“Would you rather play naked Twister with Dick Cheney, or punch a baby in the face?”
This is the stuff great pacer-runner conversations are made of.
Toni and I were just starting loop 7 of the Umstead 100 miler. She was 75 miles in, with 25 left to go.
It was just after midnight, and I’d already paced her through one 12.5-mile loop. We’d spent the previous loop catching up on how her race had gone up to that point, assessing how she was feeling, and going over what needed to happen to get her across the finish line under 24 hours.
She had about nine hours to cover 37.5 miles at the start of loop 6. That’s a totally reasonable proposition for an ultrarunner if that were the task in and of itself. But with 62.5 miles already in the books, it’s a different story.
Fifteen hours into a run, already sore as hell, the sun long down, the rain still threatening a return, and a tough night ahead. It’s enough to leave you feeling like the last Cheerio in the bowl, looking for someone else to cling to.
You know you’ll make it if you’ve got someone else to float with. My job that night was to be a Cheerio. One that could help bring home a sub-24 finish.
Paying it forward
Last year, Toni ran Umstead as her first 100 miler. Besides Bob and Stan, the two veterans in our running group, she was the first of us to attempt a 100-miler.
I was signed up to run the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 the next month, so while I couldn’t be down in Raleigh, N.C., to see her run the race, I was eagerly anticipating post-race stories in hopes of getting any last-minute intel I could in advance of my first 100. Toni paced me for a section of MMT and it was clear that her 100-miler experience had paid dividends, as she seemed to have an innate understanding of what needed to happen to keep me moving forward through those mean-ass mountains.
Trouble is, she finished Umstead in 24:12:12. That’s a respectable-as-hell time for that race, yes. But it was just over 12 minutes shy of a sub-24 finish. And that fact ate away at her for weeks and months afterward. The burning question: Could she have run sub-24? What might’ve gone differently had she dealt with a blister sooner, eaten better earlier in the race, name your variable.
We were all determined to see Toni go sub-24 at this year’s running of Umstead, so she probably had one of the biggest — and loudest — crews ever to step onto the trails at Umstead State Park. Bob and Sara rode down with Toni on Friday, while Tom, Beth and I drove down Saturday morning in one car, with Denise and Stan in another.
Seven people crewing one 100-mile runner might seem a bit much, but we really went for the party. How often as a grown-ass adult do you get to pull an all-nighter, drinking beer and goofing off with friends new and old?
We’d already stuffed ourselves silly on North Carolina barbecue at a local joint outside of Raleigh, we’d settled in to camp chairs at one of only two aid stations on the 12.5-mile loop course and had a prime spot right on the race course as it passed through the aid area. All we had to do was hang out and enjoy the weather as we waited for Toni to roll through after each loop. The rains that had plagued the runners all morning stopped by the time we arrived, so we had it super easy.
As we settled in, one of us – I forget who – said it best as we opened a few bottles of beer and busted out the junk food: “Toni’s really lucky to have us.”
Eight loops? Eight!?
The Umstead 100 organizers treat runners, pacers and crew equally well, which is to say like gold. We all felt so spoiled as we each rotated through our pacing duties. While I waited for Toni to finish up her fourth and fifth loops, I grabbed a couple of cheeseburgers from the main aid station and knocked back a couple of beers from our cooler.
I was only planning to run loops 6 and 7, after all. Running 24 miles after having a couple of beers … what could go wrong?
With Toni due to arrive soon, I changed over to running gear and caffeinated appropriately for the long night ahead. To keep the entertainment value high, I opted for the star-spangled running gear that I wore for the costume party-and-snowstorm that was the Halloweeny 50K last October.
Just before 9 p.m., Toni rolled through at the end of loop 5 and it was time to head out. I grabbed my Camelbak and set off at an easy pace, doing math in my head and running through my mental checklist with Toni.
I found myself thinking back to the questions that my pacers all asked of me during my two 100-milers last year and was glad for the fantastic job they’d done in not only getting me through my races, but teaching me the what’s what about being a good pacer.
That first loop flew by (for me, anyway), it being only 12.5 miles. I took the opportunity to get a handle on the course, where to encourage Toni to walk, where to push her to run, and what the aid stations had to offer a tired, cold and hungry 100-miler.
