Pacing an Ultra: A Case Study at Cascade Crest

(You could view this post as further evidence that I'm doing a miserable job of making this a blog about WA State running history, or you could recognize, as I do, that Adam Gaston completing Cascade Crest was one of the most important events in WA running history, and see this as a personal account of the experience, as well as a helpful series of tips for pacing presented in a creative, entertaining, and occasionally hilarious way.)  

It's been an amazing running/endurance sports Summer for Angel and I so far - we started with the 12 Summits at Tiger Mountain with a great group of friends, Angel qualified for the Boston Marathon at the Edge to Edge Marathon between Tofino and Ucleulet BC at the beginning of a week of trail and beach running on the Pacific Coast of Vancouver Island, we've been in the mountains on the trails pretty much every weekend, we completed our first 50 miler at White River (where we also had dinner with Ellie Greenwood, among the best ultra-runners ever), we spent a gorgeous weekend in the North Cascades camping and running the short option at Angel's Staircase, and we rode our bikes from Seattle to Vancouver, BC on the RSVP.  But this weekend was a real highlight when I had the honor of pacing Adam Gaston for the last 32 miles of his first 100 at Cascade Crest

Before this event, I'd never been to a 100 miler (let alone run one), I'd never run in the area, and I'd never worked as a pacer (unless you count running 4 miles at the Transcendence 12 hour with Sharon Hendricks a few weeks ago), so I was a bit nervous beforehand that I was going to screw something up ("Uh, Adam, can I borrow some water. I forgot to bring a bottle.  Also, did you bring any food for us?").  Compounding this concern was the fact that I jumped in on a whim while drinking, at the last minute.  Angel and I ran into Adam in Bellingham last weekend at the venerable runner's pub, the Boundary Bay Brewery, we had a few beers, he mentioned that he hadn't lined up a pacer yet, Angel volunteered me (a lot of things in my life start this way), and that was that.  On Saturday Angel picked me up from work at about 10:45 PM, and we drove to a campsite in the middle of relatively nowhere and waited at the Kachess Lake Aid Station for my runner to show up after having already traveled 68 miles since 10 am that morning.  While we were waiting, I realized that I honestly had no idea what to expect, or even how to approach the rest of the experience.  I thought of my job as essentially twofold: 1) help Adam get to the finish line (with a secondary goal of getting there as fast as he could) and 2) keep him from ending up in a Medevac.  There really is a delicate balance there in ultrarunning.  As we watched runners come through in various states of disarray, I realized that neither of those would necessarily be easy goals to accomplish.  A few looked unreasonably fresh, but most ranged from somewhere between 5 - 10 on the haggard scale.  A few were dropping, some looked like they should but wouldn't because they'd gone a little bit crazy, and most looked one would expect after having just run 68 miles. 

When Adam came in at 3:15 AM or so, he gave Angel and I both a hug without really saying anything (good sign?  bad sign?) and sat down immediately, asking for food.  He didn't look as bad as some, but he also didn't look as good as others.  He was a bit pale and seemed a little disoriented, and my assessment as a medical professional was that the man needed some food, some electrolytes,  something to drink, and probably a lot of sleep.  (Later I learned that, at the previous aid station, he'd been shivering and in worse shape, and that he hadn't been able to eat properly in the previous stage due to GI issues.  I'm glad I didn't get that report until after the race, b/c I would've been unhelpfully worried.)  After some pizza, coffee and aid station food, he started to perk up a bit and his color came back - he was coherent and ready to move so we left at about 3:30. 

What follows is a list of things I gathered about pacing an ultra between 3:30 am and Adam's finish at 3:30 pm the next day, in order of lessons learned.

1) Follow your runner's cues.  One of the first things Adam asked for when we started was for me to run behind him.  I think that was pretty smart, because I really doubt that I would've moved at exactly the pace he would've wanted or been able to manage the rest of the way.  The first leg I ran with him consisted mostly of "the trail from hell", thusly named because it used to have a bunch of blowdowns and steep dropoffs on loose dirt into a lake, and because most people run it in the middle of the night.  It's been cleaned up a bit, so this year folks were calling it "the trail from heck".  Adam's normally a faster runner than me, and he was often moving at a faster pace than I normally would on an ultra through this section, so here I likely would've slowed him up. The only place I tried to push the pace beyond what he was doing was walking up a long forest road, because he didn't seem to be struggling and I was trying to make sure we didn't lose too much time on uphill sections.  I know that some runners prefer to treat the pacer like a rabbit to chase (I like to have that in a race, actually), but for the most part, he didn't require any pushing to move as fast as he was able, so in our case he set the pace. 

