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The Value of a Pacer in Ultramarathons

Posted by on Oct 10, 2012 | One Comment

A pacer is a runner that runs with you during an ultramarathon.In most cases, pacers are allowed to join you in the later stages of a race. While many shorter ultras allow pacers, they’re most commonly found in 100 milers.

Pacers serve as a guide, motivator, coach, entertainer, and cheerleader. A pacer does so much more than simply set the running pace. A good pacer keeps you on the course. They remind you to eat and drink. They help you survive the lows and ride the highs. When the shit hits the fan and things go south, your pacer is there to problem-solve to get you to the finish line.

I’ve been fortunate to have a string of incredible pacers over the years. At Grindstone this last weekend, Shelly paced me for the last 33 miles. While I didn’t experience a serious low, there were a few times I was discouraged about the slow pace needed to climb the rocky mountain trails. She kept me distracted, reminded me to eat, and monitored my well-being. When we finally hit a runnable section, she encouraged me to run. When we hit the last 10 miles and I was fighting serious sleep deprivation, she took the lead on the trails to guide me through the rock fields.

I’ve had other great pacers, too. I credit my finish at Western States last year to Jeremiah Cataldo and Shelly. Jeremiah somehow managed to push me though 30+ miles in the darkness to put me in a position for a sub-24 hour finish, then Shelly closed the deal over the last eight miles.

Prior to that, I’ve been paced Jesse Scott, Mark Robillard, Michael Helton, and Stuart Peterson… all did a fantastic job of leading me to my first two 100 miler finishes.

What Makes a Good Pacer?

It’s tough to nail down exactly what qualities exemplify a great pacer because all runners will have slightly different needs. A good pacer should be able to adapt their strategies to maximize their runner’s potential. Here are some considerations:

  • Pacing: If the runner has a time goal, the pacer should try to set a pace that will reach said goal. The pacer should also be aware of contingency plans if that time goal is unattainable. Pushing too hard too early will usually result in a serious crash, which may lead the runner to drop from the race (DNF). The pacer has to be conservative, but not too conservative.
  • Position: Does the runner prefer to lead or follow the pacer? Both positions have advantages and disadvantages. A pacer in the lead can look for course markings. A pacer that follows can closely monitor their runner. Since most predatory animals attack from behind, a dedicated pacer that chose to follow could really take one for the team. I usually prefer to lead unless I need to speed up or I’m crossing technical terrain and have trouble seeing the trail (like at night when really tired). Watching the pacer’s foot placement makes it easier to navigate the technical stuff.
  • Problem-prevention: A good pacer will recognize when the runner is about to have a problem. Did the runner suddenly get quiet? Maybe they’re about to bonk (physical and psychological low caused by glycogen depletion). Did their running gait suddenly change? They may be developing a blister or other injury. Are they shivering or sweating profusely? They’re too hot or too cold. Are they suddenly farting up a storm? They’re having gastrointestinal distress. There are a thousand possible issues that can arise, and a good pacer will be able to recognize many of them before they become serious issues. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced ultrarunners (Shelly, Jeremiah, and Jesse) as pacers for the vast majority of my paced races. I regularly run with all three, so they know me well. They can predict problems a little earlier than someone that’s not familiar with my idiosyncrasies.
  • Problem-solving: Okay, so the pacer doesn’t always catch problems before they become problems. If things DO go bad, the pacer is the runner’s first line of defense to right the ship. This gets a little complicated because pacers can’t “mule” (carry any gear for the runner), so the pacer can only work with whatever the runner is carrying. The pacer may have to force the runner to eat, drink, speed up, sit down to rest, sleep briefly along the trail, hold their hair if they’re puking, pop blisters, lube unsavory parts of their body… whatever. It’s important for the pacer to know how to solve any problem that arises. This is why experienced ultrarunners usually make the best pacers. Alternatively, novice pacers should be well-read on the issues facing ultrarunners.
  • Develop thick skin. I like to think I’m a fairly even-keeled ultrarunner… I try not to get too upset with my crew or pacers. However, running for 12+ hours tends to expose some raw nerves (sometimes literally, but that’s another post for another day). A pacer should be ready for crabbiness and whining from their runner… and be ready to respond accordingly.
  • Knowing when to quit. Most new ultrarunners take a “I’m going to finish no matter what” strategy, which works great in theory. In reality, it’s unlikely most people have experienced the cornucopia of shittiness that can occur late in an ultra. I’ve met very few people that seem to have the ability to keep plugging along no matter what (Ryan Hansard and Katie Zopf, I’m talking about you). Everyone else will talk themselves into quitting at some point. A good pacer knows how to keep their runner going. They also know when it’s best to throw in the towel and fight another day.

Learning to Become a Pacer

Learning to pace is pretty straight-forward. Do research and gain experience. The best places to gain research are ultra books like Bryon Powell’s “Relentless Forward Progress” or Kevin Sayers’ “Ultrunr” website. To gain experience, volunteer to work an aid station at the later stages of any ultramarathon. Volunteer to work as a crew member for someone running an ultra. Run an ultra yourself. Pay attention to other runners, pacers, and crew members. Be a sponge and absorb as much as you possibly can.

Your Experiences?

Many of my readers have already served as pacers or run an ultra with a pacer. What advice can you give to prospective pacers? Leave your advice in the comments section!

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1 Comment

  1. Dave
    October 10, 2012

    I have only been a pacer once (20-in-24 in Philly), but that one time was for Serge Arbona, a team USA member at world 24 hour championships. I’m not sure what his crew chief was thinking putting a novice on pacing duty with an elite runner, but he won the event (154 miles!) so I guess it all worked out in the end.

    I didn’t realize ahead of time, but this particular race actually did allow ‘muling’. Had I known this, I would have brought a running backpack for all the bananas, water, seltzer, soup, etc. that his crew had me run with. With no backpack, my arms were so full of crap that I must have looked like a I was fleeing a smash-and-grab at a vending machine.

    The only other advice would be to be clear ahead of time on your runners fluid and nutrition preferences, and to know what is offered on course. Despite carrying so much stuff, I did need to hit the aid stations a few times for Serge. I’d run ahead as we approached the station, but struggled to get what he needed fast enough due to my lack of preparation. The fact he was running sub 9-minute-miles 150+ miles into a race didn’t help my time crunch either.