A Bittersweet Journey: Through a Pacer's Eyes
At the beginning of last year, I resolved to qualify for the Western States 100. While this was a lofty aspiration for a slow, perpetually-injured runner, I was determined to do whatever I needed to do to qualify. Despite experiencing several severe injuries in the spring, I trained to the extent possible and managed to qualify at the Mt Hood 50 miler in July with my training partner, Sarah, by my side. On the eve that lottery registration opened, I stayed awake until midnight, waiting with bated breath to register the way a small child awaits a visit from Santa. While I knew my chances of being selected were slim and that there were others with more entries who were, therefore, more deserving, I still hoped.
In December, I again waited with bated breath. This time, I sat among a group of friends as we all watched the lottery live, each of us hoping that his or her ticket would be a lucky one. As name after name appeared on the screen in front of me and the number of remaining entries decreased, my anxiety increased. All of a sudden, the crowd around me yelled. I glanced up at the screen and saw Sarah's name. I was overjoyed for her and promptly sent her a text to let her know that her name was drawn. I continued to sit on the edge of my chair and watch the screen as name after name appeared. Unfortunately, my name was not among them. I soon faced the realization that I would have to qualify again and wait at least another year. It was a bittersweet day for me. I was so incredibly excited for Sarah but, despite being aware of my odds, I couldn't help but feel disappointed. My eyes filled with tears as I left my friends and walked to my car.
That afternoon, I resolved to support Sarah in whatever way I could and do everything within my power to help her get to the start line in Squaw Valley and across the finish line in Auburn. Having trained for and toed the start line of two 100s, I knew the road that lie ahead and I wanted to support her every step of the way the way she had always supported me. The next several months were stressful, emotional, and exhausting. We trained together and we traveled to Auburn to run for three days on the Western States course. We talked through fears and doubts and hopes. We discussed logistics.
Finally, race week arrived and Sarah, her partner Adam, our friend Janet, and I piled into Janet's truck and made the trip to Squaw Valley where we met Sarah's sister and brother-in-law.
SQUAW VALLEY/RACE DAY
Anxiety and tension were high once we arrived in Squaw Valley on the Thursday before race day. While Sarah grappled with pre-race stress, Adam, Janet, and I anticipated the long road ahead and internalized our personal responsibilities to Sarah and the rest of the crew. The evening before the race, I sat down with Adam and Janet. I told them that I was their weakest link when it came to navigating remote forest service roads and that my medical knowledge was limited, but that I had experience running alongside Sarah for hours and hours and hours. I told them that I was prepared to do whatever it took to help Sarah get to Auburn and that that was what I had to offer to the crew.
Race morning began at 2:30 a.m. when we all individually awoke without alarms. Our bodies knew that it was time. After eating breakfast, we piled into Janet's truck and accompanied Sarah to the start line. Music played and nervous energy permeated the crowd as the sun rose behind the mountains in the distance and the race clock counted down the minutes until the start.
ROBINSON FLAT (Mile 29.7)
After seeing Sarah off, we cleaned up the house where we were staying, loaded the truck, and headed to Robinson Flat, the first aid station where we would see Sarah. As we waited for Sarah to arrive, I nervously checked the live updates on my phone to monitor her status. We knew that the first 29 miles were going to be tough and I was worried about her. This section was the only section of the course that Sarah and I had not run during training camp, so the terrain, exposure, and climbing were unknown. When Sarah arrived, she did not look good. She had already spent a lot of time in the sun, climbing in the heat and battling a blistering headache. When I saw her, her face was red and she was crying. My first thought was "No. It's way too soon." I felt like I had failed her already. As the rest of the crew replenished her fuel and Janet evaluated her physical condition, I kneeled next to Sarah and talked her through the next section of the course, reminding her that she had run that section before and that the unknown was over. We helped her change clothes and load her pack and then Sarah was off again. I hated seeing her like that and I wanted nothing more than to run a couple miles with her to ensure that she was alright, but I knew I couldn't go where she was going. This portion of the journey was Sarah's alone.
MICHIGAN BLUFF (Mile 55.7)
After seeing Sarah off at Robinson Flat, we packed up our supplies and headed to to Foresthill to watch the front runners for a few hours before going to Michigan Bluff. We arrived at Michigan Bluff well in advance of Sarah's anticipated arrival time. I ate and readied myself to begin pacing her. I refreshed the the live updates on my phone. I refreshed them again. As 8:00 p.m. approached, I walked up the road as far as the volunteers would allow to wait for Sarah to arrive. As each runner entered Michigan Bluff and the spectators cheered, I looked up, hoping to see Sarah. When she arrived, I quickly joined her side to see how she was feeling. She was still running strong, but, as I feared, her headache and nausea had not subsided. As Sarah went through her mandatory medical check, I ran to Janet and updated her on how Sarah was feeling.
Sarah reached Michigan Bluff after 8:00 p.m., so she was permitted a pacer early. I knew that as long as Adam and Janet could help her recover enough to get out of Michigan Bluff, I could help get her to Auburn. She just needed to walk out of Michigan Bluff.
As Sarah and I left Michigan Bluff, I felt hopeful. She was running well and, despite the headache and nausea, seemed to have enough energy to keep pushing and I knew that, even though the expected low that night still hovered around 80 degrees, the decrease in heat would offer a reprieve.
