On the Origin of Pacers

by Means of Western States 100, or the Preservation of Safety in the Struggle for a Finish

This post was originally posted in June 2009 as part of the synchroblog project.

As the sport of trail ultrarunning becomes more and more popular, the eyes of the world are beginning to notice us. And what do they see? A bunch of eccentric, whacked-out, non-serious joggers who must be running away from something. Have you seen what they say about us on Let’s Run? Just the other day there was a thread titled “Help.. I have an unnatural hate of ultra runners.”   The original poster concludes his first post with, “maybe it’s because the people have lost the intent of running fast, maybe it’s because it attracts weirdo’s and hippy[sic] types, maybe it’s because it’s people taking the act of running to the extream [sic] rather than working on getting faster…” OK, so he can’t write, but even people who are literate have expressed a similar disdain for us. Just the other day I was in the dentist office and he stopped working on me to tell me he was reading a book about ultrarunning…  Yes, that one. Oh yeah, that was a fun discussion as I tried to convince him that we don’t all order pizzas while we run.

It seems as though there is no middle ground. Either people are in awe of what we do or they hold us in contempt. But why the contempt? Perhaps part of it is due to that book that came out a few years ago that sensationalized eccentric ultra “stunts.” Maybe it’s because it is just impossible for even a 4-hour marathoner to comprehend how someone can win the biggest 100 miler in the world at not much better than 10 minutes per mile pace and still call it a running race. Maybe it’s because normal people instinctively know that running 100 miles just can’t be good for you. Are we runners or jog-walkers? Do we participate in running races or survival tests? Isn’t a marathon far enough? Were you dropped on your head as a child?

What do we have to do to be taken seriously? Or should we even care?

I suspect one aspect of our sport that is hard to overcome in the eyes of “real” runners is the concept of a pacer. You know, the person who runs with you the last 30+ miles of a 100-mile “race.” For what? To pick up your body when it can’t go anymore?  (I’ve only seen this happen once.) To hold your hand and protect you from the bogeyman in the dark? (For some runners this is true.) Road runners don’t need pacers – I never needed one in any of the 15 marathons I’ve run. But even within the ultrarunning world there is a wide range of opinions as to whether pacers should be used or not.

So why do we have pacers in 100 milers? Of course, as with most of our traditions, it all started with the Western States Endurance Run. Shannon Weil, co-founder and original co-race director of WSER recalls, “The idea of pacers began back in 1978 of the WS100. Running 100-mile races lacked significant data and we felt it was prudent to allow entrants to have pacers after Foresthill to increase their chances of making it to Auburn. It was purely an optional safety measure in the beginning.” That seems reasonable, but what is a pacer at Western States used for today? Andy Jones-Wilkins, five-time WS finisher says, “While I know the original purpose of the pacer was runner safety, I must admit I use a pacer solely as a result of competition.” Not for safety? OK, maybe for the fast guys like AJW, but what about the 27-30 hour runners, they surely must use them for safety? My brother, Chris Thornley, who has one 28-hour WS finish and five total 100-mile finishes, all over 27 hours, agrees. “I don’t need a pacer to keep the bogeyman at bay. I’m not afraid of the dark. I expect my pacers to push me just a bit. Get me out of the walk mode,” he says.

Other runners speak similarly of the role of their pacers. They use their pacer for competitive advantage. To help them get to the finish sooner. Hal Koerner, defending WS champion, describes what a pacer does for him:

“My pacers have always been a source of motivation when those lonely stretches become increasingly mundane, as well as an alarm clock for food and water intake,” he writes. “It’s hard enough to keep everything together at mile 26 so 76 becomes almost impossible. I also utilize my pacer for direction and locating course markings. Once again, a keen eye is always helpful when one’s faculties become diminished. I will also have my pacer set “the pace” routinely after Green Gate (when) I need 6 mph or something very close but extremely consistent. That is when they earn their worth, any fluctuations become energy absorbing and there’s not enough to go around to be foolish.”

