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. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Boulder 100

Matthew and I arrived at the Boulder Reservoir for a recon run, the day before the Boulder 100. The race would consist of 14+ 7.14 mile loops around the Reservoir with two well stocked aid stations and no elevation gain to speak of. Flat and fast with no worry of getting lost in the mountains in the middle of the night. It sounded like a pretty great course for a first 100 attempt.

The recon run proved out a few things. The course was flat. The Reservoir was gorgeous. The elevation was 5,200 feet. That's a fine enough elevation for say, someone from Denver, which sits at 5,000 feet, but East Coast runners can feel it. We looked at each other and said nothing, because we were both breathing harder than usual. And I hadn't even gone on the recon run.

In the days leading up to the race we spent time with Matthew's coach, Tim. I think the general consensus was "Hey - you're going to run this thing regardless of worrying about it or not, so you might as well have fun. And run." Tim has the ability to be the most intense yet laid back guy, so when you talk with him, especially about running, you tend to believe you can accomplish feats of strength, or at least you know that you're going to keep going till you no longer can, *and* you'll likely have a laugh about any nerves leading in.

And hell, I wasn't going to be running - all I had to do was stay awake for 24 hours while handing Matthew food and drink.

Have you ever tried to stay awake for 24 hours and help/support someone at the same time? It's not as easy as you would think, especially without the benefit of speed or cocaine. Jeff and I set up our base camp while Matthew began to race. We clicked off loops as friends arrived to visit us: my dear friend Dayna and her girls, Hannah and Maddy, Jeff's old roommate Matt - it became a bit of a party and we cheered for Matthew every 7.14 miles and wished him well as he headed out for yet another loop.

Things were going fine for the first 50 miles. Matthew wasn't feeling good but he kept it to himself and we told him he looked great every chance we could. He had to check in every loop at the main Aid Station and at the secondary Aid Station on the backside of each loop. I was jotting down splits as well, though I wasn't being as diligent as Bull Run 50, because he had to officially check in at the Aids anyway and they were keeping count.

Darkness fell and the party quieted down, friends went back to their lives and we settled in for the evening. Tim had left and returned, in time to begin pacing at mile 50, after the 7th loop.  Tim and Matthew ran off into the darkness and before we knew it, they were right back to begin another. After another 7+ miles, Tim let Matthew go on his own for the next one, and while Matthew was gone, Tim said, "Clythie, I think you should pace him for a loop."

This was quite unexpected. Matthew is my running partner, but we run our own paces and rarely run together. I was planning on crewing but had never paced before. But like I said, Tim has a way of making you feel like you can accomplish things so, I said yes, and changed into my running clothes and joined in after Matthew had run more than 70 miles.

We headed out onto the course, jogging along and talking a bit, mostly about the light that was coming off of my head lamp, which was bothering Matthew. His eyes had grown used to the darkness so the headlamp bulb was a hindrance. I turned it off and ran along in the dark. I could not see anything. What kind of pacer was I going to be if I was dependent upon my runner to lead me? But quickly my eyes adjusted and we hit the backside Aid, turned around and headed to base camp.

We grabbed a grilled cheese sandwich, chicken noodle soup and coffee, checked in and headed back out, this time walking. We walked and ran and made it around again. We talked and hiked and jogged a bit and Matthew hallucinated and I tried to pretend that it was alright that he was seeing things that were not there, and we kept going. Tim took over for 2 more loops and then switched with me again.

The middle of the night does strange things to the body and mind. Add massive physical exertion, sleep deprivation and cold, and humans just start to break down. Matthew was getting tired. Tim, Jeff and I were getting tired. Things were starting to blur a bit.

At each Aid, Matthew diligently checked in. Sometime in the 70s, he either was not marked for a loop (which another racer, Becca, also complained about) or someone's calculation was off, because Matthew was told several times he had "this many" more loops to go to get to 100, and several times, he was told different numbers. It was confusing and maddening and frustrating and we were all really really tired.      

By the time dawn arrived, The Low had been reached. None of us were sure what number loop he was on, including race officials. Tears were shed. Objects were thrown. But there were moments of rational conversation too: Should he DNF? Should he go on, potentially to race 107 miles? Which was the better choice? We were blearily debating this when Jeff, who had been quietly listening, said, "I'd like to go out for a loop with you, Matthew."

Jeff does not run. He says he'll run only if something is chasing him or if he is chasing something, but that's it. Matthew, Tim and I stopped talking, looked at Jeff and we all nodded. Yes. Jeff should go out and run with Matthew. Jeff took Matthew out into the rising sun, as everyone at the Reservoir began to awaken, and hauled out the fastest loop Matthew had had in hours. It was beautiful. It was what Matthew needed. It was what we all needed. Matthew was going to finish this race.

In the end, he finished. In the end, he won his age group. In the end, we all cried again. And later that night, when none of us could walk very well, we smiled and shook our heads and made a toast to Jeff for turning it all around, and to Matthew for running his first 100 and to Tim for being the best coach ever and to all our friends for coming out to see it happen.  

A good morning beer in one hand, proper hydration in the other. 

Post Race Bliss + Sunburn