Writing, Running, Being.

The finish line is a shifty Thing and what is life, but reckoning?
Ani DiFranco

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Walk...Run...Walk...Run..." Pacer's Perspective Rocky Raccoon 2010

I had the opportunity to pace and crew for an amazing woman, Tara at the Rocky Raccoon 100 mile race last weekend. I had never actually met Tara in person. We belong to an online group of running moms on CafeMom aptly named, Running Moms. I have been in this group for a little over two years and call many of the women "friends" even though we've never met. Three other women from the group came out to Huntsville, TX to pace and crew for Tara. There was Tracey from Kansas, Cathy from California and Bethany from Austin, TX. It was so fun to meet these girls. They were all just as they seemed online, only now I had faces to put with screen names. To be honest, I was a little nervous about spending a weekend with a bunch of women, as the fairer sex sometimes tends to get a little catty and oh, just a hare dramatic when kept in close quarters. This was not the case with the Running Moms. They are such a positive, encouraging, happy and uplifting group. Even after 48 hours with only 2-3 hours of sleep each, not a single cat fight ensued.

Cathy, Tracey, Tara and I met in the airport and Tara drove us to Huntsville. We went straight to packet pick-up and then checked out the course. We ate and promptly went to bed around 8PM. I don't think any of us except for Tara slept very well, if at all. She was the one who needed it though. her body must have known what was coming! We all woke up around 3:40 AM on Saturday to get to the race early, as we were warned that parking drama could be an issue. We got there, parked, Tara checked in and we waited for the start. I could tell Tara was getting really anxious at this point. She kept quadruple-checking that we crew members knew what to do.

After the race started, there was not much we could do for another 4 hours, when we expected Tara to come into the 20 mile turnaround for more food, water and new socks. Unfortunately Cathy got sick. What we thought might be nerves turned out to be something worse so we took her back to the hotel to rest. After Tracey and I took Cathy back to the hotel, we hit Denny's where we would eat about 12 more times during the trip. Seriously, we became VIPs at this joint! During breakfast, we pulled up the course map on the laptop and reconfigured the pacing arrangements to give Cathy a shorter leg or take her out altogether if needed. We decided I would take the first leg, which was one loop of the course, miles 60-80, then Tracey taking 80-83, Bethany taking the net 12.5 and Cathy the last 4.5. This is the plan we stuck with ultimately.

Tracey and I set up camp in the spectator/drop bag area of the 20 mile turnaround. We made sure all of Tara's food was in place, dry socks and shoes were out, and everything was ready to go. Then we waited. Just before 10 AM, Tara came cruising down the trail. She was surprised Cathy wasn't there, but we hooked her up with water, food and socks, taped a blister and sent her on her way. She was doing awesome, but in hindsight, we should have told her to slow down. During the next 20 miles, Tracey and I went back to check on Cathy. She was feeling fine so we got lunch at Denny's, where we met Bethany, who drove from Austin. After lunch, everyone went back to the course to wait for Tara. I really wanted to see her come in to mile 40, but I was bonking and had 20 miles to run that night so I went back to the hotel and got about 2 hours of sleep. Not what I was going for, but at least it was something!

Tara came in to mile 60 just after 6PM so she was still on pace. The goal was to pace her to run the 100 miles in under 24 hours. We had plenty of leeway. When we started running together, Tara told me she had been walking all the hills. As a pacer it was my job to remember this and to start walking when we approached a hill. Tara and I had different definitions of "hill" and I kept forgetting to walk them. Luckily, she was not too far gone to remind me. It grew dark a few minutes into the run. As night fell, things got hard. Tara needed more and more walk breaks. After several minutes of walking, I worried that the whole loop might be this way. I had to get her moving faster, not just for the sub 24 hour goal, but just for the sake of not being out there so incredibly long.