Chris after pacing me at WS 2002

Chris after pacing me at WS 2002

Does the use of a pacer take away some of the satisfaction of running 100 miles? For some, like Karl Meltzer, one of the most successful 100-mile runners in the country today, it does. “I like to do things on my own, and the challenge of doing it myself is more rewarding,” he says. So what is a runner like Karl to do at a race like WS? Pacers are allowed to do all that AJW, Chris and Hal want them for. They use them but Karl doesn’t? If purity is what you’re after then why stop at not using a pacer? Why not forgo using a crew or the aid stations and make it even purer? Both Karl and AJW said they would welcome that challenge, but let’s not stray from pacers. Karl is not in WS this year as he declined his spot from 2008, but he did tell me he wouldn’t use a pacer if he were running. Seems foolish to me when the rules of the race allow them. If purity is what you’re after then run races like the Plain 100, which only has a single aid station. Little aid. Little crew. No pacers. When asked if he thought less of runners who use pacers, Karl was pretty clear. “Absolutely not!” he said. “To each his own, and if the pacer is allowed in the race, I have nothing to say about it.”

Maybe we just shouldn’t care about what others think, either inside the sport or outside. 100-mile trail runs have evolved from very unique beginnings and using pacers is just one of those things that make them unique. It is not road racing so screw the road runners who refuse to embrace our sport. And for those inside the sport who don’t like them, find races that don’t allow pacers or create a race yourself and make your own rules. I’ve paced about 15 times and it is a lot of fun. Pacing has, as Shannon says, “proved to be an excellent introduction for new runners to have a first-hand experience of being on the trail during the race. Many future entrants begin their love for the WSER as pacers.” This was the case for me and my brother. “Pacing somebody in a 100-mile run can really change your outlook on your own life,” Chris says. “It’s like going to the doctor and getting a shot of “YOU CAN DO IT!!!” in your ass. Being with somebody and feeling the tremendous effort that is required for them just to get to the finish line is a gift.” I’m looking forward to spending time with my two pacers, Nathan and Chris, in 9 days.

This is the 5th and final installment of the 2009 Western States Synchroblog Project.  This is an open topic so we’ve got a wide range of topics this time.

32 Comments

  1. Massanutten 100 offered new division this year—the Stonewall Jackson division. Karl was in it, as were many others. The rules for the Stonewall Jackson were that you couldn’t have pacers or crew and could only accept aid from your drop bag or at AS. The first SJ finishers, male and female, were given a silver buckle. Since Karl won the race, he didn’t win the Stonewall (no duplicate awards) but I imagine the idea will catch on with other 100s out there—it was cool to be a pacer and watch the SJ runners—they were in a league of their own.

  2. I’m with Karl on this one. Perhaps it is foolish to forego what might be a competitive advantage, but I would rather feel like I earned my finish on my own. I have a lot more I could say, but I really don’t intend to offend anyone who is using a pacer. I would love to see pacers gone from 100-mile races, but as long as they’re there people can do what they want. But, I’ll be at WS without a pacer, if anyone wants to join me in an unofficial SJ division.

    -Jasper

  3. @Sophie Speidel – I hadn’t heard of this. Thanks. But SJ Award? Sounds like Scott Jurek to this west coaster.

    @Jasper Halekas – Interesting move, Jasper. Yeah, I’d have to say you are handicapping yourself and that does seem foolish to me. But as long as you don’t complain after the race that you were beaten by guys that used pacers… Then again, you could just win the thing. I hope you have a great race.

  4. You will never find me complaining about anyone who beats me in a fair race, playing within the rules of that race. May the best and most prepared runner win. Best of luck to everyone. I hope everyone has the race of their lifetime. Let’s run!

    -Jasper

  5. I always crack up when I hear the debates of “fast running” vs “ultramarathons”. Next time you hear it, just say “5k is the real race…10k runners are morons and shouldn’t even be considered runners”. It just points out that the difference is distance. Sure, the 100-mile is probably closer to adventure racing on the endurance spectrum, but ask the 50k runners going sub-3:15 if they feel it’s a slow race. Each have their own challenges, and each asks something slightly different from the training and participants.

