Pacing in a 100-Miler: A Nice Way to Spend the Night

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This article originally appeared in the January 1992 issue of UltraRunning Magazine

by Bob Adjemian

What’s it like to run 100 miles? To get an idea without all the effort, consider pacing someone in a 100-mile race. There are real benefits — you can run comfortably at an easy pace, enjoy the people and the scenery, and have a good training run.

The following is a guide for people who have never paced someone the last 30-50 miles of a 100-miler. Keep in mind that pacing should be fun. If you have never before run at night on a narrow trail, you’re in for a treat. It will be a long night. You’ll develop an appreciation for the 100 mile distance, and in spite of your own fatigue while pacing, you might, after you’ve rested, be tempted to try one yourself.

The shared experience of the latter half of a 100 will make you and your runner close friends. Only the basics of life are important during the run; that is, survive, and keep on moving to the finish.

Qualifications

Ideally, the best pacer is another 100-miler who knows the course and understands by experience the moods of someone going for the distance. But that shouldn’t stop you even if the 50-mile distance is new.

If you know the course you’ll be running, so much the better. Otherwise, watch the course with extra concentration. The important thing is to pace someone within your abilities and training. Obviously, a 30-hour finisher will do more walking and go slower than someone who wants to break 20 hours. As a guideline, a person who can do a 50-mile trail race in under 10 hours should be able to pace someone in under 24 hours.

You should be able to pace someone if you can run the marathon distance. The main problem for a newcomer is knowing how to eat and drink, or more accurately, eating and drinking enough. The veteran runners will tell you to drink before you’re thirsty and to eat foods with salt to help digest all the water you may have to consume. Be serious: 40-50 miles is not a 20-minute run. If you are prepared, stay hydrated, and eat enough, you’ll have fun and wish your runner would go faster. Ignore the guidelines, and you’ll be miserable.

Take two water bottles and food for your own use. For nighttime, bring a strong flashlight, that is, a flashlight that uses D batteries and a halogen bulb. Also take along a spare small flashlight or two, spare batteries and bulbs. The odds are that if you don’t need the extra flashlight, someone else will.

Eat a good meal the night before, and be properly hydrated before you start running. “Remember Nixon … keep everything (including your urine) perfectly clear.” In the same vein, lube your feet and wear the right socks. If you can’t go 50 miles without a blister, you’re probably doing something wrong. The point is for you to be strong and alert during the run, then you can concentrate on helping the person you’re pacing.

(A special note to experienced ultrarunners — you may know all that’s needed, and have lots of experience, but you can still get into trouble if you’re too casual about the distance: “Ho hum. Since I’m going to take 12-16 hours to do 50 miles, I should bring a book to read.” This year, two of my friends could not even finish as pacers at the Angeles Crest 100 because, even though they were well trained for the distance, they didn’t take the distance seriously. One carelessly took only one water bottle for a dry stretch, “died,” and had to let his runner charge ahead and win the women’s division without him. The other didn’t eat or drink properly the night before, was not hydrated when he started running, and DNF’d as a pacer.)

Duties of the pacer

Every runner is different, and they expect different things from the pacer. Generally, the pacer is a trail companion, a guide to keep them on the course, a safety expert who keeps a watch for any hazards that their tired mind may not notice, a psychologist to keep their spirits up, and a coach to help them do their best. When the race is over and they have rested, they should feel they gave the race their best. The pacer is not a pack animal who carries the runner’s supplies.

The pacer should run behind or alongside the runner, except at night, when the runner may like the pacer to be in front for safety reasons.

What to look for during the run

At the proper intervals, remind the runner to eat and drink. As the race progresses, your runner will not feel much inspiration to do either. By now the sports drink tastes horrible, the stomach feels lousy. The runner should urinate on a regular basis. If they don’t, their could be a kidney problem; at the least, they’re not drinking enough. One problem with long distances in warm weather is that the body will have problems assimilating the large quantities of water drunk. That is why aid stations have a supply of crackers, pretzels, and the like. Again, don’t forget that you have to drink a lot, too.

Be sure your runner eats something solid. This year my runner had a sour stomach and could only eat fruit. He was a vegetarian, so chicken noodle soup was out. Perhaps I should have pressured him to eat more, but you can’t force a person to eat. The result was predicable; his quads gave out and he was reduced to a walk the last ten miles. Had he eaten properly, he likely would have broken 24 hours, a tough task at Angeles Crest. (He was still under 25 hours, a most respectable time for the course.)

