First Ultra Marathon Pacing Experience

There are so many different types of people who become sucked into the wild world of running. There are also many different running career evolutions, reasons for wanting to don a pair of sneakers and run 5 miles or 50 miles, and lessons derived from running experiences. Getting to the bottom of why an individual runs is something I find enlightening and motivating. Running with a friend for 6 hours taught me more about him and about myself than I expected.

I met Sean at Whoo’s in El Moro in 2014, but never really had a chance to get to know him. What I did know was that he ran a lot and enjoyed the challenge of a really long distance race, such as the Tahoe 200. When I ran the 2014 San Francisco Marathon, he did as well…. twice. A small group of people run the course backward, starting at midnight, and then run the course again with the rest of us at the normal start time. I have always been in awe of his ability to complete 100-mile races with only a few weeks of recovery before the next one, but also curious as to his motives for doing it. I was hoping to put more of the puzzle pieces together whilst pacing Sean during the AC100 (Angeles Crest 100 mile race). Prior to this, I’d never even been to a 100-mile race before, let alone run a few miles of one.

The race starts in Wrightwood, runs through the Angeles Crest forest, and finishes in Altadena.

AC-COURSEI would be pacing Sean between mile 52.8 and 74.55 (Chilao to Chantry Flats) with two aid station stops between my start and finish. All of the logistics were coordinated by his lovely wife, Jenny. She picked me up from the finish line area, dropped me off at my starting point, and then drove me from my end point back to the finish line.

I arrived at the finish line at 2:30pm on Saturday afternoon – Sean was expected to arrive at the Chilao aid station at about 5:00pm and Jenny wanted to ensure that we had plenty of time to get there and prepare for his arrival and our departure. The route to Chilao was on a very windy road and I became car sick pretty quickly. The queasiness mixed with the hot weather caused me to worry a bit about my ability to be a good pacer, but I felt better after we arrived and I sat down in the shade for a few minutes. I wanted to help Sean as much as possible, more so mentally than anything, and I was admittedly nervous about my “job.” The AC100 Racebook explicitly prohibits “muling,” which means I wasn’t able to carry anything for him. Jenny noted that he was not a fan of night running, so I wanted to be the light sphere of motivation to get him through. At about 6:00pm, Sean came through in good spirits and after re-filling his bottles, he and I jumped onto the course via a downhill single-track trail.

I learned quickly that in long races like 100 milers, one key to remaining motivated and sane is to focus simply on getting from aid station to aid station. The next station was at mile 59.3, so we were looking forward to getting there. It was very hot when we started and despite having run 50+ miles in 80-90 degree weather, Sean was moving along and maintaining a positive attitude. Much of our first 6.5 mile segment was downhill, but somewhat technical. We also missed a sharp turn and ended up going off of the course for about a mile. I felt terrible about the detour – I was fresh, mentally and physically, and should’ve been paying more attention to mile markers and course turns. We returned to the course and were greeted by Jenny and Vanessa at the Shortcut Saddle aid station. The sun had set with about 1.5-2 miles to go into the first segment, so we put our headlamps on while refilling bottles and stomachs. After 5 minutes, we left for the next 8.2 mile segment.

I’m sure that night running is a completely different experience when one is mentally and physically tired, but I really enjoyed it. I didn’t want to annoy Sean and talk too much, but I also wanted to keep him alert and engaged. Though he seemed tired and a bit sleepy, we were still running on the downhill sections and maintaining a decently quick walking pace on the uphills. The night air was crisp and cool and the stars were abundant and beautiful. We talked with a few fellow participants as they passed us and passed a huge tarantula. There were a few miles where the trail was very narrow and on a cliff edge, which was both exciting and scary.

The conversation ebbed and flowed between typical topics such as running and food and deeper topics such as our pasts and our families. I would imagine that running the entire 100 miles, much of it without company, would allow for a lot of self reflection. Although I ran 1/4 of what Sean did, I finished with a few realizations, but a much longer list of questions. I always enjoy learning about people’s running stories – why they started, what motivated them, what pushes them now, what they like about it, what obstacles they may have overcome to get to this point, high points, low points, etc. Listening to Sean’s and sharing my own story was a great experience, but coupled with running through the forest in the middle of the night while following the light of our two headlamps created an epic experience. In fact, I was excitedly (loudly) telling my story at one point and noticed that we were running right through a quiet campground filled with tents. Oops!

