UPDATED: I have not only included my view, but also the view of my pacer Jamie, read below mine to get his thoughts on what he learned. Just as valuable.
After running my first 100K at the Oil Creek Trail Runs this past weekend, I have had some time to think back on it and put together a “top ten” if you will.
Know the course
I spent a good time coming up with a race day book for my family/crew/pacers. I broke everything down and used every piece of information that I could find out there to put in it. However when in came to actually being on the course, I was surprised to find climbs..not hills, climbs after every aid station. Mentally this was equivalent to taking a bath and jumping into a mud pit..over and over. The nice thing about OCTR is they organize preview runs, but bc of scheduling I was unable to make it down there and check it out, I regret that I didn’t. I found how useful even the slightest memory of the course was when Jamie and I made the second loop (even though I hate loops), I was able to remember key climbs and information that helped to make the 2nd loop manageable. When I did Sehg early this year, I went on every preview run, if you have the chance for a preview of the course, the information of your feet on the course is invaluable on race day.
I could write a book on this one. Short form, no what you are capable of and where your limit lies, but don’t be afraid to cross that line. There is no better place to put it all out there then on race day. Physically I was unsure of what was going to happen, but I wasn’t prepared for the 10 mile mental battle that I dealt with on top of physical. Prepare yourself mentally for the unexpected, but fuel your self with positive unrelenting desire.
encouragement goes a long way
Leading up to the race I was getting encouragement from so many friends and family, but most of them thought I was just “nuts” for attempting. Race day was so much more different. I was getting updates, text messages and encouragements from my family, from my TrailsRoc brothers and sisters, from my new running family and old friends. I was unprepared for this. Sudden;y they thought what I was doing, was something I COULD do, and that helped push me over the edge to help win my mental battle. But even beyond that, the volunteers and other racers. I heard not ONE negative word on the trail. 15 hours and not one negative word? I can’t go 5 min on Facebook without someone demoralizing someone else. This gave me hope for the human race, and a new love for those involved with ultra running.
Experiment with everything and anything
During my training I made a goal of training with everything I could think of to find what works nutrition wise. I even joked about ordering a pizza for the middle of a 20+ training run. One of my best runs this year came after eating a Five Guys Bacon Cheeseburger and chicken Wings later that night. On race day I found that things that “worked” for me in training, were not working on race day. I finally settled on Ramen noodles and Coke for most of the race. Diet of Champions. Just get your body used to handle anything and take nutrients from unexpected sources.
Training only takes you so far
This comes in 2 forms. I was injured twice during this training cycle and was limited to a bunch of long runs but nothing farther than 28 miles/ 6:45. I would’ve like to have had the experience of something longer, just for confidences sake. My training resembled more of someone training for a XC marathon than an ultra. I had to trust in my training. Trust my trail runs on super tough training grounds, sleepless nights followed by runs on the FLT, and shorter speedwork sessions would get me through. And they did, to a point. Its like having a bank account, you can only draw such much before you run empty. For me that point was around mile 55 I think. I started to run faster, than I though I could. The slow durge became a medium ramble. I felt the XC speed, and the pains of being tired. All things I trained for in one way or another, came to help, but when the account went dry, it was pure instinct that took over. I went into survival mode and just kept going. You can training for everything, but you need to be prepared for what happens when all that is gone.
Weather the storm
Probably the most pivotal thing I learned on the trail that day. Ready to give up and cash in my chips at mile 25. sudden;y my race because a metaphor for my life. We have these bad patches, these dark times that we can just give up and walk away. Something I have seen happen alot around me. OR we can buck up and ride the storm out. Not fight against it, but ride it out. IT will pass, and then the beauty of a new day can be on the other side. Not saying this happens for everyone, but the bigger light this thru on the way I compare it to life became pretty simple and clear. Life isn’t full of thorn-less roses. Sometimes we get cut, we fall, we cry, we lose our ways. Pick yourself up, ride it out and find the way to the better side. I am a big believer that nothing is too much to overcome, nothing is too big that you have to simply giveup.
What you may need is a change
Along with that, it may just be a simple change of scenery or a friendly face. Or as simple as changing clothes. When I got to the 50K point I changed clothes and grabbed my pacer. It felt like I was running a new race on a different day. It took my mind off battling with myself to running with a friend.
