By Bob Crowley
As ultrarunning has enjoyed steady growth over the past decade, the community has actually shrunk. Today, it’s not uncommon to hear accents from every continent at an ultra race in the US. And we’re not just talking about biggies like Western States and Hardrock – but more regional events, too. And more and more, Americans are journeying to trails and mountains around the world, finding international adventures and new friends.
Naturally, there are some differences to the ways in which ultras are organized in each continent. For instance, the aid station fare varies from local cheese and pastries to mega burritos or maple syrup-drizzled pancakes. Regulations regarding mandatory gear, shaving switchbacks and cut-off times also differ. And so does the notion of a pacer.
Outside of the US, the utilization of a pacer is either scant or outright prohibited. So when international runners enter a race in the US where pacers are an option, many ponder whether it’s necessary, an advantage or better to run solo.
At Western States, given the preponderance of international runners (80 in 2019, representing 26 countries), a new service has been offered for the past two years to help international runners, many who may not speak English or fully understand the utilization of a pacer, to match foreign competitors with local runners from Auburn and the surrounding area.
The genesis of the initiative came from my own experience at Western States, where I’ve paced 10 runners in previous years. I found that international athletes are confused by the idea of using a pacer which only adds to their anxiety, combined with the significant cost and logistics of finding their way to Squaw Valley and Auburn. Meanwhile, the good citizens of Auburn were eager to support the race and rally behind the runners, and I thought there might be an opportunity.
The goal was simple: reduce the overall stress of the preparation, travel and logistics of arriving in an unfamiliar place, so the runners can focus on the race and fulfilling their dream. It’s important to make them feel welcome and at home as much as possible. The response has been overwhelming from both the runners and the Auburn community. Pacing services have been expanded to include hosted housing with local trail running families, logistics and even, crewing.
Nearly half of the international runners utilized the pacing service offered, and were connected with a qualified, knowledgeable and friendly local who could answer their laundry list of questions about the course, weather and logistics. This person would also keep them company and on task as they suffered into the night with the rest of the field.
The matching of complete strangers, especially ones that may not speak each other’s language, is an intriguing proposition. They’ll be spending nearly half a day together, under tremendous duress, with little knowledge of each other’s personality, running style or demeanor. Sounds like the possibility for a potentially miserable time.
Remarkably, the feedback from runners and pacers has been extremely positive. Runners gain an “insider’s edge” from someone who knows the race and course, creating an opportunity for them to relax and let the pacer do the thinking and worrying. All they have to do is run. The pacers have an opportunity to give back to the sport and community and share their insight and enthusiasm for the race. The recipe, unmeasured as it may be, seems to work.
After gathering a few preferences from the runners (i.e. their expected finish time, do they prefer a chatty or quiet pacer, are they seeking someone to guide them or just keep them company, if they speak English, etc), we try whenever possible to match runners with pacers who are compatible. The same goes for hosted housing – if a runner is bringing her family, we try to find hosts with children, preferably similar in age. Although it’s not always possible, we even try to match runners with pacers and hosts who speak their native language.
And the results? A whopping 96% of the international starters achieved their quest of getting their buckle at Western States this year.
As Thiago Coutinho Moreira from Brazil wrote in his reflection of his experience, “To my surprise, at 4:28 a.m. in the morning… I crossed the finish line with happiness on my face and the sense of accomplishment. Then I gave Thomas (Paulson) a hug…and I said, ‘This is the best pacer I could have had – without him I could not finish in less than 24 hours.’”
As our beloved trail running community continues to stretch its legs and find its balance between preserving traditions while embracing change, the art of pacing remains an important constant in our ethos. Community, sharing, giving back, paying forward, welcoming, acceptance – all the traits that make our sport more about being an ultrarunner rather than doing ultrarunning are embodied in the selfless act of pacing. We are indeed keeping pace with the world.