Posted by: pointlenana | July 2, 2015

Pacer Bob – Western States Part 5

“Doing ok. Had to lie down in a couple of streams. Ate a popsicle at Foresthill, and back on his way with Pacer Bob into the twilight.” – note from my wife to some friends as I left Foresthill

Bob and I, about to leave Foresthill.

Bob and I, about to leave Foresthill.

During my posting frenzy of the past few days, I saw this exchange in an ultra running group on FB:  Q: “Are pacers necessary for a first 100 mile race?  Do you learn more without them?” A: “Personally, I’m against pacers”.

Dear anti-pacer folks:  I have some empathy for the view that pacers are not necessary.  I did my first two 100 mile races without a pacer, they were hard races, and I managed just fine.  Having a pacer complicates things a little before, during, and after race – there’s another person that you have to figure out how to work with during the race, you might end up sharing your hotel room with your wife, 20 yo son, and a pacer that no one knows very well, and it’s not particularly easy to figure out how to thank the pacer afterwards particularly if you don’t live close to them.  But here’s a thought – running with a pacer is different than running without one, both things might be good, and you might learn and experience different-but-useful things with a pacer than you do on your own.  Try it sometime.

For my first 100 mile race (Cascade Crest), I wanted a pacer and arranged for an awesome pacer.  I didn’t run with a pacer in that one because I did not get into the race until 45 minutes before it started.  I spent the last week before the race sitting at the number 1 spot on the waiting list.  Two days before the race I set my pacer free so he could run with another friend who was looking for a pacer.  Almost 2 days later I got in and in the 45 minutes I had to prepare I didn’t think much about not having a pacer.  There’s a lot of support out there in most races.  It went fine.

My second race (UTMB) does not allow pacers. No decision to make.  Almost 38 hours on my own through two nights.  It went fine.  A pacer is not necessary.

A few days after the Western States lottery in December, I got a message from Bob Hearn congratulating me on getting in and asking if I needed a pacer.  I hadn’t thought about it much – who needs pacers? – but said I’d think about it.  As I thought about the race, I started to think I could train hard enough to at least aim for a sub-24 hour finish.  The sub-24 hour goal is a hard limit, like qualifying for the Boston Marathon.  At Western States, if you run sub24/one day, you get a silver buckle.  If you finish between 24:00 to 30:00, you get a brass buckle that has a generous “one day” written on it.  I have trouble with hard targets like that – it doesn’t seem right to run what may be a fantastic race in every other way but be a few seconds over a time goal and end up with any disappointment.  But if I was going for the hard target, something told me this race was different and having Bob as a pacer might be good.

Bob Hearn is a good runner.  According to his Marathon Maniacs page, he’s run 80 marathons and 36 ultras.  He has run multiple sub-3 hour marathons.  He ran 73.6 miles during a 12 hour run at the nearby lake trail where I do most of my speedwork.  He recently ran 139.5 miles in a 24 hour event, setting the course record by 11 miles and passing the 100 mile mark in 16:50.  He is training to run Spartathlon this year – 153 miles in 36 hot and humid hours.  He’s run Western States twice, including a sub-24 hour result last year, and paced at WS once or twice.  Again, it seemed like having Bob pace me might be a good thing.

I met Bob after the Big Sur marathon two years ago.  Janet and I had just done Boston to Big Sur, Bob had too, that was the bombs year, and there was a lot to talk about.  I had seen him a couple times briefly at races after that – he lives down in California. We didn’t know each other well but he didn’t seem like a difficult person and I guess he thought he could stand me for ~40 miles.  So I said, “yes, I’d love to have you pace me.”  I did also tell him the following, just to make sure we were aligned:

“Things I’m looking for:  1) being able to ask you a bunch of questions beforehand, hopefully tapping into your experience there to make mine go well.  Training, course, weekend logistics, etc..  2) help me avoid any major disasters of stupidity, e.g. wandering off course in the middle of the night.  I will own any disasters that do happen, but two heads will be better than one tired one.  3) if a sub-24 finish is feasible when I collect you, do what you can to help me get there.  My real goal is to finish, and I think best case I will have a small shot at sub-24.  But if I have a good day and execute well on the first part, help me focus on the rest.  Things I don’t think I need:  1) a lot of training advice.  I’m looking for course-specific tweaks I may not think of, not overall advice 2) a lot of cheerleading during the race.  I don’t think it will work with me anyway.”

