By Jessica Carroll
Photo by Steven Mortinson
I planned to reach you today well into our summer racing season. I hoped to be writing to you, my fellow runners, deep into high mileage weeks with watch tan lines coming in strong.
What I wanted to dig into with you through this piece is the magical experience of pacing a friend (or dearest foe) during an ultra. What an honor it is, to trudge alongside your pal as you share in their sufferfest of endless miles, mental tenacity, and loads of pickles, quesadillas, and Oreos. Ultras are unique in that they encompass an entire community into the race. The person racing is allowed to be surrounded by a support crew to cheer them on, fill their water bottles, force-feed them calories, help them change their socks, and pull them out of the camping chair their tired legs might have found. Not only can a racer have those creature comforts of human relationships near them at aid stations, they're allowed one runner alongside them on course as a pacer (to keep their mental faculties afloat, mostly). Pacing is a real treat!
Pacers get to death march alongside their racer as they go through the emotional stages of an ultra: pumped, fatigued, hungry, not hungry, pissed that they signed up, stoked for ramen over mashed potatoes, diving into childhood stories about their first dog, forgetting to drink water, teary-eyed that they're doing this race and you're with them, hungry again, rinse, repeat.
Unfortunately, we're not getting to experience aid stations or single-track trail winding through desert, forests, mountains, and plains with hundreds of other race participants.
We're forging those trails alone or with a small group of running friends because COVID-19 has nestled its way into our lives and is staying for a spell. While I had planned to outline some best practices for first-time pacers, my thoughts have now shifted towards how coincidentally we're now all pacing one another through this global pandemic that has upended nearly every element of life as we know it.
Instead of waiting to pick up a friend at the mile 17 aid station to embark on the next 15 miles of their race with them, we're checking in with friends to make sure they're doing okay emotionally and resourcefully. Clinking beer cans against computer screens gridded with smiling familiar faces have become the virtual pat on the back you’d be giving a buddy along the trail.
Instead of bringing your friend a PB&J sandwich with potato chips sticking out of the edges with a side of flat coke from the aid station to the chair they've melted into, we're baking sourdough, banana bread, or cookies for them. And leaving those goodies in their mailbox or on the patio wrapped in a note of encouragement and maybe an inside joke from when the real world was real. Picking up groceries for a safe doorstep drop-off if you're able and they're in need is the new aid station.
Instead of encouraging your friends to move their body one more mile further while reminding them of their mental and physical strength, we're encouraging our friends to keep their fortitude secure and offering to lend a hand with looking over resumes, help with childcare, or meeting up for a safe socially distanced stress release run together.
Our race schedules may have become obliterated by an invisible all-encompassing biological scare but our abilities to pace our fellow humans through it is steadfast and unyielding. I hoped to write to you about pacing your dear friends through perhaps one of the toughest races of their lives. Yet, if you look inward towards altruism, your heart holds the true best practices for pacing one another through this true endurance ultramarathon of global pandemic distance.
Stay diligent in this long race towards safety, normalcy, and true genuinely necessary change to our society's habits and policies. Most importantly, don't forget that while you're looking to support your fellow racers through this COVID ultra, you're a participant too. You deserve the pacing support just as much. Give yourself grace when you reach the particularly difficult uphills and dark miles, just as you would alongside a friend climbing the same mountain.