Monday, August 18, 2008

To Pace and not to Race

Act II, Scene 1: A wide fireroad trail near the coast just north of San Francisco, California.

Enter two runners clad in shorts and long-sleeved shirts, making their way down the trail. It is 11:00pm and both are carrying flashlights. One (John Reynolds) has the number "140" pinned to his shorts with safety pins and is carrying a water bottle. The other (Steve Ansell) is wearing a backpack with hydration bladder that fits like a vest in front. John seems to be struggling a bit going downhill, but not nearly as much as he imagines.

John: I'm starting to have my doubts, Steve. I think I'm really starting to loose my legs here.
Steve: Hmmm...[he makes a motion with his hands as if he is searching the pages of a small book] Nope, nothing in here. I'm afraid that "loss of legs" is not one of the approved reasons for being allowed to drop from a race. So, unless one of your legs literally falls off and I happen to trip over it while running behind you, I am afraid that you are just going to have to continue.
John: OK, I now officially hate you.
Steve: Well, that's fine, perhaps good even. You are allowed to hate me so long as you continue on with the race. In fact, if it helps with your motivation, you should feel free to conjure up as much hatred toward my person as you can muster.
John: Oh. But, you see, I was honestly hoping to not have to start hating you until somewhere along the way through the final loop.
Steve: Ah. Well then. I think I must tell you that it has been my plan all along for you to be filled with feelings of adoration, perhaps "love" even, during that final loop. So, as far as I am concerned you are right on schedule with the "hate" thingy.

The two men continue down trail towards the aid station with John moving just a slight bit more easily.

Narrator: The race would continue, but a new bond had been forged between the two runners. A bond born from the pain of a shared struggle, melted in the fires of mutual suffering and molded by a common goal to complete the distance before the full realization that this torture was ultimately self-inflicted could be allowed to take shape.

Director: [Ahem!] Maybe they're just running away from your ridiculous analogies! Could you dispense with the improvised melodrama and please stick to the script!

Narrator: Fine. Everyone's a critic. Where was I....Oh yes, the race. The race would continue, and John's recovery would begin during the long climb out of the aid station; the pain and stiffness lessened by shared laughter over a funny story about exploding eggs in a microwave. Mile 75 lay just over the next ridge down at the beach. But before we tell the "Tale of the Final Loop" we need to hear the story of how our two intrepid heroes arrived at this location in the first place.

Steve's Monologue
The meeting
I'd never been a pacer before so when Meridith sent me email asking for someone local who was familiar with the trails to pace a friend of hers, it was with a bit of trepidation that I accepted the task. I had intended to sign up for the 50-miler at Headlands and then volunteer my services through the night. However, pacing 50 miles seemed like it might be a smarter option just 2 weeks before my next 100 as it would assure that I would not hurt myself trying to run too fast. Since I don't use pacers or crew myself, I was very unsure about the expectations that John might have. There are many reasons for using a pacer including (but not limited to) safety, fear, staying awake, entertainment, companionship, not wanting to get lost and a desire to be pushed to a maintain a certain pace (i.e. the literal interpretation). From some email exchanges it seemed that what John was mainly looking for was mainly someone to keep him focused and to push him a little to make sure he didn't just fall into a pattern of trudging along when he could go faster.

Since I still wanted to volunteer for the race, I offered my services to Sarah and Wendell for the first part of the day. With my shift starting at 7am, I decided to take Friday off work and get a place in SF for the night. My wife would join me so we could spend a nice night in the city before I disappeared for most of the rest of the weekend. With Friday free, I suggested to John that we meet early in the day to at least get to know each other a little before spending the whole night together out on the trail. I headed up to Sausalito for breakfast with John and his wife Crystal who would be his support crew.

It's funny, I was actually a littler nervous as I was driving to meet them. I wasn't worried about his personality so much as my own. What if he found me obnoxious? Would I ruin his race? Would I talk to much? Would I know how to motivate him? When to speak up? When to offer advice? When to keep quiet and when to encourage? I had to laugh at myself and my schoolgirl-like nerves. In the end the breakfast went fine. John seemed to be a pretty mellow laid-back guy. I definitely talked to much, but didn't seem to scare him off. While I am naturally an introvert, when discussing things that I am passionate about like running, I tend to ramble on a bit. You'd never know if from my writing...