2) Expect weirdness. Towards the end of the trail from hell, without saying anything, Adam laid down and briefly went to sleep, essentially in the middle of the trail.  I was mainly thinking 1) that would be a really funny thing to see under most circumstances, and 2) I hope this is normal (apparently it is actually a great strategy b/c you get a cat nap and probably won't sleep too long b/c it's uncomfortable and other runners will trip on you).  I told him I'd wake him up in 10 minutes, but he got up himself in 5 (which actually gave me a nice break to watch the sunrise at Kachess Lake without getting too sleepy myself).  He did the same thing again later in the race and was trying to convince me that the cold, hard ground covered in bristly brush was as comfortable as his bed.  He either needs a new bed, or 100 miles makes you delusional.

3) Counter your runner's delusions.  Speaking of delusions, I think a pacer's key role is to make sure your runner doesn't buy into any sleep deprivation-induced delusions about not being able to finish.  It's only 100 miles!  Of course you're going to finish.  Actually, in Adam's case, I never had much doubt - it was his first 100, but I knew him as a solid and fast runner who had done the training he needed to. And while he showed some of the ravages of 29 hours of running with no sleep, nothing worrying was happening - he was having GI issues, but wasn't puking, he was tired and kind of out of it, but not hallucinating, he was having a hard time getting food in, but was eating and drinking in bits and pieces and wasn't complaining of dizziness, and he was solidly within the time cutoffs.  I was sure, as long as nothing catastrophic happened, that he was going to finish. 

4) Stay Positive: during a hard 24 - 36 hours of running, a person's bound to get a bit disheartened at times - worrying about being able to keep up their speed enough to finish and/or beat the cutoffs, worrying that minor injuries are serious, getting sad that their ass is chapped and their feet are now just giant blisters, thinking that maybe all of this was a stupid idea.  As a pacer, I think you  need to be consistently and irrationally positive - "you'll feel better in a few more miles" is the mantra - when you think about it, it seems kind of crazy, but you have to try to convince the runner to believe it for hours at a time in order to keep going through inevitable lulls.  There were times when I wasn't necessarily thinking that myself, and there were times that I personally thought it was a stupid idea, even for me to be running all night, but you can't let on about that stuff - to them, or to yourself.  It's a fun and unique little mind game that you have to play as a pacer. 

5) Jokes aren't funny.  One thing I learned working nights at Children's is that, when you're sleep deprived, your sense of humor does strange things.  My own symptoms include making jokes that don't make sense, laughing hysterically at things that aren't funny at all, and getting angry at things that should be funny.  Combining sleep deprivation with constant physical exertion makes things even more weird.  Along the run I kept trying to pull off jokes, and kept getting flat responses, probably both because (primarily) I was getting weird myself and because few people are in the mood for a laugh in the middle of an ultra (Matt Hagan excepted).  Failed jokes included comments about sabotaging competitors, getting fired for aiding competitors, about finishing under 26 hours at hour 24.5 (and mile 86), and about there "just being an easy half-marathon left".  (Side note - at the 6 hour point of the White River 50, I made a joke to another runner about only having a few minutes left to catch the leaders.  His response was an angry "WE'RE NOT GOING TO CATCH THE LEADERS! THEY'RE ALMOST FINISHED!")  I would add here that Adam did pull off a few good jokes in the middle about giving up running after this, and about hoping that there was someone at the aid station with a gun who would shoot him, but I'm not sure they were jokes.

6) Finally, 100 Milers are inspiring.  Cascade Crest, in particular, is amazing.  The simple concept of humans being able to travel 100 miles in one go through some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere is, in itself, pretty amazing.  This course was really challenging and beautiful 20k feet of ups and downs through the Central Cascades - in my section we spent the night running around a mountain lake, and we spent the day going up and down climbs on top of a ridge with constant panorama mountain views for hours at a time.  It combined the best aspects of hiking and running.  (I think through hiking the PCT, by the way, would be much more popular if there were stations every 5 miles or so where people would make you bacon quesadillas and coffee.  I'm going to write a letter to the Forest Service.) 

