Thus was my task for helping my friend Shannon take on the Javelina Jundred this past weekend in fountain Hills, AZ. I had originally planned on running this race back in 2007 before life intervened. Then I thought about running the 100k this year and crewing Shannon for her final laps. But I realized if I was going to run the race the way I wanted to, I wouldn’t really have the energy to pace her the way she would need to be paced. So, instead, I decided to solely be there for support. Given Shannon as crewed me for two of my hardest running feats, the Pacific Coast 350 and the Dane to Davenport, I owed her this much at least. Not in an obligatory sense; but rather in how you pay back a friend, if at all possible for doing something un-pay-back-able.
The logistics of this race were rather simple. Runners would complete ~15.5 mile loops, changing directions each loop with one final 10ish mile loop to finish the day. Pacers could begin running with runners after 60 miles or whenever it got dark, whichever came first. My plan was to join Shannon for those last 40 miles and get her in under the cutoff time of thirty hours. She didn’t care if that meant 29:59:59; all she cared to do was finish.
The day started early as Shannon had to be out at the starting line around 5 a.m. to get everything into place for the 6 a.m. start. As parking at the starting line was very limited, this meant I had to drop her off, drive back to a shuttle and take the shuttle to a certain point. From there, we would hike ¼ of a mile to the starting line.
|Differentiate your tent with a Snake Staff from Goodwill|
Having done all this, I met Shannon at our tent where we had dropped off most of her provisions the night before. She was resting on the cot in the tent and trying to stay calm. These tents seemed like a good idea when they were rented but in hindsight, simply having a chair with some covering much closer to the start/fnish would have ben much better in the long run. Or during a long run (Nice , pin, Dane.)
After a few minutes we ventured out the start where the carnival nature of the race was in full swing. Javelina Jundred is known for its costumed runners and today was no different. I can’t imagine running a 100 miler in costume if only because I wouldn’t want to deal with the possibility of chafing.
Now, I simply had to go back to the hotel and kill some time. Shannon had no need for me to be there for the end of the first loop so the plan was for me to meet her at the end of the second loop. After going back to the hotel, sleeping and gathering my gear, I headed back out to the race. Unfortunately, the wait for the shuttle took forever. Then we didn’t actually go the same way we had earlier in the morning.
This delay caused me to miss Shannon at the end of the second loop. Pacer/Crew Fail. Fortunately, some people next to Shannon took care of her and sent her out on her way. When I got there less than 5 minutes later, they informed me of what had happened. I dropped my bag and took off onto the course. I found her just a bit down the trail and walked with her for a bit talking and trying to keep her cool. I wish I had brought a bucket of ice water to pour over her head. The sun was high in the sky, and it was warm, even if predictably so. I heard that one of the aid stations had run out of both water and ice which is pretty unforgivable for a race that has been running for more than a few years and the weather was not a surprise.
Some of the top runners had already dropped and as I made my way back to the start/finish, I saw more than a few others dropping for various reasons. I walked with one here and there and tried to offer help where I could. I took some used cups from runners heading out on the loop and returned them to the trash cans at the beginning. I was being as full-service as I could to help as many as possible. Now the question remained would Shannon get back for her next loop before the sun would down and if she did, would she want me to run 55 miles with her instead of just 40.
I wrote all of the above sitting at a table at the start/finish. I then put the computer away and got ready to run in case Shannon needed me. Plus, writing can wait. My runner should not have to do so again.
As the afternoon turned to evening, more and more runners were coming in just barely under halfway done and looking like they had run far longer. The heat of the day had been brutal on many and the exposed nature of the course had a good number in shambles. The long slow shuffle of the finishers was beginning.
If you know something about 100 milers, you know that finishing under 20 hours is a very respectable time.
|Not bad work, desert.|
To be honest, these are the exact opposite of thoughts you need to have when you are crewing someone. I am sure if there was a camera on me I literally shook my head to clear it of these thoughts while waiting for Shannon to arrive. I chatted with more and more runners, saw old friends and made new ones. I was beginning to worry a bit as the time slipped by. I knew Shannon had every intention of completing the 100 miler even if it would take all 30 hours. But I also knew she definitely did not want to have to take that long if she could.
|It was as hot as it looked.|
Finally, I saw her coming in out of the dark and I snapped a picture of her. She was far from happy. I could also tell she needed calories and immediately. I got her to the tent we were renting and got her to sit down. I ran back to get some real food from the aid station. Some vegan, olive, mushroom pizza-esque creation was the only thing that available so I grabbed a slice. I was told a cheese pizza would be along any minute. Why only one tiny pizza, barely big enough to feed one hungry ultrarunner, was being made at a time was beyond me. I got the pizza back to Shannon and also included some chips, cookies, and chocolate. Shannon was trying to do the math and figured she had no chance to finish in the time allowed. I told her to get some food in her and we would go from there.
