Pacing somebody during a race is a heck of a thing to experience.
At the time of this race, I had only actually completed a single ultra-marathon – the inaugural Whiskey Basin 57K. I had planned to run a couple of other ones, but life / illness / injuries would get in the way. When I saw a friend of mine post on Facebook that he was looking for a pacer at Black Canyon, it looked like a great opportunity for me to not only get in some extended mileage but also be a part of something bigger.
Having read multiple articles and listened to many podcasts about races and pacers, I knew it was something I wanted to do at some point. When Chris publicly declared he was looking for someone to help him get his Western States lottery entry, I decided to hit him up!
The day started for me at the Bumble Bee aid station, where I would work all morning with a crew of great volunteers, providing support for runners passing through. It was a different day for this race, as recent rains caused the race director to change the course from a point-to-point to an out and back. Conditions looked to be rough, as we saw many runners come through our tent soaking wet and covered in mud from that day’s rain. As runners kept coming through, I wondered how Chris was doing.
He looked pretty strong, both coming through the first time, and going past us on the way back. I started to get excited to run with him, and I packed my stuff up to meet him at the next aid station down the road.
Cold. So cold.
Once I got into my running gear and had nothing left to do but wait, I realized how cold it was going to be. Just standing around, I started to shiver – and I could imagine how he was feeling at that point, over 40 miles into his race. I’d be joining him with a fresh set of legs, looking to warm up as we moved.
He impressed me in the first few miles – I think there’s something motivating when you realize you’re not out there by yourself anymore. The pace was pretty solid as we trudged through the hills, and things felt great for a while.
The place looked like an infirmary
Then it started raining heavier. And we started getting into rougher territory. By the time we reached the final aid station before the finish (a little over 7 miles out), the place looked like an infirmary. Runners huddled around a single heater at the back of the tent. People (myself included) had our hands in our mouths to breathe life back into numb fingers. Everyone was shivering and considering their options. But we had to push through.
The rest of that race with Chris was something I would never have imagined. It was something I’d rather not experience ever again. But having done it makes me believe I could manage it if I had to. We ran through probably 5 miles of THICK mud. When we weren’t struggling to keep from slipping, we were exerting our legs to pull them out of pools of water and muck. This wasn’t any ordinary trail run – it was a power hike through crummy conditions. Would we even be able to make the midnight cutoff? “Hell, let’s just get through this,” I thought. We’ll sort that out later.
After what seemed like forever, we finally made it back to “nice” dirt roads and ultimately pavement en route to the finish. I glanced at my watch and realized that we could definitely still get Chris his lottery entry, but we couldn’t be lazy about it. I had way too much energy at this point and was ready to push it hard to get there. Chris? Not so much. Can’t say I blame him, though. It was a hell of a long day for him, but I knew he could do it.
It turned into bursts of running and walking – whatever he could muster. We came in with just a few minutes left, and I have to say – it was amazingly satisfying to see him do it.
After the finish, we spent a couple of hours inside the high school gym, making our best efforts to right off hypothermia and return some sense of normal feeling to our bodies. We saw people seeking care from the medic team (those guys are AMAZING, by the way, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the crew Aravaipa gets to come out to their races). After some pizza, hot ramen, and coffee, we finally were able to get our butts up and moving. But not until quite a few war stories, Instagram photos, and hugs from other racers and volunteers.
If I push myself to the point of wanting to run a 100K – this may be a great option for me one day. I can only pray that the course won’t have the look and feel that it did that fateful weekend in February 2017, though.
Feature Photo Credit 📷: SweetM Images
Also published on Medium.