Wednesday, October 25, 2017 10:30 pm
Tales of a First-Time Pacer: A Memoir
AUBREE REICHEL | The Journal Gazette
In ultra-running, a pacer is allowed to accompany a registered runner after a certain point of a race. This point for St. Pat's 24-Hour race was at the 12-hour mark.
Pacers are responsible for ensuring the general well-being of the runner. For me, that included keeping track of hydration and nutrition and just ensuring my runner was moving forward, no matter the pace.
In addition to a pacer, runners can also have a crew which function in a similar fashion as a NASCAR pit crew, ensuring the runner has what they need for the next stretch of trail, dry clothes, change of shoes or socks, address any blister or other first aid issue... Anything like that.
With all that said, here is the story of my first pacing experience.
Chapter One: Pre-Race
I've never paced before but it's been on my to-do list for a while. I circled St. Pat's because it was a race that had an aid station and crew access every three miles. I would be able to jump in and help out when needed and the team would be there anyway.
It was just a matter of how much time, if at all, I could spend over there. There were soccer semistate games, cross country semistate and volleyball regional games that weekend.
Once I solidified my work schedule (well... as much as I can...) for the weekend of St. Pat's, I reached out to my teammate Brenda Worrell to see if she could use any pacing assistance. I was set to work three semistate soccer games at St. Joseph HS in South Bend, about 15 minutes from the park. It worked out perfectly.
Brenda did St. Pat's last year, completing around 95 miles (I believe). She finished the Indiana Trail 100 back in April, fighting hypothermia and double vision issues, particularly after a storm rolled through around midnight (that race started at 6 a.m.). She's a wonderful, positive individual and one of the toughest people I know.
I wasn't sure how St. Pat's would work in regards to pacing and crewing and I was also unsure of my seemingly non-existent pacing skills. Nevertheless, Brenda was willing to take on a newbie pacer and insisted that I show her "tough love."
On Friday night, I packed a few changes of clothes with a couple pairs of shorts, a couple t-shirts, a few pairs of half-tights, change of underwear and socks, a couple pairs of shoes, 2Toms. Pretty much anything that I feel like I could need before, during and after pacing. There were a few things that I forgot but mostly comfort items (extra thick sweatshirt, better sweatpants, watch charger, etc.). In the grand scheme of things, it didn't matter.
I admit, I was a little nervous. It was established that with my work schedule going into the evening that I would arrive at the park, scope it out, talk with Erin Brady (Brenda's crew master) and rest a little before taking over my post around midnight.
Of course with any plan, there were always some modifications but at least there was a plan in place.
Chapter Two: Race day and preparation
I woke up at 7:30 a.m., packed a few more things (sammiches, mostly), packed my car and headed out toward South Bend by 8:30 a.m. Work was fine. There were three soccer games and St. Joe HS ran a tight ship. I got done around 5 p.m., found a Starbucks five minutes from the park, set up my mobile office to complete work stuff.
As Kate did with Hennepin, I cut myself off of caffeine for this endeavor, although for not quite as long. Basically a few days. The Starbucks (Sweet Vanilla Cream Cold Brew with light ice) was enough to make me feel pretty good heading to the park around 7 p.m.
I checked in with Erin and everyone in the IGNITE camp and got a status update. Kate took Brenda for a bit not long after I got there, as soon as Brenda was allowed to have a pacer at 8 p.m. During that time Erin gave me some pointers, lent me her headlamp, I munched on some food, sipped at water, really just hung out.
By Erin's recommendation, I snagged a quick snooze in the back of Kate's ultra-mobile around 10 p.m. I resisted, not going to lie, insisting I was "fine." Erin, being Erin, rebutted with, "You're fine NOW, but how will you be in a few hours?" She was right. That 90-minute power nap (and a constant stream of coffee and moving) got me through the night. I just didn't want to miss anything. I set an alarm for 11:30 p.m. (woke up at 11:26), hurried over to the camp area and got myself set up for Brenda's estimated arrival at 11:40 p.m.
Chapter Three: Pacing duties
I took over around 11:45 p.m. for the first of my four consecutive loops (I did another one later with Pat in between my shifts).
It took a bit to get adjusted to my new role. I've never paced nor had a pacer. I was relying on the words of wisdom of the pacing clinic back in the winter and the quick pointers Erin told me basically telling me to allow Brenda to set the pace and let her lead a little and stay on my left side since she knew where the rooty bits were.
While I'm familiar with Brenda's accomplishments, particularly her tenacity during the IT100 in April, I had never actually run a training run with her. This was one thing that was definitely recommended back in the pacing clinic that my team conducted last winter, but her reputation preceded her as being a fast walking and just an overall tough cookie. I was more concerned about being enough for her at that stage of the race.
The first loop, I probably asked too many questions in attempts to make conversation, despite Brenda saying that she may not talk much but she would always listen. I hate talking about myself but I tried to fill the void with little personal anecdotes about past races, college cross country, my work, family, etc. Brenda was able to answer some but it wasn't easy. I tried to keep questions to a minimum once I realized this. Learning experience.
We finished the first loop under Brenda's 14:24/mile target pace but subsequent loops were getting more labored, as expected.
At one point, we checked the results and realized they were giving credit for 3.1 miles per loop instead of the 3.03 or whatever. That extra .1 made a huge difference when it came down to the latter stages and she had logged more miles than she was giving herself credit for.
Brenda's goal was 100 miles and it seemed she had banked some time earlier in the day before I took over. With the 3.03 distance estimate, it would have been a lot closer timewise.