    I don’t have a pacer for States, and honestly it hadn’t really crossed my mind to get one. But I don’t think I would turn one down if they wanted to come along. I do enough hallucinating after 70 miles that I surely fall in the “safety” category. ;-)

    SD

  6. @ScottD – I usually cringe when I see ultrarunners trying to defend us to the road runners. If they don’t get it, they probably never will.

    I thought your dad would be pacing you the last miles. Heck, it should be easy for you to pick up a pacer – even at the last minute in Foresthill. Won’t you be needing somebody to take pictures for your race report or are you thinking you’ll be turning around with the camera at Brown’s Bar to take pictures of other runners?

  7. Good post, and good comments. I think it comes down to number of people who follow and participate in a particular activity that ends up defining what we as a collective accept as legitimate and worthy of respect. How else do you explain baseball? Maybe, real races should be run without shoes, because that’s how were born? Any argument hinting that some set of rules somehow has intrinsic value beyond our current philosophies isn’t really worth engaging in. We establish a set of rules by which to compete, and then we compete. The end, NO?

  8. I think pacer is such an individual thing, even for the same runner at different times. First of all, I LOVE being a pacer – and commented on Scott’s blog about it. So I’d dive here into using a pacer for myself. Note – what do I know since I am not where most of the people commenting here are? :) In those 8 100M I had pacers I mostly used them for guilt-tripping myself. With my personality it is imposable to use a normal “pushing your runner”, I’ll blow. I do, however, feel extremely grateful for others to come and see me through and guilty to not perform up to expectations, so that propels me. I want to impress those who cares – not myself, but my friends who spent their time and money to get themselves to the race and carry for me. On the flip side, this only happens if I am in ok state to still push. If by the time I met them I already fell apart, they serve as my whining outlet – and I slow down because they are so understanding and loving. Extra ear (or only ears) to complain to, because how in the world would I complain to myself? One 100 I was really worried about my pacer’s physical state too, so this drew some energy out – but it was still ok since I was doing fine (and still wanted to impress). 2 100M I had no crew/pacer I teamed up with another runner/friend, and this worked well in one case (where we were equal or may be I was even more experienced one, so I played a bit of role of a mental pacer at least), and not so well in another (where runner was stronger and had his own problems, so we bagged it pretty much whining together). But – here is a “but” – the one and only 100 where I was completely alone, no crew, no pacer, no teaming up, was the best to date. Go figure. It might have taken me more time at the AS’s, and nobody kept me awake at 5am in the morning, but I had no-one to cry to and really wanted it to be done since I was so lonely…and going even splits there was an icing. This is my proudest thing. Where do I stand on pacer now? I’ll use them if they’d like to come, but won’t ask and won’t be scared if they don’t.

    As for the thread (man, I was pointed to quite a few of them) – how sad others care to name-calling and discuss others instead of focusing what drives their fancy. If one likes badminton, is he/she not athletic enough? Whatever…

    Sorry for a long comment. Easier than writing a post myself:) I’ll see you at Squaw!

  9. @Dan Olmstead – It should be that simple. Imagine if somebody at the US Open Golf Tournament this weekend decided to not use a caddie? It just wouldn’t happen. Perhaps it’s because our sport just isn’t mature and accepted yet (maybe it never will). As we begin to hold USATF 100 mile championships in mountainous races we are having to grapple with the pacing issue. The current USATF position on pacers at 100-mile championships is pretty strange – such as the pacer having to stay behind the runner. I suspect that will continue to evolve.

    @olga – I have also used pacer/crew expectations to motivate me. At WS 2005 I had worked my way into 9th place before Brown’s Bar only to get passed by Twiet and Tommy Nielsen before highway 49. Now in 11th place – which is the WS equivalent of getting 4th at the Olympic Trials – I didn’t want to disappoint my crew and pacers and I remember thinking that as I began the descent to No Hands. As you said, it doesn’t always work out for the best as sometimes we’re just done, but it did that year as I ended up 10th at the finish.

