This past weekend, I had a fun adventure: pacing my friend Katie at the Rocky Raccoon, a 100-miler race in Huntsville State Park, right outside of Houston. My plan was to run for 20 miles with her; the course is five, 20-mile loops, and I was going to accompany her from miles 60 to 80. I ended up going a little further, but I'm getting ahead of myself...
The runners took off at 6 a.m, and pacers aren't allowed to join until mile 60, which means I had a little time to kill. Because the cell service was outstanding, I decided to document #dayinthelifeofanultra on Instagram, which I'll share again...but this time, with added commentary. (Like the "behind the scenes" on DVD's, right?)
The start was incredibly low key. Around 5:58, the announcer said, "The start is in two minutes." Everybody ambled towards the timing mat, and then took off in a sea of headlamps. I felt none of the nervous energy I feel before road races, but that's probably because I wasn't racing. I headed into town for a few essentials. Starbucks and Pretzel M'n'M's for me, tampons for Katie, whose period just started that morning. (Seriously, universe? Like 100 miles isn't hard enough?)
Then I headed back to the park to set up Katie's aid station. A lot of people had tents and coolers, and we had Katie's roller suitcase filled with everything she thought she could possibly need. This was Katie's ninth 100-miler, so she's kind of a pro at essentials by now. She packed everything from beef jerky to ginger, Hyland's Arnica tablets to rain ponchos. Fortunately, we didn't need much of anything beyond the ordinary.
Katie came into the start/finish area all smiles. One lap completed in 3 hours, 30 minutes, which is about 10 minutes faster than she wanted to be going. "Coming off the taper, it just felt so good to run," she told me later, "I tried to slow down, but it just felt so good." I handed her two GUs, a five-hour energy, and refilled her water bottle, and she was off again.
Then I went back to the car to finish my book and nap a bit. I knew I'd be up for the majority of the night, so wanted to bank some sleep. (Plus, we got up at 4:15 CT--3:15 MT--that morning.) I have to say, I had unexpectedly peaceful day. I read, ate MnM's, napped, took a short walk. I didn't want to hang out too much in the start/finish chute too much, because I knew I'd expend too much energy in the sun, chatting. The day recharged my batteries in many respects.
Katie came in again around 1:15. 40 miles done. She looked so good; I couldn't believe she had been on her feet for over seven hours. She told me she was starting to feel it, but it didn't appear that way to me.
After she took off, I headed over to an aid station where I could see her again. It was less than a mile walk on the road (my route) and three miles by trail (her route). Snapped a couple shots of the vittles they serve at ultra aid stations. Emphasis is on quick sugar and salt. Oh, and caffeine.
Katie drank a Dixie cup full of Coke at most aid stations: fuel and caffeine. Her secret weapon, which she discovered at a previous running of this race? A GU, chased by Coke. At dinner on Friday night, we talked about things I could do to help her through the night. GU + Coke was at the top of the list, as was taking three deep cleansing breaths, asking her what she thought was going well, telling her about other racers, telling her stories, reminding her to relax her shoulders. I'd get to employ a few of these tactics shortly.
Around 5:30, I went over to the start/finish, pockets loaded with everything from salt tabs to batteries, ready for a little taste of the ultra. (That's the best thing about pacing: you can take a bite of the burrito, but you don't have to finish the whole freakin' thing.) The weather was nearly perfect, and I was just ready to roll. Katie came in before dark, but we had our lights ready, as we knew we'd be in the dark soon.
I didn't have the opportunity to take many pics during our loop. Katie kept a very steady pace, and was diligent about not stopping at aid stations too long; they're a huge time suck, especially if you sit down and get comfortable.
A few highlights:
—Katie was laughing about how she felt like she was sprinting and I was just strolling, and I started to tell her about how I've always been a fast walker. I told her I remembered walking faster than SBS in San Francisco, even though I was in a boot. A guy a few feet in front of us turned around and asked what my name was. I told him, and the Another Mother Runner connection was made: so fun! His wife (Stacy, if I'm remembering correctly) listens to the podcast, so we called her. "Hi, this is Dimity in Denver," I said, and she cracked up. We chatted for a bit, I told her her husband looked great (it was his first ultra), and she told me she is running the Austin half-marathon this weekend. Hope you have a great race, Stacy!
