Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Arkansas Traveler Pacing Report

"I just got a text from Jody. She says Shannon just left the aid station at mile 32 and is still in first place."

Last week I was asked to pace a fellow NWA Goat at the Arkansas Traveler 100. I have never paced anyone before and his commitment to run 100 miles is a big deal. I must admit that there was hesitation on my part. What if I screwed things up somehow? I had already read Tim Long's series on how to be a pacer but doubts were there. Shannon and I have run together before and we know each other pretty well. On one hand that is all the more reason not to foul things up and on the other hand all the more reason to help him out. Shannon really encouraged me in my training for my first ultra and nobody was more excited to see me slog out a finish there than he was. It was time to give back. 

A rough outline of the details was worked out over lunch one day with a group of Goats. After cussing and discussing the plan I was ready to pick him up at the Powerline aid station (mile 48) and stay with him through the turnaround and back to Powerline (mile 68) and hand him off to his last pacer, David. He estimated he would arrive at Powerline between 3:00 and 4:00 that afternoon. We decided that if I arrived an hour early that would allow wiggle room and plenty of time to prepare on site. It's a 3 hour drive to the race course from Bentonville so an 11:00am departure was set. I was to meet David at his house and we would caravan down to Lake Sylvia together since I had to leave as soon as I was finished. 

At 11:00am sharp I rolled into his driveway. We were visiting for a minute when he got the text message. We already knew that Shannon was in first overall and moving a little faster than expected but a quick calculation of the math and we knew we had to boogie. To complicate matters I had to get gas as I my truck was running on fumes. And I was to pick up a Rush Running team jersey from a buddy to wear on the course. David offered to pick up the jersey (thanks Ryan, I'll get it washed, dried, folded and back soon) while I gassed up the F150 and we would catch up with one another on the interstate. After $75 in 87 octane I hit the road southbound. We weren't allowing any grass to grow under our feet. For those of you local, we made the stretch from Walton and Central to the Lake Fort Smith exit off I540 in 60 minutes. Jody continued to give us updates on Shannon's progress.

We continued the frantic push towards Williams Junction until we made the turn off of Hwy 9 and I realized that we would not catch him at Powerline. Fail #1. We dropped David's car off at the finish and he jumped in with me. We found a large tent up the hill from the finish and asked for directions to the next aid station. The old timer inside had a large detailed map of the forest service roads. It looked like the normal route would have taken us over 20 more miles of muddy, rocky roads. David figured out a short cut that eliminated a few miles but involved rougher roads. Let's go. I'm pretty sure there were a few rooster tails made along the route. 

The Copperhead Road aid station (mile 52) finally appeared ahead of us and I quickly found a parking spot along the road (in the ditch) and rushed to get ready. Jody was waiting there and seemed happy to see us. We had not been able to communicate with her about missing at Powerline due to no phone signal. I was advised that Shannon was about 5 minutes out. Shoes on, gels packed, bottle filled, packet of organic baby food consumed and port-o-potty visited. Shannon rumbled into the turn, refilled his bottle, grabbed a handful of potatoes and off we went down the muddy road. No wasted time. 

I felt I should take an inventory of sorts and began asking him questions about the race so far. 
"How do you feel?"
"What are you eating"
"How is your hydration going?"
"Any blisters, chaffing or hot spots?"
"Tell me about your pace."
All systems were go according to Shannon. He said he felt solid, no complaints and that he couldn't believe he was in the lead. No low points, no real aches or pains. He mentioned something about being out of his mind and the planets aligning just right. I knew he had gone out fast. He knew he had gone out fast. Too fast? Who knows. Time would perhaps tell. The conditions were good, cool and cloudy. A nice sized group had run together in the lead pack through the second aid station at Browns Creek about mile 12 before Shannon went off the front to take sole possession of the lead. So at this point he had been running alone for 40 miles. We had no idea how much of a lead he had. Now I was faced with a decision that I did not share with Shannon. Do I try to slow him down a bit with the purpose of saving something for the final push to the finish in the dark through Rocky Gap or do we just roll with it and see how long this ride can lasts?