My volunteer assignments would keep me pretty busy throughout the day. This was good as it both let me feel a part of the race from the start as well as keeping me from thinking too much about my pacing duties. It allowed me to be a bit of a spectator which was especially fun since I knew so many people who were running either the 50 or the 100. My first assignment began at 7am at the intersection of Conzelman Rd and the Coastal Trail. My job was basically to wear a bright fluorescent vest, hold a bright fluorescent flag and point people off the road and onto the trail somewhere around mile 3. This was about an easy assignment as they get and I should have brought my camera up there with me as it would have been easy to snap shots as I pointed and gave directions. It was fun seeing the front runners in the 50-miler pushing hard from the start and then see the last folks coming in, taking things out very easy. There was a long gap after the bulk of the group had passed by until I saw two more runners coming down the road. I asked if they were last and was told that "Barbara" was behind them. I was pretty sure I knew who that was. Barbara Elia is pretty much a local icon. You only need to go search her name at either RealEndurance or the Zinsli.Com to see that she has run more miles than just about anyone.

Barb was hurting and not expecting to finish the race since her sciatica was keeping her from really being able to run much. I joined her down the trail and chatted a bit before heading over to the Rodeo Valley aid station where I would work the morning. I arrived just shortly before the first 50 milers came in. They were in the same order as I had seen them up on the road with Oswaldo Lopez leading, Juan Sanchez in second and Victor Ballesteros in third, but seeming to be working a lot less hard than the two in front of him. He had my vote to win even though 2008 Miwok 100K winner Lon Freeman was behind him. I was told Lon was taking it easy. In the women's race, Beth Vitalis was in front with last years second place runner Kelly Ridgway in the same position not far behind. Meridith was holding 3rd again this year and looking very strong at this point. Again I didn't bring out my camera since the runners started coming in as soon as I arrived and there wasn't a very big gap between the front runners and "the pack" at this point.

From Rodeo Valley, I was to head over to Muir Beach where I was scheduled to spend the rest of the day until my runner came through. After cleaning up at Rodeo, I headed over there with Flora where we would join Will Gottardt and Fred Ecks. By the time we arrived, the bulk of the runners had already passed through and headed out towards Pantoll. We would have a long gap after the back-of-the-pack folks headed out as this was mile 17.2 and they wouldn't be back until 40.6. This allowed me to finally get out my camera.

Will G. Chillin' at the aid station waiting for the runners to return.

Fred Ecks keeping things stocked.

Aaron...just being Aaron!

Eventually, the front runners started coming in. I decided to take some photos as the field would be pretty spread at this point. An additional advantage of being fast is you get better service at the aid station due to the volunteer/runner ratio.

Here comes lead runner Oswaldo heading down the road

He did a quick fill-up then headed right out so fast we didn't have time to stop him from pouring sports drink on his head.

Juan Sanchez comes in about 12-13 minutes back. I figure Oswaldo has the race locked with just 9 miles left.

He is equally as efficient getting in and out.

Next, Lon Freeman is spotted.

He is in 3rd since Victor wasn't having a good day and dropped at Pantoll

A little further back and Kevin Rumon, first masters comes in.

Shortly after sending Kevin out, I am informed that I need to head over to the next aid station at Tennessee Valley as a volunteer there is a bit late. Unfortunately, just before leaving I see Oswaldo running down the trail back towards our aid station. He doesn't look happy as he tosses his bottle to the ground and says in his thick Mexican accent, "I don't know the course. I made a wrong turn!" Apparently, after getting up to the ridge he came to the intersections where the 100-milers would return via a shortcut trail. He tried to ask some hikers which way to go, but received some bad information and returned to us down at the beach. This put him back into 6th place as a couple of other runners had just passed through.

I arrived at Tennessee Valley to find "the authority" Stan Jensen in charge of the aid station. His run100s website is one of the first places to check for information on races, results, series, reports, whatever!

Stan runs a tight ship evenly spacing cups and keeping snacks ordered from sweet to savory.

My buddy Craig Slagel was also working this location and would be doing some pacing duty himself as well.

The final volunteer who's name I can't recall (doh!)

The front runners came through and Lon had now taken the lead. Since he was in first, he had apparently decided he might as well make a good show of it so he went on to break the course record in 7:43:24. Behind him were Juan and Kevin followed by my friend Harry Walther who had moved into 4th. Harry and I ran this race as our first 100 just a year ago. He has gotten way to fast for me to run with him anymore.

Kelly Ridgway had taken the lead on the woman's side. No bridesmaid this year!

Beth was holding onto second.

Here comes Meredith still in 3rd place

She had apparently had some trouble earlier, but you'd never no at this point.

Ready to pace
Meridith told me that John was not that far behind her so I decided that I better head over to Rodeo Beach and get myself together. John was definitely on a good pace, perhaps too good if he was really that close to Meridith. One way or another I was gonna have my work cut out for me. I arrived at the finish line just before Meridith came in.

Meridith coming in 3rd with a 4-minute PR.

Looking tired, but satisfied.

Harry had already finished busting out a sub-9 hour race!

