- A companion who may accompany a runner in the later stages of an ultra-marathon as a safety consideration. They may not “mule” by carrying food, water or supplies for their runner.
Synonyms: Motivator, psychologist, dietician, dictator, entertainer, navigator, friend
Pacing a runner in a long distance race is a unique opportunity that is both challenging and rewarding. I learned a lot about the hundred mile distance when I paced my friend Sarah at Thunder Rock and was excited to try my hand at it again for the Georgia Jewel. It has many similarities to my upcoming hundred miler including the fact that it takes place on the Pinhoti Trail. The only problem – I didn’t know anyone who needed a pacer. I considered just showing up at the race with a “free pacer” sign, an idea I shamelessly stole from Knoxville ultra-runner Sho Gray. For ease of logistics, I decided instead to post on the Georgia Jewel Facebook page. Within a week or two, I received a message from Melissa. Her pacer had some unexpected obligations come up and she was left to make a whole new game plan just a few weeks out from her first hundred miler. We arranged some of the details and decided that I would meet her and her crew at the halfway point. We messaged back and forth about her sources of motivation, the course, hydration and nutrition strategies, running related jokes and anything else we could think of. By the time race day came around it felt like we were old running friends.
The night before I stayed up until 4am writing a race report so I was able to send her well wishes before her race start at 5. Her crew sent me updates throughout the day on her pace at different aid stations so I could calculate what time to arrive – a tricky business in a hundred miler. My kids were excited that my mom was staying the night at our house and Matt and I felt like we were on a mini-vacation driving with no kids in the car. We drove to the Mack White Aid Station at mile 52 of the race and instantly recognized Eric and Caden, Melissa’s crew. They said she had been strong all day but was going much slower than expected on this last section. Most of the runners she had been with throughout the race had already come and gone, one man even took a short nap in his van before heading back out. Something was wrong.
It was raining so Matt and I mostly just sat in the car as we watched runners coming down from the trail, keeping an eye out for Melissa. The aid station was in a very unfortunate location across the highway at the peak of a hill so very tired runners had to dodge cars “frogger-style” to make it across. It was a little unnerving even on fresh legs, especially in the dark. So we watched and waited, jumping out of the car a few times for false alarms. One of these times, Eric received a phone call from Melissa explaining that she was coming in a little slow.
When Melissa did come into the aid station, sometime after 8:30pm, she was the last runner by almost an hour and was not doing great. Her legs were visibly swollen, particularly her left leg. The shakiness in her voice reflected just how in pain she was. She was worried she had re-torn her hip flexor, an injury she incurred over the summer, and wasn’t able to lift her leg enough to run. She apologized and said multiple variants of “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” So we made a plan. I told her we’d get her some ibuprofen and just get to the next aid station and decide what to do from there, even if we had to crawl the entire way. She nodded and went to get a hug from her sweet son Caden. She got some very necessary care at the aid station – she taped her blistered feet, changed into dry clothes and got a bite to eat. Eric had everything organized in the back of the truck so he and Caden could get whatever she might need. After more than 13 hours of rocks and rain, her feet had taken a beating. Her feet were so swollen she struggled to change her shoes.
I gave Matt a hug and promised I’d update him through the night. Melissa grabbed some trekking poles and off we went, slowly but surely. We left only an hour before the cut-off time, leaving little room for error on the return trip. We chatted a bit and I could tell her spirits were steadily rising. We soon hit the infamous power line cut, a series of very steep climbs that are included in the course for no apparent reason. You could literally walk straight and continue onto the Pinhoti trail but instead you turn off the trail and do almost of a mile of ridiculous ups and downs only to come back to the Pinhoti trail. Unfortunately, it looked like some runners had chosen to take the cheater’s road but I can only hope that the muddy tracks were from race volunteers. Melissa told me this section had taken her an hour on the way in because of the pain in her hip flexor, which at the time was bunched up in a visible charlie-horse knot. I was thankful she was already doing so much better. We saw an American Toad and talked a bit about the wildlife. She lamented that she hadn’t gotten to see many animals throughout the day but we would get to see and hear some later! One animal she did see was a happy hound dog that ran with her for several miles. The dog eventually ran off and befriended Caden as he waited for her at the aid station. It was a very special moment for her that brought some happy times.
