Thursday, September 11, 2014

Tales from a Pacer

From my TRAIL magazine South Africa column.....

The mission was straightforward; pace one of the World's best trail runners for the last 20 miles of the 100 mile Western States (WS) trail race, the big daddy of trail racing, and one all ultra trail runners dream of. 
Happy crew WS T-1
South Africa's Ryan Sandes went into WS with a Drakensberg Traverse record, a European trail race win and a Japanese second place. Along with Rob Krar, last year's ultra runner of the year, he was the favourite, but a 100 miles is a long way. 

At Western States most of the top runners have crew and pacers. Pacers are allowed to accompany a runner from the 62 mile mark at Foresthill to the finish. I was due to jump in at the 80 mile mark.

Surely having run 80 miles I would be able to do the job and keep pace with Ryan? Pacers have been allowed at ultras for a while, in theory to provide safety for the runner should he or she get into trouble. In reality with only 5 miles between aid stations, the pacer is more a companion and a cajoler, encouraging their runner when spirits and energy dip. You can expect to talk without reply, crack your best jokes without so much as a polite laugh and tell your man, in true Bruce Fordyce fashion, that he's running like a star, when 80 miles into a race shuffling like Ali is more the reality.

Vanessa crewing Ryan at WS
80 miles at Western is Green Gate, which is, well a nondescript green metal gate. When Ryan arrived at 5.30pm with the temperature gauge tipping 30 degrees he DID look great, at least compared to the other four runners who had gone through. We were 5th and it was game on!

But ultra trail runners have toughened up in recent years and as hard as we ran (mostly around 5 minutes a kilometre) there were no ‘big blows’ in front of us. Every split we received told us we weren’t making inroads. Then on a 5km downhill section Ryan decided to inflict damage on his quads and he flew. The 10 minutes to the fourth placer Max King reduced to a visible 30 seconds with just 3 miles to go and we were hunting.

We run straight through the aid station at No Hands Bridge at 96.8 miles and flew after Max, passing him on the gradual climb to Robie Point. But Max is no quitter, and we couldn't gap him. Ryan was spent and I was paying for lack of training and 1000m of climbing in 30k. He dropped me. Ryan was moving, I wasn't. Pacers have been dropped before by lead runners, but it is a pretty humbling badge of shame to walk and jog in to the finish, past the spectators who are well informed enough to know what has occurred. 

Max surged past Ryan again, who had to be content with an excellent 5th overall in 15 hours 46 minutes.

Ryan getting the cooler treatment at Green Gate
Over the next 14+ hours I stayed at the finish line in Placerville High School and watched the other 291 finishers trail in before the 30 hour cut off. 100 miles may be a long way, but to run for 30 hours through two sunrises seems a very long time. Emotions are high when you have conquered that distance, in dry, relentless heat over two days, and those finishing in the hour prior to the cut off receive Comrades like encouragement as they complete the last 300 metres on the school track. Unlike Comrades you are likely only to have your family at the finish to cheer you in.

Want to run the Western States?

As an overseas entrant you may get 'special consideration'. The guidelines seem vague but it beats entering the lottery where your chances are 1 in 10.

You still need to run a 100k race in under 16 hours, or finish a 100 miler in anytime to qualify.

Do plenty of downhill running. The course is always a 'down run' from the highest point just after the start at the Squaw Valley ski resort at 2656m to the finish in Auburn at 394m.

BUT you still do almost 5000m of climbing over the 100 miles. 

Have a good crew. Although the aid stations are well stocked, a friendly face every so often makes a difference.

Have a good stomach. Many ‘drops’ are due to stomach issues from too much sweet stuff.

Check out all the details at

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