Sometimes things just don’t go as planned
We can set goals, but goals are just that. They aren’t always goign to be met, and …I don’t think they should. When I set goals, I make hierarchy of them, so that if I pass one, I have another one to keep my eye on. I can’t go into a race and think I will accomplish everyone, it just becomes too much. Focus on one at a time, just like you would as passing a runner in a race. One by one they fall, until they don’t. Be prepared for that. You’re only going to make it so far, you are only going to pass/beat so many people. Take your training to the edge and past it if you can, but be accepting of the fact that you pushed as far as you could. And sometimes things fail, sometimes injuries, bad nutrition are just going to happen. Learn from it and move on. Just be prepared for the unexpected.
Victory is in the eye of the beholder
When you are setting goals, be realistic, but don’t be afraid to think big. Following the domino effect, one by one they fall. BE HAPPY WITH WHAT YOU ACCOMPLISHED. We can be as runners the hardest on ourselves. I immediately started checking the results to see how I fared and felt a twinge of disappointment in not reaching one of my higher goals. I kept bypassing the fact that I didn’t accomplish a couple goals in between, but I knocked a bunch down. Contentment is a fine balance, especially when you have a desire to be competitive. BUT ultra running is a metaphor in and of itself. Slowly and surely you can become better, you just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Running 100K is not that special
Ok, don’t get me wrong, it IS an accomplishment to be completed, but frankly its not THAT special. I say this only because I was constantly reminded, there are people running 100 miles on the same day, but there are also people running these distances at a high rate of frequency. I treated this as my gold, it took me 30 weeks of on again off again sub par injury and I made it thru. Now here is where I draw the line, running a 100K isn’t special, but running it fast and trying to be competitive can be. There was a huge 32 hour time cutoff to finish this. So theoretically I could have walked the whole way and get my finish and buckle. Still an accomplishment, however I’m not content with just finishing something. I’m content with knowing I pushed my body to go as hard as fast as I could, for as long as I could. I treated this no differently than I did my recent 5K XC PR or my PR Half Marathon. I didn’t throw down the 10min avg pace that the winner did, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The biggest factor I’ve found in finishing 100K or an ultra for that matter, is desire. I was told by several people that they could not do what I did. I cry BS! I look at 5 runners I know who put harder work, crazy miles and a love for running. Physically they could do it. The mastery of running this far is to have the desire and motivation to keep going. That is not something you can train another person to do, it has to come from within. The body is capable of remarkable things, we only need to give it a chance.
— 9 Things I Learned as a First Time Pacer —
The following was written by my pacer Jamie Hobbs, I felt his side of the story was just as cool to share.
This Fall I offered to pace Ron at Oil Creek, where he’d be running his first 100K. It would be his first ultra-marathon (mine too, as it turned out) and my first attempt at pacing. The idea of pacing wasn’t foreign to me. My father ran a number of 50 milers when I as a kid, and he and the pack of running friends that I grew up around had paced one of their own at Western States and Angeles Crest. So, I’d heard plenty of ultra stories. Until a year or so ago, I viewed their exploits as an admirable oddity – something my father and his crazy friends did, not something I had any need to do. But after a year of focusing on trail running and testing my endurance in two trail marathons, I was growing more and more enthusiastic about running and I was starting to feel the itch to push myself further.
I didn’t know Ron all that well. We had chatted at a handful of races and social trail runs, not much more. But as another recent convert to trails and long distances, I saw my same enthusiasm in him. He was about to attempt something that had been simmering about in my own mind as a potential goal for next year. Having let the idea of running an ultra percolate without committing, I knew what a leap of faith he had taken, and I had a good sense of the work he had already put in to get ready. Pacing seemed like the perfect opportunity to get a taste of what an ultra involves, to learn a few lessons before I toed up to the line, and to pay it forward, helping out a guy who was in a position I could see myself very soon.
