Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Witness to History: Vermont-100 Pacer's Report

As some of my running friends know, I have done two unsanctioned "ultra" runs (meaning anything longer than the marathon distance), both of which were private events designed to raise money for different causes.  I've also been an official "goal time" pacer at two road marathons.  With that background, and seeming to have spent more and more time with ultramarathoners recently, I decided to volunteer to be a pacer at this year's Vermont 100 Endurance Run.

"Pacer Central", or Be Careful What You Ask For

One becomes a pacer in one of two ways: either by arranging to pace a friend/acquaintance, or by volunteering with the race's Pacer Coordinator.  In my case, I offered to pace my friend Nate, who declined for reasons of which I'm still suspicious, but who ended up spraining his ankle and not running the VT-100 this year.  Knowing no other registered runners, I sent the Pacer Coordinator (a great guy named John) a message, providing a brief "running resume" and awaiting an assignment.

The response from John was interesting:
I have a guy who wants to run the race in the 16-17 hr range and wants a pacer, and I have runners who are much slower. Let me know if you want a steady run 9-10 min miles with the 16 hr guy (he wants to be pushed but you will still walk the hills probably), or do you want a more leisurely approach? I have people who will end up walking the last 30 miles also. Let me know what works for you and I will pair you up with a runner.
Bear in mind that last year's winning time was 16 hours and 30 minutes.  I consulted my ultrarunner friends about whether I'd be able to handle 30 miles at that pace on some pretty rugged/hilly terrain.  I also checked in with my coach about it.  The choice was between a hard effort with someone looking to be very competitive, or what would turn into a long hike, mostly at night, on dirt roads and woods' trails.

So, with more than a bit of trepidation, I signed up to pace the faster runner.  Little did I know that this "guy" would actually turn out to be Kami Semick, a two-time world champion ultrarunner based in Oregon, sponsored The North Face endurance athlete and 2009 Ultrarunning Magazine Runner of the Year.  While not a "guy", there seem to be few, if any, tougher ultrarunning competitors anywhere in the world.

Kami and I connected via e-mail, and spoke on the phone.  After a crystal-clear accounting of the mediocrity of my running ability, I included the following summary:
So, if you're not feeling particularly choosy about your pacer's experience, course knowledge or even about whether he/she would be the kind of person you'd like to spend those last 5 or so hours with, I'm your guy.
From the start, Kami seemed extremely nice and personable, very encouraging and confident about my ability to do the job.  She sent me a box with a bunch of excellent The North Face gear.  As for my friends who know anything about competitive ultrarunning, they reacted with incredulity, saying things like, "I can't believe Kami chose you as a her pacer,"  or in the case of my friend Joe, simply "OMG!"  I replied that she didn't exactly "choose" me; she got stuck with me based on an apparently very short list of candidates.  Some of my friends seemed to making friendly wagers on when exactly she would drop me during those final 30 miles (I said not before 25; they posited 20 tops).  Given the unknown territory into which I was about to venture, coupled with the irritating hip problems I've been experiencing recently, I was legitimately concerned about coming through for Kami when she needed me.

As race date neared, though, I got nervous, but also realized that I would either be able to keep up with Kami, or I wouldn't.  The history of ultramarathons, especially 100-milers, is peppered with stories of pacers being left behind.  It means the runner is having a great race.  There'd be no shame in that.  Or so I told myself.

It All Starts at 10 Bears

Given the logistics of putting on a 100-mile footrace and potential for confusion, each aid station in Vermont gets a name in addition to a mileage mark designation.  Mile 70 brings runners into an aid station called Camp 10 Bears, and requires a medical check, consisting of a weigh-in and quick visual observation of each runner.

Kami's projection would get her to 10 Bears at about 3:20 p.m. on Saturday, meaning she would have been running for 11 hours and 20 minutes at that point.  Having gotten to Silver Meadow (aka, Race Central/HQ) at about 12:15, I set up camp and found Nate, who'd nobly decided to volunteer in light of his injured ankle.  I got my running gear on and drank and drank Gatorade and water, given that the sun was beating down, with temps in the high 80's.  I was a sweaty mess simply from the tent set-up.

