When you spend your time running in the mountains, you get slow. At least that’s the excuse I’ve been using the past couple of years when describing my road running abilities. Sure it’s easy to forget about pace when you’re trudging up a root-infested jungle in Oahu, or descending a laughable grade in the Santa Barbara backcountry, but speed matters. The “newbies” dominating the sport of ultrarunning over the past several years have not been the grizzled veterans that you hear legendary stories about, but rather recently converted roadies with marathon PR’s in the 2:15-2:25 range. These guys and gals can flat out move!
Considering I’ve never “raced” a marathon before… completed two over the past couple years as the second of back-to-back long training runs (marathon PR of 3:15), I’m really excited to work through an actual training block and race CIM in December. Granted, I’m sneaking in the Santa Barbara 100 in July and the Born to Run 30 mile in mid-May, but these will be my last two ultras of the season, before marathon-specific training kicks off.
To get a little taste of the roads but mainly because I completely support Samantha Alderson-Pruitt and the amazing race she directs each April, I connected with her team to volunteer as a pacer this year. Considering the massive amount of road miles accumulated over the past couple of years and my extensive pacing resume (<5% of total miles and 0), I felt entirely confident to assist wherever needed. Receiving the confirmation email and request to lead the 1:30 half marathon pace group, I jumped on the opportunity and then quickly looked online to find out how fast this pace is… 6:52 per mile.
Hmmm… my pace for Nine Trails was 12:00/mile and I blazed through HURT at a blistering 17:00/mile. Better get my ass on the roads and see what 6:52 feels like!
Leading up to the race on 4/26, I nervously went out for a few “tempo” runs to test my fitness and comfort level at a 6:52 pace. Most road runners define a tempo run as a set distance, usually 4-12 miles, ran at a relatively uncomfortable, but even pace (slightly slower than 10k race pace). My tempo runs did not fall into this definition… 7:15, 6:30, 6:45, 7:00, 6:15… this pacing thing was going to get ugly.
The Saturday before race day, I had volunteered to work the info/pace booth at the SLO marathon gazeebo, and my buddy Javier was running the 5k at the same location. Nursing a hangover from free drinks at the MindBody new campus kickoff (not the best way to carbo-load for this lightweight) on Friday evening, this was going to be a long day of cheering and volunteering.
The weather gods must have been laughing at us, as the storm that rolled through SLO on Saturday morning decided to dump for only the 30 minutes while Javier raced. After drying out and grabbing a quick breakfast at Del Monte Café (if you haven’t eaten breakfast here before, do so), I headed back to the gazebo to check in with the pace group and get my volunteering on.
After getting our lime green shirts and pace sticks with corresponding times attached, we started to introduce ourselves to the rest of the group. Seemingly everyone I talked with had pacing experience and a plan for how they were going to execute. I tried to dodge the questions of, “so how many times have you paced? How many halfs/marathons have you raced? What’s your plan? Are you going to bank time in the early miles so you can weather the hills?” One of our team members asked, “You’re pacing the 1:30 group so you must have a fast PR in the half. What is it? 1:25? Faster?” I told him the only answer I had… “No idea. Haven’t ran a half marathon in years and I only train on trails.” His look didn’t inspire much confidence for Sunday’s event.
After making my way through the vendor booth and testing every fluid-based freebie to try and settle my stomach, I made it to the pace/info booth for the start of what I assumed to be a laid back six hour shift… One shouldn’t assume!
After getting a 33 second orientation from Larry on how to track and sell the wristbands for the race morning shuttle, hey I thought this was the info/pace booth, Dom and I were released to the wild. For the next six hours, we were on our feet giving directions, talking about pacing and trying to determine the best options for getting runners to-and-from the start/finish lines, considering the two different shuttle pick up locations. Answering a myriad of questions by a seemingly endless line of runners, while dealing with howling winds and a pounding, self-induced headache is an excellent way to spend a Saturday!
