Sunday, September 06, 2009

Pacing and Crewing at Leadville

One of the fun things in life that ultrarunners can do for their ultrarunning friends, is to crew for and pace for them in major ultrarunning events. Such was our crews' task for the Leadville Trail 100-mile trail race...we would be crewing and pacing fellow Trail Nerds, Greg Burger and Andy Henshaw, on their quests for a Leadville one-hundred finish.

Andy Henshaw gets "serious" the day prior to the big event.
He was the eventual 4th Place Overall Finisher!!!

Greg Burger, refueling at Twin Lakes aid station.

What is crewing and pacing, you might ask? The term "crew" stands for "cranky runner, endless waiting." Crewing involves driving from aid station to aid station to wait for your runner to come running in, and then it's the crew's job to heap upon them extra encouragement, dubious nutritional supplements, and positive vibrations to get them to the next aid station within the cut-off times for the race.

Pacing is allowed in the Leadville 100, from the 50-mile turnaround point, on. Pacing involves running with your runner for long periods of time, to keep them on task, and to lift their attitude above their (sometimes) subhuman doldrums; but mainly: to make yourself feel like a saint for putting up with bitchy crap from your cranky runner. And, as an added bonus (at Leadville), you get to run at an elevation of two-miles high, with absolutely no acclimation to the altitude! (My FlatLander's red blood cells are still giving me grief over that weekend escapade. I think I actually got a nasty text from one of those poor, hemoglobin-starved corpuscles the other day).

At Leadville, you can actually "mule" for your runner. Muling involves happily carrying stuff for your runner, while you run with them. In other words, you can carry as much as your runner wants to heap upon you, up to and including being a "mobile aid station" for your runner, too. Luckily for us, our two runners didn't need mobile aid stations. And the only heavy-muling performed that weekend was by Bad Ben's Mud Babe, Sophia, carrying Greg's Nathan pack partially up the back side of Hope Pass...(which has been renamed "Hope Not to Pass-out" by Sophia).

Anyway…getting back to my story: We decided to leave town on the Thursday evening prior to the (Saturday) Leadville event. Sophia and I left town in our car at 7 p.m., while Shelley and Derek left town in theirs, a little later. Shelley and Derek were going to be crewing for Andy Henshaw (with Andy’s mom, brother and friends), and Sophia and I were going to crew for and pace for Greg Burger, along with his girlfriend (Kristin) and Kristin’s daughter, Bailey. Danny Miller and his girlfriend (Erin) and Erin's son, were also going to be supporting Greg. Danny wanted to pace Greg from Fish Hatchery, all the way back to the finish line. Yes, it takes a Pillage.

It’s a good 11-hour drive to Leadville from Kansas City. We stopped for a night’s stay in western Kansas, also know as “God’s Country” to the locals. Which god?…I’m not sure. Another 6 hours or so of driving got us to Leadville by early afternoon on Friday. We met up with Greg and Andy, and the rest of our Midwest entourage.

Sophia, at a stop along the way, sporting a Team Henshaw shirt

Leadville Altitude-induced Lunacy.
Andy, Andy's mom Cheryl (in background), Sophia, Andy's brother Blake, & Derek's dog

Danny, Kristin, Bailey, Sophia, Erin

Sophia was supporting Andy’s shoe fetish, by drawing from her Mizuno Territory Manager account. She had 3 new pairs of Mizuno Ronin shoes and a pair of Precisions for Andy, and I had a new Trail Nerds shirt ready for him. Andy likes to run races in the Ronin racing flats, and (of course), he is true to his Trail Nerds’ roots. He wore a similar shirt four weeks prior, in the 50-mile national championship race, in which he finished in 6th place, overall, right behind Scott Jurek. In that race, Andy's shirt never made it to the finish line, because of his propensity for going topless in warm races. Would the shirt make it all the way to a Leadville finish? We shall see.

Leadville, Schmedville. Leadville is one of the highest townships in the nation. Is the air thin up at 10,300 feet? Does a bear crap in the woods? You bet. Just walking up a couple of flights of stairs seemed to leave us breathless. Luckily, the two athletes that we were supporting had acclimated to the altitude for about 2 weeks, already. (Two weeks is better than one day, anyway). Sophia and I couldn’t help but notice that we both had “background” headaches, which felt very similar to the feeling of having a hangover. This was (no doubt) a symptom of “altitudinal distress.” And we were going to run umpteen miles with our runners the next day??? Hmm. I had paced Lou Joline in his last attempt at the Leadville 100, back in 2004. But I had had the “luxury” of having stayed in Leadville for a week prior to pacing him. This time, it would be different.

Strategy: Sophia and I slept past the 4 a.m. start, so that we would be rested and ready to pace from mile fifty, on. We drove straight to Twin Lakes, and setup Greg’s boxes of goodies of stuff that he might need. He ended up rolling in and out of there in good time, heading for Hope Pass. So off we drove to Winfield…the half-way point of the race, on the other side of Hope Pass.