Nate drove my car and we arrived at 10 Bears at about 1:30 p.m., looking to get a sense of the scene and to be ready in case Kami was ahead of schedule.  10 Bears also serves as a checkpoint at Mile 47 of the race, and there were many runners coming through at that point.  It was difficult to contemplate that they were not yet halfway done.

I found John the Pacer Coordinator, and he scared me right off the bat by uttering 5 simple words: "Kami's killin' it out there!"  I gulped and gave him a look, and he clapped me on the shoulder.  Nate and his friend Jeff helped me relax with encouraging psych-up talk.  I watched the 47-milers come through, many of them looking haggard, hurting, covered in sweat, dirt and - in at least a couple of cases - blood.  I watched people collapse on Red Cross cots.  I saw people protest as they were pulled from the race, or were forced to drop out.  This one little spot in the middle of rural Vermont was now a simmering cauldron of human drame and emotion.

After feeling like we were cutting it close, I found Kami's husband (and sole crew member) Tyson, made our introductions and gave him some of my gear for later.  Then, I waited.

The male leader - and eventual winner - came barreling down the dirt road into 10 Bears, waving his handheld water bottles and yelling, "FILL THESE WITH ICE! NOW!!!"  He jumped on the scale and was off in a flash.  After what seemed like a long gap, four more runners - all male - came through 10 Bears.  They were clustered much more closely together.

Very soon after seeing the fifth man come through, all the waiting and anticipation ended.  Wearing a bright blue and white The North Face top, tanned and sculpted beyond belief, Kami came into 10 Bears, looking strong and determined.  I introduced myself to her just before she weighed in, gave Tyson some specific instructions regarding hydration and nutrition and made an in-shoe adjustment relating to some kinesio-tape that was bothering her arch (the vestige of a twisted ankle from a couple of weeks back).

In what seemed like a flash, we were off.

Chasing a Record

Kami came to the Vermont 100 with a simple, yet formidable, mission: break the women's course record of 16:52.  It thus became my job to help her do it.  When she arrived at 10 Bears, she was about 20 minutes ahead of her own projections, based upon a goal finish time of 16:30 (aka, 9:54/mile for 100 miles).

Miles 71-80

The start out of 10 Bears involves a short stretch of runnable dirt road, followed by a long uphill trail in the woods and on lovely old country/carriage roads.  I let Kami set the pace, and we chatted for a bit, just getting to know each other.  She told me that she "was really looking forward to picking you up."  I told her that I do not hear that from women very often, which provoked one of the few mid-race smiles I'd see on this day.

Quickly, I noticed that Kami would walk anything too steep, then would walk/run smaller hills, breaking them up into manageable segments.  I made mental notes of her approach all the while.

Several miles into our time together, we came upon the fifth place runner, who had clearly hit a tough patch.  We greeted Chris, Kami asked him if he wanted to run with us, and he joined us for a brief stint, before falling back again.  As he faded, I asked Kami if I should go back and check on him.  She said that'd be fine as long as I could catch back up to her quickly.  So, I ran a few hundred yards back (downhill on the trail), checked in with Chris, who thanked me warmly and said he'd be fine (though he was hurting, he still finished in the Top 10).  Then I ran pretty hard back up the trail to catch Kami, the first of many times I would end up doing that.

At about Mile 75, there was a small aid station.  I learned that describing an aid station in this part of the world as being in front of a farm with a large barn, horses and a pickup truck, was like telling people when I lived in Atlanta to turn at the intersection with the Waffle House and the Baptist Church.  It just wasn't specific enough to be helpful.  This was the first and only time I would need to relieve myself on the course, and I very nearly ended my ultra pacing debut by electrocuting myself on the farm's fence.  I realized my near-catastrophic error just in time.  Catching back up to Kami - who was robotically efficient at every aid station - I shared the story, and she asked me whether that really happens.  I made it clear that I was not inclined to test the theory.

Also, somewhere before the red, white and blue decorated aid station called West Winds/Spirit of 76, I committed a huge pacer faux pas, misconstruing a course marker.  Fortunately, Kami caught it in time, and we stayed on course.  I felt badly about making such a dumb mistake, but it all evened out a couple of miles later, when I told Kami to take a hard right, and she went out to the road instead of keeping to the trail just before the road.  It worked out fine, and we were back in karmic balance.

