21 September 2009

Cascade Crest 100 – Pacing Janet

There is nothing quite like doing an activity for the first time. Yes, there is that, but I'm specifically referring to athletic endeavours. Most of us begin from a place where running a 5k is a challenge and seems an insurmountable goal. Remember the old 12-minute run in high school and how intimidating that was?

One of the things that I love about running in races is seeing people take on something that they never thought they could do. In the ultra world, the people who are at the start line for their first 50k, 50 miler or 100-miler are filled with fear, anticipation, courage, uncertainly and exhilaration. There is nothing quite like it, and I love to see those emotions in first-timers. It is one of my great joys of running ultras, eclipsed only by the incredible joy and self-wonderment when those same people arrive at the finish line having achieved what they never thought possible before.

And so I was extremely flattered and honoured that my friend Janet Rosenfeld asked me to pace her at the Cascade Crest Classic 100 mile race, which she was targeting to be her first 100. She felt my experience running a few 100's would make me a great pacer for her, and seemed to gain a good deal of comfort and confidence by knowing I would be at her side. I tool this trust very seriously, and ensured I prepared myself physically and mentally to take on the role and meet her expectations, keeping her on course and allowing her to fulfill her goal.

Over the summer, Janet trained with an intensity that forms part of her character. I was amazed at the dedication top training and hours-on-feet that she managed to get in while maintaining her full-time job, coordinating daycare and parenting of a preschooler, and being a wife to a hard-working husband. Somehow, she was managing to put in the training time that I have always dreamed of. She was doing pretty well on her plan with the input of several other experienced ultra friends, and I helped coach her a little bit through her last several weeks. For her benefit, and also somewhat selfishly, I did not want to be pacing someone through the final miles of a tough 100-miler who was overtrained and/or injured. But Janet arrived at the start line eager, healthy and fit. It looked like my job was going to be easy.

Janet breezed into the first couple of aid stations at 25 and 35 miles cheery, alert, and moving at a comfortably relaxed pace. She was doing well and showed no indications of fatigue, stress, dehydration or stomach upset. So far, she was right on track.

Our crew arrived at Hyak aid station, 53 miles into the race and the point where most pacers join in. We keenly watched the oncoming flashlights to pick out Janet, but almost missed her when her smaller stature was hidden behind two other bigger male runners as she went by. I jumped up and ran to join her in the aid station while our crew team made sure she had everything she needed. Besides a few sharp words to describe a new downhill section in the course that she just ran over, you couldn't tell she was 53 miles into a run and once again, I was inwardly relieved for her and for me.

We set off from Hyak and used the next road section to find our pace and develop the subtle communications of body language, sounds and voice that would allow me to sense what pace to go, when to run, when to walk and when to stop. I gained a sense of what food was working for her, how much she was drinking, and a general system check. Pacing is an interesting role in that on one hand you must be a leader at times, encouraging and prodding, but on the other hand you have to take the lead from your runner and not take them beyond where they are capable of going.

But in general, Janet astounded me throughout the night with her strength, consistent pace, and willingness to accept calories and fluids when I told her to (though mostly she knew what to take and when, I didn't have to remind her very much). We traversed the gravel road around to Kachess Lake aid station, and moseyed our way along the never-ending Trail from Hell towards Mineral Creek without much issue, taking it easily through the dark until the sun rose just before the Mineral Creek station. We packed away our flashlights at this point, and while Janet changed her socks, I plied her with grilled-cheese sandwiches. She declined my tasty offering of a Nutella-banana sandwich, which I enjoyed myself. We headed up the road on the next major climb that would take us up to No-Name Ridge, an effort that would occupy us for the next couple of hours.

Again, Janet impressed me with her uncomplaining and consistent effort up this long, long hill. We were pushing a purposeful pace without going too hard, and managed a few running sections as we approached the top and there were more flat parts in the road.

But Janet's most impressive performance was still to come, as we headed out from the No-Name Ridge aid station and into the forest. This part of the course is the one that really takes its toll on runners, featuring the dreaded Cardiac Needles climbs and a summiting of Mt. Thorp. We left the aid station with a group of runners, but quickly left them behind as Janet ran many of the trails in this section, and powered up the steep Needle climbs. I used a bit of pacer psychology with her at this point, claiming that "no, these weren't the needles just yet" and that they were yet to come. So, before we knew it, we were done with those nasty climbs, and traversing the trail beneath Mt. Thorp. Janet still managed a laugh at one point when she looked up the cliff beside us and asked if we had to climb up there, to which I responded "no, not directly up, we get to use some switchbacks."

The remainder of the high country trails were all done similarly, with us running most sections and walking the bits of uphill. I was aware that we were passing lots of other runners, and no one was catching and passing us – more indicative of Janet's wise pacing throughout the race than a contributing factor to overall results. Finally, we tipped downhill towards the last aid station. Despite her amazing strength, Janet was looking and sounding more fatigued at this point, and it was taking – not surprisingly – more effort from me to encourage her to still keep eating and drinking. Though the thought of another gel was so unappealing at this stage, she still never protested and always managed to choke another one down when asked to.

We popped out of the woods into the last aid station and were met by Janet's quietly proud husband Ken. Janet was equally pleased to see him as well, but after a quick hug and kiss we were off again for the last few miles to the finish.

Janet could smell the barn by now, but she was definitely more tired and pushing herself to run the short segments I was suggesting to her. We picked a tree or marker ribbon and ran up that point, then walked briefly to regroup before running on to the next one. In doing so, the last miles under the hot sun passed relatively quickly.

At last, we made the turn up to the train tracks that led towards the finish line. Janet finally let herself realise that she had completed her goal, and broke into a huge smile as we got closer. I was envious of her at this time, knowing the feelings she was having, and knowing how wonderful those sensations of accomplishment, satisfaction, and utter relief were. We turned towards the finish banner, and I stopped to let her take in the final fifty metres herself. It was a wonderful sight to see.

I am so proud of my friend for what she has accomplished, and she made a perfect example of what a person can achieve when they believe in themselves, set a goal beyond their known boundaries, and work with dedication to make it happen. That person could be any one of us. Thanks for the opportunity to witness and be a part of something amazing, Janet!

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