My original plan was to do the last 40 miles with her. But here, at roughly 8 pm, I knew she needed me right now, even if that meant I was going to run 55 miles. Suffice it to say, I got as many calories in her as possible, rubbed her legs, re-lubed all her potential-to-chafe areas and soon we were heading back out. Almost immediately she was running those 12 minute miles I mentioned above.
Two miles into this 15.5 mike loop and her speed was increasing. The near-death shuffle she was traveling at coming into the aid station was now a full-fledged jog. She was chatting. She was filling me in on the course and we were enjoying the night together as only a runner and her pacer can. I learned that she had fallen barely two miles into the run and had scraped up her hands and cut up her leg. I found out that the aid stations, while staffed by people who were giving their time to be out in the hot sun and be helpful, could have used some more training. Unlike a volunteer for a marathon where they just need to more or less hand a runner a cup of water, it takes a lot more to properly help out at aid stations at an ultra.
Throughout the first half of this loop, Shannon’s pace quickened, even when she was powerwalking. I didn’t want to talk too much about the loops to come but I did some math for her. What at first seemed impossible, finishing the race in the time allowed, now seemed doable. As she continued to pass runner after runner, it seemed more than likely that the cooler darkness was all she had needed to turn up the pace.
Most of the time I would run right off her shoulder, using my headlamp to provide extra light on the unstable trail in front of her. From this position I could see she was favoring the leg which had taken the brunt of the fall earlier. I also learned that a wrong shoe choice had not only caused a loss of time for the loops they were worn but also exacerbated some foot problems.
|Little bit of dust; little bit of stars.|
We chatted about the race, random things in life and moved forward. As we passed the halfway mark, she was unsure of what exactly her 50 mile personal best was but was pretty sure we were pretty close to it. (We were about 30 minutes slower than it, as it ends up but still very impressive for the middle of a 100 mile race.)
Runners would be coming back towards us and she would recognize them as having been much further ahead of her on previous loops. Everyone runner we would pass seemed to give her strength. I felt for sure that if she kept up this pace, she could get the 100 mile finish.
As we hit the halfway point of this loop, I had counted no less than 15 people she had passed. Some had left on this loop before she had even come in and therefore had at least a 30 minute head start. I felt I was doing what I could to keep her spirits high and moving forward. She had some salty potatoes, some soup and some drinks and we headed into the darkness again.
This portion of the course began what would be, on and off, the most hard scrabble uneven footing of the loop. I found us walking more than previously but that was to be expected. We talked about how much she wanted a 100 mile finish but also how she wanted to do more than “just” finish. Shannon has run multiple ultras, often over terrain that I wouldn’t even attempt. She has done medical at dozens of races and has seen runners in every stage of mental and physical fatigue. As much as she knows that getting her buckle would make her happy, she knows it would hardly make her content.
I think I failed a bit as a pacer here as I listened to her talk and added my pragmatic, realistic viewpoint. I didn’t necessarily talk her into stopping at 100k, but I did not talk her out of it either. I just wanted to get her safely to the 100k mark, get food in her and see what we could do from there. I knew that while she was rebounding like a champ, the weather from earlier, the shoe problem, the lack of proper water and ultimately, the fall she took had all added to a deep hole she was going to have a hard time climbing out of.
|Happiness before the torture begins.|
With about three miles to go in the loop our pace had slowed considerably. My own foot had begun to bother me and I cannot imagine what hers felt like. Yet the only people that passed us were those with far superior talent who were on their ways to finishing the 100 miler in the next few hours. None of the people she passed in the loop were coming close to her. I didn’t know most of them but every once in a while I came upon a runner who had faster times than she and she would leave them in the darkness behind her.
We hit the last aid station with 2 miles to go and I knew that her desire to push forward was very low. She knew she would be chasing cutoffs the rest of the way and spending another 11 hours hoping to just eke it in under the deadline was not what she wanted from the race. She knew just getting the 100k mark would be more than many of the runners who had started both races would get to and was enjoying the quiet stillness of the night. Well, maybe not enjoying it per se but realizing her day was done and the resigned acquiescence that comes with that.
Even as she sauntered forward, she was still passing people. I could tell each person she passed made her think whether stopping is what she really wanted to do. Ultimately, the clock made the decision for her. We thought earlier in the loop that come the end of these 62 miles, she would be well under 18 hours. However, with the slowing and walking, we knew that wasn’t going to happen.