The 100-milers were coming in and heading out including PCTR regular Brian Wyatt

I got my pack on and prepared all my gear to run with John. I told him the day before that he should get everything he needs at the start/finish, but don't dally too long. We should plan to head out and walk it across the beach and up the first trail giving plenty of time to get into the flow of the longer half of the race. Olga V was also there getting ready to pace. In fact, her runner (and boyfriend) was good friends with John. There was a more than just a little bit of Texan rivalry going on behind the scenes.

I snap a pic of Olga before we run

She snaps one of me.

Then one together!

Rick Gaston is here too. Pictures for all the pacers!

The Play's the Thing...
John came into the aid station at around 10:20 into the race. A pretty good pace, though perhaps a little too good given that he was himself saying he may have gone a little hard. I wasn't worried as I had a plan at least for this first part. OK, when he had trouble bending over, I will admit that I was a little worried. His wife got him taken care of pretty quickly and we were off. There is really no point running the first part out of the start even though it is flat because you are on the beach crossing the sand in a short time. All that would be accomplished by running would be to waste energy and put lots of sand in your shoes. So, you walk. Walk and complain about the sand. Then you get to the single track heading up from the beach and you walk some more.

John was moving well, staying focused and able to shuffle just fine on the flatter bits. In fact, he was even able to do something akin to a run on the road sections. I encouraged him to keep it easy at this point and think of this as his "recovery" loop. While one of John's stated goals for having a pacer was for me to push him when he needed it, but now was not the time so I tried to keep things relaxed and snapped some pictures as we moved our way up the road.

Perhaps, John did not look at his best during the beginning of this loop, but I knew from my experience last year that the body could actually recover quite a bit on the climbs that were to come.

Its good to capture a photo when a runner is looking low as it helps to remind them of the ups and downs of a long race such as this.

The afternoon was quite beautiful as the fog had cleared and the sun was out, but there was a nice cool crispness to the air. We made it to the point where I had been working in the morning directing runners off the road. We would be heading onto trail and not returning to pavement until the end of this loop.

John heading down the Coastal Trail with Angel Island in the background.

I sent John ahead down the trail so I could continue taking pictures. He hadn't complained so I was going to continue. The next section was mostly uphill for a while, but John was persistent in continuing to run anything that flattened out a bit. In fact, I was very impressed with his pace over the flat or even slightly uphill terrain. He would later have trouble wth his legs on the downhills, but his ability to run the flats at a pace much faster than I would at this point in a race, kept him on a good time. He had rightfully given up on a sub-24 finish and was talking about 26, but I secretly knew even at this point that if he could keep things together he was definitely on target for at least sub-25.

We would soon be headed into the big climb over to the SCA Trail. I grabbed a short downhill opportunity to shoot ahead of John to catch a classic picture of him with the SF skyline in the background.

John looking strong for the ultimate Headlands photo op.

John was starting his first recovery at this point and would move very well along as the sun was setting and we finished off the initial hills.

The sun goes down on one of the last climbs before heading into Rodeo Valley

John continued doing well into the night especially on the flatter sections where he continued running at a good clip. However, as we headed into Muir Beach his legs began to give him more and more trouble on the downhills. I generally went on ahead or stayed further behind him on these sections to let him go at his own pace. He had asked me to push him on this run, but I wasn't willing to push someone to go beyond their comfort zone downhill in the dead of night. So I let him be, but made sure that he tried to run anything that was runnable.

Returning up the Pirates Cove stairs and the relentless hills that follow them, I commented that it was all downhill to the aid station, but this brought no relief to John's face. We headed down the hill in silence just moving along at whatever pace made John comfortable. Heading down the switchbacks he decided to break the silence.

John: I'm starting to have my doubts, Steve. I think I'm really starting to loose my legs here.

Director: Wait. Wait! Wait!! We already did that scene. You were supposed to jump to the Rodeo Beach scene after John finished his monologue.

Writer: Speaking of monologues, what the hell was all that! You were supposed to give a brief review of the pacers perspective and then hand the story over to John. You've stolen the whole show! It's one thing for a director to ruin one of my plays, but one of the characters? And a pacer at that!!!

Director: Hey, don't sully my good name here. I only tell them what to do, I can't force them. Monologue! That was more like a treatise! And, what was with the slide-show in the middle of it? That's it pacer, you're out of the story. He's going to have to run the rest of the race solo.

Writer: Agreed!

Narrator: That's what you get when you let an amateur provide the voice of the story. Leave the narrating to the professionals. I agree, kick him out!

Steve: What are you talking about! You can't write me out of the story. This is my blog. John can tell his side of things when he gets around to writing it on his own blog. Besides, the egg story is coming up and its hilarious. Then there's his miraculous recovery and how much better he felt for the final loop. I have some amazing photos to share of him coming back down to Tennessee Valley at sunrise at the very same spot where he was talking about dropping during the previous loop. And there is the grand finale with the the amazing bit of John running 7 minute miles down the final hill and me unable to keep up with him as he crosses the finish line in under 24:30!