In the months before the race, I asked him a few questions, he prompted me with a couple things (“get hotel rooms now – they fill up”, “pound some of the downhills in those long hill repeats”), but for the most part we stayed out of each other’s way.  As it turned out, we ran into each other again minutes before the Boston Marathon this year.  A couple weeks later he needed a place to stay for the Miwok 100k that I was also running, and our very gracious friends Maureen and John allowed us to bring a guest with us at the last minute when we stayed with them for the race.  That was good – Bob, Janet and I had a couple dinners together and figured each other out a little bit.  By race week, we had probably spent a total of 8 hours together in the real world, plus a little bit of online interaction.

A couple days before the race, Bob moved into our family hotel room – me, Janet, our 20 year old son, and now Bob.  Being a house guest and having house guests are both perilous, especially when there are events to attend and early wakeups, but it worked fine.  Bob loves Western States – there is a lot of history and more to the event than you’d think.  I was still approaching it as a race, and again Bob gave good advice on how to navigate the pre-race stuff to get the most out of the experience.

Race day came, and we went our separate ways.  I started, and we planned to meet in Foresthill where he would start pacing me, or possibly Michigan Bluff where he could watch the race until I appeared.  He also decided to hike up to Emigrant Pass before the start, so I ended up having someone cheering me near the top of the first 4 mile climb.

My pre-race goal was sub-24.  He thought I was ready, we both knew it was challenging, and I knew he’d be tracking my progress.  Coming into Michigan Bluff, I knew I was pretty far off goal pace and very likely to fail on the original time goal, so I was thinking about what to do to make the overall experience great.  Bob was waiting for me at the aid station and walked with me as I started for Foresthill.  I gave him four things to work on between Michigan Bluff and Foresthill – what things should I do during the rest of the race to make it great, do I change to a singlet or stay in my shirt at Foresthill (which was really a question about mosquitoes), what is a realistic new time goal so my family would know when to wake up, and a simple logistical problem involving a water bottle and drink mix that had me stumped.  He had an extra headlamp for me just in case I was worried about running out of daylight, but we agreed that probably wouldn’t be a problem so he kept the spare.  I ran on.

Bob's picture of me at Michigan Bluff.

Bob’s picture of me at Michigan Bluff.  That’s an ice bandana around my neck.  Bob gave it to me before the race because it would work better than the thing I had.

For the most part, runners are not allowed to get crew support along the course outside of aid stations, but family and crew are allowed to travel a little backwards up the route from Foresthill towards Michigan Bluff.  As I ran I realized that if daylight did become a problem, Bob would be there for me early with a light.  Sure enough Bob and Janet were both waiting for me before Foresthill, Bob with his headlamp even though there was still plenty of light.  We all ran into Foresthill together.  At that point I was going to have to channel Gunhild to have any chance at sub-24, or more likely Gunhild on PEDs, so the goal shifted to “great experience”.  He told me where we’d take extra time to do the things I wanted, and where he’d prod me along.  Bug spray appeared and I got my singlet on.  He promised to keep my family updated so they’d know when to wake up, and I solved my bottle/mix problem.  Off I went, into the twilight with pacer Bob.

These are some of the benefits I got from having Bob with me:

Routefinding:  A mile or two out of Foresthill, we “got lost”.  We ran down a hill and came to a spot where we could go straight, left or right.  A piece of yellow tape blocked off the straight route, so it seemed like we were somewhere we should be, but we couldn’t see markers left or right.  We both also thought we had just seen a marker up the trail we came down.  Bob didn’t remember that spot from previous trips, so he did the right thing – turned around and took me back up the trail, saying “Great, I’ve already gotten you lost”.  After about 30 yards, another pair came down and pointed out the marker we had in fact seen.  We all continued back down, went a short way to the left, and spotted a marker.  All this took about 45 seconds.  To put this in context, at mile 88 Gunhild and her pacer went 1.5 miles off route before turning back.  Magdalena Boulet went 1 mile off route somewhere around mile 30 before going onto win.  People make mistakes.  I might have done the right thing on my own.  I don’t think of those 45 seconds as a mistake or getting lost – together we did the smart thing that kept a small uncertainty from turning into a disaster.  Others made real mistakes and lost many minutes.  With Bob in front of me the rest of the way and both of us looking, we had no routefinding issues.

