Saturday, June 30, 2007
Western States Pacers Report
I was a pacer for a friend of mine who was attempting his first 100 miler. It was really a privilege to be part of it all. I got in on Thursday afternoon so I could spend some time helping Wayne prepare for the event. I got to meet some online folks I’ve been meaning to bump into (Muddy) and reunite with others I met at the Memorial Day weekend training camp (Tim Looney). That weekend I covered 70 miles of the trail in 3 days. For pacing purposes I’d only be doing the last 40 but it was good to know what Wayne would be going through before we met up.
Wayne is 58 years old, a runner for many years, but only recently doing ultras. He trained long and hard for this event, using Scott Jurek as his coach. He wanted to finish under 24 hours. I went with him for check-in as a handler, not because he really needed any help, but because I really wanted to immerse myself in the event as much as an outsider could. He got his goody bag, medical check (BP & weight) and his official arm band. Later that night I spied lots of folks in the Squaw Valley/Tahoe area with yellow wrist bands. Mini celebrities, all. I helped him strategize and put together his drop bags and crew meetings for race day.
I decided to sleep in through the start of the race since I figured one of us should have more of a chance to stay awake through the next night of running together. I got up about 90 minutes after the race start and made my way slowly to our rendezvous point in Forest Hill. The drive took me about 2 hours and when Wayne got there he would have only covered 60% of the run. Wow! I ran into his crew/family in the early afternoon and we caught up on how Wayne was doing so far and when we could expect him in. They took off to meet him at the last crew spot before I started pacing.
Being a pacer is so different from being a racer. There’s no room for the pacer to have any issues about covering the distance…you must be very self sufficient, unobtrusive and the total willing slave to every need of your runner. There’s no margin for you to have any complaints about your own experience. No one needs to know about your feet hurting, your stomach’s going south, or if you’re tired. In fact, you’d better just not have any problems of your own. You don’t have the luxury to squander any of your racer’s time or energy on yourself. I loved it. I had some concerns going into this that given Wayne’s time goal, I’d have a bit of trouble keeping up with his pace. How can I be of any help if I can’t run as fast as he does? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see how things go. I got all of my gear ready and planned how I would keep myself fueled and attend to my own needs without taking any time away from Wayne. I carried a heavier vest, rather than hand held bottles so I had my hands free to help with things at the aid stations and I wouldn’t need to take the time to refill my water as often. This worked well. I also had room to carry some extra supplies of food for me and a first aid kit, which came in handy. I had envisioned needing to have my own quick-reach supplies if I had any blister or foot issues.
Wayne was a bit later than expected coming to Foresthill. Pacers are actually allowed to meet the runners a few miles before this check point so when I realized he was having a bit of trouble and running late, I ran down to the earlier aid station to meet him. He was surprised to see me here. We had a 1 mile walk up a steep road and I used the time to assess how he was and do a systems check. Eating? Yes, some. Feet ok? Yes. Drinking fluids? Yes. Weight up or down? Up 4 pounds. Taking salt? Once in a while. Peeing? Yup. OK, need to keep an eye on his hydration and salt intake. Looks like he’ll need reminders to keep eating. He complained of a pain in the right calf which was bothering him for the last stretch and had reduced him to a slower shuffle. Hmmmm. Need to keep an eye on that, too.
When we got to Foresthill his crew had a chair and all his stuff spread out and we grabbed what he needed and headed out as quickly as possible. After a fast weigh-in at the medical check off we went for a downhill 20 miles to the river crossing. Wayne was in a conversant mood and time seemed to pass faster for him. Soon it became dark and we had to use our head lamps. Initially he wanted me to run ahead of him, but eventually his pace and desire to run diminished such that he was more comfortable going in front. This helped me to better light the trail ahead of him with my hand held light, as well has my head lamp.
The trail undulated up and down and I had not only the splits between each aid station, but also the elevation profiles so he knew what to expect for terrain. We trotted along the flats, and most of the downhills and walked the ups. It was still warm and could have been a very pleasant run for Wayne if he didn’t already have 60 miles on his legs. We occasionally came across a twisted stick in the middle of the dimly lit trail and more than once I thought it might me a snake. But, not. Eventually I dubbed these sticks, “Not Snakes” as is, “be careful, there’s a ‘not snake!'” hehe. I think I thought it was more funny than Wayne did.
However, eventually I was able to keep him quite amused with a talent I’ve been cultivating for years and one that I demonstrated throughout the remainder of our run together. The broccoli salad from the day before gave me gas. Lots of gas. And after “breaking the ice” about farting around friends, I made Wayne giggle every time I warned “uh oh!” brief pause, then PFTTTTTP! Sometimes it was staccato with each foot strike. Often Wayne joined in. Even later when he was too tired to carry on any conversation, we could still make each other laugh every time we farted. We were quite a pair. One to be avoided, for sure.
Aid station after aid station I made sure Wayne grabbed some food, filled his bottles and I monitored his weight changes. Between aid stations I kept track of the time and told him how much longer we would be until the next aid, that it was time to take a Gu, that he should consider taking salt. How are your feet? Are you feeling cold? PFFFFTT, giggle.
