Friday, May 23, 2014

Crash Course in Pacing

My head hit the pavement so hard I thought I had knocked all my teeth out. I popped up off the ground, adrenaline rushing through my veins, and kept shouting, “Are my teeth ok? Are my teeth ok?” Matthew came running back to see if I was alright, and the look on his face told me that he was surprised I was conscious.

We were 26 miles into a 30 mile run that I was bike pacing, and I had taken a fall off the bike, landing full force on the right side of my head.  So much for rolling into a fall. My hands never left the handlebars.  I guess that saved my wrist from breaking, and the helmet saved my brain quite well too. But the impact was astounding.

After Matthew assured me that my teeth were all still in place, my thoughts turned to the matter at hand. I may have royally screwed up the last four miles of this run, I thought. Pacers are supposed to help the runner, not vice versa, and it was looking like I was the man down.

Ultra runner and coach, Tim Long writes a great blog about running, and in his entry about pacing he calls it “one of the most selfless acts a human can perform.” That certainly wasn’t going to be the case if the guy I was pacing had to carry my bike and me for the last four miles of his long run.

Let me back up. Pacers usually run with an ultra racer, typically for the last half or quarter of a 100 mile run. The pacer is there to help, not hinder, the racer. 

Bike pacing a runner works the same way pacing a runner on foot works.   The pacer leads, goes alongside or follows the runner (runner's choice), offering a predetermined amount of moral support, and company. There are rules about what a pacer can and cannot do, such as mule water or food for the racer, and there are rules about how soon a racer can pick up a pacer, but on this particular day, since it was a training run, we set out together from mile one. It was to be a total of 30 miles, and since I can’t keep up running with Matthew until he is about 70 miles in, I was riding my bike.

All had been going well: there had been no complaints from Matthew, the pace was strong, his body was feeling good and we were cruising to the end. And then I crashed.

As soon as I mentally counted my teeth, I formulated a plan. I would go with the pacers motto of always telling the racer how great he seems/looks, and apply it to myself for the last four miles. That combined with the old adage “if you fall off the bike, get right back on and start peddling again,” helped me to squeak “I’m totally fine, I can ride, no big deal, it’s ok, let’s go!” 

I hurt. My hip hurt, my shoulder hurt, my head now knew the phrase “got my bell rung,” but there was no way I was going to let Matthew know this. For a rather lazy girl, I can be pretty hard core when it comes to pacing.

Not in the dark though. No. Have you ever tried to ride your bike up and down rolling gravel hills on a moonless night without a head lamp? One night, Matthew and I were out on another bike/run, and it became dark before we were able to make it back. And we were in the woods. With a lack of moonlight, and any ambient light being blocked by tree cover, I was flying blind. He was alright. His feet could help him feel each step. I was terrified that I would topple over the handlebars at any moment. Finally, as he disappeared into the darkness ahead of me, I began to walk the bike.  Lesson learned: throw a headlamp into your bag or around your neck if you think you’ll be out anywhere near dusk.     

But the day of The Crash, I was determined. It was the last training run before the Boulder 100 and it needed to have a strong finish. This is why I’m a runner, I thought. You don’t bash your head while running.

Until you do. Another day, I was riding alongside Matthew during a long run with 2 miles to go, when suddenly he hit the dirt with a slam! I jumped off the bike, and looked at him – now lying in the dirt catching his breath. Holy hell! Are you ok, I asked. He said fine, I caught a toe, and he continued to rest there for a few minutes. Turns out, runners can get smashed up too – and they don’t even have helmets on for protection.

The day of The Crash ended well. We finished the 30 miles and ended at a great restaurant where Jeff was waiting for us with food and beverages that we were all happy to enjoy. We might have been a little sore, but there were no complaints because we were looking good, totally fine, and we did it. But it was time to buy a new helmet. 

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