Sean had a Monster energy drink in his drop bag, so we were looking forward to the Newcomb’s Saddle aid station at mile 67.95. Upon arrival, he discovered that his Monster energy drink can had busted inside of the Ziploc bag in his drop bag. Those responsible for transporting the drop bags weren’t treating them very well and it seemed like they were thrown around carelessly. Apparently, this was the second time that his energy drink didn’t make it to the aid station intact. I could sense his frustration and fatigue, but I was motivated to keep him awake and moving to the next (my last) aid station sans the caffeine and sugar he would’ve had. Plus, Jenny would be at the next one, so I tried to remind him of this as I knew he would look forward to it. Since the Newcomb’s Saddle aid station was not accessible to crew teams, they had a camera set up which was connected to a monitor at the next major aid station. Runners could say hi to their crew, who was waiting at Chantry Flats.

We continued on into the Santa Anita Canyon and through the Sturtevant Camp. The canyon apparently houses two ’75 Sturtevant waterfalls, but they aren’t part of the AC100 course. These sections were forest-y and pretty and despite my hopes of coming across some (friendly) wildlife, we did not. Sean was still in good spirits and we were still moving well. One thing that I noticed was that he would walk if I walked, but run if I started to run. I tried to keep us running on any downhill and flat, but would allow us to walk on any incline. I definitely started to feel sleepy during my last section. I wasn’t overly physically fatigued, I just wanted to sleep. I kept thinking to myself “you don’t have 60+ miles on your legs, wimp!” We crossed a steel-beamed bridge and Sean mentioned that the last mile going into the aid station was pretty difficult. We hit pavement and the road into Chantry Flats was in fact very steep. However, this aid station was very lively, even for 2:00am.

Jenny greeted us and got to work attending to Sean. She filled his bottles and encouraged him to eat something. One of the unique aspects of trail running, and especially ultra marathon train running, is the food and drink spread at the aid stations. Chantry Flats had pasta, hot soup, burgers, burritos, quesadillas, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, boiled potatoes, all different types of chips and candy, soda, bananas, watermelon, oranges, coffee, hot chocolate, and other delicious edible options. They also had a full medical area, including cots for runners to rest for a few minutes if needed. A 100 mile race requires volunteers and crew people to be attentive and overly helpful, anticipating the runner’s needs and being very aware of the runner’s state of body and mind. It is very different from road races where the primary job of a volunteer is to hand runners paper cups or gel packets. It was interesting to sit down and watch the exhausted runners come in and out, and to watch the interactions between volunteers and participants.

I gave Sean a sweaty hug and wished him luck for the last 25 miles. With three hours until sunrise and a significant climb up Mt. Wilson, he had his work cut out for him. Since then, I’ve learned that the AC100 course is one of the more difficult of the 100 mile race courses. Unfortunately, if I were to continue running with him, I’d have to pace until the finish because there is no crew access between Chantry Flats and the finish area. The drive back to Altadena was on another long and windy road, and I started to feel carsick again.

I arrived at my car at about 3:30am, but felt alert enough to drive home. Confusion, likely derived from mental fatigue, led me to end up on a wrong freeway and added a few minutes to my drive time. After a shower and a prayer that Sean was doing well on the race course, I fell into bed at 5:00am. I wanted to sleep for at least 8 hours, but managed about 5. Needless to say, I felt like a zombie all day and was pretty tired for 2-3 days afterward. Sean finished the race unscathed in 31:20 – huge congratulations to him!

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to pace and to experience the atmosphere of a 100 mile race, but not have to run 100 miles. Not surprisingly, it lead me to question whether or not I would ever want to. I have yet to run/race more than 32 miles, and I was pretty tired after those miles. From what I gathered during AC100, running/racing 100 miles involves a different mentality and running strategy than a 50K or even 50 miler. I’m undecided, but intrigued, at this point.

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