MICHIGAN BLUFF TO BATH ROAD/FORESTHILL
Soon after we left Michigan Bluff, Sarah felt overwhelmingly hungry. Unfortunately, no one thought to replenish her pack with fuel since the next aid station was only a few miles away and we would see crew again in a couple of hours. The stretch between Michigan Bluff and Bath Road was only about 5 miles, but it was one of the most difficult stretches for me as a pacer. Despite the fact that I was carrying an abundance of fuel in my pack, I couldn't, due to race rules, offer any of it to my starving friend. I guiltily watched as she struggled, and was thankful when she found a lone Gu in her pocket.
When we reached the crew at Foresthill (approximately mile 62), it was well after dark. Sarah went through another mandatory medical check while I filled her pack with water and we regrouped at the truck, where the crew replenished her pack with ample fuel. We headed off again into the night, not to see the crew again for several hours.
The next few hours passed as in any other run. We chatted through the night and we ran in comfortable silence. After a while, Sarah's morale slowly started to diminish as I knew it would eventually. I did everything I could to keep things positive, telling her stories, making jokes, and pointing out the beauty that surrounded us. I watched her feet closely, trying to anticipate roots and rocks and remind her about difficult sections of trail before she encountered them. I quietly encouraged her and occasionally pushed her to try harder. Every time she stopped and hunched over in exhaustion or pain or frustration, I hunched down next to her and tried to encourage her to keep moving, to dig just a little deeper. "It's just a bad patch," I'd say. "You'll get trough this." "It's been a bad patch for ten miles," Sarah said. "I know," I said, "and it may be bad for ten more, but you have to keep moving." My heart ached for her. I knew how she felt and I knew that nothing I could say would make it better. All I could do was encourage her and push her to keep moving. Sarah cried and she yelled and she cursed every hill. With each tear and cry of frustration, I tried to find something positive to say. It was all I could do. I couldn't absorb her aches and pains, but I could give her my positive energy.
RUCKY CHUCKY RIVER CROSSING (Mile 78)
Around 2:00 a.m., we reached the river crossing. The water level of the river can vary significantly throughout the day. When we reached the river, it was chest-high. Though a bit cold, the water felt unbelievably refreshing after several hours in the heat. We both reached the other side without incident, until I lost my footing on my final step and fell into the river, getting drenched. All I could do was laugh.
Sarah and I knew that if she could make it across the river, her chances of finishing were good. Though tired and wet, we both felt a sense of renewed energy as we hiked the 1.7 miles to Green Gate with the rest of the crew.
GREEN GATE TO AUBURN LAKE TRAILS/BROWN'S BAR
As the sun started to rise and Sarah's spirits started to improve, I asked her: "When you finish, can I say 'I told you so.'" "No," she said. "Don't say that. I could still fall or something." "So what? You fall all the time," I said. "You'll get back up and run and you'll finish."
Shortly after sunrise, we reached Auburn Lake Trails (mile 85.2), where we refilled our packs and Sarah ate breakfast. We asked the volunteers who the female winner was and they told us it was "Smith something." Sarah and I cheered with excitement and the volunteers looked at us in confusion. We explained that Pam was from Oregon and that we had been rooting for her. We then asked about Amy and Meghan, but the volunteers did not know where they finished. With renewed energy once again, we left the aid station and headed toward Brown's Bar (mile 89.9).
As we approached Brown's Bar, I began to watch our pace vigilantly, encouraging Sarah to pick up speed wherever she could. I could feel her frustration, but I also knew that she had made it through her low point and now was the time to push. I didn't want to make her angry, but I knew that she had come too far to get pulled, so I pushed her a little harder.
BROWN'S BAR TO HIGHWAY 49 (Mile 93.5)
After a long climb that felt like it would never end, we reached Highway 49 shortly after 8:00 a.m. Sarah ran to the restroom and I ran to load a plate of food for her. I yelled to Adam to grab some water and ready himself to run with Sarah to Robie Point. He was already prepared, wearing one of Sarah's skirts in an effort to make her smile. It had been a very long night, full of highs and lows and I felt obligated to see Sarah through to the finish. Sarah and I had talked about Adam running with her from Highway 49 to Robie Point, but I felt like I was letting her down by not being by her side. Once again, I kneeled next to her, this time to tell her to keep moving: "Don't you dare quit on me, I said." "I won't, " she replied. I knew she wouldn't, but, for some reason, I felt like I needed to say it out loud.
ROBIE POINT TO PLACER FIELD
After we saw Sarah and Adam off, we quickly made our way to Robie Point (mile 98.9) to await their arrival. "We have to hurry," I told the rest of the crew. "We can't miss them." Janet laughed and tried to calm me down. "We have time," she said. "We won't miss them." When Sarah and Adam arrived, the entire crew filed in on either side and ran with them. As we ran onto the track, I looked at Sarah and said: "That's your finish line. I told you so."
I did not run 100 miles. I did not traverse the canyons in the blistering heat and scorching sun and I did not earn a coveted Western States buckle. I did, however, journey seven months and hundreds of miles alongside one of the greatest friends I could ever hope to have, sharing her excitement, fears, hopes, and darkest moments and that was a greater privilege than earning any buckle. Dear Sarah: I always knew you had it in you.