It turned out to be a better experience than I had anticipated. In roughly temporal order – but more or less reverse order of importance — here are nine things I took away:
A pacer should be prepared not to run
As I drove to Oil Creek, Ron was running the first 50K loop, and I snuck a peak or two at his splits online. He’d come into Aid Station 1 came up at 1 hour and 16 minutes. “Too strong?” I wondered. But it wasn’t until a couple hours later, that I started to worry. Still no update on the second 6.8 mile section. “Where was he?” A lot of things can go wrong on a trail run. There are countless ways to go off the track and wind up a DNF. I knew that going in, but it was only at this point that it sunk in. With one bad step, Ron’s day could be over before I even got there. When I arrived and met Ron’s family, I learned that Ron had made it safely through Aid Station 2 with a similarly strong split. But on my way there, I reminded myself that a leaf-peeping drive through western NY and PA wasn’t a bad way to spend a beautiful Fall day and that if the worst should happen, my own disappointment would be insignificant compared to Ron’s.
A pacer should be prepared to run (more than expected)
Waiting at race central, Ron’s wife, Elyse, relayed a message from Ron indicating that he was struggling on the longer, back half of the loop. I began to plot out potential pep talks—picture the coach from the early Rocky movies. But that’s not really my style, and besides, I didn’t know him well enough to know how he’d respond to a stern talking to.
The plan was for me to run the last 17 miles with him, the same section he was struggling through now on his second loop, but we had also previously discussed the possibility of me running the whole second loop (50K) with him. I had decided that committing to a full 50K wasn’t the brightest idea in the world. I had never run anything further than 26.2 miles and that had been hard enough. As a pacer, you need to be physically strong enough not to hold your runner back, and mentally together enough to be the brains for the both of you. So, pacing is not the best time to push your own limits.
But I wanted to run, not to go home without ever setting foot on the trail. And I had the sense that if Ron was feeling really bad in the first loop, he’d be questioning whether he could make it through a whole other loop. I knew he could, but that he might need some support to get back to a better place mentally. If now was the time he needed a pacer, now was the time I should jump in. So, I sent Ron a text telling him I’d get ready to join him from the halfway point if he wanted. I was pretty sure I could get through the 50K, particularly at 100K pace, and if I was wrong, I could at least get him through a dark patch to a point where he’d have the strength to take the rest on his own.
The ups and downs of ultra-marathons are real
I’d heard it said that a runner can expect to go through some dark patches in an ultra, but also expect to come through them and feel great on the other side. But it’s always puzzled me that you could feel awful at mile 20 and great at mile 35. Shouldn’t you just get more tired and more sore as you go? Well, we started off on the second loop with Ron too unsure of himself to commit to anything more than going water stop to water stop to see what he could do. I was betting that Ron would pull out of it and get stronger. If he didn’t, the sub-8 hour loop we needed to do to make Ron’s goal time would be out of reach. Sure enough, before long, we were running at a good pace, and Ron said he felt like he did at the starting line. He did not look or sound like the runner who struggled into the halfway point complaining of stomach and leg cramps. I don’t understand it, but I’ve seen it. The ups and downs are real
Pacing involves more details than my brain can handle
A good pacer should know the course, know the distances from water stop to water stop, and remember to stay on top of the racer’s food and fluid intake. The racer is exhausted, and can’t be counted on to stick to a program. The trouble is, if you’re running 50K yourself, you’ve also got to be staying on top of your own well being too. Within an hour of hitting the trail, I had forgotten the distances between the Aid Stations and the water stops and couldn’t tell Ron how long we’d have to go before we’d hit another. I was useless in that regard. As for the food, fluids, and electrolytes, we eventually settled into a bit of a pattern, which made it easier to remember when to make sure Ron had taken some water or had an S-cap, but my memory wasn’t always reliable. By the end, Ron had ran out of water with a few miles to go – I’d stayed on top of him about drinking, but not about refilling. Next time, I’d bring a course cheat sheet, establish the simplest pattern possible for fueling, and have something of a checklist for aid stations.
There’s a lot of time to be saved at aid stations
Unless your runner has extra crew at an aid station, a lot of aid station work falls to the pacer. As a pacer, you need to make sure that both of you get everything you need and get out as fast as possible. It’s easy to lose a lot of time amidst the comfort of an aid station, particularly on a chilly day, deep into the race. At AS1 I did my best to make sure we both got what we needed as quickly as possible, and at AS2 Elyse was there to help. But it wasn’t until our last real aid station, AS3, with time getting tight, that we hit upon a real time saver: we didn’t need to leave the aid station at the same time. When we pulled into AS3, I focused on making sure Ron got what he needed and got back out on the trail as soon as possible. Then, with him making forward progress, I took the time I needed to adjust my shoes and pack; I had a coke and a cup of noodles; and then I headed out. My legs were getting heavy, but with an extra 31 miles on Ron’s, it was a good bet that I could catch up, and it got us out of AS3 in good time.