After finishing up our shift, man I have a lot more respect for race volunteers, Alejandra, Javier and I mowed down some Mandarin Gourmet takeout, and hit the sack at 8:30pm for an early morning wakeup.
Sunday morning arrived early. Fortunately, Javier was able to drop off Alejandra and I close to the start (she was racing the half), and we hustled over to check-in and turn in our drop bags. Rocking my stick and 1:30 pace group sign, I kissed Alejandra good luck and hustled over to the start corrals to look for a short shitter line. Fortunately, the elite runners had their own toilet and I planned to sneak in for a quick one before the gun. Unfortunately, all the elites were thinking the same thing I was and I didn’t want to be the “turd” holding them back from a podium finish.
Deciding to hold it, damn if this were only an ultra I could slip off the trail in the first 5 minutes to fertilize the native plants, I met up with Matt Ruane, our co-pacer to discuss strategy. “I’m going to run and figure out if I need to slow down or speed up as the race goes on…” Thank god Matt’s done this a few times!
At 6:45am we were off! 6:33…6:47…6:42…7:09 (up Johnson st.)… hey this pacing thing isn’t too bad. Sure, I unknowingly sped up on all the “hills” and had to stop several times after realizing I had been chatting with some runners that were moving too quick for our group, but overall felt we were holding a pace that should get everyone in under 1:30.
Matt and I chatted over the first few miles, when I wasn’t darting up the hills like a jackass, discussing training/racing and his talents for pushing a stroller up Valencia Peak at Montano de Oro… seriously, how the hell do you that?
We were right on pace to break 1:30 and I was ecstatic! Unfortunately, the tailwind that had assisted our group on the first 6.6 miles quickly flipped to a headwind at the turn, and people started to suffer.
Assumed a slower mile might help to regroup the troops so we could prepare for the upcoming hills… One shouldn’t assume! Our pace group had officially broken after 7 miles.
With no one around, literally no one around, and a headwind coupled with several “hilly” miles ahead, I decided to speed up and offer support to other runners struggling on the backend of the race.
Running completely by myself at this point, I tried to pass the time by complementing the oncoming runners, as we were on the out-and-back portion of the race. “Great job! Looking good! Nice work!” This didn’t help combat the onslaught of awkward looks received, as I was the only guy running with a pacing stick and not a soul around.
Always one for a few words of encouragement, I look up on the side of the road and see Luis Escobar snapping photos next to budding grapevines, “You’re the worst pacer of ALL TIME!”
Turned right onto the Railroad trail and caught up to several runners. Tried to make some small talk with two of the elite women we ran into, but realized that it’s probably safe to shut up and let the runners suffer in peace and quiet.
Left the gals as we made it into downtown and caught up with a runner wearing a Cal Poly water polo jersey. He was moving pretty well, but was definitely suffering. Decided to stay with him and push him over the last 1.1ish mile to the finish.
We crested the last hill with less than .5 miles to go. The water polo player was struggling, and I was starting to lay into him. “Come on! Let’s go! What are you worth? Push! Come on! Go!” We covered the last .5 miles in 5:20ish pace, with me berating the young kid for the entirety of his last half mile. We finished in 1:28 and change, a PR for the water polo player, and thankfully under our 1:30 goal.
After downing 30 ounces of Physiophyx, taking a quick wet wipe shower and congratulating Prashant on an awesome 1:21 finish, I hustled back to the fence to watch Alejandra finish. She came in with a PR, on a challenging and windy course. Super proud of her!
We finished up the afternoon at the Morris & Garritano aid station, eating some bbq and cheering on the marathoners. Terrible way to spend a Sunday!
What I Learned…
- Pacing is not easy
- Training for the specificity of the race is important (i.e. don’t spend all your time in the mountains if you want to pace on the roads)
- Finding a bathroom before a road race is critical
- I may very well be the worst pacer of all time