ed. note: this is a bit of a departure from my recent posts. Last weekend I had the privilege of pacing Nick Clark (read his account here) for the final 14 miles of his victorious performance at the Jemez 50 mile trail run in Los Alamos, New Mexico. I thought the experience was worthy of a blog post, so without further adu please enjoy,
Get Him to Jemez!
“Scott - Looks like I was through the ski lodge in just under 6:30 [elapsed time] last year (11:30 am). Hope to be there a little earlier this year - maybe 11:00 - but if you leave Santa Fe at 8:00 as planned then you'll have more than enough time.
See you out there - and thanks again (don't forget the gel).”
See you out there - and thanks again (don't forget the gel).”
The gel, the gel. I’ll get to “the gel” in due time. At this moment it is 11:15 am, and I am waiting for Nick on the wooden expanse of the Pajarito Ski Area base lodge deck. It is a gorgeous day, a little chilly at 9,200 feet elevation, but clear and mostly calm. I am ready. Maybe just a quick stop to the bathroom from being utterly and completely ready, ready to pace Nick Clark for the final 14 miles of his title defense at the Jemez 50 mile trail race here in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Nick is looking to win the race again, and also has his eye on setting the course record this time around. And I am here to help him.
Nick and I train together in Fort Collins, and he asked if I would run with him here in Los Alamos today when he found out I would be attending my cousin’s high school graduation in Santa Fe for the weekend. I figured it would be a good way to get in a fast training run as I prepare for my own 50 mile trail race in June, so I agreed to the venture. Nick is a much better runner than I, and normally I have no chance of keeping up with him in a race, which makes my pacing qualifications somewhat suspect. In fact I can think of only two handicaps that would allow me to keep up with Nick during a race. One, if he was significantly more fatigued than I, or two, if he was saddled with lots of extra weight, or perhaps required to lead an old truculent dog around the race course.
The Jemez 50 mile race does not require runners to carry heavy packs, or lead animals, truculent or otherwise, so no luck there, but it does allow racers to have a pacer for only the final 14 miles of the course. So I figured I could probably keep up with Nick as I would only have to run 14 miles to his 50, and I would be joining Nick only after he had ran 36 miles and negotiated something like 10,600 feet of climbing and 8,700 feet of descending. The equation goes something like this:
Nick - (34 miles * 10,600 feet climbing * 8,700 feet descending)
Slush - (0 miles * 0 feet climbing * 0 feet descending)
And yes, you read that correctly. The Jemez 50 mile race course boasts over 12,000 feet of climbing and descending over its 50-mile span. Let’s see if we can put this into perspective. Start with a marathon. Marathons are somewhat difficult, most would agree. Then consider the Pikes Peak Marathon, which contains about 7,000 feet of climbing and descending, and is advertised as the toughest marathon in the known universe, or something like that. Now double that distance and double the climbing and descending. Now you have something approximating the difficulty of the Jemez 50 mile race. Luckily for me, I would only have to climb about 1,400 feet and descend about 3,300 feet in the final 14 miles of the course. I was to be spared the most difficult parts of the course, it seems. Why my 14 miles of pacing seemed downright, uh, normal compared to the first 36 miles of the course. I admit to being a little nervous about trying to keep up with "Mr. October" while I paced him, but I would give it my best shot all the same.
Now I must confess that I did not leave Santa Fe at 8:00 am, as indicated in the email exchange. After briefly consulting the internet after my cousin’s graduation party the prior evening, I realized that I would only need about one hour to get to Pajarito Ski Area from Santa Fe. So I left at 9:00 am, blasted some Sepultura on the car stereo to get pumped up, and arrived in perfect time at 10:00 am. I was there in plenty of time to await Nick’s arrival. I checked in with the volunteers. “Have any of the 50-milers been through yet?” Nope, came the reply. In fact, only a handful of the 50-Kilometer runners had passed through this checkpoint at 10:00 am. Jemez was hosting a 50-K race at the same time, and a half marathon as well. I sat down and watched the 50-K runners arrive one by one. The aid station volunteers rang cowbells and cheered them all in and out of the checkpoint. I didn’t know exactly when Nick was going to arrive, but I figured I had some time to prepare. I ate a cliff bar and some fruit which I brought myself (pacers are not allowed to use the aid station food and water), and made sure I had all of my gear. Wind-breaker. Check. Hand-held water bottle. Full of water, even. Check. Little one-ounce Gu gel pack for me. Check. Super-giant five-ounce EFS gel flask for Nick. Berry-flavored. Check. Pom-pom (for extra motivation if needed). Check. Sun-screen. Applied. Check. Garmin GPS Watch. Check. Watch working. Un-check.
