The next best thing to racing…Pacing!
100 mile races have a unique concept called “pacing”, ironically, what the word implies is not what typically happens. Pacers generally accompany runners during the latter parts of a 100 mile race to provide safety, guidance, and most of all, the companionship and motivation that one requires during the stages of the race when thoughts of defeat, fatigue, and quitting begins entering ones minds. Except for elite runners, “pacers” have very little to do with keeping a certain minute/mile average like the “rabbits” in track and field and road racing.
In the 30+ or so 100 mile races I’ve run, I’ve had a handful of pacers, and until this year at Western States, I had never really paced anyone else before — the only exception was with Catra, which I think is a little different as she is my girlfriend, and we’ve also run entire 100 mile races together.
Earlier this year, Cindy Goh asked me to accompany her over the last 32 miles from Foresthill to the finish line at the Western States 100 — I was thrilled and honored. Cindy is a good friend of mine, and I knew that we would have a great time on the trails. Then suddenly, I received a phone call from her telling me that she wasn’t going to run, and that I should find someone else to pace. Well, it turned out that Joe Pham‘s wife Mylinh Nguyen was needing a pacer, so I volunteered — interestingly enough, Catra was planning on pacing Joe.
Background of Western States, and 100 mile foot races:
[In 1955, Wendell T. Robie rode his horse from Squaw Valley to Auburn, proving that horses can cover 100 miles -- this idea eventually became the Western States Trail Ride, AKA the Tevis Cup "100 Miles - One Day" Ride. In 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh became the first person to run this course on foot, having previously rode on horseback in 1971 and 1972. In 1977, with 14 runners, Gordy's amazing accomplishment was turned into an organized event which became known as the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. Today, there are over 1200 applicants, of which only 425 are chosen to participate, in what is considered the Boston Marathon of endurance running, attracting the best athletes from around the globe.]
Since I never paced anyone before, and didn’t know the Western States course very well (I had only been on it once when I raced in 2007, but the section I would be on was also the same section I had trouble in, so remember very little). Adding to the stress was Mylinh would most likely be skirting the cutoffs, assuming that she kept a similar pace as her previous attempt in 2005, when she came into the finish seven minutes after the final cutoff of 30 hours. Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me.The week or so leading up to the race, I was a nervous wreck — more than I typically would be when I’m actually the one running the 100 miles. This time, I only had to run 32 miles, but it wasn’t the distance that I was concerned about, but having to make sure Mylinh maintained a pace fast enough to remain ahead of the cutoffs. I knew I was pretty good at gauging the right speed to stay on track, but the concern was that Mylinh had to be the one to maintain it — not me. I also didn’t know her personally very well, only having chatted briefly during the few times we bumped into each other at some previous races in the past. So I wondered how she did running at night — did she get sleeply like I used to? What other issues did she usually encounter? Blisters, stomach problems, etc. I had no idea.
I prepared more ahead of time to pace this race than I would have if I were actually running it — the difference was that I had someone counting on me to help get to the finish line, whereas normally, I would only be accountable for myself. I looked over the maps, read race reports, and studied previous splits for those coming in between 29.5 to 30 hours. [See actual pace chart at bottom.]
Since pacers are not allowed to join their runners until Foresthill (mile 62), Catra and I went to a couple of the earlier aid stations to meet Joe and Mylinh as they came through. The first one we went to was Robinson Flat (mile 29.7) — this was the first big aid station, and where most crew members would see their runners for the first time. I was hoping to see Mylinh there around 1pm, even though the cutoff there is 1:40, but I wanted her to have a little bit of cushion. As the clocked ticked past 1, Mylinh finally arrived at 1:14, and looked good. She had already gotten separated from her husband, who came in several minutes later, but he was not doing as well.
Once they left Robinson Flat, we went to get some lunch at Ikedas in Auburn, then headed over to Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7). We soon discovered that Joe had dropped at Last Chance (mile 43.3), having missed the cutoff by 5 minutes. Mylinh on the other hand, was still maintaining a solid even pace, staying about 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I knew though, that if she held that to Foresthill, she would have the hardest part of the course behind her.
At Michigan Bluff, she was 42 minutes ahead of the cutoff, and I was hoping that she would continue to maintain that window into Foresthill. Based on her pace, I predicted her ETA into Foresthill at close to 11pm, so headed out to Bath Road (~1.5 miles away) around 10:30 to wait for her to come in. Just before I got to the end of the road, I saw Mylinh approach. She looked great, and I was happy and somewhat relieved, since I was hoping it would make my pacing duties easier. She was right on my predicted pace, but knew that she had very little room to spare if she were to make it to Auburn.