A scruffy looking man with two day's of growth on his beard appears carrying a loudspeaker. He has tanned skin and a lean runner's build but is flanked by two very large muscular men in 70's style sweatsuits wearing gold chains around their necks and large rings on their fingers.

Scruffy Man: [Yelling loudly, but not through the loudspeaker] Alright, that does it. I am putting a stop to this whole operation right her and now!

All: Who are you?

Scruffy Man: Pacer's union.

[Steve Gasps loudly]

John looks at Steve with an expression of surprise. The director, writer and narrator with exasperation.

Steve: But, but...

Scruffy Man:But nothing. Let's see your card.

Steve: know. Drop bags have this pace chart here.

The two muscular men move towards Steve. The narrator, writer and director all back away and descretely make their way out of the scene.

Steve: OK. Ok. I don't have one. Just call off your goons!

Scruffy Man: Just as I thought. A Scab!

John: How could you! You know this was my first 100 and I traveled all the way from Texas. [turning to the Scruffy Man] I didn't know. I swear! He sounded so organized and knowledgeable. He showed me a copy of the Pacer's Manual. He even had references!

Scruffy Man: Don't worry. On a first offense we would never hold the runner to blame. Just go about your way. You know the script. Up and over to Muir. Miraculous recovery. Strong second loop then the fast run down the road to the finish. You still get your finish in 24:28:21.

John: How do you know all that? How could you...

Scruffy Man: Son, it's my job to know. That's why we have a pacer's union. Now, off with you.

John continues up the trail moving well, but without his pacer.

Steve: What about me?

Scruffy Man: We have way's of dealing with you.

Steve: Can I at least show my last couple pictures?

Scruffy Man: Fine. Show the pictures, but then you are off with Vinnie and Nick

The sun was just starting to rise to the east when John and I were headed back down towards Tennessee Valley. This time down rather than talking about his legs we talked about how quickly we planned to get in and out of the aid station. Efficiency was key at this point. I knew that sub-25 was a near lock if we played things right, but I wasn't going to say anything until we hit the final road section.

John looking strong heading down to the final aid station.

This is what a strong runner looks like at mile 95.

Scruffy Man: You done?

Steve: Well, there was the whole alternate ending idea where I actually trip over John's leg that has fallen off and end up chasing him down trail with it in my hand saying "it's just a flesh wound!"

Scruffy Man: Alright funny guy.

Steve: What's going to happen to me?

Scruffy Man: We have ways of dealing with people like you. Nothing horrific, it is your first offense after all...well, that we know of. Just a little something to make sure you remember us.

Vinnie: Now boss?

Nick: Uh?

Scruffy Man: Go ahead boys.


Thump. Thump. Thump-ump-ump

I start awake and gasp. I'm driving. It takes a second to catch my bearings. Steady the wheel. Focus, Steve, focus. I'd drifted to the right out of my lane. Those things they put on the side of the road to keep truckers awake. I guess they work. For some reason because I just paced 50 miles through the night rather than running a full 100, I thought I would be able to drive home without trouble. I had the window rolled down, the radio going, chewing gum. I obviously was failing at keeping myself awake. I've had head jerking, near drift-off moments before, but I think I was actually out this time. It scared me. I took the next exit and pulled into the first parking lot I could find parking under a tree for a bit of shade. Within 10 minutes I fell asleep.

I woke up after about a 1/2 hour feeling much better. I called my wife to let her know that I would be a little later than planned. I thought a bit about the previous night.

It was a good experience, pacing. It presented its own unique challenges always running outside one's comfort zone, never allowing one's own energy level falter, always focusing on another's race. It really did have its own unique feeling of accomplishment. Perhaps I shouldn't look so lightly on the practice of pacing. I can see what a valuable asset they really are in endurance races.

Steve: Why, maybe pacers really do deserve a union of their very own.

[Glances around furtively and then exits stage left with haste]


Sarah said...

I LOVE IT!! Great job on the report - AND on all you did at HH this year! Thanks for everything, Steve!!

Sarah (PCTR)

John Austin Reynolds said...

I contemplated for a while whether to tell you or not that I was having doubts, but ultimately decided that you might help put those concerns to bed. And put to bed you did! As soon as you told me that I did not have an acceptable excuse to consider stopping I never thought about it again - thanks Steve. That was by far the best part of all the excellent pacing duties you performed that night, besides not posting the picture of me peeing on the side of the trail!

angie's pink fuzzy said...

what a fun write-up!

olga said...

To pace, to pace!!! Heck, man, you outdoen me in triple - and this time I mean in length of the report. You know how many times I had to come back to finish reading? Ha! Good job, dude!