We breezed through West Winds, where we saw Tyson. Kami did her thing, getting a new bottle, taking in nutrition and getting more ice to keep cool.  Though it was now late afternoon, the air was still warm and muggy, and sweat poured off of us both in buckets.

The next few miles were relatively uneventful, and Kami asked me to let her know when we hit Mile 80. Our overall pace for the first 10 of the last 30 miles was pretty slow, averaging about 12:00 per mile.  that pace would not cut it in terms of the course record, so I knew we'd need to pick it up.  The key became to take advantage of any and all runnable sections, and I fell in tune with Kami in that regard.

Miles 81-90

This is where we got down to business.   While her outward countenance did not change much, Kami became less chatty. It was clear that the day's effort, the heat, the sheer enormity of the undertaking, were all starting to catch up with her.  I asked her how things "felt", physically and otherwise.   She said, "If you don't talk about it, it's not real."  I got the hint and stopped asking.

Now, I want to be clear that my trepidation about pacing Kami was not fueled in any way by false modesty.  I was genuinely concerned about whether I would be able to stay on my feet - mostly running and remaining coherent - for what I expected to be about 5 hours.  Somewhere around the 3-hour mark of my joining the fun, I started to feel tired.  Trouble was, we still had about 14 miles to go at that point.

In about Mile 84, we passed another runner, a guy named Mike who's known as The Fuitarian.  He was seemingly incredulous that he was starting to fade, with an ambitious sub-16:00 goal in what would be his first completed 100-miler (he'd dropped out of Western States, I believe, just a few weeks earlier). He ended up finishing 5th, but expressed his disappointment to me the next morning.

After passing the Fruit Guy, we ran by a house with a long driveway and two barking dogs.  I was about 20 yards ahead of Kami, and noticed the dogs come running down the driveway.  I figured they were contained by an electric fence, and that they'd stop at the property line.  Right after I passed the end of the driveway, I  heard a nervous, "Uh . . . Ron!" from behind me, only to see a German Shepherd barking pretty intimidatingly at Kami, with a Black Lab barking a little less menacingly.  I turned around, ran towards them, and screamed, "No! Go!", with an exaggerated arm gesture.  The dogs stopped barking and Kami started running.  Finally, I was useful.

Kami was fighting a out of nausea, but Mile 88.6 brought us to Bill's, where the aid station is literally in Bill's barn.  Kami had her last weigh-in here, she ate some ginger (and I had some, too) and I ditched my shirt and heart rate monitor with my friend Nate, as I was soaked and couldn't stand the weight, not to mention the smell, any longer.  Again, I caught up with Kami and we were off.

At this point, there was no idle chatter.  Zero.  I figured out how to keep walking graciously each time she needed to pee (a very good sign that late in a hot race).  Somewhere around Mile 85, Kami had told me to keep in front of her, and that's where I stayed.  She asked me to let her know when we hit Mile 90.  We covered Miles 81-90 about 12 minutes faster than we had the previous 10 miles.  Though the end was in sight, getting the course record (and finishing before dark) was far from a sure thing. 

Miles 91-Finish

It's not easy to describe the experience of the final 10 miles of 100-mile race.  Presumably, many reasons lead people to push themselves to the horizons of their perceived limits, not knowing - like Columbus - whether they'll fall off the edge or just keep sailing until they discover unexplored territories.  One rarely sees a human being - at least in our more technological and "comfortized" world - stripped so bare, where life is about basic needs and the simple premise of continuing to move forward, towards a clearly defined, but ever-elusive goal.

Well, the last 10 miles were not easy for me, and I can only imagine how Kami must have felt.  The most amazing thing was how she continued to approach everything the same way.  Walk the uphills hard, push on the flats and downhills; fly through the aid stations.  Still, I could sense her growing fatigue, as I heard her shuffling feet start to kick rocks and sticks along the roads and trails.  I reminded her to be careful in the woods, which weren't especially technical, but with the light starting to fade, and 90+ miles in her legs, any single step could easily betray her.