I asked her to run again and she agreed so I started to play around with different run/walk intervals. 4 minutes jogging to 1 minute walking seemed the most feasible, but even that was hard to keep up after awhile. We were moving slow, but we were moving. The one thing Tara didn't do was stop. At one point I looked at her face and she just looked so tired, so sad and so down. The mom in me wanted to scoop her up and carry her to bed, tuck her in and let her fall into the sleep her body was so forcefully pulling her toward. But out in the middle of the woods, that wasn't an option. I kept glancing at my Garmin. "Run....Walk....Run.....Walk...." I glanced back every now and then, but mostly just listened to her quiet shuffle. I listened to the rustling of her Honey Stinger packages and the sucking sound of her hydration pack and when several minutes had passed without those sounds I reminded her to eat and drink. The chews were making her stomach hurt. I wanted to say "Ok, forget them" but they were all we had until the next aid station. She didn't want to eat, but she did anyway, knowing it was the only way to keep moving.

Pacing Tara was a lot different than I expected. I thought we would talk, laugh and sing the night away. I knew there would be hard times, but I didn't expect the whole 20 miles to be so brutal. Maybe I was a boring pacer. I threw out a few stories and anecdotes where she politely laughed, or grunted her acknowledgment, but for the most part I just said "Run....Walk....Run...Walk..." Maybe I didn't come through on the whole entertainment portion of pacing. Maybe it was Stage Fright. Maybe I just didn't have enough material. Maybe it was the stress of Miles before us and the solemness of Night, but nothing seemed like the right thing to say. Except "Run....Walk....Run....Walk..."

After a couple hours of being on the Run/Walk schedule, I realized it was still early and that Tara was still on pace for a sub-24 hour run. I told her this and she brightened a bit. There was a renewed energy now that the original goal was still up for grabs. I asked her if she still wanted it and of course she did. I wanted to allow Tara at least six hours to do the last lap. I felt this would make the goal more realistic. I knew the last lap would be the hardest, which meant it would also be the slowest. To make room for that, we had to pick up the pace again. I'm sure picking up the pace seemed like the worst idea in the world to Tara, as she had already resorted to the "survivor's shuffle" and there was nothing left in her legs. But she was down with it! We had an hour and a half to get back to the finish line by midnight, thus giving her 6 hrs for the last loop. My eyes stayed glued to the Garmin the entire time. "Walk..Run..Walk..Run.." That last 90 minutes flew by for me because I was so focused on time and intervals. Tara kept on eating and drinking, but now only on my recommendation. She was focused on moving and that was it. Tara's body was done. We had been operating on her mental tank the whole loop and now even that was draining. I wondered what she would use for the last loop.

We made it to the start/finish/turnaround area a few minutes after midnight as planned, and the crew was waiting with warm clothes. Tara told Tracey, her next pacer that she was going for sub-24. Unfortunately that only lasted about 30 seconds. Horrible, death-like fatigue grabbed her and pulled down, down, down, to the point that she was falling asleep on Tracey's shoulder while walking. "Only" 3 miles became the longest part of the race, as Tara stumbled, corpse-like to the Nature Center aid station on Tracey's guiding arm. I don't know how Tracey kept her awake for the hour and twenty minutes that those 3 miles took, but they got there! The crew was waiting at that station and we were worried since they were so late. It was after 1AM when they arrived. Tara needed to sleep. She was slipping away before our eyes and it was scary. We checked her into the aid station and carried her to the car where she napped. She became a shivering, mumbling heap of dry bones in the back of her Honda Pilot. We called an EMT over to check her out. All Tara said was that she was still finishing. The crew knew that, but the EMT shook her head and said something about those "crazy ultrarunners." We got her warm and let her sleep until 3:45.

Tara woke up still looking like sheer hell, but she was ready to finish. Bethany took her out on the next 12.5 mile segment. It was a death march. They trudged on through the night and into the morning, taking solace in the fact that each step was ground behind them and brought them closer to the finish. During this section, Cathy, Tracey and I went back to the hotel for some sleep. We knew this section would be a long one. I think we all felt a little guilty as we laid ourselves down in warm, soft beds. Tara was so far from this. So far from comfort. She no longer knew comfort. Warm shower, soft pillow, bed, it was all so far behind her and so far ahead of her. She was in survival mode.