She was setting an impressive pace even at that late stage in the race, so I knew the seventh loop would be about helping her keep that momentum through what would be her toughest section, the wee hours of the morning where the finish line still seems far away and the night seems really goddamn long.
Where I’d turned up the obnoxious energy on Bob and Beth at the Burning River 100 last summer (JAZZ HANDS!), Toni seemed like she needed something different during that seventh loop. So with the usual sorts of pacer-runner conversation all tapped out after loop 6, we got silly on that next loop.
“Oprah Winfrey, Hilary Clinton, and the Octomom. Marry one, fuck one, kill one. What do you do?”
Hey, folks, this is what passes for deep conversation at mile 75.
All the while, we stuck together like Cheerios.
We walked the uphills, we ran the downhills, and I nagged at Toni to push the pace on the flats that made up the majority of the Umstead course. At the halfway point aid station, I bugged her about eating, and showed her the magic that is chicken noodle soup in the worst hours of a 100. (She’d done the same for me after all, pushing watermelon and oranges on me when no other food looked remotely appetizing at mile 95 of MMT.)
As we were wrapping up loop 7, she was still running strong, but I could see the hurt starting to show. The walk breaks were longer, the gels tasted nastier, her morale was lower.
Nearing the turn to the start/finish aid station, she asked me: “Will you run the next loop too?”
38 miles instead of 24? Sure why not?
‘Okay okay okay okay …’
A crew shift is never pretty at 3 a.m.
The runner is shot, burnt and beat, ready for the sun to just please come the hell up. The pacer is damn near as tired after standing watch for three to six hours, ignoring his or her own needs in the interest of keeping their runner rolling. And the crew is sleep-deprived, bored, grumpy and cold.
When Toni and I rolled in, it was no different. The crew was to the winds. Sleeping, helping other runners, getting a car unstuck from the mud, you name it.
She motored through while I changed batteries on our headlamps and tried not to be grumpy as hell with the crew. I’d been in their position a few times, after all, and knew it was simply lack of sleep that had us all firing on a few less cylinders than usual.
With my Camelbak refilled and fresh batteries in our headlamps, I dashed back out of the aid station, sprinting up the hill to catch up to Toni, who was still setting a great and consistent pace as she began her eighth and final loop, 87.5 miles in the bag.
She was hurting at that point. Seriously hurting, and doubting whether she had it in her to finish sub-24.
But after a bit of foggy-headed math, I knew that if we pushed hard she’d still get in under 24 hours.
So we kept rolling, and negotiating along the way.
“You can walk this hill, but you’ve gotta start running when we get to the top.”
“I’m not ready to run yet.”
“Then we’ll run when we get to that tree.”
Early on in that loop, we ran into our friend Bill, who was on his seventh loop — part of the fun of a loop course is seeing friends multiple times on the trail — and we briefly caught up with him on how his race was going. His enthusiasm gave us both a shot of energy and we kept setting a great pace.
Toni was getting more and more ragged as each of the miles clicked by, but she showed no signs of letting up on the pace. That sub-24 goal was still firmly fixed in her sights and it didn’t take much to get her fired up each time she’d start walking.
“Hey, there’s some more people up there to catch. Wanna?”
Coming out of the halfway point aid station, we had just 5.5 miles left to go, but a quick glance at the watch proved that it would be tough to get there. After a quick pit stop, we had the conversation.
“Toni, you’re going to need to run 11-minute miles for the next three miles to get your sub-24. Can you do that?”
And she did. I don’t know where she found that next gear, but she did. She dug deep. And it was awesome to see it happen.
We hammered through those last few miles, and caught up to Bill again as he was finishing up his seventh loop. He was psyched to see us and picked up his pace to run the last few hundred yards, to see Toni earn her sub-24 finish.
She knew she had it, too, and was starting to get choked up at the realization that she was going to hit the goal she’d worked so hard to get these past few months.
It felt like we were flying as we dashed up the last hill to the finish line. I was encouraging her at every step, but all she had left in her for words was “Okay.”
She crossed the line at 23:57:17.
At the finish, she promptly collapsed into a camp chair, where the race organizers presented her with her sub-24 buckle.
It’s a gold buckle with the Umstead 100 logo, and the words “100 MILES, ONE DAY.”
Few people can say they have one, and I’m proud that I was able to help Toni earn hers.