Her husband Joe made it back from Last Chance where he dropped, and with his help, we got her in and out of the aid station. I put my hydration pack on, grabbed my flashlight, and off we went into the darkness. As we ran down the road to the trailhead, I asked a few questions to get a quick assessment as to her overall condition — are you eating and drinking, any foot issues, stomach problems, etc. A few quick nods and no’s, and I was glad to learn that she was fine.
The first stops were along the California loop — Dardanelles (mile 65.7), Peachstone (mile 70.7), and Ford’s Bar (mile 73), or Cal 1, 2, and 3 respectively. We jockeyed back and forth with Melissa Johnson and Kristina Irvin — I had met Melissa recently at Coyote 2 Moon, and Kristina last year at Angeles Crest when she did the Last Great Race. It was comforting to know that we were in close proximity with very strong runners. I also knew that Mike Palmer, who was going for his 12th finish, was still behind us, and kept wondering when he would catch up to us.
I remembered the section between Ford’s Bar and the river felt very long when I actually raced it in 2007 — this time was no different, even though it was only 5 miles. We got there at 3:49am — only 1 minute slower than my predicted arrival time. Once we crossed the river, I knew that her husband Joe would be waiting at the top at Green Gate (mi 79.8), and would be able to provide some moral support. As we climbed the two mile stretch, Joe met us part way down. At the aid station, I was very surprised to see my buddy Rob Cowan sitting in a chair — he was obviously having issues, since he’s an extremely fast and talented runner. I offered a few words of encouragement, as we headed off towards the Auburn Lake Trails (mi 85.2) aid station.
This was a tough stretch for me in ’07, and it seemed like Mylinh was also having difficulties there as well, as the miles were obviously taking its toll on her. My split chart told me we needed to arrive at the aid station by 6:32, which quickly came, along with the second sunrise of the race. The cutoff there was 7:00, so for the first time in the race we had less than a 30 minute window. We arrived at 6:47 – only 13 minutes to spare. I panicked slightly without making it too obvious to her, but at the same time, made sure that Mylinh understood that she had to pick up the pace a little. That’s not an easy thing to do for someone who had run 85+ miles in triple digit temperatures earlier in the day.
So I told her that whenever we came to a downhill or a flat section, she would have to run, no matter how slow, and in return, she would get to walk all the uphills to take a break. Unfortunately, her pace changed very little, but we managed to get to Brown’s Bar (mi 89.9) at 7:53 — only 4 minutes slower than my predicted arrival, but now 37 minutes ahead of the cutoff. She managed to pick up the pace by almost 4 min/mile!
We were now just over 10 miles to the finish, and also knew that the next aid at Highway 49 (mi 93.5) had a tight cutoff. I encouraged Mylinh by telling her that her husband would be there to greet her, hoping that she would maintain the pace that she had going into the last aid station. Even though she slowed slightly, she still managed to get there at 8:47 – well ahead of the 9:15 cutoff, and 13 minutes ahead of my predicted time there.
As we said goodbye to Joe, I reminded Mylinh that we only had about 10K to go — a distance that most runners could comfortably finish, but this was at the end of a 100 mile race. The last aid station was the iconic No Hands Bridge at mile 96.8, and I had us getting there at 9:54, which would give us just over an hour to cover 5K, and get to the finish. We arrived at exactly 9:53 — 1 minute ahead of my splits, and 22 minutes before the cutoff. I yelled to Joe, who was waiting there for us, to get Catra and meet us at Robie Point (mi 98.9) so they could run the last 2 miles with us to the finish.
We began the slow climb out of the aid station. It was hot — we later learned Auburn reached temperatures over 110 degrees. Along the gradual fireroad before we started the climb up to the finish, there was very little shade — I felt the sun piercing the back of my neck. 11 hours after joining Mylinh 30 miles back in Foresthill, I was beginning to feel the fatigue, but I didn’t have time to be tired, because my runner needed to get to Auburn, and had barely an hour to get there. There would be plenty of time for both of us to rest later.
