This week was a doozy. It wasn't so much the training load as the outside demands on my time that had me a little crazed. I also volunteered myself for something I thought I had no business doing later in the week and fought nerves/the desire to back out right up until go time. I started the week in Oregon for work, a little zapped from the time change and stressed out from the challenges of work related training logistics. One workout on the hotel treadmill Tuesday night, another slogging around the neighborhood Wednesday after the cross country flight home. Conditions all around not ideal for functioning at work or productive training efforts, but the real effort was yet to come.
I had decided, months ago, that volunteering as a pacer at a local 100 mile race might be a great experience, both to see an ultra up close before I race mine and as a way to get some long run mileage in. However, the closer the date crept the more nervous I became. The stronger the urge to email the pacer coordinator and back out. Any number of valid (yet false) excuses came to mind but the bottom line was fear. Again. Always something with this guy. I was afraid to do something outside my comfort zone. I was afraid I'd be too slow for my runner and get dropped. I was afraid I'd get injured. I was afraid I'd embarrass myself in any number of ways.
Never mind that the runners will have been on their feet for 16 hours by the time my shift was to start (aka their legs were most likely not "running" anymore). Never mind that I had logged a ton of miles during my own training cycle on this exact loop of trails. Never mind that I've been covering the distance (12.5 miles) with regularity in my training. Damn, woman. Have some confidence. Be brave. SHOW UP.
What I chose to do was email my coach that week, finally getting around to telling her what I had signed up for, hoping she'd advise against it and then I'd have the valid and true excuse to back out. Unfortunately, Nora thought it was a great idea! The pacer coordinator sent out final instructions a few days prior and I replied to explain my nerves and ask for a little advice (read: open the door to quitting on her last minute). She replied kindly and reminded me of a) how tired my runner would be by 11:00 pm, b) that they try to pace match runners based on what we submitted when we volunteered, and c) worst case scenario I can drop at the aid station halfway through the lap and someone there can take over. Suck it up, buttercup.
What actually happened? The coldest, wettest, darkest, longest, most amazing long run I've had in my 37 years. It had rained the night before and the entire day of the race. Unrelenting. And it was cold. Temps quickly dropped into the 30s with real feel in the 20s come nightfall. Runners were dropping to the 50 mile distance or dropping out entirely. I spent the four hours prior to my pacer shift at the main aid station, tending to the frozen souls staggering in from a lap before sending them back out. I was pretty damn cold, under a tent with a heat source, in all my layers so I couldn't imagine how cold the runners were. Hot cocoa and soup were among the most consumed items at our station, with good reason.
Once my shift was over I ducked into the restroom to change for pacing duties. I had originally planned on one pair of pants (Lux flow tights, FTW) but it was so cold that I pulled my looser thermal pants back on over them. Wool socks and wool underwear, Lux bra, two Lux tanks, a long sleeve, a vest, and an outer jacket all went on for good measure. It sounds like overkill, but I'd already been standing out in the cold for four hours with the possibility of another 4 hours in the rain if I got picked up to pace. Also, gloves, Team Bird neck buff, Lux headband, and Trail Sisters hat. Nary a body part neglected. I wish I had a picture of the entire ensemble but I was conserving phone battery for my loop. Between the cold and the time we'd be out there, I wanted as much charge as possible in case anything happened.
Once I was suited up I hung around the aid station and just waited. Helped a little bit, danced to the music a little bit, just tried to stay loose and warm. At around 11:30 the pacer coordinator let me know that she had a runner for me. Enter Louise. Louise is in her 60s and tackling the Umstead 100 for the 19th time. That's right. She's done this race 19 times. A bit of a legend among the regulars. She gave me a quick run down of what her goal was, what she wanted (and did not want) from me, and off we went. As I mentioned, I have run all but the first half mile of this loop many times before but add in total darkness, rain, and mud, and all prior experience is rendered useless. In some ways it was a bit of a hindrance, as your frame of reference for how long it normally takes to get from this section to this section totally fucks with you.
I let Louise set her pace and our headlamps led the way. The going was slow, to be sure, between the conditions and the amount of time she'd already been on her feet. Her goal was to beat the cutoff (30 hours), and I knew roughly how much time I had to get her through this lap. We broke it up into two chunks, the first 7ish miles to the aid station and the last 5 or 6 back into main camp. There were spurts of running but for the most part it was a solid hiking hustle. Relentless forward progress. We averaged around 18 minutes per mile which sounds like a stroll but I can assure you was anything but. We got into the aid station at 7.5 miles, I got her some fuel she wanted from her drop bag and the volunteers got her some soup. I don't think we lingered there but a minute or two.
Somewhere between the aid station and main camp, the rain lightened up and turned into snow flurries. Seriously? April 7. Snow. Ok, Umstead. Game on. We didn't talk much, as was her preference but I replied every time she talked to me. There was plenty of snark from her which was perfect for me. As we passed other runners she'd ask which lap they were on, both trying to be friendly and to see where she fell in the pack. There were a few choice comments under her breath for someone on their last lap ("I hate you"), which cracked my shit up. If I had 8-10 hours left to go, I'd hate that person too. I wish I could convey what it was truly like to accompany someone on a small part of this incredible feat. I never gave her split times but I made sure she knew if she was on track, if we needed to pick it up, if she was warm enough, eating and drinking enough, etc. She asked if I could go out on the next lap with her and it broke my heart to say no. We connected quite well but there was no way my legs were in shape for 25 miles. We talked through her game plan for the next two laps so that I could prep her pacer for the handoff.
I brought her in on time to complete her 6th lap and we ducked into the main lodge for a quick clothing change. Got her out of several wet layers and into dry ones, fresh gloves, etc. with the outer rain shell and pack back on for lap 7. The pacer coordinator had two guys ready to take her for the next loop. While she got fueled at the main aid station I gave the guys a quick run down on her goals, what she prefers for conversation and the like, then she was off again. It lasted around 3.5 hours and felt so long and yet over so fast. I was so cold and tired, it was unfathomable to me how long they had been out there and how much longer many of the runners still had to go. I threw back a cup of hot cocoa, grab my bags, and started the muddy slog back to my car.
I only took one picture, below, at the end of the lap. All the mud, the wet, the dark. I was home in my bed by 4:30 am, unable to get warm and wondering how Louise was doing. I slept most of Sunday away, my body aching in ways I was not expecting. The mileage certainly does not belie the effort. My 8 mile recovery run swiftly became a spin for the corresponding amount of time it would have taken to run. Between naps and spinning and slow trips to the kitchen, I kept checking the race site. Shortly before bed I got the confirmation I was looking for. Louise would be heading back to Chicago with another 100 mile finish under her belt. Congrats, woman. Well earned.
If you ever have the chance to volunteer at an ultra, do it. If you have the chance to serve as a pacer at an ultra, absolutely do it. It was the most challenging and rewarding experience. I wish I could adequately explain the difference between the road running community and the trail/ultra running community. Both are wonderful, but the trail people really make it feel like home, like you're family, like they've known you forever and are so glad you're there. I will be pacing again next year, and it would be epic if I got to pace Louise again. I hope I can get a few brave friends to join me.
Week 14 summary:
Miles scheduled: 33
Miles ran: 25.57
Time on my feet: 6:16:02