We continued on walking and followed the pink ribbons onto a gravel fire road and eventually onto a mixture of beautiful trail and wide paths through the woods. She recounted her day and how she had been doing so well until the power line cut and her hip flare-up. The rain had not made things any easier. It had rained on her and the other runners’ parade non-stop for about thirteen hours. The trail was muddy, making every step worth about twice that on a normal day. Sometimes we’d step forward on an incline only to slide back and have to do it again. Even the downhills were difficult with all the mud and we could see evidence of runners who had slipped and fallen. I was thankful Melissa had her trekking poles for the extra support and joked that she was like Tiny Tim. She was doing so much better than when I had first joined her. It’s amazing what a difference the Mack White pit stop made, it completely changed her race. She told me later that that it was probably the lowest she’s ever been in her running. At no point did Melissa mention quitting or dropping out, even at her lowest. Now she was joking and smiling, still clearly in pain but also very present. I hope to be as positive and strong in my own hundred miler and am thankful for the example she set.
We navigated over several creek crossings trying to keep her blistered feet from submerging when possible. We eventually hit the unmanned water stop and I calculated that it had taken us over two hours to go 5 miles. Pacing a runner in the late stages of a hundred miler has taught me to be humble about these things. Just doing the math you might think, “Wow, 2.5 miles an hour is a walking pace – anyone could do that!” But when you see it firsthand you realize how much the cumulative effects of relentless forward motion really have on a person. Melissa was giving her best effort and taking every step with purpose well into her third marathon of the day. We refilled our water and continued on and she started to feel even better. The trekking poles took a lot of strain off her hip flexor and that pain had all but faded into the background of other aches and pains she was experiencing. We started jogging when possible on the downhills and flats and we were making up some time here. We climbed a ridge and started to descend, thinking we must be close to the aid station. We kept thinking that we’d be getting there soon. I texted Eric letting him know we were probably a mile out and shortly after we turned the corner and heard the cheering from Eric, Caden and the aid station. Woo-hoo! Considering how bad Melissa had been at mile 52, this was a complete win. We arrived at the Narrows aid station about 30 minutes before cut-off time, so maybe about 1:45am? We were losing our time buffer but I was just glad at this point that we had made it this far. There was no question here – we were going to continue on. The aid station volunteers were very tired but so helpful. Melissa wasn’t feeling the food at the time but they wrapped her up a little bit of everything and sent us on our way. Our goal was simply to get to the next aid station and decide from there.
We left the aid station and continued on with a little over 2 hours to go 6.7 miles. We started running on a flat section of road and ran for a solid ten minute stretch when suddenly Melissa shouted in pain. I hoped it wasn’t her hip flexor. She said she didn’t know what happened but her foot just exploded in pain. She sat down to take a look at it and things were not looking good. She held back tears as we took off her sock. A large blister had popped, causing excruciating pain. 19 hours of running with 13 hours of those in constant rain plus several creek crossings had wreaked havoc on her feet. We re-patched her feet as best as possible and got back to it but no longer at the good pace we had been maintaining. We slowed to a walk again and when we did run, I noticed that it took so much out of her that it wasn’t helping the pace overall. The best we could do was just keep walking so we did. She asked me to pray and as we walked along the road, I did. It was all I could do to hold back the tears. As strange as it sounds, this is one thing I love about running: those peaceful, painful moments where all you can do is give it to God. We prayed for safety from animals and from people, strength of body and mind, and in all things for His will to be done.
