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Friday, March 19, 2010

Ultramarathon Guide for the Lazy Runner: Chapter Six- Do you need a pacer?

A pacer is another runner that runs with you during a race. In the ultramarathon world, pacers are not official race entrants. They may or may not run the entire course with their runner. This is often dictated by the rules of the particular race. A pacer's main duty is to get you to the finish line. If you are running for performance, they will help assure you stay on pace for your anticipated finish time.

When choosing a race, one consideration should be pacer rules. In my first 100 mile attempt (Burning River in NE Ohio), I could use a pacer after about mile 60. This turned out to be problematic as I had already crashed and was burning badly. I doubt a pacer could have saved that performance, but there were some dark times wandering around in the cold, dark Ohio Metro Parks.

In my second 100 mile attempt, I could use pacers after 1pm of the first day of the race. This equated to about mile 33 or so. This made a HUGE difference. My pacers were able to relay information to my crew. They were able to keep me motivated. As the night closed around us, my pacers literally kept me on pace. And entertained... more on that later.

Pacer duties vary based on runner needs. In my second 100 mile attempt, I was very lucky. None of my pacers had experience actually pacing. However, three of the four were experienced trail runners that had run in the dark. One was an avid reader of all things related to pacing. One was an excellent singer. All of those qualities made up for their lack of experience. Here are some common duties for pacers:

• Keep you from quitting

• Keep you on a specific pace

• Monitor your health

• Make sure you are eating and drinking enough

• Keeping you on-course

• Tolerate runner's mood swings

• Interpret runner's incoherent mumbling late in the race

• Keep track of distances and time between aid stations

• Act as a mule by carrying stuff for runner (if rules allow)

• Keep runner motivated

• Lie to runner if necessary (example- "You look GREAT!")

• Diagnose and fix problems (blisters, getting lost, etc.)

• Determine if a runner is injured or just bitching about routine ultra pains

• Distract your runner from said pain

• Keep runner well ahead of cutoff times

• Keep runner lubed up to prevent chafing

• Monitor runner's urination (frequency and color... though I'd rely on self-report for the color)

• Provide extra light at night; carry extra batteries

• Refill water bottles at aid stations

• Be prepared to bitch-slap your runner if they become delusional

• Always try to anticipate your runner's needs before they arise

• Be prepared for a lack of sleep

• Be prepared to meet your own needs so your runner does not have to worry about you

• Make sure your runner's clothing matches weather/temperature

• Take pictures when appropriate

• Be prepared for the terrain you will face

• Know the crew's race plan/strategy

• Be patient with your runner- they will likely be in a less-than-friendly mood

• Be prepared to answer questions for your runner. They may lose the ability to communicate late in a race

My Pacers for Hallucination

I was very fortunate to have an entire team of pacers for my first 100 mile finish. Each pacer had unique qualities that they brought to the table. Each of my four pacers ran a 16.66 mile loop.

Shelly, my wife, ran the first loop. She was not an experienced trail runner and this would be her longest run to date. I had been running for about seven hours, so I was still in good shape physically. Since it was light, I didn't have a lot of issues. This is the point where I was starting to get a little bored. I don't recall everything we talked about, but Shelly knows all of my interests. It was very easy for her to distract me. Admittedly, running behind her served the same purpose. :-)

Mark Robillard was next. We may be distant relatives, but he's my unofficially-adopted brother. Mark is an experienced trail runner and we occasionally train together. His job was to push me after the halfway point. This is where I crashed in my previous 100 mile attempt, so this was a critical stage. Mark was able to coax me into running the vast majority of the loop. If I remember right, nightfall occurred towards the end of Mark's loop.

Michael Helton was next. He's also an experienced trail runner and read everything he could find about pacing and crewing. We were far enough ahead of the cutoff to allow for a good deal of walking. The exact memories of this stage were fuzzy, but he kept me moving at a decent pace (at least it felt like that to me.) This was the stage where thoughts of quitting were constantly creeping into my head. Michael never allowed me to entertain those thoughts.

Stuart Peterson was next. Stuart was also an experienced trail runner. By the time he took over, I was a mess physically. I didn't think I could manage anything more than a slow walk. Somehow Stuart coaxed me into running small sections. He also kept me distracted by telling endless stories intertwined with singing show tunes.

I was very fortunate to have these pacers. What they lacked in specific pacing experience they made up for with a willingness to learn. All four adapted to the conditions and quickly mastered their unique roles. Needless to say, I would love to have any (and all) of them pace me for future races.

For more information on pacing, check out Kevin Sayers' site.  See my 2009 Hallucination 100 Race Report here.


  1. Jason,
    Thanks once again for sharing your experiences!

  2. Ultras are loooooong runs (some being longer than others). Doing them on your own can have its own merits, but running them with someone else can make them much more enjoyable.

    I would never have considered running an ultra until I went out and was part of crew in support of an ultrarunner. There was something magical and fulfilling about the experience for me. The result is that I am training for my own ultra this year.