Pacing and crewing for a 100-mile race is just as fun as running it – or at least I make it fun. Crewing for your runner is also an art and science. There is creativity in preparing for your runner/athlete – from decorating your canopy tent to telling them stories while you run with them – or even wearing costumes to keep them (and other athletes) entertained. There is also a science to it – you need to be prepared. Preparations start even before the race and continues throughout the weekend – from logistics (is it point to point or loops), to pace charts (you need to know what time to expect them and where), to post-race (what should you feed them after they finish, do they have their favorite change of clothes). You are basically their trail-bitch for the weekend. I have prepared a crew packing list, which I continue to change as I learn new things from others or on my own. Likewise, when I am the runner/athlete, I also make sure my team of crew and pacers are comfortable for the weekend, because they are sacrificing their time to help me finish my race.
Last February 4-5, I paced and crewed for my awesome couple-friends, Kathy and Jeff. It was Kathy’s first 100-mile race, and Jeff’s first 100-mile finish! They both did amazing, and I am honored to be a part of their team to help them get their first 100-mile buckle. The race was held in Huntsville State Park, about 1 hour north of Houston, TX. The weather was perfect that weekend! It only went down to 45 degrees Fahrenheit at night and early morning. The daytime was probably warm but comfortable mid-70s. I did this race last year, so I knew what to expect. It was a 20-mile loop course, there were lots of roots along the way, some elevation but not too much, and your runner/athlete comes back to your home-base each time.
We set up our canopy tent the day before the race, during packet pick-up. It was an early morning start on race day, waking up at 3 AM and then at the race site by 4:30 AM. Race started at 6 AM. We had other runners we knew also doing the race – Steve from Team RADIOactive, and Samantha from our Trail Sisters. After I sent off my runners, I drove back to our Airbnb and went back to sleep.
We had a whiteboard where we had all 4 runners’ names, and jotting down their arrival time after each lap, so that we can calculate their next arrival time. I miscalculated Kathy’s first arrival time after lap 1. I got back to the race site 15 minutes after she left for lap 2. After that, I never left the race site, so I am prepared. The day went on, we helped our runners as they came in. It was Samantha’s second time starting at 100-mile, her first finish was outside of TX, and finished in 21 hours! She is another amazing athlete, so strong and understands her body well. Our other trail sisters slowly started arriving and helping with getting our runners in and out of the tent.
When it slowed down, and to pass time, I hiked about 5 miles out on the course. I was looking for the painted drawings on the roots, which I swear last year I saw them as I was nearing the finish line. I saw skulls, flowers, circles, and hearts. To prove I was NOT hallucinating last year, I set out to look for them this year. I found some, while they were not exactly painted roots, they were mother nature’s drawings.
At nightfall, I started to pace Kathy. We picked up another runner she met along the course, they ran together for a bit in earlier laps. It was starting to get cold, but not too bad. But for Kathy, who has been running all day, it was getting cold, she was starting to shiver. I gave her my gloves to keep warm. The other athlete we hiked with (he goes by Sek), had a good walking pace, so I told Kathy to follow him. She was slowing down, because of the cold, and because of fatigue thru the night. To keep us entertained I started asking Sek questions (so we can make him talk instead of us). He had an interesting line of work; he is a prison guard. I mentioned he must have a lot of interesting stories, so he started telling us about his experience working at the prison, and stories about in-mates. It helped to pass time, and before we knew it, we were back and completed the lap. I sent them both off, after some food, nutrition, and change of clothes. I told them both to stay together, and once the sun comes out, they will be invigorated and have more energy. Draw energy from the sun.
After I sent them off around 2 AM, I went back to our Airbnb, took a shower, ate for a bit, it was around 3 AM when I finally got to bed. I set my alarm for 6:30 AM. I woke up with a text from Griselda. Sam didn’t make it, she DNF shortly after the Nature Center aid station.
I hurried to get ready then drove back to the race site, I didn’t want to miss Kathy’s finish. I got their on time, had a breakfast taco and coffee from Ms. Vicky’s food truck (at the race site). While waiting, I checked the whiteboard, saw that Jeff logged in his arrival time at 5:53 AM to start lap 4. I was happy to see he continued; he was looking strong this year.
Kathy finished strong in 26hrs and 27 minutes! I was super proud of her, and she looked very happy, all smiles all the way to the ears 😊
After Kathy finished, I got back to the tent, she was relaxing, then I decided to pace Jeff for his last 10 miles. I expected him to be at Nature Center aid station at around 9-9:30 AM, so started to run towards the aid station to surprise him with pacing for the last 10 miles. He did not have a pacer. I wanted to make sure he finished this time. When he was not yet showing up by 9:30 AM, I was worried so I walked backwards, and after 1 mile I was happy to see him, walking slowly, but he seemed happy to see me too (as well as the other participants who by this time are doing the walking dead zombie walk). I got him in and out of the aid station, then we were off. We caught up to Nancy (a local ultra runner legend in TX), so we hiked-jogged-walked with her. She had many interesting stories, and she kept us going. While I wanted Jeff to move faster, he was content with the slow walk. I kept suggesting for us to move on, leave Nancy, she was hurting and walking, but Jeff was being respectful of Nancy’s stories. At some point, Jeff was hallucinating. He was seeing foxes, explaining a drawing on the tree… even Nancy said he was hallucinating and she would know.
After the last aid station at Damn Nation, I noticed a whole lot more trash on the trail. I had a big gallon zip lock in my pack, so I started picking up trash along the way on the trails. It is so sad to see other runners (they are mostly probably runners littering, as I picked up several empty gels, energy bar wrapping, and an empty bottle of coke) littering our trails. If you are a hiker or runner using our public trails, or even wherever you are, pack it out and pack it in. Do not leave trash on our trails.
When we were about 1.5 mile away from the finish, Nancy took off, Jeff couldn’t move that fast. I still continued to encourage him to keep moving, sometimes with a slow jog. With 15 minutes to spare till cutoff, Jeff finished his first 100-mile race. They both earned their buckles. We then drove back to the Airbnb, washed up, ate some leftovers, then it was time to nap. It was a successful weekend of racing, pacing, and crewing.
While I enjoy crewing and pacing, and I prepare myself for it, I am selective of who I crew/pace for. I know the athlete/runner will always be cranky, but that is during their race (and maybe before and after as stress settles in). I would only pace/crew for my runner who also cares about the well-being of their crew, not necessarily during the race, but at least had planned for them. That’s why some people go screwed, one because they might not want too many people around, two because you need to also plan for your crew, and/or three the athlete is a control-freak. I have not yet regretted any experience of pacing or crewing; I always enjoyed it and always know my runner very well. Where is the next pacing or crewing gig?
Ultra-races always invigorate me, whether it is running, hiking, or crewing, it gives me energy for the next few weeks.