I haven’t done all that much pacing in my ultrarunning career. I’ve worked a lot of aid stations and I’ve crewed a bunch, but I’ve only paced twice. A good pacer is worth his or her weight in belt buckles and I’ve had the good fortune to be paced by the best. But being paced by a good pacer doesn’t automatically turn you into one. There’s a lot to know and a lot to think about before you pace an ultramarathoner. I offer this cautionary tale as a place to start the discussion about what it takes to be an excellent pacer.
A Cautionary Tale
Like most ultrarunners, I have a large number of partially used headlamp and flashlight batteries. I keep mine in a big Ziploc labeled “Used Batteries.” I hate how this bag takes up space on the shelf and I often dream of emptying it. This dream led me to stuff all 16 ounces of Ziplocked batteries into my hydration pack before I headed out to pace my good friend Chris at the Cactus Rose 100 last October. The course is particularly rocky and hilly and Chris usually does a lot of hiking, so I figured I’d have time to change out batteries if I needed to. (Cautionary Tale Lesson 1: Always put new batteries into your flashlight and headlamp before you start pacing. Always.)
About two miles into my pacing stint, my flashlight had a heart attack and died. No problem. I was carrying a full pound of batteries on my back. Of course they were at the bottom of my hydration pack, — which was under the prickly pear cactus costume I was wearing. (Cautionary Tale Lessons 2 & 3: Keep extra batteries in a front pocket. And don’t wear a costume that limits access to your supplies no matter how cheerful it looks.)
I took my headlamp off to use as a flashlight, put my water bottle under my arm, and tried to wiggle one arm out of the hydration pack. The green foam of the costume shifted in front of the headlamp and I floundered in complete darkness. Thankfully Chris didn’t notice what was going on behind him. (Cautionary Tale Lesson 4: A pacer should NEVER bother her runner with a personal equipment malfunction.)
More wiggling, more darkness, a partial shoulder dislocation, some wishing Chris would suffer a muscle cramp and start walking, and finally I had my fingers on the “Used Batteries” bag. I managed to fish three batteries out. At that point I had the flashlight in one hand, the headlamp and heavy “Unused Batteries” Ziploc in the other, my water bottle under my arm, and my hydration pack slung over one shoulder. And the cactus costume foam was beginning to rub my neck raw. I put the flashlight in my mouth to unscrew it, and then dumped the battery cartridge into my free hand. It felt like an hour had passed. (Cautionary Tale Lesson 5: Always wear a watch when you’re pacing. You can’t be in charge of a runner’s nutrition or equipment needs if you don’t know what time it is or how far it is to the next aid station – or, in my case, how long until you can stop running and replace batteries like a civilized person.)
I couldn’t shine the headlamp on the batteries to see which end was which or how they should be inserted into the flashlight cartridge because the course was so technical. So I felt for bumps and springs as I jogged along. Then Chris ran up a hill he’d never run up before. He was going to PR. I cursed around the flashlight I was biting. (Cautionary Tale Lesson 6: Be prepared for your runner to run fast on race day – no matter what their training’s been like.)
I finally managed to insert the batteries, insert the cartridge into the flashlight and screw the top back on. I pressed the ON button. Darkness. I made two more excruciating attempts. I licked battery acid. DARKNESS. (Cautionary Tale Lesson 7: Only the runner should be brought to tears during the ultra.)
I started a deranged conversation with Chris about how it’s really important to have an experienced ultra runner as your pacer…how you want someone who knows how to take care of their own nutrition and hydration needs on long runs…who knows how to keep themselves warm and dry…someone who you don’t have to worry about…who, like a bridesmaid, has no needs of his own, who understands your nutrition plan…who can problem solve and trouble shoot…someone who’s run at night with a headlamp and has practiced changing batteries. We laugh. (Cautionary Talk Lesson 8: Always be prepared to make distracting conversation.)
Then my headlamp started to dim. There wasn’t a moon.
Ultimately I wasn’t forced to steal glow sticks and Chris made it to his next pacer, and we are still good friends.
So what do you think? What makes for an excellent pacer? (Besides someone who is not me.) A close friend who doesn’t run ultras or a stranger who does? A spouse? What would you tell someone who’s never paced before about their duties? Should they run in front of you or behind you? Do you want them to actually pace you or just keep you company? What should they do when you reach the aid stations? Anything they shouldn’t say to you? Let’s get a good list going.
Photo at 2011 Javalina Jundred with pacer Paulette Zillmer. Photo courtesy Aravaipa Running.
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