—Peppermints are another of Katie's secret weapons. She asked for one and I grabbed one out of my pocket and unwrapped it for her. She put her hand behind her back for a quick handoff, and somehow, I took a big fall as I gave it to her. The trail is pretty root-filled, and I was focused on getting the mint her hand, not my feet over the terrain. I was fine, and we had a good laugh. I tripped and fell two other times: neither was particularly hard, and I very much appreciated the loamy trails of Texas. Nothing like the rocky trails of 'rado.
When night falls, the aid stations start heating up. There is still the sugar smorgasbord, but there is also warm, salty, cheesy stuff. At one aid station, there were slices of sausages, which were like magic bullets to Katie. She ate three of them, and ran her fastest mile of the night, which included some uphill segments.
What was also propelling her uphill: a text I received from her husband with the athletic results from her kids for the day. Her son, a collegiate runner, got second in the 800 in his first indoor track meet, and her daughter, a swimmer, broke her PR in the 50 free. "I started them running as kids," she told me, "A slushie for a mile." I broke one piece of news to her each mile—there were about five races at each of the two events—so that was a nice carrot to dangle in front of her.
No slushies for us, but we kept a steady pace. Her miles ranged from the 15:xx to the 18:xx. Although her period was cramping her both literally and figuratively, she did her best to focus on mind over bleeding uterus.
Didn't see any critters in the park either, except for this beauty at an aid station, although a sign near the entrance warned of alligators.
As I mentioned, I was walking for most of my stint. It wasn't like I was running 9-minute miles, exhausting myself. I really wanted to help Katie for the full 40 miles; leaving her in the dark at mile 80 felt like dropping my kid off at the side of the road, saying "see ya!" and then driving home.
But I knew 40 was not smart a smart call for me, no matter what the pace, so we came up with a plan: I would go 23 with her, which would take me to the aid station where I could walk less than a mile back to the car. She picked up a pacer at the next aid station, where she would do a seven mile loop, then drop the pacer back at the aid station. I would walk about 2 miles up the road to meet her, and go the final 4.5 miles with her. So she was alone for just 5.5 miles on her last loop, and I would cover nearly 30 miles.
Before I left her at mile 83, I had her do a GU and Coke chaser. She didn't love me for it—if she and her stomach had her way, she would've eaten nothing on the last loop—but I wanted to send her off with a zing.
I headed back to the car to drool for a bit. Katie has run Rocky Raccoon three times previously, and her PR is 23 hours, 47 minutes. I wanted to help her get a new PR—or at the very least, get her under 24 hours, which meant she would get the extra-special belt buckle. (Anybody who finishes in under 30 hours gets a belt buckle, but sub-24? An extra-special one.)
So I rose at 3:30, and walked up to the aid station, where I hoped her headlamp would come through around 4:15. 4:25, no Katie. 4:30, no Katie. I started to get a little frantic, doing the math. Finally, at 4:32, she appeared. "I'll do whatever you tell me to do," she said as she saw me waiting, "Whatever I need to do to get under 24 hours."
I commanded her to take off, and said I'd catch up with her as soon as I put away her headlamp we just replaced. We just focused on strong, forward motion. Fifteen minutes later, said, "Do I have time to stop and pee?"
"No, not really," I said, "Can you hold it?" She said yes, but then I recalculated, and gave her the thumbs up to squat.
Empty bladder and strong spirit, she "sprinted" and I "strolled" through the last few miles. We chatted a bit with a man from Philadelphia in the 65-59 year age group (wow!) but mostly, I just kept saying, "Looking good, Katie, looking good." I mean, honestly, she was still running after 23 hours and 98 miles on her feet. Crazy, but also impressive.
Turns out, she could've squatted for five minutes and still made the cut-off. She finished in 23 hours, 48 minutes, one minute off her PR. That's cool, but what's even cooler? How physically fine she was post-race. I mean, she was a little pukey in the car—I thought I was going to have to pull over at one point—but in the airport that evening, her walk did not look like the walk of a 100-miler. She did confess to stairs and the depth of the toilet seat being a problem on Monday, but that happens after a half-marathon, right?
(And those 30 miles treated me right too! Very little pain, with the exception of my left foot, which I think caught the brunt of one of my falls...a few days off, and I'll be fine.)
A few have asked if I've caught the ultra bug. If ultra means 50K, then yes, I have. But if it means 100? No interest in that bug. 100 miles on my own feels like just too far to the right of crazy. But I'd absolutely pace again, especially if I get to see an alligator next time.
Have you ever paced an ultra? Have interest in running one?