She pulled into the start/finish area shortly after midnight and something about having not finished this loop before the next day began was seemingly the final nail in the coffin. I ushered her back to the tent, laid her down on the cot and wrapped her up in a blanket. I gave her Horace, her stuffed Hippo of Happiness and got some calories in her. I sat down and did some math to make sure my figures were right from earlier. I asked her if she simply wanted to sleep for a while and then head out for another loop, if only to get the longest run she had ever done. But she wasn’t in this desert for a moral victory and having rested for a minute allowed her to realize what terrible shape the course had left her in already.
She stopped short of her goal but nailed a bright shiny new 100k PR. I think she was 100% correct and smart in calling it a day.
I spent the next 45 minutes or so, packing up all the gear and clothes and food then going to wait for the shuttle line back to get the car. After that I was able to get her to slide out of the tent and off to the warm car. For the first time all day she was chilled. That definitely wasn’t from the night air (where the temperature was still somewhere around 70) but more from the exertion of doing something extremely difficult.
Back at the hotel, she showered and cleaned and crawled into bed. I could tell she was obviously disappointed but knew she was happy with making the right decision. There will be other races and she can tackle them if she wants. This was not her, or many others, day.
|Michelle Barton wins the 100k outright|
From my perspective, I guess I am rather happy I did not tackle this race 6 years ago. I do not think it is a race for first time hundred mile attempts. While the 15 mile loop makes it seem like you will be amply taken care of, the fact remains that if your crew can only get to you once every 3, 4 or 5 hours, that is a recipe for disaster. If aid stations run out of things, as they did here for hours, you can kiss your goals goodbye.
In addition, as the race is not held at high altitudes or is visibly imposing, many think it is an easier 100 miler to do. I beg to differ. Granted I only saw most of the course at night but it is far from as flat as many think, nor is the footing as forgiving. The ever-undulating hills on many portions of the loop do give you a chance to work all your muscles but they also can seem never-ending when all a runner wants to do is move forward at a consistent pace.
As for the weather, it is nice it is dry, that is for sure. But with a blinding ever-present sun overhead and temperatures routinely in the 80s and 90s, it can be far too much for far too many. Even when the darkness comes, the night chilliness never really follows. I think the low we had was somewhere around 64 degrees. For me, ideally, that would be the high for the day.
The race atmosphere, while jubilant and party-like is also a little hands-off. I have seen and been part of other races where runners are attended to in such a way that everyone is a rock star. Here, some almost seemed like afterthoughts. On numerous occasions I saw runners coming in to complete a loop and either had to dance around spectators blithely ignorant to the fact that they were in the way or only faintly stepping aside. A small army of spectators often prevented runners from heading directly to their tents for refueling purposes. I couldn’t understand how those in the way didn’t understand how even a few extra feet from the straight line can seem like a mile to a tired and weary runner.
In addition, far too many dogs on leashes were getting under the tired feet of people who probably weren’t blessed with the greatest vertical leaps to begin with and undoubtedly were less talented 60 miles into a race. All told there were far too many non-essentials meandering around. On more than one occasions I saw a runner just narrowly miss careening into someone who had no business standing where they were, especially in the dark hours.
Do not get me wrong. I am not saying this is not a good race. The spectators all around the start/finish cheered for many people, often calling out there number as they did not know their name. The volunteers were always friendly even if they weren’t exactly outgoingly so. I just like to give what I feel are accurate interpretations of what I saw and while there are many pros, the cons are there as well. Even at the start, where there were hundreds of runners, many in costume, all about to head out on what was barely more than a single track trail at times, I thought the race was ripe for possible trouble. I know eventually the runners would string out and provide some space for all, but I also knew it wouldn’t necessarily be my cup of tea. Then again, even tea is not my cup of tea, so there you go.
As far as crewing goes, I knew I have much to learn on how to adequately get someone through what is the hardest thing they may have ever done. I already had the utmost respect for those who take on this rather thankless duty so it is hard to say I have new found admiration. I do know that any long-distance runner worth his salt owes most of their individual victories to the group collective which got them there. I can only hope that the little I did to help Shannon on her journey shows how much I appreciated her getting me all the way up the coast of Oregon last year and through the Midwest just a month ago. Fortunately, for her, I don’t have anything long and maddening planned for 2014. So she is off the hook.
Congratulations to all the runners at the Javelina Jundred this past weekend. I do indeed hope that your goals were met and if they weren’t, you realize how lucky you are to even be able to be disappointed. Suit up again when ready and tackle that next goal.