Your runner can surprise you
In the second half of the loop, the 15 hour goal that Ron (and the good folks at Western States) had set was looming over us. When we set out from AS2, it looked possible, but tight, by no means a cinch. We did a rough calculation of the pace we needed to hit, but between AS2 and AS3 it looked like we were falling behind. We got Ron through AS3 quickly, and after I caught up, Ron asked me to try to get a message through to Elyse. He’d keep running, and I’d tell her that we were going to be right around 15 hours and that she should be ready at the finish with Ron’s daughters.
My phone stop was not quick. It took a while to find my phone and longer to find enough service to push a text message through. But I figured that at a comfortable pace, I’d catch Ron on a walking break before too long. I don’t know how many minutes I ran without finding him. I picked up the pace and I began to pass people, left and right. Each new headlamp I saw up ahead had to be Ron, until I caught it, and it wasn’t Ron. I began to wonder if I had somehow missed him. Was he off the trail for a bathroom break or had he managed a tumble down the sometimes steep slope off the side of the trail? Eventually, a group I passed confirmed that they’d seen him go blazing by.
Ron was really dropping the hammer in the final 9 mile stretch. With a mix of awe and disbelief, I powered on. He had struggled through this same leg on his first loop and doubted his ability to go on. He had been pushing through aches and pains almost the whole time I had been running with him. With an additional 31 miles on his legs, with the dark fully set in and a drizzle beginning, how was he tearing up this same section of trail? Where had this guy come from?
Being a pacer can be every bit as satisfying as finishing your own race
I eventually did catch Ron, and we kept up a good pace for the remainder of the trail section. But I couldn’t tell whether this pace had brought the 15-hour goal within reach. My watch had died, and anyway, GPS watches aren’t perfect on trails. Over the course of so many miles the GPS could easily be off by a mile or more, and the difference between 3 miles or 4 miles left to go could easily have been the difference between finishing in time or not. So all we could do was keep pushing. We saw a sign at some point, but we still felt like time was running out. I didn’t know that we could make it until we found the end of the trail. From that point, we had a flat 2.2 miles to the finish and almost a half an hour left to do it in. We were out of the woods (literally), with some time to spare. After a short walk, I shared the last of my water with Ron, and we were off at a good pace. After so many miles on dark technical trails, it felt great to open up my stride and run alongside Ron. Finally realizing that we would make it, a feeling of elation came over me, as strong as, if not stronger than, any I’ve felt in my own races.
Finishing a big race usually leaves a lot of runners conflicted. It’s easy to be disappointed if you don’t make or exceed your goals, and in any case, it can be anti-climactic. So, many months of training, now what? Perhaps, because this wasn’t my race, I didn’t have reason for those mixed emotions. I could just enjoy a finish, and at my longest distance yet, not an insignificant one.
But that wasn’t all of it. More important was the feeling that I had played some role in helping Ron go from staring at disappointment at the halfway point to charging toward accomplishment at the finish. I’d been running with him for almost 8 hours, cheering him on the whole way, knowing everything he’d put into the effort. After pushing so far and so hard, how could it not feel good to see him running in comfortably under his goal? If you think that seeing your team win the Series or the Super Bowl is moving, try pacing a runner to a successful ultra finish.
Ultras take heart
Whatever credit I might want to take for helping, this was Ron’s finish alone. And I’m convinced that its most essential element was Ron’s heart and willpower. All the strength, training, and support in the world aren’t going to make you get out there and finish. It was Ron, and Ron alone who decided to leave race central to see what he had left in the second loop, and it was Ron alone who dug deep and found some hidden reserves to make a big push down the final 9 miles. It was a singular display of grit and determination. Yet part of me suspects that something like it was out there in each and every one of those runners we saw out there in the dark. After being out there, I can’t imagine that anyone can run 50, 62, 100 miles without an exceptional fire inside.
Pacing is inspiring
If I haven’t explained this one yet, I’ve utterly failed to convey the experience. All I’ll add is that within a week of my return from Oil Creek, I’d made the commitment and signed up to run the Bear Mountain 50 miler this coming Spring. I can’t wait to start training.