So much of what you read about running has to do with one's own training and racing: training for a race, or lifting weights to strengthen yourself for competition, or how to pace yourself to meet your goals.
But I had an amazing experience over the weekend that had nothing to do with my own running, and I encourage all of you to give it a try if you have the opportunity: Pace someone at a race.
My friend Kristel moved to Colorado just a few months ago, and we've run together from time to time. A few weeks ago, she asked me to pace her at the Boulder 100, which was to be her first 100-mile race. I've volunteered at races in a variety of capacities, but never have I had the experience of keeping someone company while they're running in competition. So of course I said yes.
I wasn't sure exactly how to prepare for this duty. I familiarized myself with the course online, and Kristel and I ran together a few more times. We talked a bit about how she runs ultras: what she eats (almost anything), what she drinks (again, almost anything), and what she expected from me ("Just keep me company through the night!") I could hardly have asked for a more low-maintenance, easy-going runner.
Flash forward to last Saturday. Dad and I went out to dinner, and he asked what I was doing for the rest of the weekend.
"Well," I said, "after you and I finish eating dinner, I'm driving out to Boulder Reservoir, where I'm going to sleep for a bit in the back of my car, set my alarm for 1:30 am, and then run for 30 miles or so with Kristel."
"Oh. Ok," he replied. (Dad is familiar enough with me and my crazy running friends that I can say just about anything about running and it doesn't surprise him.)
Upon arriving at the reservoir around 9 pm, I checked in at the timing desk. Kristel was doing great, running with her friend Ryan Rowley, a fast marathoner and the first night pacer. As I headed back to my car to get some sleep, the unmistakable sound of retching filled the air. An unhappy runner was throwing up into the bushes. I was heading over to see if he needed help, but a race volunteer got there first and helped him back to the timing desk and main aid station. 12 hours into the race, and there were already some impressive struggles underway.
I managed to get almost four hours of sleep by the time my alarm went off. I dressed and headed back to the timing desk, chatted a bit with the race volunteers, and checked on Kristel's progress. She was running strong, and expected back in any minute. Sure enough, it wasn't long 'til I heard her laughter on the air. A bit before 2 am, I turned and found Kristel and Ryan making their way past the timing desk for the mini-loop through the parking lot before her tenth loop would be considered complete. I joined them and got an update on how things were going as we ran.
The funniest thing was, everything was funny to Kristel.
Not only was she in great spirits, she was almost in hysterics. It was dark, and the course (a fairly flat course around a parking lot and part of the reservoir) offered little distraction from the task at hand. But Kristel, it seemed, could not have been happier. She placed a food order with Ryan, who was going for some take-out once the loop was done, and (giggling) we headed back out on the course.
I don't know what I was expecting, but I certainly wasn't expecting the run to seem so easy. When Kristel and I started running together, she'd already covered 70 miles. I guess I was expecting that she'd be tired, or sore, or... well... something other than perfectly cheerful and happy. But as we ran, the only indications that she was more than halfway through a hundred-mile race was that:
1) everything was funny. We laughed and laughed and laughed, at plenty of things that under normal circumstances would not have been that amusing. And,
2)every now and then, Kristel would lean into me as we were running. We joked that she would need to stop that, since I wouldn't be much good to her as a pacer if she pushed me into the reservoir, but by the end she had a tough time maintaining a straight line. Chalk that one up to having run 70+ miles at a solid pace; not everything is going to be 100% normal after that kind of effort!
Kristel ran with such strength, focus and happiness the whole time that she made running 100 miles look easy. Oh - and did I mention that she finished as the third-place female, on her first hundred-mile run? It was an awesome performance.
Ryan came back for the final loop, as did Kristel's husband, Justin. It was awesome for all of us to run that last lap with her, knowing she was about to have covered 100 miles in just a bit over 24 hours. And the whole time Kristel was pretty nonchalant about the whole thing, like she'd just headed out for a long run and thought to herself, "Heck, I guess I'll just keep running and get 100 miles in." Her patience and great attitude was a real inspiration to me, since (though I can't quite believe this yet) I'm doing a 100-miler of my own in January.
So I encourage all of you to seek out an opportunity to pace a fellow runner on a long race. It is so inspiring to be a small part of another runner's effort to achieve a major goal.
See you on the trail!