Not too long after this, we were walking along a rural road section where several prayers were answered. Two dogs charged us at the ready, probably wondering what we were doing encroaching on their property in the middle of the night. I instructed Melissa to stay back and approached the dogs with my hands out and my softest puppy-dog voice I could muster. The dogs were skeptical but accepted that we were not intruding and let us go on. Safety from animals, check. Just a few hundred feet later we heard cars approaching fast, right over the crest of a hill. I stood on the road side and told Melissa to get into the grass. The cars were going much faster than we anticipated and they were completely in our lane so I grabbed Melissa and shoved her off the road. Had she been alone, who knows what would have happened. We were angry and pumped with adrenaline. Then the two cars turned back. We looked for a place to hide in case they had malicious intentions but on this particular section of road there were steep embankments on both sides – no dice. We stood off to the side as the first truck roared by but the guy in the second vehicle saw us and tried to apologize, “Sorry if we scared you – we thought you was some dumb kids.” And “We wasn’t trying to hit you, all of us just haul [tail] through here.” I don’t even remember what we said but they left and in a short time we were back on actual trail where we felt much safer! Safety from people, check, check.
Once back on trail, we started another climb. It was probably beautiful in the daytime but it just seemed to drag on in the dark. Melissa started getting quiet around this time and I started to worry that she was getting tired. Sometimes it’s good to run in silence and we did for awhile but I still periodically checked in to make sure she was fed and feeling ok.
As a runner myself, I am generally pretty tactful with how I phrase things. Instead of saying, “Only 45 miles to go!” which is super intimidating, I might say, “We have two miles to the next aid station” or something like that. At some point during this section I let it slip that were probably near mile 68 and she freaked out a little. I wasn’t sure what was going on but one thing I knew for sure – Melissa did not want to hear the big numbers. Lesson learned!
As we got closer to the Manning road Aid Station, at mile 69.8, we formulated a plan. We had watched the clock tick past the cut-off time and had no clue how the volunteers would react. I told her to put on her game face and act like she was doing great. We would tell the aid station workers that she was fine and that we would make up time on the next section. And that is exactly what we did. We got into the aid station 7 minutes past cut-off time at 4:37am. The volunteers were very tired, the radio operators were tired and her crew was tired but we had to try. I told them what we had rehearsed, that we would be able to make up time before we got to the next aid station. They asked over the radio if we would be allowed to continue and they told us that we had until 7:37 to get to the John’s Mountain Aid Station. We were still in! I spoke quietly with Eric and told him that she was actually feeling less then stellar but that we wanted to get to the next aid station.
Leaving the aid station there was a creek crossing that we had planned ahead for. We donned large plastic trash bags over our shoes and hobbled across. This worked perfectly for me but Melissa had her trekking poles and was unable to hold the bags well enough to keep the water out so there she was, sloshing across the creek with two trash bags dragging behind her. Had it been any other day we might have thought it was funny. But Melissa had no more changes of shoes or socks and her feet were falling apart. Eric met us on the other side of the creek with our stuff and we spent some time here trying to figure out what to do with her feet. When she took off her shoes she unveiled the horror. When the sock came off her big toenail wiggled like a loose tooth and Eric and I both had to look away and shake off the mental image. I offered the extra shoes and socks that I had stowed in Eric’s truck. She tried them on but they weren’t going to work for her. My socks had holes in them so they of course felt horrible. That’s one downside to having a broke stay-at-home mom as your pacer. Then I remembered the pair of socks in my bag and let her try those on. She put one sock on and decided it wasn’t worth the time to put the other one on because her shoe was wet anyway. So that’s how she left the aid station. One fresh sock, one wet sock and really no better for it. We wasted a lot of time there and in hindsight I wish we had just continued on. Another lesson learned.
We had about 9 miles to cover before we’d get to the next real Aid Station at John’s Mountain and we only had about 2.5 hours to do it. Throw in several miles of climbing, gradual as it was, and we just weren’t going to cut it. I was still positive, talking about how much energy we’d get as the sun rose and how we might be able to connive our way through all of the aid stations if we had to. Melissa was doing so great considering all she’d been through. She wasn’t hallucinating or experiencing any dizziness like so many people do in the late stages of a hundred miler. This was definitely a quiet section for us and there was no pushing the pace.