When we reached the river crossing the scene was surreal. There were enough generators to light up the river, plus aid stations on both sides. There were volunteers in wet suits in the river to help us cross as we held unto the cable strung over the water. Glow sticks in the water lit the way to the least deep spots with better footing and we picked our way over the rocks in water up to our butts. Tiki lamps made for a festive atmosphere and I think there was loud music. Once on the other side we refueled and then headed up the hill to Green Gate. Wayne was beginning to slow down even more and his right calf and knee where becoming more uncomfortable, especially on the downhill sections. But, he kept putting one foot in front of the other and up the hill we climbed to the next aid station. More refueling and onto some of the better running of the course where it’s less rocky and hilly.
Unfortunately for Wayne, as it got later and later he got more and more like burnt toast. He walked 90% of this section to the next aid station at Auburn Lakes Trail. Once at the ALT aid station he needed to sit down and attend to some blisters. He literally fell into a chair and I had volunteers bring him a blanket, broth and hot coffee while I took off his shoes and socks. We got his drop bag and with the help of my own first aid kit I drained his blisters and covered them with mole skin, socks and dry shoes. He took a hand full of Advil and I put his arm warmers on him. When I pulled him up out of the chair he was shivering and barely able to stand. Eventually he hobbled, tottered and slowly started moving again. He could barely balance to stand or walk and his calf was starting to seize up. I turned my attention briefly to filling my water bladder and getting some food to take with me when I saw Wayne out of the corner of my eye, lurching towards the bon fire and circle of chairs some volunteers were huddled around. I knew if he sat by the fire and got comfortable he’d likely never get out on the trail again. “WAYNE, GET AWAY FROM THE FIRE!!” I shouted loud enough to make everyone stop what they were doing and look up. Wayne lurched back onto the trail and I followed him out of the aid station at something that resembled a slow walk.
Within a few minutes he had to stop due to cramping in his right calf. I tried to massage it for him but it reduced him to yelping in pain so I helped him get in a position to stretch it. Eventually this didn’t seem to be helping much either so he decided to just try to keep moving. The next 30 minutes or so was a very low point. It was very dark, very cold and we were moving very, very slowly. I cautiously tried to keep his spirits up with encouraging words about our progress so far. I saw the searchlights way off in the distance indicating the finish line. Luckily we were way ahead of the cut off times and I played up this fact as well as the fact that he was still making “relentless forward progress.” Eventually the sky started to lighten a little and we could see outlines of the hills. Lucky for me, I never felt sleepy or exhausted running through the night.
As it got almost light enough to see without our headlamps, something strange happened. Wayne started running. It was slow at first, but then he picked up the pace and ran faster and faster. By the time we turned off the head lamps and the “not snakes” were visible again we were flying down the trail and Wayne said he felt great! It was like someone turned on a light switch. We ran hard for more than 30 minutes and made it to the next aid station at mile 90. I knew Wayne would finish. Wayne knew he would finish. We grabbed supplies and moved on out. After a quick potty stop our farting sadly subsided quite a bit and we had little else to keep ourselves laughing. I noticed Wayne had developed a large bruise on the back of his right leg, in the area where his calf had been cramping. Obviously he had suffered a tear in the muscle. Yet, he just gutted it out and kept on moving.
Now it was day light and warming up but the last 10 miles must have seemed as long as the first 50 for Wayne. By walking the hills (and there were still a maddening number of them) shuffling the flats and downs we slowly made it down the trail. Even I was getting tired enough to find the time it took up to get from aid station to aid station was getting longer and longer. Would they never come? I tried to keep up the positive talk and idle chit chat to pass the time. Wayne had a harder and harder time chiming in. By the time we got to No Hands Bridge at mile 96.8, it was clear we were mostly walking it in. After a brief flat section we had a mile of switchbacks to climb up onto the last section of road then through town 1.3 miles to the finish line. The switchbacks were the final straw. Wayne kept moving but his ability to do anything else was dead. Even the occasional fart I mustered up didn’t make him so much as crack a smile. I hiked up ahead to get an idea when we would reach to top and was almost as relieved as he was when the end was in sight.
Luckily I had warned him that after reaching the road it’s still almost a mile of steep uphill before we go down to the high school track and the finish line. Although he was exhausted, he was resolved to just keep moving and we made it, finally, to the crest of the hill and Wayne started to run again. Less than 3 minutes later he could see the track and we went through the gate on the far end. I dropped back and let Wayne finish his race around the track with his family who had been waiting to meet him there. I walked across the field to watch him come under the finish line in 28 hours, 5 minutes and receive his medal from the race director. He looked elated! He also looked a little stunned and glazed over. I hope he remembers it all.
He’s one tough runner, my friend Wayne. It was more than inspiring to watch him push through the lows, the pain and injury and keep moving forward until he finished what he had started. I hope that some day I can prove myself to be as tough.