Pacing Tips for Ultramarathons

Written by Andrew Simmons for the Fall 2018 edition of our Trail Times newsletter. Andrew is the Head Coach for Lifelong Endurance.

Many ultra-distance events – typically 100 milers and longer – allow participants to have a crew on course at various points, as well as pacers who typically join their runner mid-way through a race. Pacers are intended to run alongside and help encourage their athlete on course. Taking on the role as pacer is definitely not an easy one! Read more to learn how you can help pace your friends at their next big ultra.

Forward Progress

The biggest role a pacer plays is that of morale booster. Ultra distance races are undoubtedly difficult and will put athletes through numerous highs and lows. As a pacer, the number one job is to keep your athlete moving forward. Depending on how well you know the athlete you’re pacing they may ask you to lead them up a climb or sit behind you and keep a specific pace. It’s your job to deliver that athlete to the next pacer on time, or to the finish line in their desired goal time. Make it a game and tell them to, “run to that tree,” or “run for 5 minutes and walk for 2.” As the pacer you can make 5 minutes turn into 8 (without telling them), you’re in charge!

Addie Bracy taking a break at the 2018 Leadville 100 Mile. (Photo by Andrew Simmons).

Overwhelmingly Positive

Positive mental attitude is paramount later in long distance ultras. As a pacer you may think you’ve traded places with a big, ugly bear or in some cases athletes revert to needy and insecure toddlers. From mile to mile you might not know what you’re going to get as emotions run high over the long duration of an ultra. Your attitude and tactics as a pacer require positive and supportive talk to elevate your runner’s mood and mental state.

Tim Tollefson (behind) pacing Alex Nichols at the 2017 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.

Feed the Fire

It’s pretty simple. To keep moving you need to eat and hydrate or you’ll run out of fuel and stop moving. As a pacer your job is to make sure that your athlete (or bear/toddler), is ingesting calories on a regular basis. At some point they will no longer want to chew, eat, or drink. Offering them creative food options is a big allure of aid stations. As pacer, carry tasty treats and give your athlete food along the course. You may have to have a few, “come to Jesus,” talks about why they need to eat and hydrate, and how that awful feeling they’re having would be remedied with calories.

Come prepared (to give them everything you have)

As a pacer you are a martyr to your athlete. You will give them your jacket when they’re cold, only to shove it in your pack for 6 hours when they overheat on a climb. You will give them your headlamp when they forget to grab it at an aid station (or you forgot to pack a back up!) and run for 3 hours using a dismal phone flashlight. If muling is allowed, be prepared to wear two packs – one on the front and one on the back – and figure out how to carry two sets of poles (they might want them!)

Making it all come together

Ultra distance racing can regress an athlete to they’re basic faculties. Your job as pacer is to fill in the gaps. There are a few rules to help you be successful with your athlete on race day.

  • Feed them like a woodchipper. Regular intervals (every 35 to 40 minutes).
  • Tell them they look great (even when they don’t).
  • Talk when they let you. Stories go a long way.
  • Take your job seriously, they are relying on you.

Pacers don’t get buckles

Giving your pacer a 100% effort is exhausting and even frustrating. However, they will forever thank you for all that they put you through. Pacing at an ultra carries its own rights and privileges to share on your next run, at a campfire with friends, and makes for great conversation the next time you’re on the course wearing 2 packs, juggling jackets and food while trying to manage 4 poles!

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