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Emily’s stomach had definitely gone south. She couldn’t keep anything down, vomiting every few steps. Her pacer Buzz Burrell, a fixture in the ultra scene, had encouraged various forms of nutrition and drink with a side of optimism—it’s just a rough patch, aid station’s in a half-mile, the sun will be up soon. After all, that was his job, right? To lend the moral, emotional, and logistical support Emily needed to get to the finish line.
But when the hurling continued, he got out a flashlight and inspected the latest effluent. “It was blackish red, like a stomach lining,” he noticed. “And that’s when I said to my runner: ‘You know, I don’t think we ought to do this.’”
Pacing: A Role of Many Hats
While that scene might be uncommon, it’s an example of the dire scenarios a pacer might encounter during an ultra-distance race. A pacer may need to be prepared to play all sorts of roles in service of helping a runner achieve their goals, even if it means knowing when to call it quits. They can be cheerleaders, drill sergeants, nutritionists, aide-de-camps, trail doctors, raconteurs, and comedians. It’s an art, one that requires close communication between pacer and runner.
While pacing is uncommon in European ultras (it’s not permitted in UTMB races, for example), it is a frequent feature in the U.S. Both on the track and in marathons, pacers are in from the start and step off somewhere halfway, but those who are pacing an ultra usually pick up their runner after the halfway point and accompany them for some or all of the last part of the race.
Some purists argue that the psychological advantage of having clear-thinking, uplifting company in the later stages contravenes the spirit of the endeavor, while others find it a way for friends or family to share in what might otherwise be a time-consuming and self-centered undertaking.
Pacing Runners for Safety
The practice of pacing originated as a safety precaution—race directors didn’t want runners to get lost or collapse out on the trail alone. The 345 percent increase in participation in ultras over the last twelve years guarantees that, while some runners are very experienced, there’s also an influx of neophytes who could benefit from the company of a pacer. And yet, at the same time, there’s a contingent who have never worn a pacer bib.
For those new to pacing, or some of us who have been thrown into the fire to pace a friend without any guidance, here are seven essential insights on the art of pacing from a few of the sport’s veteran pacers. Unsurprisingly, these three pacing pros are also experienced ultrarunners. In fact, it’s been suggested that pacing is an excellent way to learn the tricks of the trade before signing up as a competitor.
- Buzz Burrell is the former manager of the La Sportiva Mountain Running Team, the retired vice president in charge of Ultimate Direction, and co-founder of the Fastest Known Time website.
- Justin Grunewald recently paced Tyler Green to a second-place finish at the 2023 Western States Endurance Run.
- Nicole Bitter is an Altra-sponsored, two-time USATF winner at 100 miles and two-time USATF trail runner of the year.
Seven Best Practices When Pacing any Runner
After interviewing these three experts, several themes emerged on what to expect when pacing a runner, and how to prepare and execute on your responsibilities:
1. Be Clear About Why You’re Pacing
Buzz Burrell: “You might be trudging along while your runner is throwing up, but I put a different spin on it. As a pacer, I’ve skipped the first 50 miles of the race, which means I’m feeling good, walking into aid stations, eating sandwiches. I haven’t paid a thing for this race! As a pacer, I can enjoy the beauty of the course. This runner might be a dear friend of mine, and I want to help him, but I’m also a free food kind of guy.”
Justin Grunewald: “I think the most common reason is to help someone you care about conquer their demons, and get from point A to point Z. For me, Tyler [Green] is a friend, but he’s also hugely accomplished. I learned so much from him by pacing, I think I could take 30 to 60 minutes off my time from what I learned from pacing.”
Nicole Bitter: “To be a part of a loved one’s attempt at achieving a goal, that’s almost better than if I did it myself. Some people can’t run 100 miles or don’t want to—pacing is a way to share in the experience. A lot of people find fulfillment in pacing, maybe more so than racing.”
2. Schedule a Pre-Race One-on-One
BB: “This is critical. It’s not just two friends saying ‘Let’s go for a run together.’ First, discuss goals. Talk about possible scenarios.”
JG: “We talked about Tyler’s objectives. He’d finished second and fourth at States in past years and was completely overlooked as a top finisher this year, so he really wanted to go for it. He had dropped his pacer before, so he wanted someone who could go 32-33 miles. We talked about his intricate cooling routine and how it was going to go at aid stations.”