Help Solving Problems:  This is especially true as fatigue and ultrabrain sets in.  Given a choice between finishing and making a race-ending mistake due to mental fatigue, I’d rather have a pacer and finish.  Sometime late in the race, maybe around mile 80, I started having trouble running more than 15 steps at a time before settling back into a comfortable walk.  With my ultra brain I assumed it was normal fatigue, but somehow I had the smarts to say something.  Bob immediately asked “have you been eating?”  Doh.  Not enough.  I ate and a short while later was able to sustain the running for longer and longer periods.

Help Meeting Goals:  Gunhild’s pacers told her she needed to speed up when she hit the track with 90 seconds left.  Bob was super-patient with my “great experience” checklist items, e.g. stopping at Cal1 to talk to Bruce LaBelle even though it took a while.  He understood what I wanted, and helped make it happen.

Race Documentation:  I have extra pictures and videos of my experience because Bob was there to take them.  At best I would have had bad selfies, but more likely any phone/camera I had would have stayed in my pack or in the hotel.

Updates To And From The Outside World:  As we got a sense for how things were going, he’d update my family on our progress. This often involved checking for cell signals frequently and taking advantage when the rare opportunity came.  WS has race tracking, but we were on the course and couldn’t see how accurate or laggy the tracking was.  Similarly, he kept me distracted and entertained by giving me updates on the race. Bob is quite good at using his phone while running on trails in the dark – I doubt this is true for most pacers – which meant that we didn’t have to stop. If I had tried to do this on my own I would have had to stop and fuss with my vest and again there would have been less of it.  Even if a pacer can’t run and text at the same time, they could stop for a moment while the runner continues and then catch up.

More Redundancy:  When my watch ran out of battery, his watch was still working so we knew how were doing and roughly how far it was to the next aid station.

Encouragement: Before the race I told him that I didn’t need cheerleading.  At one low moment late in the race, I told him I had lied about that and needed some external validation that I was doing ok.  After that he periodically pointed out how well I was doing.  He also came up with reasons to move faster towards the end of the race, whether it was catching a runner ahead, or finishing under a certain time.  He made just a few comments along these lines, and it was enough to shave probably 30 minutes off my time, vs. just walking it in towards the end.

Distraction and Companionship: We talked constantly, often about running.  Training, the race, previous races, injuries and rehab, how the leaders were doing, how to project paces for races, on and on.  I don’t normally talk a lot during races, and will sometimes listen to music.  But we probably talked 90% of the time, and the inevitable humor definitely helped to keep the night from being just a grind.

Having Bob pace me was great, and added to my experience.  It worked for at least three reasons:

– I was as clear as I could be about what I wanted, before and during the race.  To the extent I was able to explain that, Bob delivered every bit of it.

– Bob is a very good, experienced runner.  Depending upon the race, that might not be necessary.  People have non-ultra-runner friends and family pace them all the time and it seems to work.  But for a stretch goal in conditions that were likely to be challenging, it made it easier knowing I had a amazing pacer.  We were able to anticipate and problem-solve better than I could have on my own, and I only had to devote 0.1% of my energy to making sure my pacer was ok vs. more for someone with less experience.

– Probably most importantly and most lucky for me, Bob is a student of the Western States race.  He’s not just interested in it, it’s really into it.  He finds way to participate every year, makes an effort to meet people who’ve been important during it’s history, and has read extensively about it.  Having Bob pace me was like hiring an excellent local guide in a wonderful foreign city that’s hard to navigate or understand if you are not local.

I’m not saying I will use a pacer for every race from now on, just that it can add to the experience.  Also, now that I’ve been paced, I might be able to do a better job pacing someone who really wants/needs it.  More tools in the toolbox – I don’t have to use them all the time but they’ll be there if I need them.

The pacing skill that Bob could really improve on – and we discussed this some as we were travelling together – is his ability to identify hills.  There were times, especially late in the race, where we’d be confronted by a 1% grade that was clearly longer than 10 feet.  “Uh-oh, a big hill”, I’d think, “I don’t want to fall apart, it’s time to walk”.  But Bob would claim it wasn’t a hill.  We did discuss the possibility that travelling 80+ miles on foot increases one’s ability detect hills.  But it would be better for him to work on his weakness than for me to somehow dumb down an obvious strength.

Thank you Bob.  I really wish one of my raffle tickets had been picked so you could run next year’s race for sure.   At a minimum, it would have answered the “how do I thank you adequately” question.


  1. […] even after the cutoff – gets a medal.  No belt buckle though, and no official finish.  My friend Bob says you want to be there for Golden Hour (the last hour before the 30 hour cutoff) because […]

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