Previously in Part 1, Pacer – Why You Should Use One, Why You Should Be One I discussed why ultra runners should utilize pacers and encouraged all runners to be pacers for others. In this post I’ll outline in more detail a pacers responsibilities during a race.
The Pacer – i.e. Race manager, Drill Sergeant, Friend
A pacer should be prepared to wear many hats during a race, here’s a list of things a pacer should be prepared to do during a race.
- Stay Positive. This is at the top of the list because when all else fails you have to be able to find a reason to smile.
- Know the runners goals and race plan. Then use those goals and race plan to make decisions as the race progresses. You should remind your runner of their goal when they start to stray away from it and the plan required to meet that goal.
- Keep your runner on plan. Yes, there is more to it than just knowing the plan and goal, it’s your job as a pacer to stick to that plan. It’s rare for an ultra distance race to unfold as planned but it’s important to adjust the current circumstances to get back as close as possible to the plan. As the pacer you need to think with your head and make rational decisions, not emotional decisions with your heart.
- The pacer should not set the pace. WHAT? As a pacer your job is to keep the runner on their pace, not set a pace you think they should be running. There are exceptions to this rule, mostly late in a race, but running too fast too soon is a sure way for your runner to DNF. As part of the race plan you should know ahead of time if your runner prefers you run in front of them or behind them (on single track or beside them on fire roads). I like to do both…just not at the same time of course. It’s good to mix it up, especially if as the pacer you’ve been leading the way. It will give you a chance to watch your runner and look for little signs to let you know how they’re feeling.
- Monitor hydration and nutrition. Always know what your runner is eating/drinking and how much. You can ask but don’t always expect an honest answer. If you’re running in front listen for the suck on their handheld bottle or hydration vest mouthpiece. For nutrition remind your runner when it’s time to take in calories and watch that they do. One trick I’ve used in the past is to be the “garbage man”. Always have your runner give you the trash from gels and other food so they don’t have to carry it. This lets you know exactly what they’ve consumed on the trail.
- Keep the conversation flowing. As a pacer plan to keep the runners mind busy thinking about things not related to the race itself or the pain. Keep your comments and conversations positive and happy. I often times think the runner would rather I just shut up but silence is deadly, it allows the runner too much time to think about their pain, how much farther they have to go and a plethora of other negative thoughts.
- Aid station supervisor. As the pacer you need to supervise all activity pertaining to your runner at every aid station. Take charge of your runner, don’t just stand back and let aid station volunteers do all the work for your runner, they don’t know what your runner needs as well as you do. I like to take my runners handheld from them when entering an aid station so I know how much was consumed since the last aid station. If they are behind I have them drink more in the aid station before topping off the bottle/vest for the next leg of the race.The same goes for nutrition. Keep an eye on your runner when they get to the aid station and watch what they eat. If it’s enough and the right thing file it away and don’t mention it. If they don’t eat or don’t eat enough ask them what they want, if they don’t want anything pick up what they need and hand it to them.
The last thing I’ll mention about aid stations is they’re just that, places to get aid. They are not rest areas or lounges. Get your runner in and out as fast as possible. The fastest way to add time to your runners race or even miss later cut offs is to dilly dally at an aid station. Think of it this way, on the average 100 mile race there are aid stations every 5-7 miles, that’s roughly 18 aid stations for the race. 18 aid stations times 10 minutes each is 3 hours! Even 5 minutes on average is a long time at the end of the day. So get in and out as quickly as possible.
One trick I’ve used successfully in the past is to take my runners handheld bottle or vest from them and sprint ahead the last 50 feet into an aid station. This allows me to give the aid station volunteers a little head start on my runner but also lets me set the tone with a quick comment or whisper like, “I have to get him out of here a.s.a.p.”. The aid station volunteers don’t know why but they’ll move very fast to help.
- Know the signs of dehydration and falling behind on nutrition. Just because you’ve been watching what your runner eats and drinks doesn’t mean they won’t fall way behind in what they actually need. If you know the signs to look for you can react quickly to adjust the runners plan on the go.
- Triage expert. Ah yes, the hurt runner. But are they really? There are times when a runner will get hurt or have multiple problems at one time. It might be dehydration, bad blisters, injuries, stomach issues or simply fatigue. As the pacer you need to know what the problem is and set a priority on what to deal with first and how aggressive to deal with it.
The best way to figure it out is to ask pointed questions. After 50 or 60 miles a runner is just naturally going to hurt. Moans and other sounds can signal the runner is focused too much on the pain, at that point you have to get them to focus on something more pleasant to take their mind off the pain. In the latter stages of a mountain race my runner would suddenly moan and stop to lean against a tree or sit on a rock. I always said, “Are you sick? Did you injure something? Are you just tired?”. Every response was, “no, no, yes…just tired”. And I said, “Good, let’s go”.
- Think ahead. As a runner we know we should be “in the moment”. We’ve been told over and over not to think about what’s coming up, don’t calculate how much farther you have to go and how long it will take. But as a pacer you should because it’s going to help you make rational decisions. At Mogollon Monster 100 my runner came in to mile 50, where I would start pacing, complaining of blisters. Immediately we took steps to minimize the damage (he’d already stopped on the trail to tape them earlier in the race too). Another time with more than 30 miles to the finish and 5 miles to the next aid station he felt something in his shoe. His inclination at that point was to keep going, as his pacer my job was to stop him immediately and have him get it out. It’s ok to run with a rock or stick in your shoe for a shorter race, in an ultra marathon unless you’re close to the finish line it will do nothing but create a bigger problem later on.
