Going the Distance: What It Takes to Be A Great Pacer
So someone you know has decided to run a 100 miler (or more!), and wants you to be one of their pacers. Congratulations! This is the ultra running equivalent of being a bridesmaid. The role of pacer bears a lot of responsibility, but also offers a rewarding experience without running an ultra yourself.
What Is A Pacer?
A pacer is a part of an ultra runner’s crew. Think of this as their support staff. These are the people who are there to cheer on one person, and offer them whatever assistance they may need. The crew members often drive a car, meeting the runner at specified waypoints along the course. A runner’s crew will have everything from fresh socks to chapstick to their favorite kind of cookie, all available for the runner to take.
What differentiates a pacer from the rest of the crew is that, after at a certain point in the race (often the halfway point), they are able to run with the person racing. The goal of this is to provide moral support and motivation for the runner to continue on the journey. Pacers often keep actual pace, helping the runner to keep moving by maintaining a certain speed. Relentless forward progress is the game of ultra running, and pacers are the secret to that.
Your runner knows the course by heart. They’ve studied the locations of aid stations, know all of the cut off times, and where the toilets are. You should, too. Your job as a pacer is to enable your runner to simply run without thinking. You should know their nutrition and hydration plan, as well as their goal pace and run/walk intervals. They shouldn’t have to think about anything other that running.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with the rules of the race. Many are specific about when and where pacers can join their runners. They often have guidelines about how much a pacer can carry for the runner, if anything, also known as muling. They may also have rules about what needs to be done at an aid station (wristbands, check in with a volunteer, etc), and whether or not you can take food from the stations. The last thing you want is for your runner to be disqualified over your mistake, so know the rules beforehand.
Your runner has spent months, or even years preparing for this race. As a pacer, you should be equally prepared. Treat your pacing duty as a race in itself. If you will be pacing for 25 miles, you should be strong and fit enough to run 25 miles without second thought. A pacer should act as the well-rested, clear-thinking support system. You don’t need to be able to run the entire race, just the distance your runner has asked you to cover. However, you should approach the distance as though you are training for your own race, plus some. Your runner shouldn’t have to take care of you! Bring your own nutrition, blister care, and clothing.
You should also be realistic about your own personal running abilities. You do not want to injure yourself or compromise the runner’s performance just because you did not prepare adequately. If someone asks you to pace them for 30 miles in five weeks, and the furthest you’ve run in the past year is five miles, you are probably not up to the task. Discuss taking a shorter distance, or breaking up your pacing duties with another person. You may also be a strong member of the runner’s crew without actually running.
While You’re Out There
You and your runner will agree upon a time and place for you to start running with them. You should be ready to go as soon as they arrive. Make sure you have ample food and water, and anything that you may need for the next few hours. It’s a good idea to talk strategy before the race, so that once you’re running, you can employ it. Runners often lean on their pacers to provide companionship and support, so offer that in whatever way they prefer. Some runners want to talk and be engaged– ask them questions about their lives, talk to them about TV shows or books that they like. Others want to listen, or just run in silence. Be sure to ask if they prefer to run in front or behind you. A positive attitude is key, no matter how dark things may get…and they will get dark.
Expect the Unexpected
Ultra marathons are unpredictable. Whether it’s altitude, terrain, or weather, the course is not often easy to prepare for. Your runner will have trained to their best ability, but Plan A almost never works out in these races. You need to be unfazed by the obstacle that may arise, and ready to respond. If your runner if vomiting, you should be make sure they drink water after. They hallucinate a bus on the trail to come pick them up, and you need to coax them away from it. When they have blisters, or injuries, you need to be able to make decisions to get them the care they need. Emotional meltdowns are common and you need to be ready to combat that, whether it’s with a singalong or talking mindlessly about your childhood dog to distract them. Your runner may also do otherwise inexplicable things, like carry a banana in their hand for 20+ miles. Ultra running is not for the weak of mind or the humorless.
By Whatever Means Necessary
Much like a wedding, at the end of it all, this is their big day. You may be the support, and you may be the one holding their hair while they vomit, but it’s about getting them across the finish line by whatever means legal. If you’re lucky enough to run them to the end, you probably won’t get to cross the finish yourself. Instead you’ll be directed off to the side, where you can watch them weep and collect their finisher’s prize. You’ll get a hug, some high fives, and the joy of knowing you helped someone achieve their goals. And maybe, if you’re really lucky, they’ll buy your lunch that afternoon.