Sunday, June 23, 2013

One night as a pacer-
What does pacer or safety runner in a 100 mile race do?
A pacer is a person who accompanies a runner on the second half of a long race, in this case a 100 mile run. Andy Kumeda, and extraordinary ultrarunner says, "The pacer is a combination of friend and coach whose job is to provide safety, companionship, motivation, help, guindance and support to the runner in those hours when the fatigue, the pain and quitting begin entering their minds". A pacer can also play a big part in a runner's success and sometimes, could determine whether or not a runner should finish the race. This is what I'm going to share about, my experience as a pacer on the Western States 100 Mile endurance run, which was on June 25th and 26th of 2011.

I had been training during the previous weeks in June because I'm also getting to run a big race, the Tahoe Rim Trail 100M on Saturday. Every week I was incrementing my mileage and I was at the peak of my training on the week of WS 100M, so I thought it would be a good idea to find someone to pace the last 38 miles of the race. It was not an easy task, I had to find a runner close to my speed. Fortunately, Karen Bonnett, an excellent ultrarunner who also was on the list to run the WS 100M helped me to contact Henry Bickerstaff from Oklahoma, who needed of a pacer, so I volunteered. I was scheduled to arrive between 6 to 7 pm at Foresthill, CA. Same day, early Saturday I was volunteering as a sweeper at the Double Dipsea race (14 miles) and had made plans to be ready to meet him on time.

The Double Dipsea at Stinson Beach
Ky Faubion and I were almost finishing our sweeping duties  when I got a text message from Henry's wife, telling me that he just dropped out from the race due to an injury in his ankle at mile 30. Then I thought, -Now what, I don't have a runner and I have to run many miles for two days! I called to tell her that I'll be there anyway, probably I could find another runner who also would need a pacer. I had my running gear ready and also I had a driver supporter, my brother Saul, so we took off to Foresthill, CA. 3 hours from Stinson Beach.
Foresthill, CA. mile 62 aid station!
There were lots of people in that small town when we got there, about 7:30pm I was happy to see many familiar faces from the Ultra running community, pacers and crews. I went directly to the pacers registration booth and told them that I was available to pace a runner for the last 38 miles of the WS 100M course. I placed my name on the list and sat down to wait; 8pm, 8:30, 9pm, 9:30, "Nothing for me?" I asked the pacer coordinator many times.- "NOPE, nothing for you", I was told repeatedly. I was also asking the runners who were leaving the place if they wanted a pacer, "NO!!!" was the answer.
Foresthill at sunset!
Getting ready to pace!
It was 10pm. It seemed that nobody needed my help. It was around 10:20 pm. when I started to get worried because 10:45 pm. was the Foresthill 30 hour cut-off time, as was announced. -It would be difficult to do my trainings if I don't find a runner in 20 minutes, I told myself. I think that because I was making a lot of noise with a cowbell when the runners were passing by, and also because I was telling everybody that I was waiting for any runner, a runner in need of a pacer when finally before 10:30pm someone started shouting, asking if the "guy with the cowbell" was still available, because a runner who was coming in was asking for a pacer. I jumped from the chair and I said "HERE, I'm ready to go!". Immediately I got a pacer bib # and met the runner. His name was Thomas Wong, a New York resident from Hong Kong. It was 10:34pm., a 9 minutes window for the 30 hours finish time. We had lot of work to do!.

Runners leaving The aid station!