Greg at Twin Lakes, mile 40.

The road to Winfield is a dusty, bumpy little bugger of a dirt road. It takes every bit of 40 minutes to drive the 12 miles, from where it leaves the pavement. And the last two-and-one-half miles has runners on it, headed either toward Winfield, or back toward the Hope Pass trail. Poor bastards…it’s dustier than a desert sandstorm on that heavily-driven stretch of road. While driving in, we saw Andy running the road back toward the Pass. He was being paced by Derek! That was good, because he hadn’t counted on having a pacer that early. At that point, we heard that he was somewhere around seventh place in the race. Now that was exciting!

Sophia and I met up with some of the other support crews for other runners at Winfield. We were all worried about our own runners, for it had been an unseasonably hot day. The Hope Pass climb (on both sides of the mountain) was fully-exposed to the sun, and there was no relief from the heat. Greg rolled-in, right on schedule. At the aid station, he had to step onto the official race scale, to get weighed. He was 7 or 8 pounds lighter than what he had been at the start of the race. We sat him down, and proceeded to get him soup, fluids, and foods that he could “keep down.” After about 15 minutes, we threw his Nathan Pack onto Sophia’s back, and they headed out, onto the miserably dusty road toward Hope Pass.

Greg Burger, with Sophia helping him shove the food and fluids in.

Winfield is a beautiful place!

Winfield Beauty

Winfield Mayhem

Sophia did a great job running his butt over the 12,600-foot pass. She helped cue him to eat and drink at regular intervals. She’s good at coaching during long events, even when she’s breathless. During this particular event, she multi-tasked…also taking some time to take in the sights, and to take a few photos. They both rolled into the Twin Lakes aid station at about 6:30 p.m. or so. Sixty miles were behind Greg, with only 40 to go.

Now, it was my turn to pace. The climb out of Twin Lakes (in that direction) lasts for about 7 miles. Greg was eating well now, thanks to Sophia. He was also climbing well. But when we left the single-track trails and got onto jeep roads, where the terrain gets flatter, wider, and relatively boring, he lost his forward momentum. This is where a pacer earns his keep: you have to find a way to motivate your runner to actually RUN, using every method possible, (up to and including a Taser, if you have one handy). Unfortunately, I had left all of my torture devices at home, (in the bedroom closet, of course).

By the time we got to the section of paved road, right before Fish Hatchery aid station, Greg’s mental state had relegated him to a walk. Walk??? And not take advantage of such a flat section of pavement? But that was all that he was going to do, at this point. Fine, then! I’ll just make him walk FASTER! So, I kept the pace at about 4.2 miles per hour, and made sure that he kept up. That’s faster than some folks can jog, so it was better than nothing. But it was best left unsaid, (although it wasn’t by Greg), that he may not make his goal of a sub-25-hour finish, to receive the “big” finisher’s buckle. But I also knew that Greg wouldn’t beat himself up too badly, if he “just finished” and got a “normal” buckle. NOT finishing was not an option, at this point. So, into Fish Hatchery Aid Station we sauntered. Now, it was Danny Miller’s turn to “shine” as a pacer. It was his shift. Go, Danny, Go!

Danny went. And so did I. Sophia and I went straight to bed. We were tired, and were worried about not having enough zzz's in the bank to drive back to KC the next day. Sophia had gotten to see Andy finish, while I was pacing Greg. Andy had finished in a solid 4th place, overall, in eighteen hours! Not bad for a kid from Leavenworth, Kansas! And his best friend, Dallas had gotten to pace him for the last 13 miles, and pushed him hard...Andy moved up 2 places in the race under Dallas' pacing tenure. Schweet! And Greg ended up finishing in 28-something hours, well within the time limit for the race.

A few short hours of sleep later, we had a nice breakfast, and then headed to the awards ceremony. I got to see some old hundred-miler friends, and quite a few of the Midwest Contingent. Andy and Greg both took their turns hobbling-up to the front of the room to get their handshakes and buckles. It was a glorious end to a jam-packed weekend.

"Fast Andy" Henshaw, gets the big buckle and 4TH PLACE!

Greg does it!

Greg's Buckle

If you ever get the chance to crew or pace an ultra-friend, take that just might have some fun along the way. And by the way, the Trail Nerd shirt (on Andy) did make it to the finish line, this time.

Happy trails,

Bad Ben

Additional Photos:

Andy finishes!

Andy is totally spent from his effort!

Blake, Shelley, Derek

Stewart Johnson preps Paul Schoenlaub at Winfield

Darin and Sophia are ready to pace their runners

Sophia, Bob (Mayor of Leadville), Shelley

Sophia demonstrates the wonders of western Kansas/eastern Colorado

Our Next Trail Nerds' Ultra Event