Oh great. I must have forgotten to power down my Garmin after I went for a run in Santa Fe the day before. I do that all the time. My watch had no battery life left in it. Usually it beeps at me when I turn it on, and it’s not even doing that. You know, part of being a “pacer” is the ability to relay the “pace” to your runner during the race. And Nick doesn’t actually run with a GPS watch, he runs with one of those Highgear altimeter watch things instead, so my ability to convey real-time pace information would actually be of some benefit here. As is the case with most trail runs, Jemez doesn’t have clocks on course, or mile markers on the trail, or even actual trail in some spots, so having some sort of independent pace verification mechanism is particularly handy. I’m officially the Worst Pacer Ever and I haven’t even started pacing yet. Well a dead watch isn’t going to do me any good on my wrist so I decide to run back down to my car and put it away. I’ve got to be speedy, though, in case Nick comes through while I’m down at the car.
Then I notice something strange about the garmin when I take it off my wrist. My garmin is missing the little plastic loop on the band that holds the band in place, and this garmin has its loop quite intact. Is this, in fact, my garmin? Suddenly I remember seeing a box at my cousin’s house for the exact same garmin product. I must have grabbed the wrong garmin from their house last night when I was packing for the run. A frantic search through the car produces my watch, which is, happily, fully charged and ready to go. I am now the Best Pacer Ever, and I haven’t even started pacing yet.
Watch procured and dialed in to the satellites, I now turn my attention to my next task. Namely, where to put Nick’s giant EFS gel flask. Nick was very adamant that I would bring with me a flask of his EFS super-gel for him to consume on the race. Hey, no problem, he’s the boss, I'm happy to help. He gave the gel flask to me in Fort Collins, and I brought it all the way with me to Los Alamos. The race has drop bags but Nick didn’t want to waste time rummaging through a bag for this stuff, so he gave it to me instead. The EFS gel flask is huge compared to most running gel products. It contains 400 calories in its 5 ounces of berry-flavored goodness. 400 calories? What’s this stuff made of, anyway? Berry-flavored Butter? Soylent Purple? And the size of the plastic flask is obnoxiously large. I’m suddenly keenly aware that I have no place to put this thing. Wait, my windbreaker has a single breast pocket that will hold the flask. I now look like I have a single flask-shaped boob (left side), but, you know, anything for my runner.
I end up meeting another pacer, a nice lady named Tina who is waiting to pace her friend who is racing the 50-K race. We engage in typical runner chit-chat (races, injuries, shoes, food, etc.) while I keep one eye on the ski slope above us. Nick will be coming down that slope – like literally straight down the slope, on a trail that defies all sense and logic – so I will have plenty of time to get ready for him after I see him coming down. It is 11:15 and I don’t see Nick coming down, so I decide to make one last quick stop to the bathroom before he does show up. That way I’ll be completely ready to pace and won’t need to make a potty break during my run. I ask Tina to watch my hand-held water bottle and I saunter on inside to the ski lodge bathroom. While I’m in there I hear an enormous cheer from outside. This is no ordinary 50-K runner cheer, this is a 50 Mile runner cheer. This is a Nick Clark cheer and I’m stuck in the bathroom. Worstpacerever. I burst out of the bathroom and run out onto the deck just as Tina is running into the lodge with my water-bottle in her hand. “Your runner just came through!” she says, handing my bottle to me. I grab my bottle, say thank you, start my watch, and take off at a dead sprint across the deck onto the trail, in hot pursuit of one of the fastest trail runners in the country. So much for a warm-up. Depending on how far ahead he is, and how fast he is going, there exists the grim possibility that I will not catch him for the next 14 miles. I re-double my effort and kick it into pain-mode. It won’t be the last time I have to do this today.
