I love to pace and crew. I love it much more than I love actual racing. This year in particular I’ve had the chance to help out several times at races and speed record attempts. It’s been pretty incredible, sometimes terrible, but it’s what I love to do.
I paced for the first time in 2007 for Rich White at Cascade Crest 100. I met him in the middle of the night at Kachess Lake and brought him in. It was my first exposure to that distance and what it took to organize and help someone complete their goal. I didn’t have to do too much. Rich was a truck and never stopped moving, except for maybe one time. He came to a tree root that had made a natural foot high step and he stopped and contemplated how he was going to get down what probably looked like Mt. Rainier to him. I put my hand on his back and said, “It’s just a step” and he stepped down and kept going. I ended up unofficially pacing for Jamie Keizer at the same time and got to be there to watch them cross the finish line together.
My first real crewing experience was for Devon Crosby -Helms at Vermont 100, 2008. It was unbelievably easy. Devon was super organized (to be expected from my twin librarian) and always knew exactly what she wanted from one aid station to the next. All we had to do was trade her used pack and bottles for new ones, then refill things using the lists she’d made of what she’d want and when. She was predictable, patient, efficient and very grateful. Such a breeze!
I’ve been hooked since. It hasn’t always been so easy as Rich and Devon, but I’ve come to find a satisfaction in every experience. On a basic level, pacing and crewing is a great way to get miles and to see a race course without having to pay the race entry fee. Generally, you go a slower pace so it’s easier on your body, although it can still take its toll when the miles are longer. On a higher level, it’s inspiring to be a part of someone’s goal. I love this sport of trail and ultra running and can understand how important that finish line can be. Helping someone get there, watching their process as they go through lows and highs and fight through so much really gets to me. I think I’ve often cried more at the end due to pride for my runners than they have for themselves. I put these images into my brain and use them as motivation when I’m running my own races. It’s amazing. Being so close to that reminds me what human beings can do mentally, physically and emotionally.
I have so many stories: Alvin Crain and I singing “I like down hills and I cannot lie!” and him making me laugh so hard I really did fall off the trail. Jess Mullen’s one liners like “Sugar makes me want to vomit” and “I’m so proud of my legs.” Pouring an entire bag of ice over Devon as she sat in the tub post-race. Jamie K. thinking she saw a semi truck on the trail. Listening to Meghan Z. and Adam Gifford debate which element is the best one on the periodic table. Becoming buddies with Rich White Sr. and him calling me babe. Meeting a shepherd in the middle of Colorado and playing with his puppy. I could write a book and maybe I will someday.
It isn’t all trails lined with candy and roses though. I’ve been so frozen my joints hurt for days afterward. I’ve been rained on so hard I could still see the raindrops for hours after the downpour stopped. I’ve given away the clothes I’m wearing and suffered rain and wind in a short sleeve shirt. I’ve had things thrown at me. I’ve had to deal with panicked runners who wouldn’t listen to me. I’ve told a runner he was looking good while I was secretly trying not to throw up from altitude sickness. I’ve given away all my food and then been dropped and left alone without food, water or a map for what felt like forever. I’ve been yelled at, snapped at, lectured, and scolded. I’ve cried silent tears of frustration and pain. It’s part of the deal and I deal with it.
Catherine Horton gave me some sage advice—the runner has to take care of himself. As a crew person, you are there to assist and encourage, not to be their servant and commanded about. The runner needs to know what s/he wants and give you the chance to give it to him/her. There needs to be a basic plan and if there is a deviation from the plan, the crew person needs to be ready to adjust, but the runner also needs to be patient through the adjustment. A moment’s pause can mean a huge difference, usually for the better.
When those times have been tough, it’s been important to remember these races are not about me, but about my runner. That’s why those tears are silent and I don’t mention I was trying not to throw up until well after the run. Getting my feelings hurt or complaining isn’t helpful. There’s a grace period for the runner to be less than wonderful. It depends on the length of the run/race, but I usually give at least the day before, the day after and the duration of the race. This gives the runner some leeway to be bitchy, cranky and rude. There are still boundaries, of course, but this grace period is why I’ve managed to maintain some friendships post-event. We aren’t always at our best in the middle of a cold night after tons of miles and climbing. It’s good for all parties involved to be forgiving.
I don’t think I’m the best at this—there can only be one Steve Stoyles, but I show up ready for anything as best I can. I like to discuss with my runner what kind of encouragement works best, what their goals are, and what their favorite foods/treats might be. If I can surprise them with something along the way, like a good chocolate chip cookie, PB Puffins, or that burger and Coke (not Pepsi, Alissa!), then it can be a great motivator. I try to be somewhat familiar with the course and cut off times. I’m ready with stories, from my own to the plots of books I’m reading to full recitations of children’s stories. I’ll sing, although I never know if this is helpful or not…. And I’ll be quiet when asked or if I can sense the runner needs some time to settle. I’ve learned (the hard way) to bring extra clothes and food for myself and the runner. I carry their camera and take pictures. I run up ahead (and sometimes back if they’ve forgotten something) to aid stations to get their drop bags and grab the things they need. And I’m ready to spout as many “good jobs,” “nice works,” “you look goods,” and “you can do its” as necessary. Believe me when I say pacing and crewing can be just as exhausting as running the actual race. There’s a lot to do.
Ultimately, what is it I want from doing this? Just some appreciation. My runner at Western gave me her finisher’s medal (don’t worry, she kept her buckle!). I’ve gotten some cute t-shirts out of these deals. Ooh, and Alvin gave me the headlamp he won—that was sweet. Yet I don’t do this for the tangible things. I have no ulterior motives and am really confused when people think otherwise. What else could I get from doing this, but extraordinary experiences? I’ve been to the best places and seen people do the greatest things. All I want in return is some acknowledgement (not necessarily publicly) and a genuine hug of gratitude. It’s an honor to help someone achieve their goal. I love being a part of it.