As we went up a winding gravel road we heard a loud noise to our left, down a steep embankment in the woods. It was a large animal for sure and having seen a large pile of bear scat I am certain it was a bear. I looked back occasionally for eye shine to make sure it wasn’t stalking us but we were of course fine. What wasn’t fine was the huge increase in spider webs. I even joked with Melissa that one of the things I love about trail races is that I don’t have to run into spider webs. But around 5 in the morning, the spiders were busy rebuilding and I was running into web after web. One horrible decision later I decided to just run straight through a web instead of my normal stop, chop and throw routine. NEVER AGAIN. The stinkin’ crab spider dropped into my shirt and in a panic it ran to the dark safety of my bra line. I tried to reach in to swoop it out but this only panicked the spider further and I watched as he bit me three times. Have you ever watched a spider bite you?? It doesn’t hurt too terribly but cognitively it is an EXCRUCIATING experience that could be used to torture the hardest criminals. I only survived after I bent over and flashed the woods. Maybe I just have PTSD from the attack but I will definitely be carrying a blow-torch on my next early morning run.
The sun rose and despite conventional ultra-running wisdom, our spirits really never lifted. It was beautiful and we tried our best to appreciate it but I think we both knew we were too far behind cut-offs to fake our way past the aid station. I was able to receive text messages but unable to send any out so that was frustrating too. I kept getting texts asking if we were ok and asking where were we but nothing would send out. After what felt like forever, even on my relatively fresh legs, we finally made the turn off the beautiful trail and onto the final gravel stretch to the aid station.
We arrived at the John’s Mountain aid station at mile 78.7 around 8:30am, an hour past cut-off, and it was almost completely packed up. Eric said he was putting his foot down and making her call it quits and that they needed to check out of the hotel and walk their dog. I said that I would support Melissa whatever her decision was. Caden was clearly tired but hugged his mom and loved on her. We asked the aid station volunteers and they said that technically we were not to continue but that they couldn’t stop us from getting back on the trail. This made the decision so, so difficult. Before the race Melissa and I had gone through so many worst-case scenarios and how we would get through them but we never made a plan for this. She would be listed as a DNF either way so her options were to call it a day or finish the 25 remaining miles with no aid stations, possibly no crew and with no official finish. Calling it a day was no small decision for her but it was probably the right one. After 27.5 hours of almost constant forward progress in dreary conditions it was decided that she would have to finish Georgia Jewel another day.
Out of 32 registered runners, only 28 toed the starting line and only 15 crossed the finish line. The conditions clearly impacted everyone’s run. The first runner finished in 24.5 hrs, the first female came in after 30 hours and many of the runners finished within an hour of the cut-off. Melissa and I learned a lot and she got a heck of a training run in for her next hundred miler (which will also be my first) – the Pinhoti 100. I truly could not be more proud of her. She did great considering the circumstances and even came back from her lowest runner’s low to complete 27 more miles through the night with a total of 78.7 miles to her name, the equivalent of three back-to-back marathons.
I’m confident that Melissa was strong enough to have finished the race which I suppose makes this whole thing so hard to swallow. She never once mentioned that wanted to quit. She never even denounced running. I keep wondering if I should have pushed her to continue. On the other hand, we prayed for God’s will and I want to believe that we did the right thing. There are a lot of what-ifs but one thing is for sure, without hardships there would be no growth. Melissa has expressed that she has some unfinished business with the Georgia Jewel and I fully intend to be there when she crosses through that finish line in 2016.
Melissa has said that she believes God had us cross paths for a reason. Maybe that reason was for me to push her off the road when those rednecks drove past, maybe there’s something more but either way, I’m thankful for it. I made a new friend, learned a lot and had a wonderful experience that I wouldn’t take back for the world.
Thank you to Melissa for letting me join your crazy adventure and thank you Eric and Caden, for accepting me as your own! Thank you to my mother, for all the driving you did and for watching my kids – especially after I came home and promptly took a nap!