While training for my first ultra Shannon and I did a couple of runs together out at Hobbs. I recalled him telling me to "take what the trail gives you". That thought struck me as I mulled the situation over in my mind. I realized at this point that the finish would be tough for him, he likely had gone out too fast for too long. But there was a chance for him to do something really special if the planets stayed aligned for him. So I just chatted with him some more to try and feel him out, to see where his mind was at in all of this. As the banter bounced back and forth I knew what to do. The strategy would be to gently push him and see what happens. At the turnaround we would have a better idea of how things stood. All of this took place during the 5.5 mile stretch from Copperhead Road to the Turnaround. As we reached the turn I pulled ahead and filled his bottle for him. He grabbed a grilled cheese sandwich. Again, in and out quickly. About a minute out on the return leg we knew it was gonna be tight. 

Robert "PoDog" Vogler was moving towards us. And moving well. In September he completed the Grand Slam and is the defending champ at the Traveler. The dude definitely has some skins on the wall. What happened when we got within shouting distance was unexpected. PoDog starting pumping his fists in the air and became Shannon's biggest cheerleader. The guy was genuinely stoked that Shannon was ahead of him. How cool is that? Memorable. But I knew having the PoDog right behind you with 43 miles to go was a tough pickle to chew. Just keep moving forward. Within a couple of miles he pulled up within sight of us and simply stayed there. That's when I told my runner that no matter what happens he needed to run his own race. We knew that first place was unlikely at this point. We had also passed the runner in third place and he looked to be moving along well enough too. We had about 10 minutes on him by my calculations. That was the one I was worried about. Just keep moving steadily forward. 

As we approached the top of the hill for the return to Copperhead Road PoDog jetted up to us. Again he cheered Shannon and congratulated him on recently getting married. We did the same for his Grand Slam this year. After that PoDog made a comment about it being a great day for a run out in the woods and shot off like a bullet. The battle would now be for second place and I wanted my buddy to get it. Again, quickly through the aid station and on to the next. I did notice Shannon slowing a bit through this section. I tried to pull him up some hills, just gently pushing the pace. A few times he responded and moved steadily and a couple of times he stayed back. I sensed he was beginning to feel the pain. I tried to pull a Jedi mind trick to get him pumped up as we got close to the next aid station. 

"Do you think you can get second place today?"
"I am getting second place."

Now that's an answer you wanna hear. About a mile from Powerline he gained a second wind of sorts and moved quite well down the hill, our fastest pace of the day. This was encouraging. As we skidded into the tents I found David and did my best to relay all the information I had gained while Jody helped crew for Shannon and get him ready to push on to Lake Sylvia. I was worried that as darkness fell, the miles accumulated and the course got back to the technical singletrack that Shannon might have a tough go of it and slow down. If they could just keep moving steadily I felt he would be hard to catch. As it turns out Thomas Chapin caught them at the Rocky Gap aid station (mile 87). Shannon fought hard to take some time back by Pumpkin Patch (mile 94) but in the end there wasn't enough left in the tank for a comeback. From what David tells me there simply wasn't anything left to give. Shannon left it all out there. I have little doubt about that. Bummed. 

As I get older (and hopefully wiser) I appreciate more and more the opportunity to recognize the achievements of those close to me. Even better is an opportunity to play some sort of role in making special things happen. I had that chance in July with my buddy Hugo at the Inca Runners Ultrarunning Camp at Grand Teton. I was fortunate to have another chance at the Traveler. I'm very proud of the performance Shannon had. It is the culmination of lots of hard work, early mornings and sacrifice. I consider myself fortunate to have been asked to pace and it is an experience that I will not forget. Congrats to PoDog for a tremendous run and another victory at the Traveler. Kudos to Thomas for his effort in nailing down a solid second place finish. As for Ewe Turn, nice work my friend. If you have a go at it again next year I would consider it an honor to pace you one more time. 

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