Typically, with only a few miles left, I would begin to smell the barn, and somehow manage to find my second wind — I was hoping that would be the case for Mylinh as well, but unfortunately, it wasn’t. She was clearly slowing – the signs of the last 29 hours and 95 miles obviously taking its toll. She politely asked to stop. I responded with a gentle, but firm “no” — we didn’t have time to stop. Then she pleaded — and again I denied her request. I told her that she didn’t come 98 miles for nothing, and asked how much it meant to her. She answered by quickening her pace slightly, but that unfortunately faded shortly thereafter. 3 miles an hour — that’s all we needed to average. 20 minutes per mile seemed so easy to do, yet for someone who had gone through notoriously brutal sections earlier in the course, such as Devil’s Thumb, that pace is nearly impossible to maintain. But she had no choice — it was simple math at that point. No Hands Bridge to the finish is 3.2 miles, and she had to do it in 1 hour and 7 minutes — not a second slower, else she would not get any credit, just like in 2005 when she was 7 minutes past the final cutoff. I would not let this happen, I knew how much this meant to Mylinh, although at the time, she told me that it didn’t matter, but also knew that she didn’t really mean it.
We finally began the climb up to Robie Point. A few runners caught up to us as I led the train of about half dozen others all striving for the same goal, as I offered words of encouragement, telling everyone that we were so close to being done. Mylinh was still having difficulties — wanting to rest and stop, even grabbing my hydration pack. I ignored her pleas, and dragged her up the hill — there was no time to be nice, since the ticking clock didn’t care about hurt feelings either.
Soon we would see Tim Twietmeyer running down the hill to greet all of us, telling us exactly how long it would take us, and that we would finish. It was somewhat comforting to know that his voice sounded confident, and didn’t have the sense of urgency or defeat, which would’ve indicated we may not make it. Near the waterfall, we passed a runner who was obviously having issues — his pacer was helping him take off his shirt, and when I gazed into his eyes, he had a very detached and unresponsive look. With time running out, his pacer had his work cut out for him. I wanted to stay and help, but I had my own runner to get to the finish line — I wished them luck and kept going.
As we continued climbing, Mylinh had sudden spouts of energy, yelling and screaming she would finish, then quickly shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum, and talked about dropping out as she pulled on my pack to stop. I tried keeping the positive momentum going, but it unfortunately faded as quickly as it appeared.
The physical and emotional stress were beginning to take a toll on me as well — although I had not run nearly as far as Mylinh had, I have to say that it was far from being easy for me, especially considering the temperatures had begun to rise up to the triple digits again. In addition to just covering the ground, I had to make sure that she was keeping on pace, eating, and drinking, especially when she couldn’t, or didn’t want to.
As we neared the top of the climb, I was seriously hoping that her husband Joe and Catra would be there so that I could hand over the baton to them, so to speak — I was exhausted, and wasn’t sure if I could manage 2 more miles of pacing stress. As I turned onto the fireroad leading to the gate where the Robie Point aid station was, I saw Joe. I yelled to him that Mylinh was right behind me, and that they needed to do whatever they could to get her moving — there was little time remaining, and I ran out of things to say/do to keep her going.
Catra did a great job motivating her, while Joe and their friends were also making sure that she kept moving. Tim would run back to us a few more times and encouraged us, as did many of the neighborhood residents, who came outside their homes to cheer us on — it seemed like the whole world was focused on Mylinh. Soon there was only about a mile left, and we had just under 20 minutes to make it. I knew then that she would finish — the only time I felt that way in the entire race. She could finally walk if she wanted to, but instead, she picked up the pace — the fastest she’d run all day. I ran ahead so that I could capture her coming onto the track at the high school for the final lap to the finish line.
With less than a mile to go, I looked over to the side of the road, and saw a runner collapsed in a driveway. I instinctively stopped to see if he was ok, and saw that he was clearly in distress. His pacer was standing over him, and said that help was on the way, so I continued along with my group of runners. Unfortunately, I would find out later that Jeff Genova did not make it to the finish, and ended up in the ICU afterwards. He ended up with 99 miles that day – unfortunately, there’s no partial credit in this sport. The good news is that he’s made a full recovery, and is returning this year to take care of unfinished business.
After finally reaching the entrance of the high school track, there was only 400 meters, and the end was finally in sight — something I’ve been wanting to see for so many hours. For Mylinh, she had waited 4 years. It was surreal. Many of her friends, spectators, and runners who had already finished, came up to the edge of the track to cheer her in, offering high fives and congratulations. Only 100 meters…80…50…30…10. The race clock read 29:52:31 as she crossed the finish line — done. I walked over to the finish area where Mylinh stood, and I gave her a hug. With tears in her eye, she quietly thanked me with the same voice she used earlier when she requested to stop. I responded with a smile. No words were needed — we both knew what was accomplished. I knew what it took to run 100 miles along this challenging course, but only Mylinh knew what she really had to do that day in order to get to the finish line.
Though I swore I would never pace anyone again, that day I became a part of someone’s dream, and perhaps I will some day be able to help someone else realize theirs.
Anyone need a pacer?