Pacing Leadville part 1: Novice Notes

First, this is not a recipe post. Just a trip report/list of observations...and a little shout out to Pete, who introduced himself to me as a reader of this blog at the Festival on Main on Friday night. Turns out he was pacing at Leadville last weekend, too. Thanks for stopping by, Pete--made my day! :)

I was going to post last Monday, but the wonderful, sleepless weekend was followed by one stressful, sleepless week, and I was everything. Slurred speech, light-headedness and all. Things are getting back in order again, happily, thanks to the beyond stupendously excellent Dr. Benscheidt and Nelson Veterinary Clinic.  They saved our dog's life after he contracted a nasty bacterial infection that had him scarily close to death's door. There must be a word with the power of THANK YOU a million times over, because that's how I feel.

So, last weekend, Dave and I had the unforgettable opportunity to pace friends at the Leadville 100 trail run, the legendary "Race Across The Sky", and WOW.  I thought the full ironman was hard...Leadville makes it seem like a "soft" option. Talk about a challenge. This is not one to take lightly. The out-and-back one hundred mile route has a low point of 9,200 feet; the high point, Hope Pass, hits 12,600 feet, and you're likely to get there in a storm.  Pacers aren't allowed until after the 50-mile point; not to inflate my sense of self-importance here, but they should be a requirement, not an option, in my opinion.

Dave and I paced two very different athletes who are both just extraordinary, not to mention humble, tenacious, compassionate individuals who are generous in spirit and also fun to be around. Really, just the nicest, most talented guys. How can you not be honored--yet stressed--to be invited to support folks like that? Both of us paced starting at Fish Hatchery, approximately mile 76. Dave paced a 10-mile stretch for Craig, an elite runner shooting for sub 20 (which he achieved, coming in 10th overall in an amazing 19:50!); I paced the final 24 miles for Paul, who was working towards the prestigious Leadman trophy (which he awesomely earned!). Here are my top 10 takeaways gleaned (in a somewhat cloudy state) as pacer:


1. Just do it. If you have any interest whatsoever in taking on this epic race one day, or any 100-miler, and you get the opportunity to pace, jump on it. It will provide an invaluable education and precious experience. Maybe Sunday morning you'll find yourself eager and determined to sign yourself up for the following year; or, you might be equally dogmatic never to let that happen (give it a few days if that's the case, chances are that attitude will soften). Whichever way the chips fall, it's going to be an adventure packed with meaning, insights, and atmosphere. In other words, no way will you regret it. Promise.

2. Read up. From what I can tell, the kind of person who commits to an endeavor like this, while not actually insane, tends to be insanely meticulous, thorough, and detail-oriented. If someone asks you to pace for him/her, chances are  that person will provide you with a packet of carefully prepared, honest, important, and steadfastly relevant  information you just cannot ignore. For example: Paul's pacer packet included timelines, gear, personal preferences, hypothetical scenarios to anticipate, and handy laminated bracelets detailing A and B goal splits, broken down by aid station points, time of day, and cumulative time from the start. Craig provided similar to Dave and crew, only his splits came in the form of cool removable tattoos for pacers' arms.

There's also an incredible wealth of  information in this must-read pacing guide, covering everything from how to approach conversation to detailed course descriptions for each pacing leg.

3. Put some time on your feet in the mountains. While there's no reason to sacrifice your speedwork, it's time at altitude, and the extended effort of getting there, that really prepares you to be the best pacer you can be. By the time pacing is allowed, even the top racers--though ridiculously strong given the context--will most likely be doing a lot of power hiking over actual running. That said, don't catch yourself being casually cavalier. The air is thin, your lungs will burn, and most likely it will be hard nonetheless.

Remember you won't just be providing silent companionship. You'll be serving your racer's every need, and that includes having energy and clarity to provide amiable and motivating conversation (if your racer likes), and carrying a pack. So, while you're in the mountains, don't be shy when loading up that Camelback. Once gear and food were sorted, between Paul's and my own, I felt like I was carrying a decently hefty child on my back.

4. Invest in some good gear.  This includes a pack you're comfortable with, reliable but lightweight and compact-when-packed clothing for a range of temperatures, and a powerful handheld flashlight in addition to a headlamp. The latter was a lifesaver. I'm not all that confident when it comes to running in the dark, but Paul let me borrow a small but strong, light flashlight with a wrist loop. It was brilliant. Robin and Paul also had collapsible Platypus bladders with water bottle tops I could carry which were perfect for quickly refilling Paul's hand-held bottle when needed.