But the agony is thankfully short-lived. After about one tenth of a mile I can see Nick cruising through the trail ahead of me. I’m gaining on him, I am going to catch him, it’s all good. “Mr. Clark, I presume?” I ask as I settle in beside him on the jeep road. We’re tacking mostly uphill, it’s a gentle grade, and on my fresh legs I can keep pace, and actually push the pace a bit. I’m all excited and blabbing on about god-knows-what. Nick is quieter, to his credit doesn’t give me crap about being in the can when he came through the aid station. I’m thankful that Tina was there to tell him that at least I was in the general area and not completely AWOL. But I’m here now, and I’m pacing. Oh I’m pacing the hell out of Nick and this race.
We continue along in good form, and about a quarter mile from the next aid station (pipeline, for those keeping score at home) Nick hands me his empty water bottle, and instructs me to run ahead of him to the aid station and fill the bottle with flat coke and ice. This I now do. I take off at a solid clip in order to make sure that I can get this accomplished before Nick arrives, so that he doesn’t have to stop at all at the aid station. I barrel on into the aid station and start bellowing out “Coke!” and “Ice!” to anyone who will listen. A nice lady finds an open bottle of coke and starts pouring it into the bottle. It is not all that flat, but it is all there is. Then we go in search of ice. All the while Nick is rapidly closing the distance. This is taking too long. The ice is in a cooler under a bunch of stuff. Nick is here. The nice volunteer plops a few ice cubes into the bottle and hands it back to me. Nick is leaving the aid station. Once again I have to sprint after him, this time while trying to screw the cap back onto a very fizzy bottle of coke.
We’re heading up a rather steep uphill section, and I am able to catch up to him quickly. I hand the bottle back to Nick which is oozing coke foam from the lid and literally squirting foam out of the top, and rather stupidly point out that “the coke isn’t all that flat, but it’s all they had”. I think I’m back to Worst Pacer Ever. Nick is once again very charitable and does not complain.
We find ourselves on what turns out to be the last significant climb of the day, and the only significant climb of the day for me. I guess its called powerline, and it’s a straight-shot up a fairly loose and rocky dirt road. I don’t really know, I didn’t study the course that much to be quite honest. All I knew about my part of the course was what Nick told me; 14 miles, mostly downhill, not too technical. I have no idea how many more aid stations there are, or the distance between them, or anything. Say it with me now: Worst. Pacer. Ever. My usefulness seems to be confined to comic relief and exploding bottles of coke at this point.
It is clear that the prior uphill bits of this course have taken their toll on Nick. Remember that he has already climbed over 10,000 feet today, so his legs are understandably fatigued at this point. But Nick is willing himself to keep running, however slowly, and we pass several 50-K participants on this stretch who are walking this same hill. So the fact that Nick is still running at all at this point is rather impressive. I decide to offer some sage advice at this point about “running from your glutes (butt) because you won’t need them on the downhill”. Yes, I am dispensing running advice to a guy who wins ultra races. I don’t think I could possibly be a bigger jack-ass. Well whatever, I stand by what I said.
And clearly Nick followed my advice because as soon as we crest the top of the powerline hill and start down the other side, Nick decides that it is time to lower the boom, and he jets off down the hill like Keith Richards, wait, strike that, like Aldus Snow chasing down a Swedish bikini model with a handler of vodka in one hand and a joint in the other. Seriously it’s all I can do to keep up. We’re crushing this steep downhill jeep road. One slip and it’s all over. There’s no way I can keep this pace up. Jeez, exactly how fast are we going? I glance at my watch; 5:40 per mile. Ouch, that’s fast. I shout out a pace check to Nick as he begins to gap me by a few feet. Well, it was fun pacing him for 3.5 miles, I guess.
