I volunteered to pace my friend Elisa at Mountain Masochist Trail Race. We were plotting out the course and where I would join her for several weeks leading up to the race. Shortly before the race we discovered another friend was volunteering at an aid station. To be specific she was volunteering at the Loop Aid station which encompassed miles 33 and 38. This portion of the race according to other runners is particularly grueling. There’s an intense climb/hike/crawl to the summit before continuing on for another 12 miles after completing the loop. Mentally and emotionally many of the runners come into this aid station really drained. Elisa knew this would be a challenging portion for her so she asked me to run with her during this segment.
(Disclaimer-I fully understand that the preparation to race MMTR far exceed my preparations to pace and with that in mind, in the spirit of honoring my friends’ hard work, I took my helping responsibilities seriously :))
I’ve never paced a runner before on anything greater than 3 miles so I felt it was important to prepare appropriately for my task. I planned out encouraging things to say like,
“you think this is hard?!?!” “are you puking? are you dying? no? keep going!” “you signed up for this!” “You’re so strong!” “I’m so proud of you!” “You’ve worked so hard, you’ve got this!” “Pick your knees up.” “Swing your arms!” “Just another 1/2 mile to the aid station.” “After this it’s just 12 miles- biggest loser contestants can do that!”
I also studied previous runner’s race reports to learn more about the segment I’d be running. I then pulled out my pacer app to figure out times and time of day that I could expect her at the aid station based on minute per mile. My running gear was packed according to Ragnar relay runner suggestions (ie: ziplock bag for each outfit) so that if I needed to jump in and pace a second runner I’d have a dry set of clothes and my used clothing could be zipped up air tight. Food was tricky, I would be at the aid station essentially all day, but with random running times I needed easily digestible items. I had this nervous, excited energy going while I was preparing and praying for my runner friends that evening.
I rode with my friends Jen, her husband Clif and Kristi. They graciously picked me up at 8 am and we drove up to Mt. Pleasant. Some of the participants in the race and aid stations camped out the night before the race so there was a toasty fire set up prior to our arrival. We left our gear near the fire.
Once we arrived we jumped right in to food set up and prep. It takes a surprising amount of time to cut items into easy to grab portions and prep 5 gallon jugs of GU and water to support about 300 runners and decorate an aid station in a Christmas theme.
We had some hang out time where I got to meet my awesome friend Nean. I’ve decided we’re basically sisters separated by several states. We had so much fun together.
My friends Kelly and Susan were also helping at this aid station. It was so cool to share this experience with familiar faces and friends from my running community. Susan was supposed to run MMTR but because of an injury was unable. Kelly ended up pacing another of our friends, but more on that later!
Once we were satisfied everything had been assembled we began the task of waiting on the racers!
Jennifer and Nean considered the options for distributing the pop (soda/coke for those of you who might be confused). This race, in the spirit of “Leave No Trace” provided reusable, collapsible cups to all of the runners. This meant we weren’t supposed to use disposable cups, but let’s be honest, in a 50 mile race, it’s hard to remember ones own name, much less a reusable cup. We had a limited supply and to be quite honest some of the runners “might” have just chugged the coke straight from the bottle.
Finally at 10:56 am the first runner arrived after 4 hours and 30 minutes on the course. We cheered him in to the aid station and the festivities began! We had runners in an intermittent stream from 10:56 until 4:45 pm! It was a lot of fun to watch the behind the scenes that occurs to support a race of this magnitude. 50 miles of trail means a lot of volunteers, crews and more. Working at 2 aid stations meant we saw the runners twice. Some runners went in strong and came out bloody while others went in desperately wishing it were over and came out looking stronger than they went in.
It took awhile for the first female runner to come through, but for all of the girls waiting at our aid station it was momentous. We had fun watching the runners come through and calling out when we saw our friends. The girls from our running group racing today included: Alexis, Elisa, Kathie and Kim. We screamed like crazy for Alexis. She came through our aid station in the top 10 women runners. We were all super proud of her!
Shortly before 1 pm Elisa’s family and crew arrived at our aid station. It was fun to meet her family and check in to see what I needed to consider as I ran with her. They said she was at a 12 minute mile approximately. She’s a really strong runner so I knew that with some encouragement she could make up time if she needed to while she had company, but with that pace she was on track to finish well under the 12 hour cut off. So I decided to play it by ear and figure out what she needed the most- a physical push or an emotional, mental boost while running together.
Around 1:20 pm Elisa and Andy (her husband) arrived at the aid station. I had decided to run in shorts, a t-shirt and a long sleeve t (dumb move- I didn’t need the long sleeves, but I was in the mountains and the temperatures were hard to guess). I grabbed her water bottle to refill it while she stopped to check in with her family about any other supplies, etc. She dropped off her climbing poles, grabbed a GU, handed me a GU to carry for her and we set off.