Even more so though was seeing so many people pushing through really difficult circumstances in order to accomplish a goal that may well be unattainable (almost 1/3 of starters didn't finish this year).  I thought a 50 miler was a challenge, but 100 is a whole different level of grueling, with time, distance and sleep deprivation adding constant psychological challenges that I didn't feel were there in the 50.  There's a sort of reality show quality to being a pacer, where, from a position of relative comfort, you get to follow and watch a person going through highs and lows trying to convince themselves to get to the finish.  During the course of our run, I watched Adam struggle to eat for 6 hours, frequently stopping to try to prevent himself from vomiting.  He spent most of the run getting weird hiccup spasms after aid station breaks, and any time his heart rate rose much above walking rate.  I saw him legitimately questioning whether he was going to be able to finish under the time cutoffs (I never doubted it, but he legitimately thought he might not finish for a significant portion of the race), dealing with sleep deprivation and talking himself out of just laying down, generally feeling really crappy.  And that doesn't even address the exertional pain his muscles were in after hours of work.  Along the way, we were moving along with dozens of others going through similar processes of struggle.  It's kind of a mess, and I'm not sure I would want to go through it myself, but it's a remarkable thing to watch someone will themselves through  In the end, it was amazing to see him get a second (13th?) wind at mile 95 and manage to run most of the final section at a solid sub-10 minute/mile pace, passing multiple runners and pushing to finish in under 30 hours.

All in all, as a pacer Cascade Crest was a remarkable experience.  Mad props to Adam and the 97 others who managed to push themselves through that.  It was an honor to have been a part of it, even if I only did the 50k option.  I had a ton of fun pacing and hope to be able to do a lot more of it in the future.


Yitka said…
GREAT write-up! You definitely captured the pacing experience (and with good humor, as usual!) I especially had to laugh, because at French Cabin, I also said to my runner, "Hey, think of it this way: you have less than a half marathon left!" and it did not go over well with her either. Lessons learned! Great seeing you out there, and congrats to Adam on a tremendous race. I saw him at Hyak, and he was definitely hurting. Kudos to him for finding the strength to keep going, and kudos to you for seeing him through the end.
Unknown said…
Thanks Yitka! I hear that Hyak was the low point. It was a long slow rally after that. Kudos and good work to you too for getting your runner (whose name I somehow never caught) through as well!
Tim! I missed you at Kachess! I was there about 4:15? I met my runner, Jennifer Hughes, at Hyak and it was such a fun and alarming adventure. Did I really recommend that running might help make her nauseous enough that she could finally throw up properly?? Seemed to work! I ran 15 with her and then tried to follow into that Evil Forest... and sadly, I didn't have the skills to continue. She transformed from a tired pukey runner into a Forest Spider! The girl was frisking through that evil wood at an amazing pace! I kept loosing footing with little (OK LOUD) screams. Then sadly went back to Kachess. She finished in 28:28!! How freaking amazing is that??
p.s. My runner thought all my jokes were hilarious. Cuz they are.
John said…
Great write up! And I wouldn't worry too much about the jokes. My pacer commented after the race that I didn't seem to be all that affected by all the beautiful views he was pointing out or the jokes and observations he was making. But in all honesty I was, it was all great's just incredibly hard, at least for me and I'm guessing quite a few other runners, to show any type of emotion that late in a 100 mile race. That being said, every runner is a little different so I suppose jokes may not go over well with some!
PhotoMatt said…
Great job keeping Adam together, thanks for the shout-out, and definitely keep telling jokes! Your runner is always laughing inside. Really…
Unknown said…
Sharon - You have it down - Next time I'm going to try more potty humor, per Jennifer's suggestion. I was going with subtle, British humor-style stuff this time. Next time it's all poop and sex jokes.

John - deep down inside I think Adam appreciated the joking. It seems like the 'half-marathon' comment though doesn't work for anyone :).
Unknown said…
Oh, and Sharon, we left at about 3:30 from Kachess - Jennifer caught us at the Mineral Creek Aid Station, looking fresh and tough while I was enjoying the pleasure of bandaging and lubing Adam's feet. Sorry to hear that you didn't get to experience the trail from hell. It was a lovely curse-filled stumble through the dark.