Blessedly the downhill section ends and we start back up another, shorter hill, and I am able to bridge the gap. But it was a wakeup call to me. Seriously, who drops sub-6 minute miles 39 miles into a 50 mile race? The course then leaves the jeep road and turns onto a lovely stretch of single-track trail through the forest. We’re going downhill again but it’s not quite as steep, and the trail is somewhat more technical, so the pace slows up a bit. We realize that we’re about 10 miles from the finish, and Nick does some “race math” and figures that if we can average 7:15 minute/miles from here to the finish, he can break the course record. The trail dips below the trees into the burned-out zone from the massive fire that hit Los Alamos in 2000. It’s pretty interesting to see the new forest starting to emerge from the remains of the old, and the lack of foliage provides a couple of advantages, but one disadvantage. First some advantages; one can see farther along the trail, which is nice because we can anticipate the terrain a little better. Particularly when climbing uphill, it is nice to know where the hill ends so you can gage your effort accordingly. Also it makes it easier to see runners ahead of you. Like I said, Nick at this point is leading the 50 Mile race, but we are passing quite a few 50 Kilometer racers at this point. I am actually able to serve a useful purpose here; although I’m running behind Nick on the single-track, I am able to call out ahead to the 50-K runners in advance or our overtaking them so that they can gracefully step off the trail and let us pass. They are all very courteous and encouraging as we go by, and I return the favor. It’s one of the many things I like about trail racing. Participants are very supportive and kind to each other. Passing each 50-K runner is like getting a little boost, a little ray of sunshine if you will. The only disadvantage to the loss of forest is that there is an abundance of real sunshine, and it is starting to warm up a bit. But because it is sunny and clear out, and the terrain so delightfully clear of obfuscating foliage, I can see 50 miles across the Rio Grande valley back to Santa Fe and the mountains beyond. It’s an impressive view. “Wow”, I blurt out, “the view is amazing up here!” Then realizing that I’m supposed to be pacing, and not sight-seeing, and should also probably be encouraging Nick to watch his footing and not the enchanting landscape, I correct myself and add, “I’ll look for you, you watch the trail. Trust me, it’s nice up here.” There. That’s how you pace! I’ll do anything for my runner, including enjoying the beautiful terrain, just so he doesn’t have to do it.
Nick was very sure-footed on the single-track, I only remember him stumbling one time over a rock. We were not hitting those sub-6 minute mile paces anymore (thank God) but we were motoring along at a pretty good clip. The first mile after the “7:15” estimate was a 7:19, which was very speedy all things considered, but not completely insane. We keep descending the mountain, and the miles peel away. We are hitting the splits. We don’t even bother stopping at the next aid station, we just keep plugging away. I ask Nick if he wants that giant EFS gel flask, which is still in the breast pocket of my jacket. My jacket is now tied around my waist, and the gel flask is positioned perfectly such that it acts like a tiny fist that is pounding my groin at every step. Seriously, why such a large freaking flask of gel! I keep having to rotate my jacket around to protect my, uh, nether-regions from grievous harm. Stupid EFS gel, I don’t care if you are berry-flavored, I hate you. And of course he doesn't want it yet, Nick still has one of his own that he's halfway through.
As we keep descending and keep getting closer, the temperature keeps rising. Heat is no one’s friend, and we’re both getting low on water. There is one more aid station between us and the finish; the Rendija Canyon aid station at mile 48.1. About one mile before that I see Nick taking the top off his Coke water bottle (he’s carrying two bottles). I think he’s trying to get the last drops of coke out of the bottle, and the screw cap is giving him some trouble, likely because it is rather sticky from all the coke foam detritus from my last bottle-filling adventure. Nick tugs it off and the cap slips out of his hand, and it hits the ground and starts rolling down the dusty trail beside him. Nick slows to pick it up. “Keep going,” I say, “I’ll get it.” I deftly swoop down (oh, yes, deftly. You should have seen it) and grab the cap as Nick sucks down the last drops of coke. I grab the now-empty bottle from Nick and move to screw the cap back on. I’ll hang on to the bottle and re-fill it at the last aid station. But the cap is filthy, covered in dirt both inside and out. Crap, now what. I can’t just refill the bottle like that, I’ve got to clean off the cap somehow. I’ve got some water left in my hand-held bottle, not a lot, but enough. I could stop for a minute and clean off the cap, but I’m barely hanging on to Nick’s pace as is; any delay could be the last I’d see of him. So I have to clean off this cap on the run. I’m carrying two water bottles, plus one detached cap, and I’m trying to figure out how to do this. My brilliant solution? Suck in a big ‘ol mouthful of water from my water bottle, and spit it out all over the sandy, dirty cap. And repeat until the cap is reasonably clean. Yes that’s right, make that cap literally spit-shine clean, soldier. Why didn’t I just squeeze the water from the water bottle onto the cap? I can only answer that by asking you to not judge too harshly decisions made in the heat of battle. Or the heat of Jemez.
