I like to say that ultrarunning is a team sport.

You might be registered as a solo entrant, but it takes a village to get you through training and the race itself.

… Family and friends to support you through training

… Aid station workers to feed you on race day

… And if you’re lucky, a crew to help your every need throughout the run.

For many runners at an ultramarathon, especially longer runs of 50 miles or more, one of the most important roles a crew can provide is a pacer.

A pacer is another runner — not registered for the race itself — that accompanies the racer for portions of the event. They’re role is to keep you moving, safe, and in good spirits.

They’ve been the lifeline I’ve needed in many races, and they’re often the only thing that gets a runner to the finish line.

Last week I got an email from Chris, a reader and runner from Oklahoma who I had the chance to meet at the Mendocino Coast 50k.

Here’s what he said,

I was asked to pace for 2 different friends at races in October, and need some advice.  The 1st race is for a 100 mile virgin and the 2nd is for a more experienced running partner who’s done several hundreds but this his 1st 135 miler. Having never paced anyone before, what are your tips?

Great question, and since I just so happen to be working with two new pacers for the Thunder Rock 100 (or “Safety Runners” as they call them) in a few weeks, this question came at the perfect time.

Below I’ve outlined a series of Dos and Don’ts when it comes to successfully pacing a runner during an ultramarathon.

How to Be a Good Ultramarathon Pacer

1) Do Talk to the Runner Ahead of Time About Their Needs

Really this one comes back to the runner more than you, but in order to be a good pacer, you need to know what the runner is looking for.

For example, some runners want to be distracted with conversations and jolly chatter, while others want to remain focused and quiet. Talk to your runner ahead of time to set expectations and learn their racing style.

2) Don’t Forget the Crew Can Help You As Well

If your runner has a crew waiting for them at certain aid stations, don’t forget that they can help you out as well. You too are running a long distance, after all.

The priority will always be on the runner, but pack a bag for yourself to leave with the crew with extra gear or nutrition you may need.

3) Do Take the Responsibilities Seriously

It’s a big favor of a runner to ask you to pace them. You’ll give up a massive chunk of your day (or weekend), run a long distance, and think about someone else before yourself. Not something most runners ever have to worry about (during a run, that is). So thank you.

But if they’ve asked you for help, they want your help. So take it seriously.

Your runner is counting on you.

4) Don’t Show Up Unprepared

A well organized runner may have a few food items for you, but that’s probably about it.

Think through your own gear well in advance, and show up to the aid station where you’re joining the runner fully prepared with water, nutrition, and gear.

5) Do Know You Can Handle the Distance

Chances are you’ll be running a large chunk of the race with your runner. A distance that on a normal day would be considered a big challenge.

They might be moving slowly by the time they reach you, but they’re still in a race and want to preform as best they can.

Make sure that you yourself can handle the distance, and that you aren’t dragging them down or slowing them down on your end.

If that means training for the race, train. If that means tapering, taper. Do what you need to do to make sure you can handle the distance.

And if for some reason you get out there and just aren’t having a good day — hey, it happens to all of us — be honest with your runner. Let them go ahead and you can meet the crew at the next aid station. No shame in that.

6) Don’t Ask the Runner “How Are You Feeling”

Uh, I hate that question, and it’s always the first question people ask.

Go ahead and assume the runner feels tired and drained. In fact, you can count on it.

Instead of asking how they’re doing, encourage them with positive feedback.

“Great job on that last downhill, up for keeping that momentum going on this flat section?”

“You’re moving great up this climb, keep it up!”

“You just had a great last section, let’s finish out this stretch strong through the next aid station.”

And if your runner is low and down, let them be low and down. Say something like,

“Alright, let’s walk for a bit and get through this. I’ll set my watch for 3 minutes and we can check back in.”

Or …

“Dude! Buck up! Just a few more miles until the next aid station. Just get there and we can regroup.”

7) Do Check In on Nutrition and Hydration

One of the biggest roles a pacer can serve is staying on top of nutrition and hydration for the runner, which means checking in with them regularly to make sure they’re eating and drinking.

Encourage them to eat when they aren’t, and push them to take another bite or handful of chips when they don’t want to.

Of course there’s a limit to this. You don’t want to be annoying, or cause them to eat too much, but assume your brain and reasoning are functioning better than theirs, and take on some of that responsibility.

And while you’re at it, make sure that you’re checking in on your own nutrition.

8) Don’t Talk the Runner’s Ear Off

I mentioned earlier to get to know the runner’s style, but even if they do want to be distracted, there will be times when it’s better to just be there with them. Not talking. Just moving.

If a runner stops responding to conversation, or doesn’t appear to be paying attention, they’re probably tired of listening to you talk.

Follow their non-verbal cues and let them get in their own head.

9) Do Know the Rules and Guidelines

Every race will have their own set of pacer rules and guidelines. These are incredibly important to know up front. Ask your runner for a list, or check the race’s website yourself.

A mistake in these rules could disqualify the runner, and nobody wants that.

A few common rules that should be checked are:

  • At what point can you join the runner during the race?
  • Do you have to register or check in with the race before you start running?
  • Are you allowed to “mule” or carry any food/gear/water for the runner, or do they need to carry it all themselves?
  • Can you lead the runner and set the pace, or does the runner need to lead at all times?
  • What’s the protocol for pacers at aid stations?

Quick Note to Runners: As a runner, it’s really your responsibility to know these regulations and share them with the pacer. Go over any rules ahead of time.

10) Don’t Make it Hard on Other Runners

Your main focus may be your runner, but always keep in mind that there are other racers out on the course.

Be mindful and encouraging to those runners. Don’t get in their way or butt in front of them at an aid station. The racers are the priority, and even though you are making a great sacrifice being out there, this is their day.

11) Do Offer Moral Support

You are the drill Sergeant. You are the watchdog.

You’re also the head cheerleader.

Keep building up the runner … even when they look like total crap.

And they will look like total crap.

12) Don’t Complain

It’s one thing to share the experience with your runner — Shew! What a climb! — It’s another thing to complain.

The runner’s already thinking it … they don’t want you to make it even worse.

Even when you’re tired, or cold, or hot, or hungry, don’t put that stress on the runner. Keep it to yourself and take care of the situation privately.

Unless of course you’re in real trouble, in which case you should contact someone affiliated with the race.

13) Do Share Information with the Runner’s Crew

As a pacer, you have a much better understanding of how the runner is doing than the rest of their crew.

When you reach an aid station, share that firsthand knowledge with the crew, so they:

  1. Don’t have to bother the runner with a zillion questions, and
  2. Can help the runner while you’re helping yourself.

That information can be invaluable for a crew, so don’t hold anything back.

Pro Tip: If the runner is really struggling, don’t share that in front of the runner. Pull another crew member aside so the runner doesn’t get that in their head.

14) Don’t Take It Personally

Your runner loves you. They’ll forever think of you as a lifesaver. But sometimes …

Well sometimes in the middle of a race, when the whole world is caving in around them, they might say something mean. They might be standoffish or rude.

Don’t take it personally. They still love you.

Embrace the Pacing Experience (And Have Fun!)

You’ve been asked to be part of one of the biggest challenges that runner may ever take on. It’s a privilege. It’s a bonding experience and firsthand look into a major moment for your runner.

Embrace it. Have fun with it.

The energy of that day will inspire and motivate you, and it may just be an experience neither of you ever forget.

How cool is that?

Just don’t screw it up. 😉

 

 

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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