- Know the course. There are two really good reasons for knowing the course, #1 it helps you think ahead as previously mentioned. You’ll know how far to the next aid station not only in miles but in time and difficulty. You can also help set your runners expectations and precoach them on upcoming stretches of trail. Is there a large hill coming up that you will be walking, is there a long runnable stretch soon to make up for extra walking now? All of it is easier if you know the course. The #2, and probably most important, reason to know the course is so you don’t get lost. No matter how well the course is marked unless I know a trail inevitably there comes a time when I realize I haven’t been paying attention to markers and don’t see one from where I’m at. If you know the course and major turns you have a better chance to navigating it successfully, especially late at night.
- “Download” your information to the next pacer. In a lot of 100+ mile races it’s an advantage to have more than one pacer (not at the same time though, that’s never legal). When a new pacer takes over it’s important to “download” what’s been happening and what you are most concerned with to the next pacer. Tell the next pacer what’s happening with hydration and nutrition, if there are any blister or medial problems you’re concerned with. Tell them about your runner’s attitude and current ability to run. Basically anything that’s important that will make the transition smoother.When handing my runner off to the next pacer I also like to spend the last mile or two bringing the runner up to speed on what to watch out for and reassure them it’s ok for a new pacer to take over.
- Other runners. As a pacer you are dedicated to the safety and well being of your runner. You’re also dedicated to successfully helping them reach their goal. But what about other runners? One of the great things about trail running and ultra running especially is the people involved. When it comes to runners, unless you’re an elite runner at the very front of the pack, it’s not runner against runner but runner against themselves and against the course. So I see nothing wrong with helping other runners, if they have a pacer or not. Of course your runner always comes first and is most important to you, and no you don’t have to monitor other runners around you, but if they need help by all means help them. At the 2012 Zane Grey 50 Mile Endurance Run we endured record heat and with long stretches of the course between miles 17-33 having no shade it was brutal. After picking up my pacer at mile 33 we came across a runner I had been playing leap frog with all day, she was sitting on a log and doing a bad job of it. When we stopped to ask if she was ok she looked pale and ready to fall over at any moment, she was dizzy and overheated. After a few minutes she thought she was ready to go and started out with us only to fall back within the first 100 yards. Being less than 3 miles from the next aid station and only 8 miles from the finish I asked my pacer to stay with her and I would send someone back to take over so he could catch up with me later (he’s a much faster runner than I am and was fresh, I had 43+ hot miles under my belt). As I was leaving the next aid station I glanced up and saw them coming down the trail toward us and my pacer quickly rejoined me. At the end of the day not only did I earn my finishers jacket but a little more than an hour later so did the lady my pacer helped.Helping other runners like that is not a pacers direct responsibility, but it is our responsibility as human beings to help other people that need our help. It’s times like that, that make me proud to be part of the ultra running community.
- Take care of yourself. If you’re pacing a 10 mile stretch it’s no big deal, but as pacers we often find ourselves committed to pacing 25, 35, even 50+ miles for our runners. Just because they are running 100 miles or more doesn’t make it easy for a pacer to run 50 miles. While you’re monitoring your runners needs pay attention to your own hydration and nutritional needs as well.
After enduring that long list of pacer duties my comments for the runner are very short. You’ve now been running for 50, 60, even 80 miles and guess what? You’re tired…both physically and mentally. Here’s a true story I’m sure you can relate too. At ultra races all runners get checked in and out of aid stations, this is done to keep track of where runners are on the course and if someone comes up missing on the trail it’s easier to pin point their location between aid stations. Typically there are volunteers that write your number down as you enter the aid station along with the time you checked in, when you leave they write down the time out next to it. In a 50 mile race last year it was hot and I was tired, I remember at the first few aid stations they asked “what’s your number?” and I yelled out my bib number without thinking. Later in the race I entered an aid station and they yelled “what’s your number?” and I paused for a few blank moments before it registered and then looked down to read my bib number out loud to them. At the last aid station they yelled “what’s your number?” and my response was, “how am I supposed to know what place I’m in?”. The point is don’t try to think late in a race, let your pacer do it for you.
- Have a race plan. To help your pacer make the right decisions relay your race plan and goals to them ahead of times. If you read the list above you’ll know that almost everything a pacer does is geared around that race plan and goals. It does your pacer absolutely no good for you to have a detailed plan stored away in your head and not tell them what it is so they can refer to it when you get to the point you don’t know what your number is!
If you live near or run with your pacer frequently it’s easy to give them your plan. If you’re traveling to a race in another locale and your pacer is a local runner you don’t know email them your plan and goals ahead of time. Give them enough time to read through it (you might have nothing more than a few bullet points or a novel) and ask questions.
- Treat your pacer with respect. Tired people are cranky people. But that’s no excuse to not treat your pacer with respect and let them do their job. Keep in mind they are there to help you achieve your goal and are doing their personal best to accomplish that. And you chose to run the race, no one is forcing you. So enjoy your time with your pacer, it will be a lifetime memory for both of you, make it a good one.
- RUN! You might realize it but the race is just as important to the pacer as it is to you the runner. There is a lot of pride for a pacer when he/she brings their runner across the finish line. Let them have their moment by doing everything you can to finish the race.
Being a pacer is not rocket science, but you should be prepared and take the responsibility seriously. From my experience some of my greatest memories and most enjoyable races were from the pacer side and not when I was the runner.
So what are you waiting for? If you’re not running in a local ultra event in your area make an effort to let runners know you’re available to help pace them. It’s a lot of fun!