Monday, August 10, 2009

Pacing and Chasing

The week after Skyline Beat, Harry and I got together for dinner. This is where Beat put the hammer down in his efforts to recruit us to join him at the Plain 100 this year. Despite my totally slacker month of July, I was easy to convince. Plain's ethic of self-reliance has always attracted me. Harry was a bit harder sell as he was still beating himself up over his DNF at States. By the end of the meal, we were all in. I did have one condition. I wanted Beat to let me pace him for the last 50 miles of Headlands the following weekend. I wanted to get a 50-miler in before I signed up for another 100. Since Harry was already pacing someone at the same race, we would all be out there on the course together.

Truth is, I had a twinge of guilt about being a pacer for someone who really didn't need one. It was almost as if I'd be sneaking into the race for free. Not only would I get to run the loop course once in each direction (the full race repeats each twice), I could sleep in Saturday, get some weekend errands done and run all through the night (which I love). To assuage my conscience I decided I would not partake of the aid stations. Harry and I had discussed how carrying our own food for the 50 miles would be good training for Plain where we would have to carry our own supplies on loops of 55 and 45 miles.

Saturday afternoon and I'm tired of waiting around so I call Harry to see if he wants to carpool to the race. After a little bad decision making, a lot of traffic and some more time spent waiting for an accident, we finally made it to the race. We missed the 50-mile race leaders coming in, but would still have plenty of time to wait for our mid-pack 100-mile runners. Or so we thought.

There was Beat standing around at the start/finish area. Only one possible scenario would have him there at that time in the race. His off-kilter walk and immediate attempt at explanation confirmed that he had dropped from the race. His knee had been giving him some trouble since his finish at Hardrock. When it started to act up during the race, Beat opted to not push it. He decided that making it to Plain in one piece was more important than hobbling to the finish of Headlands. I was bummed, but knew he'd made the right choice. Besides, I figured I'd be able to find someone else to pace if I just hung out for a while.

Jon Burg is someone I have known casually for a couple of years. He's generally quite a bit faster than I am so I don't see him much in races. For example, he ran Headlands as his first 100 the same year I did, but finished more than 3 hours ahead of me in 23:33. When he came in at the 50 mile split this year I went over to say hello and see how he was doing. After a brief conversation and explanation of my situation, he invited me to join him for the second half of the race. Like Beat, he certainly didn't need a pacer, but welcomed the company. I'd be heading out a little earlier than planned and also pacing a bit faster than expected.

The new course is a 25 mile loop that is repeated 4 times, twice in each direction. Like Javelina Jundred, the "washing machine" style loops add variety to the repeats. Reversing directions each lap turns climbs into descents and vis-versa. Then, as day turns into night, the familiar once again takes on a another new dimension. The modified course is very nice, covering most of the best trails in the Marin Headlands. As challenging as it is beautiful, the modifications add significantly to the overall elevation gain/loss. However, the familiarity and increased contact with other runners on the trail help to distract from the difficulty.

It was nice joining someone with whom I wouldn't otherwise get to run. Jon is a really nice, down to earth guy as well as a fairly talented runner. He's an even more talented walker. Pacing is always a unique challenge as it forces one out of the comfort zone matching someone else's cadence rather than running your own. It is generally compensated for by the fact that your runner is overall much slower during the second half of a race. While this was definitely true for Jon, I could tell right away that his long legs and ability to walk at a running pace were going to become a challenge for me as the night went on and miles accumulated.

With a 9:47 50-mile split, Jon was on pace to easily beat his sub-23 hour goal. However, as we headed out on the first loop after an extended aid station stay, he expressed some concern over how he was feeling and then complained of some stomach issues as we later on. Of course, this is a guy who can walk 15 minute miles uphill and 12 minute miles on the flats even when he isn't feeling well. I found myself constantly shuffling or jogging to keep pace with him. The weather was perfect and we had some very enjoyable conversation getting to know one another. Despite his issues and continuing to slow throughout the loop, Jon still knocked it off in a little over 6 hours.

Jon's stomach started feeling better during the final loop. About half way through he started upping the pace again (or at least it felt so). A key scene for this loop was when we were coming out of Muir Beach. Jon was striding up the steep climb while I was fell behind. A couple runners heading down the hill gave me a "good job" encouragement. I immediately responded by explaining "No, I'm a pacer trying to catch his runner. I need to do a better job." I managed to catch him, as expected, on the next downhill and pushed to keep up with him the rest of the loop. Jon ran a great final stretch passing one final runner in the last 2 miles to capture a top-10 berth in a time of 22:46.

I am very grateful to Jon for allowing me to "pace" him as I think I may have gotten more out of it than he. I bagged a 50 mile run for my training, managed my own food supply for the full course and, while I was hoping for a little more time on my feet, I definitely had a good workout covering the distance in well under 13 hours. After congratulating Jon and watching a few more runners come in, I hit my car for a nice nap. I spent the rest of the day hanging out at the finish line, cheering in runners and waiting for Harry. He ended up getting "the full meal deal" as his runner struggled with some problems. However, she was one tough woman and ended up giving Harry a lesson in the fine art of never giving up.

In the end, I think the race was a success for us all. Well, maybe not for Beat, but I guess he didn't have to learn about his knee problem somewhere in the Cascade mountains in the middle of an unmarked course. How much this run will help with Plain, I'll have to see. My training over the weeks that followed it wasn't exactly what I had hoped...

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