#TBT: Pacing Friends is the Best of All Worlds

#ThrowbackThursday always has me thinking of photos with friends. Or awkward family photos. Or fashion faux pas (how did we ever think that perms and shoulder pads were a good look?).

A lot of my photos are of groups of runners, clustered somewhere, often in the dark, in various stages of sweatiness. I stumbled upon some images the other day that made me think about races I’d run–not as a competitor, but as a pacer.

What’s a Pacer?

It’s a lot like being asked to be maid of honor or best man or a godparent. A friend is requesting that you hold a special place, a helpful place, in his or her life. Your role is to act as backup, wingman — to do whatever you can to ensure that things turn out all right in the end. At the least, you give it your best shot.

I had the great fortune to be a pace group leader at the Austin Marathon for three years. That was a wonderful experience (even if I wasn’t near the pacer that the other group leaders were).

In these days of Garmins and gadgets, human pacers at marathons are almost obsolete. Those events are all about meeting a time goal on the road, which is one kind of running.

It’s the one-on-one pacing that grabs my heart. This occurs primarily with long-distance trail running. Many ultra events allow another runner to join a participant after s/he has passed the 50K mark or after nightfall. Pacers aren’t there to carry stuff for their runners (called “muling”) — they’re primarily a safety feature, making sure a tired and foggy-headed runner stays on the trail. A good pacer knows her runner and helps with the mental side of those difficult, late race hours.

Some Pacing Stories

Two women running on a trail in Huntsville State Park
Running long distance on a trail is nice with a buddy, especially one who’s similarly paced. Here’s Charlie (left) and Jeanette out at Huntsville State Park.

Rocky Raccoon 100

The first time I ever paced anyone was out at Huntsville State Park. My friends Jeanette and Charlene (“Charlie”) asked me to join them on the fourth of their five 20-mile loops, miles 60 to 80 of their Rocky Raccoon 100-mile journey. Experienced ultra runners, the two knew the night hours would be a tough time, what with the dark and temperatures dropping. The key was to keep them moving through the soupy swampy trails so that they could greet the dawn with new energy (and beat the 27-hour cutoff). I will forever have frozen in my mind the three of us, singing in the dark, picking our way through puddles, and listening to the frogs as we crossed bridges.

Cactus Rose 100

Leah and Marcia at the finish of the Cactus Rose 100 Miler
Marcia totally rocked her first 100-mile race–and looked fresh as a daisy at the finish.

My next pacing adventure was with my friend Marcia at the Cactus Rose 100. I must say that Marcia is the most detail-oriented runner I’ve ever paced. We’d run so much together prior to the actual event that I felt I really knew how best to help her.

I have so many fun memories from those final 25 miles on that warm Bandera day–watching the sun come up while she changed her socks, laughing about turning on my trademark mountain troll shuffle, and charging ahead to tell some spectators in line, “I have a runner coming who needs the bathroom–can she cut ahead of you?”

The best memory? Watching her run into the finish. One of the best times? Getting to know her other pacer, the man who later became her husband. (See how close you get to your pacer?)

I wasn’t surprised when mine and Marcia’s mutual friend, Stephanie, asked me to join her at Cactus Rose a few years later for her first 100 miler. Stephanie, Marcia, and I had met when I was coaching for Rogue, guiding runners through a class I’d developed called Trail Series Prep, which introduced a lot of people to their first trail races. One of my favorite photos is of the three of us the day before the Palo Duro Trail Run…even though the guy taking the photo asked my friends, “Do you want your mom in the photo?” (Yes, he meant me.)

Marcia, Leah, and Stephanie before the Palo Duro Trail Run
A trail race with friends is a great way to experience your first canyon. Marcia, me, and Stephanie enjoyed some down time before the run.

Stephanie’s race was my first experience with pacing a runner for whom things didn’t go well. There was a lot of conferring with Mike, her third loop pacer (there are four 25-mile loops at Cactus Rose, run in alternating directions) — the segment after the sun went down had been hard. And that nighttime loop, in my opinion, is always the most crucial one. If a runner can make it to dawn, there’s very little that’s going to stop a finish.

Trail runner at the aid station talks with support crew.
There’s always an assessment going on when ultra runners come into the aid station. Stephanie (seated) gets ready for another loop while giving me the run-down.

My takeaway memory from that pacing experience is sweetly tender. Stephanie was exhausted, depleted from plaguing stomach issues, and I convinced her to take a short 5-minute nap. She found a clear space to the side of the trail and squatted onto her haunches; we turned off our headlamps. In the quiet night, I heard her breathing shift within seconds. I’ll never forget that moonlit moment, watching over my friend as she slept.

There is also the bittersweet moment, when you know your friend is done. Some days, a runner’s best effort falls short of the finish line. Pacers often realize that fact before their runner becomes conscious of it. You have to know how your runner responds — whether verbal pushing will encourage, if gentle cajoling will move the feet, or how likely it is that a second wind will appear with knowledge that time is running short. It’s gut wrenching. At the same time,  it’s special to be able to help your runner wring out every last possible bit of success.

That’s what really matters: the feeling that you — runner and pacer alike — did all that you could do on that given day.

Group of girl runners at the start of the Hell's Hills trail race in 2012
Trail running friends made the 2012 Hell’s Hills a wonderful comeback. That’s Cris (front), Marcia (left), Stephanie (right), me (back left), and Dawn (back right).

My last pacing gig almost didn’t happen. My friend Cris was making her second attempt at the 100 miler at Cactus Rose. I’d been there the day a health issue frustratingly ended her first attempt. She was ready to try again and asked me to pace her last loop. I was honored, eager, and thrilled.

As the months went by, though, I found myself running less and less. Job stress was wrecking havoc on my body. I committed an egregious pacer sin by calling Cris mere weeks before the race, crying, to say I couldn’t do it. We met to talk and she told me that she wanted me there and would love my support but was cool with my decision — but had I thought about just doing part? Doh. No, I hadn’t.

Cris is one of the most grounded, positive, and nourishing people I know. Realizing that she was OK with whatever mileage I could manage took the pressure off.

When the day came, it turned out I could pace her for 20 miles. Now, the 5 miles of the loop I didn’t cover came after the sun rose and this little dynamo turned on the turbo jets. That’s when the second pacer sin occurred: my runner dropped me like a bad habit. I came into the aid station as Cris was ready to leave. Fortunately, she took off, I got a ride to the next aid station, rested while waiting for her to run in, and off we went to complete the loop. And finish the race.

Cris ran an amazing 100 miler, the accomplishment of a lifetime…and in the process, she gave me a great gift. In fact, I think I got the better end of that stick.

Truth be told, I think the pacer always gets the best of the run.

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