We/I had one momentary panic at about Mile 91, where there was a left-right turn that was unmarked.  I ran ahead, looked around and sad, "There are no arrows! What the . . .?"  Kami calmly told me to look around to the right (uphill, of course), and there was the sight we sought: a yellow pie plate with a "C" written in marker, aka, a "confidence" plate.  It was the only apparent marking lapse in my 30 miles on the course.

With that mini-drama behind us, we soon caught the third-place runner, who simply acknowledged - with surprisingly little bitterness - that he was out of steam.  The irony - as I learned later - was that his pacer's last name was "Walker".  That just couldn't be a good sign.  He ended up finishing 25 minutes behind Kami.

We hit a small aid station at around Mile 92, and then trudged along to the last "major" aid station, Polly's at Mile 95+.  There, we had a mix-up relating to our headlamps, but in another example of the cooperative spirit of the sport, another runner's crew gave Kami his headlamp, while I waited for Tyson to get mine from the car.  I traded my sunglasses for a headlamp and a flashlight, and had to pick up the pace substantially to catch back up to Kami.    According  to my watch, I ran about 7:00 flat pace to catch back up.  I took it as a good sign that Kami was moving so well at that point.

Shortly after I caught back up to her, I felt myself fading.  I had pain in my outer left foot, my hips were reaching their limit, and I envied the guys drinking beers and playing horseshoes more than words could say.  Still, when - referring to the course record - Kami said, "It's going to be close," I told her to relax, stay steady and that the terrain would decide whether she'd get the record.  We were going to run everything we could, controlling only what we could control.  She asked for updates at each mile.  I gave them to her.

We ran through a huge field, on the road, in the woods, up and down.  At about mile 97.5, we passed the guy who was hanging glo-sticks on trees in the woods in order to guide the runners and riders who would be navigating those sections in the dark.  I turned on my lights and tried to warn Kami about any rocks, roots or fallen trees.

At about Mile 98, we entered a small clearing and saw a magical sunset, riven with fiery pinks, purples and oranges.  It was astonishing enough that when I pointed it out, Kami managed a "Pretty."  Later that mile, as we went back into the woods, I saw a huge porcupine on the trail.  I slowed down, warned Kami, and waited for the creature to give us some room.  I waved Kami on, just as the bugger was coming back towards us, but we ran and did not look back.

We reached the "One Mile to Go" sign, and I almost cried with joy.  However, we couldn't go on auto-pilot just yet.  The sun was rapidly descending, and the glow of the Silver Meadow race HQ/finish line area was visible, but the course takes a final loop around the area, which often accounts for runners getting lost with less than a mile to go, requiring that they retrace their steps and get back on the course so as to finish "officially".  One pacer told me later that his runner finished in 24:03 after losing 5 minutes to getting lost in this area.  Fortunately, we did not veer off course.

With a quarter-mile to go, I pointed to Kami to run ahead of me.  She said that I should run in next to her, so I fell in beside her, but slowed as I saw the finish line.  Kami crossed a few steps before I did, and I came up next to her and made a grand bowing gesture, of the "I'm-Not-Worthy" variety.  It was not theater; simply stated, I'm not.

Her final time: 16 hours, 42 minutes and 32 seconds, a new women's course record by 10 minutes, and an astonishing feat on a hot July day.  The race had one of its lowest sub-30-hour finishing rates, with only 55% of the registered runners making it in time.

Post-Finish Reflections and Recollections

After the finish, I saw Nate, who offered warm congratulations.  I was tired, and my foot and hips were screaming at me.  I felt dehydrated and almost completely spent.  Had the race been much longer, I suspect that Kami would likely have dropped me, as some friends and other runners figured she would do considerably earlier than that.

For her part, Kami was gracious as she was whisked away for photos and interviews.  She forced some smiles (unlike me; see photo) and handled the mini-flurry of attention like the seasoned professional which she is.  I sat on the ground wondering why and how anyone could actually pull of such an amazing feat of endurance.  Days later, I'm still pondering that.

A few minutes after finishing, the collective attention of those gathered in the area turned towards the unmistakable sounds of a runner heaving.  Perhaps inevitably, it set Kami off, who had her own such episode in rapid succession.  After that, she, Tyson and I chatted for a bit, but she made it clear that she needed to get out of there, returning to their hotel so that she could shower and at least try to get some rest.