In the "morning" the crew awoke to a text from Bethany saying that Tara was doing great and they were getting close. It was daytime now, but not necessarily sunny. We waited for Tara and Bethany at the last aid station, where Cathy would take over pacing for the last 4.5 miles. Standing at that aid station for that hour was both disturbing and inspiring. The runners coming through were so broken-down and beat, it was hard to watch. They were so close to the finish, but after 95.5 miles, even 4.5 is a long way to go. They were expressionless, hobbling through, immune to the cheers and uplifting comments that we pathetically chucked at them. An older gentleman came through bent at a 45 degree angle. We cheered him on. "You look great!" I said. I meant it, but he cast me a sideways glance and mumbled "Bullshit." There was no fooling these people. You can't make them think they are in less pain than they are, because they can feel every shard of it. You can't make them think the finish line is just around the bend because it's not. It is still a long way off. There is nothing you can say to effectively cheer these runners. They are miserable and you can not relate. All you can do is watch them go by.

Tara really did look great when she came into this aid station. She had walked the 12.5 miles at an 18 minute mile pace. There wasn't much excitement in her face. There wasn't much of anything there, except weak smiles, probably forced for our sake. I don't know that emotionally, she was feeling anything in particular. Just knowledge of what needed to be done and willingness to do it. She took off with Cathy. We waited and waited at the finish line. We watched a few runners finish, including the bent-over man. I told him he still looked great and at least he smiled this time. I felt relieved to see him finish. Finally we saw Tara and Cathy coming down the final stretch. We cheered, cried (well, I cried) and took lots of pictures. Tara crossed the line in 28:08. It was beautiful.

Before going to Rocky Raccoon, I decided that I wanted to run 100 miles. I have a 50 miler planned for April and it just won't come fast enough. After going to Rocky, I still want to run 100 miles, but it's different now. I have more respect for the distance. I'm not giddy or excited to run it like I was before witnessing 100 miles. I have sobered up. 100 miles isn't something to take lightly. I feel calmer now, but more austere, more bound to the 100 mile run. I have decided not to rush it. I will wait until I am truly ready to sign myself up for one, knowing now that there is a lot to prepare for, a lot to lose, and a lot to run! Some runners say that 100 miles changes you. Somebody once told Matt Carpenter that you don't know who you are until you run 100 miles. He replied "Damned if I'm going to die and not know who I am." I get that.


Tracey Kite said...

Marny, you really captured the whole thing. The end brought tears to my eyes. I hope when you are ready for your 100 that I am able to crew for you, if you will have me. I am so glad I got to meet you.

tara said...

Wow, Marny you made me tear up. Thank you it was amazing to read this from an outside perspective. I am so there when you are ready for your 100, I will run any distance you want, you let me know and I will find real hills to train on :).

Bethany said...

I am so glad that we have these reports--there are things we each would have forgotten otherwise, and I want to remember this experience!! I have to say though, I was more than slightly brain-dead when I entered our death march into dailymile--I entered our time as 3 hours and 45 minutes and it should have been 4 hours and 45 minutes. So the pace was actually about 22 minutes per mile, which is still pretty damn good for miles 84-95 :) You guys are awesome, and I'm so glad I had the chance to meet you and share this experience with you all!!

Paula said...

Marny, awesome post. I was in tears reading it, and all of the blog posts from all of the crew, and Tara.
I am reading Born to Run right now, and just read a part about pacers/crew for these long races, and my thoughts went to you all. What an amazing feat.
When you run yours I would love to be part of your crew. And one of these days after Ironman, plan on running an Ultra myself.
Thanks for sharing.

Nursing Stroller-Pushing Marathoner said...

Wow Marny, great to read your report! You don't know who you are 'till you run 100 miles...like that!