Now in retrospect it turns out my GPS watch was measuring short. Meaning, when my watch said we had gone, say 10 miles we had actually gone more like 10.4 miles. Ultimately this gave us a pleasant surprise but it nearly killed me in the intervening miles. You see, having successfully, if not entirely sanitarily, cleaned Nick’s water bottle, I was now instructed to run ahead again to the next aid station, the one at Rendija Canyon, and re-fill it once again with coke and ice. Nick told me that the aid station was 1.9 miles from the finish, and I looked at my watch and was informed by it that we had about 1 mile to go until reaching the aid station. I started to make my move and get ahead of Nick, which was not an easy task by the way, since we were descending a series of sandy switchbacks and he was already running them at a sub-7 minute mile pace. I put in a huge effort and start to gap him ever so slowly when I see a sign for the aid station indicating that it is only about a quarter of a mile ahead. I thought I had about three-quarters of a mile. I am so screwed. I immediately take off, once again, at a dead sprint down the switchbacks in order to gap Nick as much as possible. My legs are screaming, my heart is pounding, I have no idea how fast I’m going but I think it’s the fastest I have ever run. I want to look at my watch but I fear if I take my eyes off the trail for even an instant I am going to tumble down the switchbacks the fast way and land in a heap of hurt at the canyon floor. I come barreling into the aid station hoarsely shouting “COKE! ICE! HE’S COMING! WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” Actually I don’t shout that last stuff. I probably didn’t shout any of it. Once again the helpful aid station volunteers find the bottle of coke and start pouring. There’s no time for this. As fast as I have ran Nick is right behind me. I’m certain he picked up his pace when I did. That’s not fair; you’re supposed to give me a chance! Slow down! I hate you! Nick is through the aid station before the ice can be located. The volunteers, god bless them, are carefully putting ice cubes one-by-one into Nick’s bottle as he starts up the other side of the canyon. I can’t wait any longer; I grab the bottle, only half-filled with coke and ice, and take off once again at a dead-sprint up the canyon wall to catch Nick.
I manage to reach him but my legs are shot, I am totally spent with the effort. I don’t feel anything recovering as we plod up the canyon, and we’re not really going that fast. I hand Nick his bottle and inform him that if he gaps me, it’s ok, I might not have enough to keep up with him anymore. And I’m ok with that. I’ve paced Nick for 12 miles out of 14, I think I’ve done more good than harm. I think he can handle the rest. Let’s revise the equation:
Nick - (48.1 miles * 11,600 feet climbing * 11,800 feet descending)
Slush - (12.1 miles * 1,000 feet climbing * 3,100 feet descending)
Nick hands me his EFS gel flask for me to carry. As soon as he hands it to me I see a cardboard box cum trash can, and I toss the half-empty gel flask into the box. Wait, did he say carry or toss? “Uh, did you want my to hang on to that thing?” I ask. Because I have a full one giving my crotch fusillade broadsides at every step, you know…”Yup”, he says. I run back down the hill and grab the flask, and fall further behind.
Nick isn’t saying much anymore, by the way. He’s pretty spent, particularly on the up hill bits. And who can blame him; he’s less than 2 miles from completing a 50 mile race, from perhaps setting the course record to boot. But it seems as though the victory is in hand at this point. Earlier Nick told me when he was at mile 14 or so he was 10 minutes ahead of the guy in second place, but neither of us know what that gap is now. As it turns out, the gap was about 90 minutes between Nick and Brendon Trimboli, the gentleman who finished second. Of course at the time we didn’t know that the gap was so large, and more importantly Nick had is eye on a more prestigious goal. He was racing against history now.