I gave Kami a package of Endurasoak to aid her recovery, and we agreed to see each other at the brunch and awards ceremony the next morning.

After lingering around for a bit, I got some food, which had almost miraculous restorative effects, chatted with other runners, pacers, volunteers, crew, spectators, etc.  Everyone seemed to have an interesting story to tell, and of course almost everyone was rapt to hear about Kami's course record.

Shuffling back to my tent in the dark, dodging horse droppings all the while, I managed to towel off and change into dry clothes.  I found my cooler with a few very good cold beers, which I ended up sharing with various random folks.  I returned to the finish line area to watch others come in, though from 9-11 pm or so, more horses than runners arrived.  I then made my way to my tent for the final time that night, and tried to get some sleep.  My hip flexors would seized up each time I rolled over in a certain way, and the winds picked up intensely as a thunderstorm system passed through the area.  It was not the most restful night.

I got up at around 7:00 and returned to the finish area to watch more people finish.  I just clapped and whistled for each one, truly amazed and humbled by the accomplishment, whether it took them 16 or nearly 30 hours to cover the distance.

In terms of my own feelings about participating full-bore in such an epic test, I think that I know two things for sure: (1) I will almost certainly run my first official ultra-marathon next year, and (2) It will NOT be a 100-miler.  Of course, I did inexplicably subscribe to Ultrarunner magazine within 24 hours of finishing, so maybe I'm already incurably infected with the ultra bug.  Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading. -ESG


Dan said...

WOW, Great race report! I'd say you hit the jackpot with that pairing. Just think, you played an important part in Kami setting the women's record. That's pretty cool.

The Puerto Rican Kenyan said...

Amazing, simply amazing! To have played a role in her success that day is an opportunity that doesn't come along every day. Congratulations to both of you on such an awesome effort!!

Billy said...

Ron - what an awesome report. I'm sure she is extremely indebted to you as sometimes just 'being there' can do wonders to help out a fellow runner. But by the sounds of it, you performed above and beyond by bringing her in CR time - in spite of the various ailments you yourself went through.

I do hope you start dabbling into the ultra scene. It is an extremely close-knit, fascinating group of people where camaraderie is as important - if not more, than competing. Not to mention the variety of scenery you're treated to from race to race and the more forgiving terrain on the body.

Anyway, congrats again on a job well done Ron. If I decide to do this race next year, I most certainly will ring you up first!

Devon said...

Nice report and way to help Kami to the record! Hope you do sign up for your first ultra!

Stevi N. Honaker said...

Ron- What an amazing story, and moment for you to be apart of. Your report was very raw, and I'm so happy you got to experience something so amazing. You are an extremly talented runner and I hope this experience reminded you just how tough you are.

jaysummer4 said...

Checked back in to your blog at just the right time.
Good story, well told. I'm glad it finished well for you and Kami.

AgileToes said...

Congrats Ron, I was very inspired by your experience. You truly were a part of history! Does this mean you'll be giving a trail ultra a "go"?

Girl In Motion said...

This report gave me chills. Ron, it's just...wow. Amazing. Love your storytelling here and I can't even imagine how grueling it was for you, hurting as you did (and won't even begin to question how Kami was feeling!). You are my hero and you fulfilled your role perfectly. Proud of you, man. This was something else.

New Ultra Runner said...

Thanks for sharing your report. A very interesting read. Congratulations on sticking with Kami until the end. You should be proud of the effort you put out. It sounds like it is time for you to sign up for a race.

Steve Berrones said...

Nice job Ron! Really a great read. I think I'm hiring you to write my next RR. I like your goals for next year and I'm glad you didn't end up dead on the fence. You'll have to go back to VT as a registerd racer one day?

Anonymous said...

A great report - congratulations! Very interesting to see what it's like to pace someone at that level in that kind of race.

Unknown said...

Great report Ron - sounds like an amazing experience. I too am planning to do my first Ultra next year, can't wait!

Unknown said...

That is a very nice report and clear...always post better race article...:D