Tuesday, March 11, 2014
The Art of Pacing
The art of being a effective pacer is a very unique craft. It is entirely different than being a good runner, a good crew member, or even a volunteer. Since my first pacing assignment in 2006, I have paced roughly 20 runners of varying ability and experience at distances ranging from 10 to 100 miles. In the many hours spent on roads and trails, I have found that there things that make a good pacer, and things that make make a bad pacer. Good pacing can save a runner's race and enrich the experience, and bad pacing can destroy it. I've seen plenty of both over the years and have made numerous notes about what it takes to be a good pacer, and what to avoid.
1) The skill level of a pacer- Your speed should be not significantly slower than the person you are pacing. If you decided to pace a faster runner, oh let's say the final 30 miles of a 100 miler, it's probably not a big deal that you are slower than them. Even very fast runners will be significantly slower in the final miles of a long ultra. However, you still need to know you can hang with them if they get a sudden burst of energy, or if they are going to be pushing hard to have a competitive finish. If you are pacing someone the last 50 miles of a 100 miler and they intend to run it in 10 hours, but your 50 mile personal best is 12 hours, it's probably best you leave the pacing up to someone else. Getting dropped by your runner does sometimes happen, but it can be avoided if you plan accordingly. After all, it's your job to look out for your runner, and not the other way around. Lastly, though not entirely necessary, it does help if the pacer has run the same race, or distance the runner is doing. Having a shared perspective of a race can pay dividends.
1a) Inversely, if you are significantly faster than the runner you are pacing, realize their "fast" may still be slower than your slow. Allow your runner to dictate the pace, and don't push them unless they ask you too in order to achieve a particular finish time, whether it be a PR, sub 24, or just breaking a certain hour mark. Also know that if you are not used to jogging at someone else's slower pace, it may be very uncomfortable for you. Sometimes it can actually be tougher for a very fast runner to run with someone much slower. If that may be the case, give the duty to someone who is feels better at the slower speeds.
2) Listen to your runner- This means listening for both verbal and non-verbal commands. The verbal commands will be easy to understand, but it's the other signs you need to notice. Body language will say a lot about your runner's energy, level of fatigue, and general attitude about how the race is going. Know that runners tend to put on poker faces, and though they may say they are doing alright, their body will show you something else. A pacer needs to be able to read the bluffs. If your runner is acting very differently than their typical behavior or personality, something may be up. It could be general tiredness, which is to be expected, but it could always be something more. Pacers aren't substitutes for doctors, but knowing what to look for can help your runner.
3) Know your runner- Most people we pace will be friends of ours. If you have run with them before, then you probably have a better idea how the distance will effect their body and demeanor. If you are pacing someone you don't know (or know well), be sure to use those first few miles, or hours, to get a read on their personality. If somebody really enjoys talking during races, then be sure to engage them in conversation. If you are a super quiet person, pacing a very social runner may not be a good idea, and vice versa.
3a) Know your runner's preferences- Learn what your runner's preferences are, and if you don't know, simply ask. Figure out what clothing makes them comfortable, what foods they enjoy, and what foods they are still able to eat if their stomach goes bad. If your runner is comfortable in cold weather clothing when it is 80 degrees out, just roll with it, and if they like going shirtless in 30 degree weather while eating nothing but avocados and listening to Pearl Jam, then so be it. Just keep an eye out for what is practical, and if their preferences are adversely effecting their performance.
4) Be the backup brain for your runner- Runners are entirely responsible for themselves and the predicaments they end up in, but the presence of a pacer can alleviate much of that. Understand that a tired runner usually does not think as clearly, and sometimes they are working through numerous thought processes to the point they may overlook seemingly simple details. Know what your running will be needing in the near future in terms of both gear and nutrition. Ask if they are hungry and thirsty because even basic things like eating can slip a runner's mind. If our runner's strategy is to eat and drink at certain time segments, be sure to remind them, but also know when to tweak the plan if it isn't working well. Don't force your runner to eat, or drink, unless it is vital to them finishing a race. If you can, try to know what items are in your runner's upcoming drop bags, or what items their crew and/or aid station may have. Keep an eye on the environment, research the forecast, and track the time of day so you can effectively prepare night gear and clothing for potential shifts in weather.
4a) Know the race- If possible, find out what you can about the course. Know the distances to each aid station, time cut-offs, and where drop bags and crew access may be. If you've run the race before it's an even bigger bonus. Some runners don't like being told every upcoming turn, or climb on a course, and some will take whatever advice they can get. Be familiar with turns and areas where it may be easy for runners to go off course. Remember, your runner is tired, and may not be looking where they should for markings. Also, though rare, course flagging goes missing. Sometimes locals remove markings by accident, sometimes it's just plain vandalism, and sometimes wind and storms rip down and wash things away that were there earlier. Know the course, as your runner should as well, but also keep a turn sheet available for a back up.