Back in 2007, in the second running of the Jemez 50 mile race, a young 22-year old named Kyle Scaggs showed up and ran this brutal course in 8 hours and 9 minutes. 8:09:39, to be exact. The following year in 2008 he came back and beat his own time, running it again in 8:08:15. Later that year Kyle went on to set the course record at the Hardrock 100 mile race (which is to the Jemez 50 as the Jemez 50 is to, say, the Pikes Peak Marathon), with a preposterous time of 23 hours and 23 minutes, a record which to my knowledge still stands. These results, particularly the Hardrock race result, were “game changers” in the sport of ultra trail running, seen as pretty much unbreakable. As I mentioned, in 2010 Nick came down to Jemez and won, with a time of 8:26. Of course he could have ran 8:26 again this year and won again, but Nick felt like he could make a go at Kyle’s 8:08 this time around.
Now with one mile to go, course records and Kyle Scaggs and all that are about the farthest things from my mind. Somehow I was able to finally recover from my aid-station sprint and bridge the gap between Nick and me, but I was feeling pretty used and abused by this point. We were clipping along at a low-8 minute/mile pace along a nice wide dirt trail. Although I was pretty fatigued, I was enjoying myself. Record or not, it was a very nice way to finish the race. Of course never having never ran this race before, nor studied the map, I had no idea what last little bit of fun was in store for us.
With less than on quarter of a mile to go, the trail makes an abrupt turn to the right straight up a rock wall. Seriously? That’s it, I’m out. This is about the most uncalled for thing I can think of. I am sick and tired of uphills, and rocks, and climbing, and trying to keep up with this maniac. We start marching up the steps hewn into the rock, and although I don’t really know how much farther we have to go, I know we are close because all of a sudden there are spectators cheering us on. But I’m done. I give Nick one final piece of advice, “Pour it out!”, and let him gap me once and for all.
Cresting the rock wall the trail makes another turn to the right and into the finisher’s chute. In my opinion it is bad form for pacers to accompany their runners through the finish line, so I courteously slide off to the left and jog up the road parallel to the finish. Honestly at this point I had no idea if Nick was close to setting the course record. Like I said, we weren’t talking much at the end of the race. I thought he may have been mad at me for committing any or all of the following crimes: a) spitting all over his water bottle, b) handing him an exploding bottle of coke, c) throwing away his EFS gel (later recovered, so, not too bad), or d) not even being there at the ski lodge when he passed through.
Ahh, but victory glosses over all faults, and as I jogged up the road I could see Nick crossing the finish line, and I could also see the official finish line clock, and it said “8:07:45”. Course record, baby. Nick beat the course record by 30 seconds. Holy crap that's awesome! He did it! Victory and course record, you just don't see that every day. And by a scant 30 seconds. That’s not a very big gap. It’s a difference of one-tenth of one percent. Unbelievable, dramatic, exciting, inspiring. I’m proud to be a part of it. I can't tell you how inspiring it is to run with Nick and watch him put in the effort to win and set the record. I learned a lot running with him, and I know he was totally psyched to pull it off. And I’d like to think that I helped him pull it off as well. Somehow I got Aldus to the Greek, baby. Now really any pacer would have probably spurred Nick on to the record, and I think a more well-qualified and well-prepared pacer may have helped Nick to an even greater victory, but even if all I did was save him 31 seconds at the aid stations, then I did just enough to help him make it happen.
Nick is running the Western States 100 in June, and also taking a crack at the Hardrock 100 in July. Based on his result in Jemez he has to be seen as a favorite in both races now, if he wasn’t before (which he was, but whatever). And I’m offering up my services as a pacer to anyone looking to break course records. Just don’t ask me to carry your EFS gel flasks. And don’t expect me to actually show up on time, or know the course or anything. But don’t worry, we’ll get it done one way or another.