I started chattering away and she was able to maintain a conversation (indicating that she was feeling really strong and doing great). We caught up to Andy who was having a challenging time, I think we heard some grunts rather than words, but he’d run 33 miles by this point, no conversation expected. We kept going and enjoyed some single track, wide grassy areas and then a bouldering climb by a creek. It was a beautiful climb. I got nervous as I watched our pace drop slowly, but then I realized, “WE’RE CLIMBING A MOUNTAIN.” I told Elisa prior to the race that I’m not a strong hiker, so it must have been the adrenaline that kicked me into overdrive because we kept a solid pace to the summit. We climbed 1200 feet and we descended 1200 feet during our loop. I was a cruel pacer at the top and didn’t allow her much time to enjoy the view. I might have promised to return and hike it with her so we could enjoy the view on another day.
The way up to the summit and the way back down posed an interesting challenge in that there was two way traffic in a single track, highly technical section in a part of the race when most of the runners were exhausted. We passed many of our running friends on the way up and back down. When we passed Kathie I quickly sang Happy Birthday to her in honor of her special day. Kelly was with her supporting and uplifting Kathie. Poor Kathie seemed pretty miserable for parts of the race, her stomach refused to be friendly, but she persevered and successfully finished the race.
On our way down to the aid station I rattled off the list of food and drink available at the aid station. I’d watched many of the runners get to the table of food and get overwhelmed by all of the options that everything or nothing seemed appealing. I figured if she had the opportunity to hear the list her brain would acknowledge what her body needed without her eyes and stomach duking it out. She listed out several things that seemed to match what she’d been saying about various aches and pains. I told her I’d remember the list so she could just run, but we ended up making a game out of calling out the various items she’d be eating shortly as we ran down the path. She’d yell, “ramen!” I’d parry with, “ginger ale!” and we continued through her list. She mentioned changing shoes and socks at the aid station. I told her that sounded like a great idea, however I would not let her sit down to do so. I’d heard and read several race reports, suggestions, etc by experienced ultra runners that sitting down at that point in the race could very likely lead to not being able to get up. She was running strong so I didn’t want her to risk it.
I kept encouraging her as we ran with, “you’re doing great,” “you look so strong,” “i’m so proud of you,” and more because she was genuinely doing a great job, I knew she could continue and she’d have a great race. I reminded her that she had less than a half marathon to do, and then it would be “just a 10 miler, and you run that so well” after that it would be “just a 10 k and that’s like a easy Wednesday morning run” then all she’d have left would be a 5K and then the finish!
We arrived at the aid station at about 2:45 pm, a full hour before the cut-off time, and I called out what she said she wanted to the volunteers who were assisting runners and grabbed various items myself. I brought back the supplies to her and her crew. We grabbed some photos and sent her on her way. Her crew and Susan left shortly after that. I was torn at this point of wanting to keep going with her and knowing the volunteers at the aid station were vital, but figured I’d played my part for the day and hoped I’d get to see her finish.
Thankfully, at this point I grabbed my change of clothes and found a place to get into dry clothing. The air was quickly telling me it would be in my best interest to no longer be in sweaty running gear. After I warmed back up I joined the volunteers to cheer for and support the remaining racers. I was particularly pleased to see a stronger Kathie come out of the loop. Kelly ran with her for a bit after she grabbed the necessary items at the aid station.
Some more running friend were there at this point to cheer for and support Kim (Sunday and Kat). I was told Melissa was pacing Kim at this point. I questioned going in after her to help encourage and run her out, but Sunday and Kat were confident Melissa would pace her out in time. Finally at 3 minutes to cut-off Kim came through the aid station we all breathed sigh of relief. This was Kim’s second attempt at MMTR having missed the cutoff by seconds the year before she was extra determined to complete and finish this year in the time limit.
After Kim left the aid station the tension in the air picked up because everyone volunteering realized a) the next runners through would have to be informed they hadn’t made the cutoff time and b) we didn’t have transportation for them so while they were not allowed to continue in the race they still had to run 3 more miles to the next aid station for transportation.
We had to cut 2 runners from going into the loop and 26 after they came out. The time limits were set by the race director for safety of the runners and volunteers and while it is desperately frustrating to look at a runner who has trained for months, anticipated this race and already completed over 9 hours of running that day, and say, “you can go no further,” I understand the necessity. It was so painful. The last runner came out of the loop a full hour after the cut-off time. By this point we had completely packed up the aid station because we all wanted to get to the finish to cheer for our friends.
The drive over the Blue Ridge Parkway to Montebello (finish line) was gorgeous. The fall foliage was breathtaking and the valleys were covered in shadows from the clouds and bright light where the sun shown through. I wish I had been in a more travel oriented mind set for this portion, but I just was so anxious about seeing my friends finish. I kept watching the clock praying we’d make it in time. While the runners had to cross 12 miles of terrain to get to the finish, by road it was a lot longer. I think it took us about 45 minutes to arrive at the finish line from our aid station. We made it to the finish just in time to see Elisa and Andy run the last quarter mile in to the finish. I was so excited I forgot to video record the finish and I only managed to take lame pictures, but I was proud of her nonetheless.
I couldn’t believe how strong she looked at the end. So proud of my friend!!
We waited around for a few more runners from the Lynchburg Trail Running Club (name change pending) and I managed to get video of Kathie’s finish. I congratulated each of my friends and left feeling honored to have participated in such a small part of the adventure. I still do not want to run an ultra myself, but I left excited to crew/pace/volunteer at another event. I’m moved in a very deep way by the athletes who choose ultra running as their passion.