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How to Pace for an Ultramarathon

Kris Whorton, one of the race directors from last month’s Lookout Mountain 100k, wrote a great primer on how to pace a runner during an ultramarathon. It was originally posted on the Boonies boards, but it’s worth republishing here for anyone who’s curious:

So you’re pacing a runner at Lookout Mountain 100k and you’re not sure what your responsibilities are…Hopefully this guide will help you. Feel free to contact me if you have additional questions or concerns ([email protected]).

First, pacer is actually a misnomer. Pacer suggests you are setting the pace for your runner. In fact, you are a companion, caretaker, moral support person, friend, drill sergeant, and psychiatrist. Your runner may get tired, crabby (see #5 below), disillusioned, suicidal, or way too manic, and it is your job to either talk them off the cliff or move them past the cliff. Here’s how you do it:

1. Your runner should go first so that he or she can set the appropriate pace. Sometimes your runner will need a mental break and will need you to lead. Should this happen, your pace must be the pace the runner needs. Remember that he or she will have run at least 38 miles when you meet up and while you may have fresh legs, your runner will not. Do not set a pace that drives your runner into the ground. Your job is to get him or her to the finish line in one piece.

2. Encourage your runner to eat at the aid stations but not too much. We’ll have hot soup and cocoa or coffee and it would be good to get the soup, especially, in their system. They will benefit from the sodium and the warm liquid. Take advantage of coffee/cocoa or soda for the caffeine boost.

2. While your runner is grazing at the aid station, get his or her water bottles filled or get their drop bag if applicable. You may actually wish to take them before the aid station and run ahead to get them filled. Your goal is to get your runner in and out of the aid station as quickly as possible. Keep them moving (and unless they are in really bad shape, don’t let them sit down).

3. Talk to your runner. Don’t expect an answer but check in often as the mind can play tricks on a tired runner and you don’t want him or her thinking about quitting.

4. Listen to your runner’s breathing. Shallow or labored breathing, especially on inclines, suggests that it is time to walk a bit. If your runner needs to walk, walk and after a bit, suggest that it might be time to run. Encourage and push but let your runner decide. Be positive and realistic – don’t tell them they are almost done if they still have 15 miles to go. Instead, praise what they’ve accomplished and frame what lies ahead in attainable goals. “You’ve gone 47 miles and you look / are doing great! The next aid station is only 2.71 miles so let’s make it happen!”

5. Crabby and cranky runners might need to eat or have some sugar or caffeine. Don’t take anything they say personally. You may think you really know your runner but at mile 45 or 50 or whatever, your runner is not the person you think you know. Be positive and encourage them regardless of what they call you or threaten to do to you if you don’t let them stop. Keep them moving toward the finish.

6. Unless your runner has a bone sticking out, please do not carry their water bottles/pack or clothing. This is called muling and it provides an unfair advantage as runners without pacers must carry their own things.

7. Please keep an eye on your runner’s physical well being. After prolonged exercise, the body starts to shut down due to the physical stress. Your runner may not realize that he or she has blue lips and would benefit from putting on a hat, or waxy white hands that gloves could ease.

8. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. You are no good to your runner if you run out of energy or hurt yourself.

9. When you finish, do what you can to get your runner into warm clothes and then get yourself taken care of. Our aid workers will have soup and there should be a place for you to sit down by a fire so you can rest a bit before heading down the mountain.

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Kris Whorton
In the woods we return to reason – RWE
Other resources:
Trail Running Gear Guide