick and efficient.

Know the Basics of Foot Care
Having a good idea of how to treat battered, blistered, macerated feet will come in handy.  Check out Fixing Your Feet for all the gnarly details.

Carry an Emergency Gel or Two
Ya just never know when you’re gonna need it.  I also carry extra batteries, Ginger Chews and salt tabs.

Be Prepared for the Bad Patches and Fight Them with Simple Goals and Positivity
Inevitably, bad spots are going to come.  It’s a hundred-friggin-miles, man!  Just know that they are coming and be ready to fight them back with short, simple goals.  Just getting to the next aid station is a classic cue that really works and keeps the focus on something doable when the rest of the race may seem overwhelming.  I have found that it also helps to point out all the great things my runner has accomplished up to that point so that she has some positivity to fuel off of when things get tough.

Know When to Stretch the Truth
I don’t ever lie to my runner, but when she asks “How far to the next aid station?”, I will construct an illusion of truth by replying with a time range that offers hope, even if part of it is impossible.  Oh, we’re about 10-20 minutes away, I will say, knowing that the low range is impossible.  I think it just helps the runner to hear a low number when that is what he wants to hear, even if he doesn’t know it.

Be Your Runner’s Biggest Fan
Your runner needs you.  That’s why you’re there.  Take care of her.  Encourage him.  Do whatever it takes (and you should know this by already knowing your runner) to get her to keep moving one foot in front of the other.  And if you need something to motivate you as pacer, let me tell you:

OH HOW SWEET IT IS to watch her cross the finish line knowing you had a role in her success!

Of course, I do not consider the above collection of notes to be the all encompassing way to go about pacing, but the tips I offer have all worked well for me.  If you have anything to add, please feel free to drop a line in the comments section.

Happy pacing!

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3 responses

  1. Kirsten Pieper

    Awesome article Jeff! I’ll just add one thought of my own:
    Take care of yourself. Of course, your runner is your primary responsibility, but you are no good to him/her if you bonk or get injured. It’s easy to get caught up at the aid stations making sure your runner takes in the hydration and nutrition s/he needs, then scurrying on down the trail without refueling yourself. Respect the distance and keep up with your own needs as you would if it were your own ultra.

    June 6, 2013 at 14:07

    • Couldn’t agree more. You have to take care of yourself first. No doubt.

      June 6, 2013 at 14:25

  2. Pingback: 2013: A Year of Patience, Perseverance and Perspective | TheRunFactory.com

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