5. Take care of yourself, too. You'll come across this advice time and again. Heed it. I tell my students on a regular basis of their supplies, "if you don't care enough to take care of your things, no one will". Same goes for your self at Leadville, although you will be looked after to a point.  It's imperative that you are in a healthy state if you're going to successfully do your job. Only, it's not about you. No matter how often or sternly you remind yourself to hydrate, fuel, and take care of your needs, you will forget to check in with your body. Something about the electricity of the moment and event at large will bring you out of yourself. In a way it feels something like an out-of-body experience, and is weirdly beautiful. But with that comes a certain detachment. At some point you will forget that you're fatiguing too, as well as steadily freezing, dehydrating, and draining your reserves. Don't let the self-awareness come too late.

6. Plan out what your wait time might look like. When race day arrives, you'll want to be involved from start to finish. From the buzzing pre-dawn kickoff to the bustling hum of Twin Lakes later on, and all throughout the day. But the sun is strong, the air is dry, and the risk of thunderstorms is always present. You can feel your surface layer of skin burning off you as you stand and cheer, and depending on how long your leg is, there's a limit to the time you should put on your feet prior to it. Map out a few options for how you spend your day, taking into account transportation, food, and catching some extra Zs.

Dave, Brendan (who paced Paul from Winfield to Fish Hatchery) and I all woke up at 3:30 to attend the start. We went back to the hotel for an hour or so nap afterward, got up for breakfast, and then headed to Twin Lakes to cheer. By mid-day, Dave and I went back to Leadville for some lunch and managed to get another hour or two of rest before going to Fish Hatchery. We arrived at that aid station, which is a really restful and lovely place, before any of the racers had been through, so we got to see all the leaders make their way there.

Dave set off with Craig, who was running strong in 10th, before 7pm, while it was still light out. I had over four hours to go before starting off with Paul, and at first I felt lonely and a little lost. Luckily, Robin had advised me to bring a sleeping bag, which I did. I sat in the car, ate pasta I'd prepared at home before hand, and stretched out over the back seat, relaxing and dozing off and on in a state that was kind of surreal but relaxed.

7. Communicate with fellow pacers and support teammates. At aid stations and your handoff, compare notes. Find out what's been going on, what's working, what's hurting, and all the ebbs and flows you can. It can make all the difference for your racer, and therefore yourself. Somehow you'll feel more responsibility for their success, no matter how small your segment with them, than you'll shoulder in a great many of your own races.

8. Be yourself, and  go with the flow. Just in case, I stockpiled a couple of inspirational stories, tales of the magnitude of the human spirit. On the other end of the spectrum, I tucked away a couple of good poop stories. Tales from both categories were dredged up along the way. That said, I didn't need to pre-think them. Something about being out there, in the black mountains under a shield of clear, bright stars, seems to open up these cerebral pathways to the whole of the universe in a way you can't expect. I'm not exaggerating. I talked Paul's ears off up Powerline. I couldn't stop talking. I would have made myself go mum if he had wanted quiet, but in the end we were both surprised how quickly we made it up the steep slope, as diverted as we were by conversation. Of course, there were definitely periods of silence in the six and a half or so hours we were out there, especially when frigid, but those were natural, too. Be attentive to your racer, and the talk--or sense not to--will work itself out.

9. Love your crew. Pacing means you'll be in the unique position of being both part of the support crew and supported by it. Robin (Paul's wife) and Jen (Craig's wife) had support plans down to a science. They were as sleep-deprived, or more so, as their racing counterparts, but they didn't show it. They were amazing. They had every imaginable aid on hand, which they tidily packed, hauled, unloaded, and re-packed throughout the day. They were ever on the ready to re-apply sunscreen, top up water, grab food, aspirin, Tums...foremost for the racer, but also for pacers running through aid stations. Talk about the unsung heros. No matter how tough your pacing stretch is, you can bet the crew is working harder than you.

10. Enjoy every second. Don't stress. As long as you take care of #s 1-3, you really should be fine. Your racer wouldn't have picked you if you weren't a good fit. I worried so much over this exciting opportunity, I had just as many well wishes on my Facebook wall as the racers. So awesome (THANK YOU, dear Facebook friends!!!), but admittedly perhaps a little embarrassing, indicating just what a little stressball I'd been for yonks. I was just so darn worried I'd let Paul down.

Likely, my subconscious was purposefully magnifying things so that the reality would be a relief. Needless to say, the actual experience was so indescribably better than I'd feared, and more than met my best expectations. I really was excited about the whole thing, at the end of the day. But the stress during the buildup was really mostly pointless. Some butterflies are good, and a certain seriousness is necessary, but stress? It's a killer. You know that.

It's not your race, but then again it is. In fact, it might end up feeling more meaningful to selflessly help someone else achieve such a grand goal. The memories will last a lifetime.