One by one, the runners arrived to the sound of cheers and an immediate barrage of questions and orders. “What do you need? Do you have a drop bag? What do you need to eat? We have chicken noodle soup and ramen, does that sound good? Step on the scale. Sit down. Don’t sit down. Get moving!”
Watching the support crews take care of their runners was like watching a NASCAR pit crew take care of the car and driver. Everything is calm and quiet until the second a runner pulls into the pit, then it explodes into chaos. Runners try to shed unwanted layers or put on needed ones; they pull off shoes to care for blisters and hotspots, cutting moleskin and pulling out the duct tape to secure the bandages on their bruised and battered feet; shoes are exchanged or inserts changed out. Support crews practically shove food at their runners while trying to gauge their level of energy to help decide what type of food to push. It’s an intricate dance, a village rallying around the lone fighter. As each runner leaves, shouting “Number @% OUT”, there is sometimes a moment of quiet in the preparation for the one you know is just beyond your line of sight.
I was at the Powerline station, the midpoint of the 100 mile race at mile 48. I was there to meet my runner Elizabeth Kimble for a quick 20 mile turn out from the Powerline station and back. Just a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have thought about pacing anyone for 20 miles, the task is one of great responsibility. But just days before the race, Elizabeth learned that two of her pacers would not be able to make it. Elizabeth was one of the last people I saw and talked to at my first 50K run. I think she earned a special place in my heart with her encouraging words and at the time, her beautiful pink hair that matched her bright spirit. In the months since, I’ve seen Elizabeth at several runs, she even picked up a race packet for me when I got stuck in traffic and thought I wasn’t going to make it in time. When I heard about her predicament I didn’t hesitate to tell her that I thought she deserved better, but I would be there if she needed me. Fellow Arkansas Outside writer and good friend Nicholas also stepped in.
I had been tracking Elizabeth all morning with check in updates on the event website. I knew what her pace was and figured she would be in at Powerline about 6pm. She was right on the money. She came in wet from the sporadic rainstorms that plagued the afternoon, she needed dry clothes and dry socks and had blisters to care for. As her crew chief Lalita and support team member Johnna helped her into fresh clothes and taped up her feet, I was feeling all but useless. So I went to get her a potato and a cup of soup. Because food solves all my problems, why shouldn’t it solve the fatigue of running 48 miles? Soon she was up, had a full hydration pack thanks to Ronnie Daniel’s help and we were ready to go. For the first few miles she seemed in good spirits and was trying to keep up with Patrick Barker. We fell back a little but I felt confident that her pace was still okay and we were good. Before we could reach the next aid station 6 miles down the road, she was almost grunting her answers to me and I was reminding her to drink. She was concerned about heat exhaustion and kept saying she felt hot. My response was to annoy her every few minutes to ask if she was drinking. Her energy was fading and she needed to eat. Luckily we came in to the aid station at Copperhead Road where she got cheese quesadillas and a healing hug from her Mom. What she really needed was caffeine. By this point she’d been up for almost 18 hours and moving for about 15 of them. The adrenaline of the race environment was wearing thin in the darkness. I tried every trick in my book-I told stupid stories, I broke into song, I hummed the theme from Rocky, I tied my jacket to my waist and made her hold the sleeve like it was my tail or put my hand right under her pack to give her a little extra push when she slowed down or hit a hill. We walked into the turnaround station with me yelling at the volunteers that I needed caffeine for her STAT! Preferably by IV. Alas, all they had was some coffee. It helped a little and we were making much better time going back, then the rain started. It was a gentle sprinkle at first but quickly became a driving rain that limited visibility in the already deep dark night. I gave her my rain jacket and we powered through, catching up to Andi Stracner and her pacer Bill Dobbins who were littering the night air with curse words that wouldn’t make a sailor blush but would have my mamma washing my mouth out with soap. Discussion turned to one of the toughest parts of the run, Smith Mountain. “You’re gonna make that mountain your bitch, Andi” says Bill. “I’m not just gonna make it my bitch, I’m gonna make it my PRISON bitch!” says Andi.
We returned to pass by the Copperhead Road station again and this time I was the one who needed to eat. It’s very easy to get so distracted by the needs of your runner that you forget to take care of yourself. A pacer is no good if they can’t be the strong one of the couple. Elizabeth’s mom handed me a HOT ham and cheese sandwich with the note to her co-volunteers that I was her daughter’s keeper and she would take care of me. Elizabeth had gotten another cup of cocoa/coffee mix and I tried to score her some caffeinated GU or sport beans to no avail. I felt like an addict looking for a fix- “Hey, you got any caffiene? I’ll take anything, I mean ANYTHING!” I wanted to get her a jolt so badly. And she was spending her time finding me a replacement rain jacket since I’d given her mine. A sweet volunteer gave up his poncho for me and I was grateful. It was no longer raining so much but I was cold.
We had about 4 miles to get back to Powerline and I tried to push her, knowing I had an energy drink and a bonk breaker bar there that I was hoping she would take from me. I was in full mama bear mode, trying to distract her, annoying the crap out of her with constant questions and silly ramblings. As soon as we saw the line of cars and the glow that signaled we were coming in to Powerline, my adrenaline started pumping.
I delivered her to Johnna and started telling Nicholas everything I knew. “She needs caffeine, every stop try to find her some. She’s not eating enough because nothing sounds good to her, encourage her to eat. If she gets really quiet or grunts one word answers at you, she’s losing it, make sure she drinks and get her to eat.” I turned her over to her fresh pacer and went to my bags to find my food stash. I found her in the nutrition tent and dumped my goodies at her feet with a “take anything and everything you see that looks good to you! TAKE IT, TAKE IT NOW!” She grabbed the energy drink and the bonk breaker, which made me happy.
And as she and Nicholas walked away from me and back into the darkness, the glow of their headlamps bobbing and fading, I felt like I do when my own kid goes off on an adventure without me: protective, worried, wanting to stay with her and willing her with all my might to keep putting one foot in front of the other all the way to the finish line.