Friday, September 6, 2013

Bless the Ultrarunning Community - Trail Angels

I'll start with this - in my experience, the ultrarunning community is a collection of wonderful people.  A few weeks ago, Brian and I ventured across the country to participate in the Cascade Crest 100 Mile - our first 100-miler away from home.  Fortunately, the west coast running community welcomed us into their arms and made us feel right at home with their support.  I am sure that many have had similar experiences - since the ultra community is amazingly supportive!  Our experience out there is a shining example of the incredible group of people involved in this sport.

Eric Sach offered to pace Brian for the last 32 miles of the race.  Now, racers could have pacers for up to the last 47 miles, so why didn't Eric offer to pace for that entire length?  Because he was the aid station captain of the mile 23 aid station and he wouldn't be done with that duty in time to catch Brian at mile 53.  Eric was organizing for his aid station when we got to registration (at 8am on race morning), then he ran an aid station for hours, and then he quickly headed to mile 68 to catch Brian and pace him to his victory, where they finished just before 5am.  I didn't personally get to meet Eric at the finish line - he had to leave quickly after Brian finished to be at his son's birthday party that day.  He must have been pretty darn tired by the time he was done with the birthday party, and yet he selflessly offered to pace Brian, knowing that he would be flat-out for over a day with all these commitments.  I know Brian greatly appreciated the company and could not have run the race he did without the course knowledge and company that Eric provided - he was integral to Brian's success.

(Brian and Eric, with the RD, just after winning Cascade Crest 100)

With my limited (shall we say) success at the 100 mile distance, I certainly knew I would improve my chances if I had the support of a pacer.  I was fortunate that Pam Smith, this year's Western States Champion, enthusiastically offered to pace me through the final 47 miles of the race.  I think she was willing to throw elbows with anyone else who offered to pace me, just for the opportunity to be my pacer and help me achieve my goals, which just shows how incredible of a person she is.  Pam told me that after Western States, she was temporarily retiring her racing number in lieu of a pacer bib for the summer.  I believe I was the 3rd person she has paced since Western States, and from the comments that I heard from the other folks she recently paced, she helped us all achieve greater than we could have on our own.  What an amazingly caring person, and in my opinion a true champion and deserving of my utmost respect.  I could not have done what I did at Cascade without her support, and certainly would not have had as much fun along the way.

(Me and Pam, at the finish line)

 About a year ago, I met an ultrarunner who had recently moved to the town I work in.  Her name is Steph Robinson.  We met when she volunteered to crew my friend Nick at Mohican 100 Miler, and I was pacing him.  She had never met me, or Nick, but offered and was crew-extrodinaire for his race.  Earlier this summer, she and Nick teamed up to crew for Brian at Vermont 100.  After that she flew to California to visit her friends out there, since she used to live out there.  During her 'west coast' tour, she was going to be in the Seattle area during the weekend of Cascade Crest.  I threw out the idea of her crewing for me, but honestly expected that with her limited time out there she would prefer to be spending it with her friends that she doesn't often see.  Instead, she enthusiastically jumped on board and gave up a weekend of her travel time to crew me through my race.  I know that Steph has crewed numerous times recently, and her runners always tend to do well - it is not a coincidence, she is efficient, good at trouble shooting, and exactly what is needed throughout a 100-mile journey.

(Steph, on left, an ultra crew professional)
One of my crew/pacing team from Vermont 100, Karin, knew one Seattle-area ultra runner, Francesca Carmicheal, and got me her contact info.  Francesca warmly opened up her house to host Brian and I, offering us a bed, shower, dinner, and place to use as we organized for the race.  As a complete stranger, she made us feel completely at home on the West Coast.  She fed us a huge, healthy home cooked meal, with plenty of awesome Italian wine.  She read off course information as Brian and I took over her back porch, organizing drop bags and fueling for the race.  She lent us some guide books for our vacation and lent Brian a headlamp to use for the race.  I can only hope to return the favor if she returns to Vermont 100 again next year.  It was also nice to see her smiling face at mile 80, where she volunteered throughout the night and following day at the race.
(Myself and Brian, with Francesca)
While this collection of folk welcomed Brian and I to Washington and made a race on the far side of the country feel like home, I know that these are just examples of an awesome community of people.  I am sure many other ultrarunners have had similar experiences with what I have dubbed as 'trail angels', the folks who selflessly help in the most amazing and unexpected ways.  I've had competitors offer me gels or treats from their fueling as I was bonking during a race, I've had fellow runners slow down their race to help pace me through a tough section; likewise, I've come across newer ultrarunners who are slowing and cramping and forced salt tabs and water on them, I've offered a competitor a hand to help her scramble up a tough trail, and I've unofficially crewed for any competitor that gets to an aid station while I'm waiting for my runner.  I have one friend who paced 7 miles from mile 70-77 for Brian at Vermont 100 a few years ago, and then doubled back to pace another runner from mile 70 to the finish.  I've seen folks volunteer to pace or crew complete strangers. 
So, what trail angels have you met in your ultrarunning?  How have you helped a fellow competitor during your own race?  Any special folks that you want to call out?

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