NB: “It’s critical to understand your runner and what makes them tick. I love to talk when I have a pacer. I want them to tell me funny stories, what happened earlier in the day. Some people don’t want to talk; they’re just in the zone.”
3. Prepare as if You’re Running the Race
BB: “Be well-fed and well-hydrated, and know when your start time will be. Never become part of the problem; don’t be a liability. Know the pacer rules, like no physical assistance. Usually “muling”—carrying your runner’s food or gear—is not allowed, though it is at Leadville, so be aware of the rules. Know the course, the aid stations, and cut-off times.”
JG: “At Western States, cooling is 15 percent of the race, so everything had to go right at aid stations. Typically, about a half-mile out from an aid station, I’d ask what he wanted to drink. I’d get Coke, ice cubes, water in one bottle, Tailwind in the other.”
NB: “Make sure you and your runner are a good fit, that you’d want to spend some time with this person. Be confident you can cover the distance you’ll be pacing easily. Take care of yourself or you won’t be equipped to pace.”
4. Expect Nothing, Be Ready for Anything
BB: “It’s unlikely your runner will be feeling great. They may be sick. They may be on a bummer. It might be hot or stormy. I tell first-timers: ‘You feel bad. So does everybody else. This is what it looks like.’”
JG: “They might be too mentally fatigued to know what they need. Tyler told me his arms were numb, which told me he needed electrolytes. Hyponatremia and dehydration are really tricky to differentiate, but, in my experience, they almost always need more electrolytes.”
NB: “Expect the unexpected. You don’t know what could happen. You might not even get the chance to pace if your runner drops out. Keep a positive outlook, and be a problem-solver.”
5. Fit the Pace to the Runner’s Goals
BB: “The first-time runner needs stability, support, and mild encouragement. Remind them to start eating and drinking 45 minutes into it. Don’t wait until your stomach starts to go. The veteran probably knows this so you can get into actual pacing, behind or in front of them, moderating the ups and downs. For someone who just wants to finish, concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.”
JG: “Normally, Tyler takes it out slower and picks people off, but this time the theme was ‘no regrets,’ so I reminded him of his objectives, of who he is, of how proud his family will be. He ran in front of me so I wouldn’t distort his view of rocks and roots.”
NB: “It’s nuanced. My husband is competitive so I usually talk about how we need to catch that runner in front of us. The hunt mentality. Or if we need to pick it up, I joke, ‘Wow, are you keeping up with me?’ Some races, like Western States, are dialed in to the tech, and can feed the pacer info on how far ahead or behind their runner is.”
6. Be Relentlessly Upbeat
BB: “‘It’ll be fine’ is our mantra, as long as it’s just a mental or emotional low. You can always come back from that. I’ve had runners say, ‘I’m out. I can’t do this.’ I have them sit down, take some deep breaths, let their heart rate come down. Heck, you can take 30 minutes at an aid station, change your socks, and march back out.”
JG: “I told him [Tyler Green] he was looking great. He hit a rough patch, so we focused on hiking 10 steps, running 10 steps. Relentless forward progress. I’d tell him things like, ‘In 800 meters there’s a downhill.’ Late in the race, no one wants to eat, so I kept thinking of what’s going to sound good, to get in some calories.”
NB: “My husband is usually in the zone, not talking, but he enjoys when I tell him stories and point out nice views.”
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7. Know When to Call it Quits
BB: “Personally, I’m always going to protect my runner’s health first. Finishing is second. There are thousands of stories of people getting through awful circumstances, but I’m not going to encourage them to go on if I think it’s damaging to their health.”
NB: “In the 2016 Western States, my pacer called my day. I had hyponatremia and we didn’t feel it was safe. It’s good to have a close friend make those tough calls.”
Being a good pacer is perfect training for becoming an accomplished ultrarunner. All of our expert pacers routinely switched roles in their many years in the sport. And for those new to the sport, pacing is a great way to dip your toes before actually signing up for a long-distance race. Regardless of whether you ever intend to go the full distance or not, the many roles of the pacer make for a rich, fulfilling experience.