  10. SD,
    It’ll definitely be easy for you to pick up a pacer at Foresthill or elsewhere. For instance, I’m pacing AJW to Green Gate and assuming that he doesn’t need me to continue (he has another pacer lined up), I’ll sit at GG until I pick up another runner to pace in.

    -East Coast Wimp

  11. I’m not so sure having a pacer is an automatic advantage. I’ve never run a 100 with a pacer but it seems that once you hand off that mental baton you will probably let up the concentration level. Whenever I let up on my concentration the effort of running becomes more difficult. I’m more then happy to see my competitors using pacers because at mile 85 I’m passing a lot of runners holding on to shirt tails.

    I think many ultrarunners might find the solo experience very rewarding if they gave it a chance.

  12. Craig,

    Thanks for the last several posts related to running the WS100. Your thoughts, tips, suggestions, as well as those of your wife regarding crews, will help any runner willing to listen, in any 100 mile race they may attempt in the future.

    Best of luck in this year’s WS100.

  13. I’ve both run solo and with a pacer. I can tell you at AC in 2007 I could have used someone to point me in the right direction around 2am in the morning. I couldn’t find the damn trail for the life of me. The 20 or so minutes I lost were compounded by negative thoughts the rest of the race. I totally got down on myself and lost the momentum. I also enjoy sharing the experience of the race with someone. Typically its a training buddy that jumps at the opportunity. I know I do.

    I’m not bothered by things that go bump in the night. One look at me and most carnivores are gonna say “why bother”.

  14. I have run, and won, 100 mile races both with and without pacers. I did VT in 2007 without a pacer and 2008 with a pacer. I felt that I ran better in 2008 as a result of the pacer. Similar situation at Rocky, better with than without. It’s all personal, I suppose, and I know some really fast runners (Matt Carpenter for example) who feel that the presence of a pacer causes them to re-direct their attention away from themselves and to the pacer. If that happens, I can understand the problems it could cause. As for me, I blatantly use the pacers to my advantage and pretty much expect them to expect nothing from me. When I pace I assume the same is true. The relationships forged between pacer and runner are truly unique and that alone makes it worth it for me.

  15. I wanted to add (after actually reading the comments to the above post after I wrote my own above), that for anyone that actually runs these races without a pacer or crew by choice, that is pretty amazing, and even more so if you actually place higher than other incredibly talented runners who do use a pacer and crew.

    It would seem to me that having a pacer and crew would, in most cases, be an advantage, for the reasons already stated by Craig and others above.

    I run with no pacer and no crew simply because though I have a wonderful family and group of non running friends, crewing for me during such events is so beyond the realm of their own interests that it just isn’t going to happen. Meeting me at the finish line is about all they can handle! :)

    They want me to do well, but crewing is not their idea of fun or adventure. They’d rather spend the day at the movies, an amusement park or at a pool party with friends! :) Can I blame them for having these sentiments? No. :)

    And most of the folks that I know that are runners like me, and at my middle of the pack ability, are already running the same race that I am, or cannot take the time off due to job or family or both, so they are not available for pacing.

    In some races, I have been fortunate enough to meet and team up with another runner, for a large part of the race. Some want no part of this, but others find it helps them as well. Either way it is fine with me.

    We end up being pacers for each other until whoever has the most left at the end (i.e. quads least thrashed) just pulls away with usually what is an unspoken “thank you” and “we’ll see you soon at the finish line” mentality.

    Good luck to everyone in this year’s WS100. Maybe some year in the future I will be fortunate enough to join you on that sacred ground.

  16. @Bryon Powell – So it will be possible for my prediction to come true.

    @Joe and @SLF and @AJW – I too have run several 100s without a pacer. They are an advantage for me. Maybe I’ll try to go without at WS when I’m not trying to get a spot in the top ten for the automatic spot. And, yes, AJW, it is pretty special to share the experience with someone else. When my wife paced me the last 10 miles of Javelina last year it was pretty cool. She still maintains that she could have dropped me, but she stayed with me.

    @Robert Blair – Thanks for the thanks. Next 100 you plan to do send me an email. If I’m not busy I’ll pace you.