This brings up the art of pacing: knowing when to push your runner, when to hold back. Ultrarunners aren’t the most obedient people. Unless the race is obviously going well, the runner will at some point decide that he will just be satisfied to finish, period! He or she doesn’t care about silver buckles, people in front or behind. They’ll say, “I’ve run enough. I hate each rock on the trail. I just want to finish.”

A classic example of this occurred at Western States when I was pacing Steve Elder in his first 100. What with a bad ankle, on top of the normal problems of the race, Steve was not a happy camper. Yet ahead of us in equally bad shape were our friends Barry Hawley (race director of the San Juan 50) and Judy Milkie, normally a lead runner. Today was not their day either.

“Come on Steve. Let’s pass them. This is a good chance.”

“Forget it. I only have to finish.” (We had maybe five miles to go.)

“OK. But right now you may not care, but later on, you’ll be glad if you beat them.”

“(Grumble)” Steve does not like to be told what to do, so I couldn’t say more. He was in no mood for another word. After a few minutes, he started walking faster and faster, almost running, fast enough to beat our friends ahead on the uphill. We passed them, and to my surprise, he kept up the pace, and passed even more people. Steve returned the favor to me this year, again at Western States. I was quite content to walk in with about ten miles to go.

“Try running to No Hands Bridge, and you’ll beat my previous time,” he said.

“I could care less.”

“Well, give it a try!”

“(Grumble)” I don’t like being told what to do. Several minutes passed, and off I went. The legs hadn’t informed my brain that I was quite capable of running, and I was astonished. OK, so the pace wasn’t so fast…

Other ideas

After many hours of running, your runner does not want to think an unnecessary thought. Consider it your responsibility to watch for the trail and chalk markings. Be on the look-out for sudden uphill turns — they seem to be the easiest to miss.

Don’t let your runner quit for anything less than something major. Fatigue doesn’t count. The quads are supposed to hurt, and their attitude may at times get lousy. So what! Tell the runner, “You’re supposed to be hurting. Just keep moving.” Let your runner know that you strongly want them to keep trying, to do their best.

Runners go through many ups and downs during the 100-mile distance. Perhaps the worse they’ll get is to swear they’ll stop running 100s. (The feeling usually goes away within a week.) The important thing is to keep them going until they feel better.

The beauty of the experience is in fighting through the bad spots and finding new strength. It may take ten minutes, or two hours, but your runner will feel better.

Many runners experience sour stomachs and throw up several times, or wish they would. Bad food combinations or bad food choices often cause these problems. It is a normal part of the learning process for the runner. It may also be caused by drinking too much water and not eating something salty. Sometimes just a little bit of salt on the finger put under the tongue will help.

On the other hand, what about the runner who should quit but won’t, such as one runner at this year’s AC 100. She felt terrible pain in her leg on the descent from Mt. Wilson, caused by a stress fracture. Her pain was terrible, but this was a determined woman. The runners have to live with their decision. It’s their race. She finished two minutes after the deadline, but she finished.

As an ideal, the pacer shouldn’t expect anything from the runner for pacing the distance. If you don’t feel that way, be sure to express yourself. Some runners like to give their pacer a memento, a water bottle, a shirt, a hat. No rule here, but again, it’s better to be a purist and not expect anything. The experience is the reward. My preference is to at least buy the pacer a meal or two, but it’s best to cover their expenses if you can afford it.

If you live near a 100-mile race, call the race director and offer your services. There will always be someone from out of town who can use a pacer. Remember, you don’t have to be fast. Some years ago, a slow runner at Angeles Crest was well within finishing in the required time, but by 70 miles he quit. He was discouraged, and lonely after all the hours on the trail, and couldn’t find someone to pace him. It’s a special privilege to help another human being, and a wonderful bonding experience.

No pacers allowed?

Some runners are hesitant to even have a pacer. In one school of thought, the whole point is to pit your mind and body against the course. Why weaken the contest by having props for support?

There is something to that. That loner attitude reminds me of the time I was struggling alone to get to Newcomb Saddle late at night at the AC 100. The night was foggy, I was hallucinating, and I was alone, and it took centuries for this lone figure with a fading flashlight to get to the aid station. Finally I heard the beautiful sound of a Honda generator and saw a kind soul waiting for the next runner, me. The loner in me vanished. We are social animals, and I now had to admit it.

There is no shame to have someone pace you. It is a special experience to pace someone. If you want to run alone, fine, go for it. For me, part of the experience of a 100 is running with a pacer through the night and enjoying the companionship. The camaraderie of our sport is what makes the distance so special.

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1 Comment

  1. “…a flashlight that uses D batteries and a halogen bulb”

    That is so last-century. Lithium batteries and a LED bulb is the only way to go.