We were sitting by the campfire in foldout chairs at two in the morning when a quick glance toward the woods caught my attention. Headlamps, moving fast. As a group, we all strained our eyes and slowly rose from our chairs until someone said, “The winner. IT’S THE WINNER!”
Two headlamps blazed up the trail and, as they approached the finish line, a feeling of excitement, accomplishment and extreme emotion fell over those of us still awake and waiting for our racers. The winner of the Mark Twain 100 had just finished 100 trail miles in 20 hours and 19 minutes. His pacer fell in right next to me, reached for his knees and panted out the words, “I’ve never seen anything like it. Incredible!”
So, what exactly is a pacer and what is pacing? Essentially, pacing is the use of secondary runners to keep an efficient and consistent pace. Some say pacing is strictly “muling.” Others think of pacing as an insurance policy. (I’m being totally honest when I say my MT100 racer said multiple times pre-race, “Please, Meghan, just don’t let me die.”)
The answer to “what is a pacer” is more difficult. It takes a certain type of runner to veer off before crossing the finish line and forgo the glory of a medal. For a seasoned pacer, that thought probably doesn’t even register. For a newbie, it could be a bit of a mind-blower.
If you’re curious about breaking into the strange and wonderful world of ultra running, if you know that you can depend on yourself and that a running peer with a goal can depend on you, consider pacing. Whether you quietly leave footfalls for your runner to follow or act as a one-man show (tying shoe laces, filling hydration bladders, replacing batteries and making food choices at aid stations) the point is merely to be reliable.
Pacing offers an amazing opportunity to learn about your own capabilities in distance racing. I’d venture to guess that most pacers, especially at the professional level, do compete regularly and often use pacing as a training run. That isn’t always the case, though. I’m very forthright in saying I have no racing aspirations. When you get down to it, basic conditioning and sound accountability are the important qualities.
Great pacers sing, ask trivial pursuit questions, record the whole event and present to their runner a video complete with musical accompaniment, credits and bloopers. All that is bonus material, and THAT pacer deserves a raise.
Pacing is akin to babysitting a super athlete: listening to your runner, offering them everything you can and getting their ass across the finish. To do that, you have to want it badly for them. You have to erase any thought of not finishing. You have to put your own needs aside.
I’ve always begged non-running friends to come out and hit a trail with me. I’ve latched onto regular runners for dear life and found joy in their announcement of “Well, there’s a new PR.” I’m flexible in pace and distance; I don’t give a damn about winning for myself. I find so much pride and enjoyment as an advocate for others’ goals that pacing just feels natural to me. I joke when I say professional pacing is my calling and the current direction of my “career path.” But, in actuality, I kind of see that as the perfect (although unpaid) dream job.
After the winner of the MT100 crossed the finish line, my anticipation level would best be described as euphoric. I was elated that I’d soon get to hit the ground running and delighted to be part of this crazy ultra-marathon experience. My runner was expected at any minute, and there was one more 25-mile loop to conquer before she would complete her race. So what if it was 2 a.m., below 40 degrees and we were all standing around in a parking lot looking off into the woods? We all knew the importance of being there.
The winner’s pacer, his job complete, threw on a hoodie and walked back over to where I was standing. As we stared past the lighted beacon of the finish, all I could think was, “Oh my gosh, I get to be part of this!” We both grinned embarrassingly at one another. We were pacers, and we loved it.
Author: Meghan McCarrick lives in Washington, Mo., eats copious amounts of kale and runs 30 to 50 miles a week, usually with her dog, Magpie.