I’ve had the honor of pacing two ultrarunners in the past 2 years and both times have made me realize that running is more than just lacing up your shoes and finding a satellite signal on your Garmin. You can Google “5ks near me” and find a 5k you decide to spontaneously run on any given day of the year. You can sign up for the 10k you’ve always wanted to try. Or you can committ to a half-marathon still waiting to be scratched off your running bucket list. But have you ever considered going on a run for someone else? Have you ran side by side with someone who has been running for 5 or more hours who needs a mental boost? Or someone who needs someone else to remind them to eat, to drink, or keep moving forward? This is a pacer, my friends. Pacers aren’t looking for a 5k PR or another silly medal – pacing provides a completely intrinsic reward.Pacers are running to help someone else achieve their goals. And I honestly believe all runners should be an ultrarunning pacer at least once in their life (but I know from experience that once won’t be enough – just like ultrarunners, pacers always come back for more).
So let’s start from the beginning…let me share a story with you!
Last spring my dad decided he wanted to run 50 miles. So he trained for months and raised money for the MS Society, which he was dedicating his run towards. So he set off on a warmer than usual Sunday on a trail that is 50 miles in length. There were no race officials or other runners – just him. One of my dad’s running friends, who also happened to be an ultrarunner, joined him a few hours into my dad’s run to run miles 10-35ish with my dad. And thank goodness the pacer was with my dad for those miles (especially at the 30 mile mark). Without this pacer – who had taken hours of his Sunday morning just to help my dad achieve his goal – my dad might not have made it to the road crossing where me, my mom, brother and two grandmothers were waiting for him. At mile 30, my dad couldn’t keep anything in his stomach. He was barely moving forward and needed someone to talk him through the struggle. The unexpected “heat” of the early spring had taken too much out of my dad. When he finally reached the road crossing it was both a relief and a wake-up call.
This is where I come into the picture. My dad and I had discussed that I would be pacing him through the last 10ish miles of his run. I was in the midst of my track season and so we had agreed that 10 miles wouldn’t effect my training schedule for track. But even before my dad reached the road crossing, I knew I would be running more than 10 miles that day. By the time he reached the road crossing, he would have about 17 miles to go. So I put on my Camelbak and threw some crackers, ibuprofin, my cell phone, and a headlight into it. And so I began my first experience as a pacer.
I remember splitting peanut butter crackers in half to give my dad some kind of food to put into his stomach. He would eat the side without the peanut butter first. Then 5 minutes later he would eat the other half. A few crackers later I gave him some ibuprofin. I reminded him to drink the water from his Camelbak. I kept him moving forward – one step at a time. When dark started to set in, and with only one working headlight, I became our set of eyes. I found the markers on the trees. I kept us on the trail. I paced him to the end. I paced him to help him complete his goal.
My next ultrarunning pacing experience was this past weekend. A running friend of ours was doing a 24 hour running race in attempt to run 100 miles in 24 hours for a charity called “Back on My Feet”. He had asked for pacers throughout his 24 hour journey -especially during the nighttime hours. So my dad and I didn’t have to think twice – we wanted to help a fellow runner achieve his goal. So we signed up for the 4:00 AM shift!
When we got there he had already been running for 18 hours and was about 76 miles into his run. He got to us and needed some motivation. So me and my dad and one other early-morning pacer set out with him to do another 8.5 mile lap. (We also got to run in the presence of another ultrarunner who was also competing as he joined in our group throughout the loop too!) We started the lap just walking. But before we got a mile into the lap we eased him back into a run. My dad reminded him in a tough-love-kind-of-way, “You’re going to be in pain if you walk and you’re going to be in pain if you run. So just run”. So we ran. We walked through the aid stations but we kept a steady pace for the 8.5 mile loop – especially considering he was now almost about to reach his 84th mile. We reminded him to drink water and have a cup of Gatorade. We gave him some Ritz crackers that settled easily in his stomach. We talked about running and our summer adventures. We did everything to distract Ultraman from the pain. And we got him to the end of the loop, we were greeted by a small crowd ringing their cowbells. It was a quite the welcome back to “base camp”!
So, from both of these experiences I’ve come to learn the importance of pacers. And I’ve come to love the sport of running even more than I ever thought possible. I have yet to be awarded a medal for pacing. There is no website on the Internet showing that I even helped a runner achieve their goal. I only have the knowing in my heart that I did good for someone else. I helped someone achieve their goal and I believe that that’s what matters most.
I’ve also been inspired by both of these men to try ultrarunning for myself. I plan on waiting a few years until I give a shot at an ultramarathon of any sort. I want to push beyond my limits. I want to see how far my legs can take me. I want to cross the finish line completely exhausted. I want to have a pacer/pacers by my side telling me to suck it up and stop complaining. As long as they bring some Ritz crackers, some positive energy, and the desire to help a fellow runner out, I can’t wait to experience the tough love of a pacer for myself. But in the meantime, I will remain a pacer for any other runner who is trying to achieve their goal – and that’s what matters most.