Waiting for a runner to pace!
I had a few experience as a pacer from last year WS when I was helping Rob Silva, from Michigan Bluff aid station (mile 56) to Green Gate aid station (mile 80) so I had some ideas of what to do and no to do. First thing I did was to ask him what he wants me to do. "I want you to be in front of me at all the times", -he replied. OK, I agreed. He also requested, "And don't talk to me!". Oooops. So I kept my mouth shut!.
It was a constant fight with Thomas along the course. He was complaining every moment that I was moving too fast. It could be true, because I was trying to catch up some minutes, he was moving too slow and I was afraid that at the next aid station the volunteers would ask us to stop due his slow running time. I was walking at 15 minutes pace. Fortunately my plan worked, we got 20 extra minutes at the Peachstone aid station (mile 70.7). Then I thought, we need to run almost 50k in less than 9 hours, my runner looked cranky and tired so I needed to try something that could work. I didn't want him to fail, so I was planning some strategies.
One of the few things that he shared with me before we started to run together is that the Western States was his first 100M. I know from my experience of last year of Tahoe Rim Trail 100M how important it is for a runner to run his first "big one", and how hard is for a runner to get the WS 100M belt buckle. First, the runner has to qualify. Second, he has to get a spot from the lottery system (very difficult). And third, run the whole course in less than 30 hours, an Odissey!! Well, that's for slow runners like me!
It was around 3:10 am. right before the Rocky Chunky aid station (mile 78) when he started to complain, "Hey you, we are lost, what kind of pacer are you?" he looked frustrated and angry. I replied, Why? "Because I don't see any runner in front of us, nor any passing by us. It is completely dark and I don't see lights nearby". I answered him, -look, you just follow me, we are on the right path, the aid station is close, trust me! "Yeah, right, he said, "You are lying, we are going to be pulled out from the race, I don't believe you!". At that time that's what I also thought, but I never told him, there was no time to be nice!
I checked my GPS after we passed the Green Gate aid station (mile 80), we had 30 minutes window gain from the 30 hours cut-off time, great!!. It was about 4:30 am. when I started to feel tired and sleepy, I hadn't slept and rested the previous days because I do my long runs at night and my body was telling me to stop and sleep. "No", I told my self, not at this time, maybe I'll be able to do it after 11am, but not now! At that moment I had a lot of stress, dealing with my runner and I was fighting with myself; damn, being a pacer was not an easy job!!
Early morning and still moving!
I don't know why but after sunrise Thomas and I started to feel much better, finally he started to run, we were gaining time! Later I checked my GPS at the Browns Bar aid station (mile 90), we had almost 40 minutes spare time, good! Of course I was always in front of him, sometimes I turned back to see if he was OK, he was fine but looked tired and trashy but still following me. At one point he asked me, "Do you think we will make it?" I never said yes or no, I knew that if he kept that pace eventually we will, but I didn't want to make him feel too comfortable so that he would slow down his now great pace. At that time we had more than two hours to run 10 miles, and those miles at that time was very difficult to reach. Also we saw runners along the course who were having problems, I really wanted to help them, but I couldn't, I had my own runner and I had to get him to the finish line!.
No Hands Bridge aid station

Thomas was behind me!

After that we got to the Robbie Point aid station (mile 98.1). I will never forget that moment when Thomas said, -Hey you!, -Wait, wait, I replied, -I have a name, and my name is Noe!, -Oh, hey Noe, we have an hour to do a mile, right? Yes, I answered. Then he started to show his feelings, about how hard he had been training for the race and the sacrifice that was involved with his job, his family and friends. -I know what you mean, I answered, -but first we need to get to the finish line. Then you can tell everybody that you finished the Western States 100 mile endurance run, and that all your hard work was worth it! -Yes, he said, -and I want you to be with me crossing the line, together, he also told me. -I will, I will!.
Right after Robbie Point aid station!
Saul was waiting for us at the Placer High School track, and he captured some memorable shots of Thomas and me getting on the track. Thomas and I toed the line at 29:15:44. Very emotional moment for both of us, we both knew from the beginning at the Foresthill aid station (mile 62), that reaching the finish line would be very difficult, what was needed were courage and hearth. He conquered it and I was very happy to be part of his journey!

Entering the High school track, almost at the end of his journey!

The last yards, the finish line!
Thomas was finishing the WS 100M
Very emotional moments!
Thomas getting his finishing medal!
Strangers at the beginning, brothers at the end!
At the end he said, -Noe, you have played an important part of my race. Thanks to you I got to this place, without you it would have been impossible. I'm very grateful for your help, I owe you a lot. I don't know what can I do for you. I replied, -You don't need to do anything, I did it because I love to run too.
You don't owe me anything. Two months ago I was in a very sad situation and all my running family gathered and helped me get back on my feet. What I did for you is nothing compared to what they did for my family and me. -What happened, he asked me, -you know what enjoy your triumph, enjoy this moment! I said. Minutes later I told him that I had to leave, I needed to sleep at least a couple hours before to run a "few" more miles at Tahoe. -OK, he said. We hugged each other, then I left.

My driver supporter, my brother Saul!
On my way to Tahoe I was talking to Saul about the race. I told him about how happy I was to be part of Thomas' dream. Definitely it was a very good experience. On few days will be my turn to run a 100M too, that is my dream and I hope to accomplish it. Now, If anybody asks me to be a pacer again, I wouldn't hesitate, I'd do it again!!

Noe Castanon Mendez
DSE, Pamakids &LMJS runner
July 2011