Sometime in the third or fourth loop, her vision started giving her issues. We adjusted the pace to incorporate longer stretches of walking (averaging around or just under 15-minute miles) and were finishing loops right around 45 minutes or so. The crew at the camp was awesome getting her in and out and while usually I would try and help out, there were many cooks in the kitchen and at times, it was a little easier to stay out of the way, tell others what she wanted and let others step in while taking care of my needs in a timely manner and getting back out there.
Toward the last bit of the loops, I would try and ask what she was craving and what she needed from the aid station. Partially for me to know how I could assist but also because I didn't want her getting in and being unsure of what she wanted when she got there with fatigue taking its toll and every minute counted toward reaching her goal but also her confidence in herself.
The first couple loops with her, she was so concerned with how many loops, how fast she needed to go and how far. In the last couple, she couldn't crunch numbers nearly as well, and seemed frustrated with the logic of "You have six hours to go 20 miles."
"How do you know I have 80 miles? It doesn't make sense."
"I looked on the computer when you crossed the line."
Throughout the first couple loops, I had my watch on an "average pace" screen that I kept on for the four loops I was with her. We crunched the numbers and established that if we could stick right around 15-minute miles, she would hit her goal, and then some.
After the third loop, by the recommendation of Jason, we switched to a 3/7 (run 3, walk 7). She was still moving well during the 3-minute run portions but was definitely relieved when it was over. The course layout wasn't very advantageous to doing that interval since the run portions were on the rooty portions. But she made it through very well. It was after that loop that I handed her off to Pat for a loop.
Constant reassurance was the biggest key for the fifth loop. We calculated that we had four loops left when I started with her at this point and she was still physically moving very well, despite the vision issues and obvious fatigue (because 90ish miles will do that to you, I assume). I kept in mind pace and numbers but made no mention of them to her so she wouldn't think too much or worry too much. We all knew she was OK and she trusted us. I told her to use all her brain power toward moving forward, one step at a time. As Steve Carr wrote on my arm before my IT50, "Always forward." That was an important message the last couple loops.
In my last loop with Brenda, she was still able to walk between 15-16 minute miles, much to her surprise when she checked in with me every so often. While I was keeping the pace and distance quiet, I knew it was a confidence boost and a reliever if she knew that we had even more of a buffer, especially heading into the final three loops. We took advantage of the buffer during this loop with hydration breaks (she had to stand still to take in anything) and just stopping to regroup (particularly after Bart, the biggest uphill on the course).
At times, particularly after the running intervals, she expressed concern of her heart rate being too high. While I've never trained with a HR monitor, I know I've struggled with similar things at times, as noticed by my heavy breathing. All it takes is someone beside you to say, "Deep breath," and that was enough of a reminder to reset anything. This was one example, I guess, of using my own experiences and instincts. The last time up Bart, I had her stop, take a deep breath and continue. Mental restart button. "OK, one more obstacle down, let's go."
During the last loop, she was moving very well but was weaving off to the side of the trail and so we spent much of this loop holding hands for guidance. She was able to navigate around the roots pretty well still, despite the eye patch and vision issues.
Christy took her for two loops and Erin for the last one and the out-and-backs. I had the honor of running (sprinting) with her for the final one to get her to the 101.7, well above her A-goal and move her into the top five for St. Pat's overall female results.
Chapter Four: Summary
Brenda was a great person to pace for my first time. She was reasonable when it came to nutrition and kept an open line of communication when I requested she eat or drink something.
In hindsight, I should have pushed a little bit harder to take in calories and hydration during the earlier loop with her and I feel like I should have double-checked the live results before I took over to take the pace a little easier and make it less stressful during the night, before things started to spiral. Who knows if that would have made a difference or would have been more of an issue with less of a buffer but something for me to keep in mind for future pacing endeavors.
"Tough love" requires a balance of trust in the runner in the sense of what they can tolerate in terms of food and fluid intake, run intervals and walking pace, confidence and mental strength at any given time but also knowing how much more you know they're capable of. I reminded Brenda that our brains knew better than her brain that she could meet her goal.
*While leaving the aid station*: "Do you think that many people would lie to you about this? We might lie to Steve, but not you!" (Chuckle)
Even when I wasn't pacing, it was amazing to watch everyone crew for Brenda, Suzi, Mike E., Frank, Brad... everyone. (Sorry if I missed someone or if you were finished by the time I got there). Taking in everything, learning by example. I'd never crewed for a race aside from the minimal Pat at the IT100 but that was only at the start line aid station at 60 and 80.
There are just some things that cannot be learned simply from a clinic (although it helped a lot, especially since I got to listen to it twice). Pacing is so unique to every individual, catering to their specific needs at that specific time.
Chapter Five: Acknowledgements
I want to thank Brenda for taking a chance on a newbie pacer (two, actually... Kate, as well). It was truly an honor to watch the magic happen and keep you company through the night. You are an amazing individual and I want to be like you when I grow up. :)
Thank you to Erin Brady who provided my guiding light. Literally. I used her headlamp. And figuratively. I've looked up to you for years and enjoy any opportunity to work alongside you, running or otherwise.
Thank you to Pat Quinn for providing me with a good example of how to pace (and how not to pace) with the past year of your stories, race endeavors and always being willing to address my questions and concerns. You make me want to be better.
Steve Carr. For being the perfect balance of being the ridiculous comedic relief but also being a selfless individual always willing to reach out a helping hand to everyone.
Kate. For laughing at my dad jokes. Always.
Mike Pfefferkorn and the whole IGNITE crew for giving me the opportunity to pursue this whole trail running thing.