When it involves churning races, we first and foremost think of ourselves and what we plan for the near future or even the entire year. It’s just the way we do what we do. But on a very few occasions, someone asks you to give up your time to pace them. For me, this is the ultimate sacrifice you can do as a dirt churner. Over the years I have been asked to pace a few times. And just like every race I have run, I have learned from each and every race I have been as a pacer. Have I done it correctly every time? I don’t think so. When your main goal is to get your runner to the finish line, you have to take each person differently. But when it comes down to it, knowing your runner is what will get them to that finish line. This is not about your race anymore. It’s now about helping someone else finish their race or even their lifelong goal.
When asked to pace, the runner is simply doing that, asking you to be their pacer. What they are really saying is “ I’m running a race. Between the start and the finish, I’m going to churn dirt and at some point during that time I’m going to need help. I may become grumpy, puke, become a zombie, you may need to get me toilet paper, change my stinky socks and shoes, perform minor trail surgery, tell me stories, and anything else I can throw at you. I can’t think of anyone else I would rather have with me than you. Want to help?” I have always tried to simplify dirt churning, it shouldn’t be any different pacing. The following is what I have learned while pacing.
Early on: During most races, your churners will see you and their crew before your pacing duty even starts. Even though your pacing duties won’t start for miles later in the race, your work starts now. Your smiling face and encouragement is still a huge factor early. Also, start noticing how your runner is doing. Noticing any problems early will help you and them when your pacing duties begin.
Pacing start: Your runner is probably tired when they get to you. As much as you want to fire them up, don’t throw the Energizer Bunny down their throat! (I have done it and I regret it to this day.) Knowing that you will be with them for the next miles is already a boost. When you start churning with them, start figuring out what is and is not working. Communication between you and your runner is huge. Uphills or downhills not going well? Food issues? Stomach issues? Tired? Possible injuries? From that info, your task is set. If there is an issue, it is now your job to deal with it, don’t compound it with any other issues, and let the person you are pacing do one thing, churn dirt. As important as communication is, the opposite could be worse. When your runner doesn’t communicate to you what is going on or doesn’t want to talk at all, it sometimes means things are not going well. It’s called “Going Dark.” If this happens, you just became another person on the trail and not a pacer. Like I said, communication is key.
Night pacing: The hardest time to pace and the time you realize why they asked you in the first place. If your runner started in the wee hours of the morning and have made it to darkness, that means they have run a lot of miles on the trail to reach you during that time. Are they tired? Yes. Are they happy to see you? Yes. Do they probably want to stop? Yes. They are not the person who happily asked you to help them months before the race. They are now the tired, grumpy, ready to quit, I couldn’t eat another gummi bear, “actual” person that asked you to pace them months ago. They just didn’t know it then! They just want to get to the finish line and end the suffering. Things just got real as a pacer. At night, the runner’s vision goes from daylight to a small headlamp beam. Sleepy vision can become a problem. Simple things will help tremendously. I try to help them by telling them to just stay focused on my feet. I find the easiest line for them to follow on the trail and warn them of any issues coming up in the trail. The last thing a tired runner’s body and mind don’t want to do is make quick decisions. It’s also usually the time that caloric intake usually drops. Your runner has probably been eating the same thing all day. They are to the point where nothing looks appetizing. As much as they don’t want to eat, you have to sometimes force them to get some calories down. Even if it’s just a bit of this or that from the aid station.
Night pacing is tough, but it is the most rewarding. Most of the time, if you can get them through the night, you can get them to the finish line.
As important as I think pacing and getting my churner to the finish line is, there is one thing I will not do as their pacer, and that is pace my runner to a serious injury. Aches and pains are a part of every race, major injuries shouldn’t be. If they have a certain finish time, great. Pacing them to their time goal is another part of the duties. But I think giving up a certain time goal is worth not causing an injury that could possibly keep them off the trails for a couple of months or longer. That said, I don’t just stop being their pacer at that point. I just have them think seriously about the possible results if they keep pushing it. As a pacer, late in the race you sometimes have to make decisions for your runner. This is a decision I believe the runner has to make.
For all of us, churning dirt in races and getting to the finish line is a very satisfying feeling. But sometimes having the opportunity to pace and see someone else cross that finish line is another level of satisfaction. If you get the chance to pace, take it!