5) Keep moving forward- This is as simple as it gets. Most races are made, or broken in the second half. If your runner can keep moving in the latter parts of a race, then they have the opportunity to finish well. Motivate your runner. Tell stories, use tough love, and remind them why they are out there. If you know your runner can handle you being a drill sergeant, then I have no problem pushing buttons to get them fired up. After all, if tough love is the only thing that can light a fire in your runner, use it.....but, ONLY if you know them well enough to know it will work (see part 3). The last thing you want is to say something that makes your runner feel worse, sad, or guilty that they are going so slow. Otherwise, our main goal is to get them going in a forward direction in however small increments they can manage. Set smaller goals. Perhaps try to cover a particular stretch of the race in a certain time. Urge your runner to only think about getting to the next aid station, the top of the next climb, or just making it to a tree a few hundred feet away. Every step gets your runner that much closer to the finish. Encourage your runner, and tell them they are doing well. Novice runners may not be used to shuffling along at a 13-15 minute mile, and may view it as a failure. Let them know that what they may perceive as agonizingly slow, is actually a very good pace late in a race. If your runner needs to lay down, set a goal time for how long they can rest, then get them up as soon as possible.
6) Don't take things personally- Your tired runner may not have much to say to you. They have just run 80 miles, and still have 20 to go, so forgive them if they don't jump into your conversation with elated enthusiasm. They may snap at you for something as simple as putting Gatorade in the bottle they only wanted water in, for not closing the lid on their camel back correctly, or for not grabbing ice when you passed the last aid station. Toss it all out the window. What people say in ultras, stays at the ultra. A very tired runner can often act exactly like a drunk person, so don't take what they do, or say personally. It's your job to keep everyone's heads level, and if needed, just let your runner vent and get it out of their system. I have only ever had one runner who never thanked me for pacing her, but 99.99% of everyone else will be grateful as soon as they are back to their normal selves.
7) IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU!- This is the most important aspect. I have heard pacers grumble about how slow they had to go, how it took 15 hours to go 20 miles, and how all they did was walk and stop every ten feet. When it comes time for someone to pace your tired and beat up ass for 40 miles, you'll be thanking them for the company. Deal with it, and know that signing up to pace could be a crash course in patience. Your pacing duties should not be part of your training. I've seen this scenario play out as well. The pacer was going to do a 30 mile long run anyway, their friend asked them to come pace, and they figured it's the same distance, so why not? Then, they get upset because it wasn't as quality of a workout as they had hoped. Pacing is not your workout, it's not your training run, and it most likely won't be up to par with the training you had hoped to do. NEVER take on a pacing job, because you see it as a way to kill two birds with one stone. It should always be about helping the runner, and not you. Don't project your goals onto your runner. If your runner's goal is to run 100 miles in 25 hours, but you want them to break 24, stick to their plan, not yours. I'm sure if they realize a sub 24 is in reach, they might be willing to go for it, but respect the game plan that is already in place.
7a) Though pacing is not about the pacer, remember to take care of yourself too. Some pacers can get so unselfishly focused on their runner, they forget to take care of their own needs. When Geoff Roes won Western States in 2010, his pacer, elite runner Dave Mackey, had to drop out for a while because he did not watch out for himself. You need to be healthy enough to stay with your runner and think with enough clarity for the both of you.
8) Get your hands dirty- Fact. Runners will be very dirty and gross, especially given the distance and terrain they must cover. You need to be okay with touching your runner's sweaty dirty packs, slimy gel covered water bottles, and salt drenched clothing. The idea of blood, sweat, and tears is often just a cliché, but in ultras you will likely deal with all of it. While you are not expected to do surgery, though you may have to pop big juicy blisters, you can't be fussy about dealing with the grime that comes from another person's hard effort. When you are in their position, you won't want your pacer being afraid to touch you. You will also deal with your runner's other bodily functions. Some people will have bad body odor, they will fart in front of you, pee on themselves, shoot snot rockets, and many other things you tend to not see in every day life. Be cool about it. Whatever keeps them comfortable is what is important. Sometimes runners just need the physical reassurance of a pat on the back, a hand shake, or a big hug. They deserve better than you wanting to stay clean. Remember point number 7. It's not about you.
9) Celebrate your runner- It may be their 800th race, or first ever. Celebrate their journey and the fact you had such an integral part in it. Celebrate if your runner achieves all their goals and more, and if not, celebrate them overcoming their obstacles to still finish. Succeed, struggle, or fail, embrace the time with your runner as they experience a special part of life. When the day comes for you to be paced, celebrate the fact that somebody is willing to join you on your journey as well.