  17. Great comments, everyone. So far, all of the comments have been focused on the philosophical differences runners have with respect to running with a pacer or on the practical considerations of pacer availability, etc. I wonder if there’s also room for a discussion about whether pacers pose special logistical problems for races and for that reason shouldn’t be allowed. I’m thinking of things like pacers eating and drinking at aid stations, the environmental impact of having more people on the course than are officially running, creating more trash, etc… As a R.D., perhaps you have special insight into the issue. I mean, if 200 folks paid to run but 300 are on the course eating, drinking, expelling said food and drink, accidentally dropping gel wrappers, or whatever, it seems like an issue worth at least talking about.

  18. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that pacing is the way a lot of us get interested in running a 100 miler. Being out there in the last 20-40 miles of a race at night gives you a real feel for what it’s all about (and is pretty inspiring-especially when it comes without the pain of getting to that point in the race). Some of my best running memories come from pacing experiences. It’s also really gratifying to feel like you helped a friend and to share in the experience. For me, it’s one of the things that makes running 100s really unique.

  19. Craig,

    Quite frankly, it astonishes me that you would be kind enough to offer to pace me part of the way in a 100 miler someday, should it ever work out.

    Thanks.

    If you are serious about it, and end up not having other commitments, or inclinations, I am running in what I think is unfortunately not one of your favorite 100s on Sept 19-20th. The AC100. :) (Wouldn’t you know it.) Hooya! :) I’m psyched up for it though.

    I could probably use the help from Chilao to Chantry, or Chantry to the end. Or the whole 48.

    I don’t expect it, but if you are up for helping out another runner run one of your old nemeses :) here will be a chance.

    My goal is a sub 24, and I am highly motivated to meet this goal. If I had my best race I think I could go sub 23, but it could just as well end up being a 26 if unexpected things happen, which very well is possible.

    I know I plan on running a very conservative race for the majority of the course so I can achieve the sub 24.

    I was encouraged in running a 13 minute pace for the 100K in Bishop last month, which had 97-100 degree heat and was run at a pretty high altitude (higher than AC).

    That day, I still had no idea how to run downhills, braking the whole race. That caught up with me at about mile 53. Until then I had a 12 min/mile pace going.

    I have hopefully corrected that blunder :) after practicing a much more effective technique on long runs in past weeks that I read about on Sayers’ site.

    I believe sub 24 is realistic for me. We’ll see. The AC 100 will be my home away from home every single weekend from here on out.

    I am running 24 miles there Saturday morning (from Islip Saddle back to Vincent Gap, then turning right back around up that bad boy Mt. Baden back to Islip).

    I will join in on another 26 miles that night for the scheduled group training run from Chantry up Mt Wilson and to the course’s end.

    I can not wait for tomorrow!

    If you are not available to pace for AC100 this year (or just have no friggin’ interest in running on that course again), I hope to run in a couple of 100s next year, as yet undetermined which ones, and maybe you’d be up for joining in on one of those. Maybe you can even suggest one closer to you.

    Even if it ended up that you could never help pace me, the fact that you offered is really something.

    Thanks, and have the race of your life at the WS100. You’ve just effectively recruited another person and his family who will be rooting for you to do well.

  20. @Chris – I’m hoping a 100 mile race director will chime in here. I can only speak from the limited number of runners that have used pacers at Waldo. They really had no noticable impact on the aid station supplies. I would think if pacers were allowed to go the whole 100 miles this would be a strong argument. But they can only go the last 30 or 40 miles and the amount of food, etc consumed by the pacers is offset by dropouts and a lack of eating by the runners. I don’t eat nearly as much off the aid stations late as I do early.

    The count of runners/pacers could also impact permits. Pacers are not specifically mentioned in our Waldo permit. Maybe they should be?

    @John P – Pacing is also a lot less stressful than actually running. Especially pre-race.

  21. Another great thing about pacers is that it gives runners an extra something to look forward to at Foresthill. The last two years when I paced foreign runners t the finish they said they certainly appreciated having the goal of meeting their pacer.

