Trails of Glory
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Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Leadville 100 has been around for 30 years and has a storied history. Its popularity seems to have skyrocketed after Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run which tells about the epic battles of yesteryear between the Tarahumara Indian runners from Mexico and Ann Trason’s early feats of accomplishment. My friend and National Guard Marathon teammate, Troy Frost, a Colonel in the Montana Air National Guard, called me up three weeks prior to the race and asked if I could help pace him during a hefty portion of the race. I have always wanted to run Leadville 100 myself so I took the opportunity to lend a hand and get a glimpse of what this race has to offer.
As a pacer for an ultra-runner there are many things to be prepared for. The biggest challenge for pacers is that they are usually picking up their runner somewhere late in the race typically after 8, 10, or 12 hours and 40-70 miles of running. This is a challenge because as a pacer you have a lot of energy and are wide awake, prepared to be on duty possibly overnight and your runner is feeling the opposite physically and mentally. Your vital job is to keep them going on the right path and encourage them to eat and drink when they don’t always have their wits about them to do remember on their own.
Your runner may be fatigued and sleepy and your challenge is keeping them awake and moving forward through encouraging conversation, storytelling, singing songs or cadence, or whatever creative method you can come up with. Depending on the slowdown that inevitably takes place in the second half of the race you may be out on the course 2-3 times longer than you would normally be for that distance. Another difficulty is that the runner that has been on the course all day is working hard and staying warm by generating body heat or cooler by sweating. As a pacer you may not be making as much of an effort and need to dress for the occasion. The pacer needs to be prepared for all conditions carrying extra clothing, calories, more water than you think you will need, and extra supplies like headlamps and spare batteries.
The most important job as a pacer is keeping your runner on the course. You need to study the course details and be aware of course markings. There is nothing worse than running extra miles after missing a turn because you weren’t prepared. This is especially difficult at night when it is easy to turn on a headlamp and put your head down looking for good footing when the course marker flags are at head level in the trees.
Inevitably many ultra-runners experience down-spells caused by nausea, cramps, altitude headaches, dehydration, or just plain bonking. Most pacers aren’t medically trained physicians but the reason they are pacing is typically because they have been there and done that in races of their own. They have a plethora of experience and know what it takes to alleviate cramps and avoid dehydration to begin with. They have experience with nausea and vomiting and know which foods or drinks relieve those symptoms. Sometimes it might just be knowing when and how long to take a rest break between aid stations. The hardest job can be keeping a runner ahead of cut-offs preventing them from being pulled from the race.
At Leadville I was joined by two other pacers and Troy’s wife Pam Frost, a Chief Warrant Officer Three in the Montana Army National Guard, who also helped crew. In a race like Leadville where there are over 800 starters crewing can be complicated in the early stages of the race. Crew access to aid stations in the early part of a race have a lot of traffic and limited parking because everyone is arriving near the same time. This could mean parking a couple miles away and walking to the aid station. With this in mind we opted to bypass the first aid station at 13 miles and catch up with Troy at the mile 23 aid station. Without knowing the runnability of the course it becomes an educated guess as to what pace your runner will average so you should plan to arrive early or make alternate arrangements like the placing of drop bags.
We estimated too long and arrived at mile 23 after Troy had gone through already. Since we knew this was a possibility ahead of time, Troy made a drop bag for this aid station in case he needed to stash excess clothing and flashlights from the early 4am start. Since this is an out-and-back course the same drop bag had dry warm clothes for later that evening at mile 86 when the temperature would plummet. After we looked up what time he came through we had a real good idea of his pace and the rest of the day we were able to make reasonable estimations as when to expect him at the remainder of the crew stops.
Drop bags – a quick definition – for those of you who don’t know the term “drop bag.” It is a bag used to stash clothing, special needs drinks and food, shoe and sock changes, inclement weather gear, and anything else that the typical aid station does not offer or can’t be brought in by your crew. Most races of long duration offer this service and are fairly prompt about getting your gear back to the finish after the race.
Leadville allows for pacers to join their runner at the halfway turnaround point of 50 miles at Winfield aid station. Mike Zeigle, a former National Guard Team runner now retired from the military and living in Wisconsin, picked Troy up at 50 miles and went the next 10 miles back over Hope Pass at 12,500 feet of elevation. The course gains 2500 feet over four miles and then descends the same amount before crossing a thigh high creek crossing into the Twin Lakes aid station. Mike’s 10-mile leg was valuable because Troy had just done this climb in reverse; having a pacer to accompany him kept his spirits up when the last thing he was looking forward to was another monster hill all over again. Mike looked more tired than Troy coming into 60 miles and had stories to tell about llamas and the climb over Hope Pass and an unfortunate fall on the way down.
Our team coordinator, Sergeant First Class Mike Hagen, from the Army National Guard in Lincoln, Nebraska, picked up with Troy for the next 16 miles to 76.5. As a crew we helped Troy change his shoes after the water crossing and handed him food and drinks from the aid station tables. The aid station volunteers were outstanding taking care of refilling hydration packs and finding drop bags. We replenished Troy’s pack with gels and made sure he had a working flashlight for after sunset and sent him and Mike on their way.
One note of mention for crewing runners; handling is an important job even though the aid station volunteers are willing to do all of the work. The runner typically has some preconceived ideas about specific things they want at different times of the race. If it isn’t already in a drop bag then you should have it available for them in an easily transportable container or bag that has been organized beforehand. Also, an encouraging positive attitude and familiar faces are extremely helpful to the runner who is fatigued and may be questioning why they are even doing the run.
Another thing to think about as a crew is to have a base camp of sorts; a hotel room, campsite, or house in the general area. This is useful because many times you will drive into and out of aid stations for many miles bringing you close to where you started. Take advantage of the opportunity to go back to camp and freshen up, get a nap or a meal. Your runner could be several hours before reaching the next crew accessible point.
Mike and Troy were out a bit over 3 hours and came into the Fish Hatchery aid station mile 76.5 around 9:30pm. It was dark now and headlamps and handheld flashlights could be seen like lanterns swaying in the night coming up the road into the aid station. My pace section was next and entailed the remaining 23 miles of the course and running overnight to get Troy to the finish. I knew we had one more major climb of 1000 feet before the last aid station at May Queen mile 86.5. I also knew that after a warm day of temps in the mid-70s the overnight temperature would be as low as 32 degrees. I was prepared with a full 70 ounce hydration vest, a handheld water bottle filled with electrolyte fluid, headlamp and flashlight, e-caps, energy gels with caffeine, ginger capsules, Tums, ibuprofen, gloves, stocking cap, rain jacket, garbage bag, and arm warmers.
Troy held up well and made great forward progress although every muscle in his body ached and his mind was telling him to stop. He never got sleepy but after 90 miles his legs were shot and we were relegated to a brisk walk. A lot of this was on a hilly rocky trail around Turquoise Lake. We eventually got around the lake and hit the road for the remaining 6 miles of the course into the finish in Leadville. The temperature did drop into to the 30s so we took out our cold weather stuff and walked as fast as we could finishing at 4:06am for a 24:06 finish time. Troy’s goal was to break 25 hours which awarded him the gold finisher’s belt buckle.