    To flip the equation around. I chose as a pacer this year an extremely talented young ultrarunner who has never entered WS but has a burning desire to do so and is putting his name in the lottery next year. Pacing someone is the single best apprenticeship you can do should you ever hope to run this event yourself one day. Pacers help runners and runners help pacers to gain experience.

    Cheers, Paul
    P.S. Thornley, I had a dream last night that you won Western States. There were about five runners within five minutes of you, but you most certainly had the win, AJW, Cooper and Jurek were right there also, followed by some runner in a gray shirt (I did not recognize him – so he must be from the East Coast). In retrospect, the only troubling aspect of this dream is what the heck was I doing at the finish-line ahead of you. The weird dreams have begun.

  22. Pacer or no pacer, I think really depends on why you are out there, whether its your first 100 or not, if you’re tyring to compete, not sure there is a right or wrong on this one? For those who are up front trying to place, not running with a pacer is like trying win a time trial on a bike without aero bars, you are at a disadvantage against the clock.

    For others,it depends on if you want to share those in moments with someone or not…or who that someone is counts too. Having just run my first 100 2 weeks ago without a pacer, I really didn’t want to share that intimacy and vulnerablity with anyone else. Had my wife not had to crew and take care of our kids, she would have likely paced me for the last 7 miles. Other than her and my kids, I don’t think I really wanted to share that private experience with anyone else — maybe my brother if he could run. For me those moments were best left silent to sort through my emotions, reflect on my life, my dad passing away, were I am headed with my life — I didn’t need any external motivation to get to the finish, the desire to drop never entered my mind, not once, only the fear of dropping. Running a 100 was a test of my will within not of my physical endurance, therefore, having someone trying to will me to finish just wasn’t appropiate for me this time.

    For those trying to place M’s and F’s somethings at States having a pacer is critical. Jasper can likely still be and M something without a pacer because he’s talented and experienced enough to get away with it. Craig doesn’t have a shot at being F-10 without a pacer.

    -CB

  23. This discussion has been very enjoyable to peruse. I’ll be lacing up my shoes to tackle my first hundred in September and have been going back and forth about having a pacer myself. I do most of my running, and all of my long runs solo, and worry that changing this – like anything else – on race day would mess me up.

    The long, dark, empty hours in the dead of night are the only thing that makes me wonder if I should have a pacer. I’m sure that many who choose to have a pacer do so for much the same reason.

    I appreciate the fact that 100s are open to having additional support available to racers as a direct part of the racing experience. It makes the events much more accessible to a greater range of runners without lessening their accomplishment – they can choose what level of support they want individually. And as has been pointed out here, someone with plans to go solo may want/need help out there beyond what they planned for and another of this incredible community will offer to help.

    To all those racing a 100 this year with or without a pacer I hope you have the time of your life and run well to boot.

    Stephan

  24. It was pretty funny when I didn’t win the Stonewall Jackson award at Massannutten, simply because I won another different colored buckle?. I think that was 100% wrong! I don’t really care about the silly buckle. I have more buckles than most, and don’t plan on wearing any.

    If a master runner finishes in the top 3 overall and the race awards the top 3, then the master should get two awards. @Sophie Speidel -

  25. The only real advantage the pacer gives is the light at nighttime, that is huge when we are racing to win.

    Originally Posted By JoeI’m not so sure having a pacer is an automatic advantage. I’ve never run a 100 with a pacer but it seems that once you hand off that mental baton you will probably let up the concentration level. Whenever I let up on my concentration the effort of running becomes more difficult. I’m more then happy to see my competitors using pacers because at mile 85 I’m passing a lot of runners holding on to shirt tails.

    I think many ultrarunners might find the solo experience very rewarding if they gave it a chance.

  26. @Stephan – As long as you don’t run yourself into needing an IV :-)

    @Speedgoatkarl – Congrats on your win at Bighorn. And FYI, masters double dip at Where’s Waldo. Neil Olsen collected the open and masters prize money and awards last year. And USATF competitors can’t use a pacer. It’s got mountains. It’s got a great field. It’s got prize money. We’d love to see you come race in Oregon this August.

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