Grit and Perseverance: A Pacer's Story of 100 Miles

The lessons and experiences that I witnessed in the 38 miles I had the privilege of running next to these two athletes this past weekend are remarkable. I'm not sure I even have the words to describe it.
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It's rare to see a race report from a crew member or a pacer. Race reports are supposed to come from the runners, the ones fighting through the pain in their legs, the mental voices yelling at them to stop. Last weekend I was a crew member and a pacer at the Viaduct 100 Mile Trail Run in northeastern Pennsylvania, and I have a story of two runners to tell you.

The first runner is the reason I was there in the first place. My new friend and teammate Maggie asked me one day if I would be interested in pacing her. Her goal time was sub 19 hours (to put that in perspective, that is an average pace of 11:24 minutes per mile for 100 miles). The year before the same race had taken her nearly 26 hours, but she knew she was in better shape, and having never paced for a runner before I jumped at the opportunity to be part of what I believed would be an epic adventure.

There are three moments that I witnessed in Maggie's run that I would like to share with you.

1: Lets jump ahead to Maggie's 14th hour of running, and approximately her 78th mile run. Up until this point everything had been going perfect, and Maggie was actually slightly ahead of our projected goal splits.

In an instant everything changed. As we ran into the aid station her gait started to become a bit wobbly and as I guided her to the back of the crew van it became clear that something was not exactly right. She was a bit low on calories and her stomach was starting to disagree with her. For the first time all day Crew Chief Ken and myself made her sit down while we replenished her. Usually at this point a crew's job is to get the runner up and moving again.

Not Maggie, she got up on her own after about 45 seconds and started walking down the trail. I remember her looking at me and saying, "I might not be able to go sub 18 hours, but lets keep moving. I know we can go sub 19. I've got this."

I wrote a blog post a while ago about running and "believing it's possible." It couldn't be more true. When things don't go 100 percent to plan most people give up on themselves, begin to doubt themselves, and dig themselves into a deeper bit of darkness. For those who keep believing in themselves, believing that "it's possible" they are often able to keep moving towards their goals.

2: Lets jump ahead to a little over Maggie's 16th hour of running, and her 88th mile run. Truthfully the last 10 miles or so had been an experience for an unexperienced pacer such as myself. Maggie was continuing to struggle with her nausea which had slowed our progress. I myself was struggling with knowing when to push her a bit, and when to nurture.

The course is an out and back, and the out had taken us just about 2 hours and 50 minutes to get to the turnaround point. We were now on the home stretch. We had calculated that we had about 2 hours and 30 minutes to make it back for her to get her goal time of sub 19 hours, which seemed doable given the 1,000 feet of elevation loss that would aid us in the return trip... but also a lot can go wrong in 12 miles when you already have 88 in your legs.

Suddenly, Maggie looked at me and said, "I've got a blister forming on my heel. It hurts."

My immediate response was, "At the next aid station do you want to stop and let us quickly take care of it?"

Maggie didn't even turn and look at me, her arms and legs continued to churn as she continued to propel herself down the trail by my side. Her face was barely visible from her headlamp lighting up the trail ahead, but her words I don't forget. "It hurts to run, it hurts to walk, it will hurt either way. Lets keep running."

I don't know how else to say it except grit. Merriam Webster defines grit as, "firmness of mind or spirit" and "unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger." Grit is something that I think exists within all of us, but some people have found it within themselves and others are still searching.

The grit that runners who run 100 mile races show is remarkable. Seeing it up close helps give us perspective not only on our own running, but also on our life. When life is seeming to get the best of you there are those that dig, claw, and scrape their way out of it, and there are those self implode. I can only hope that I am able to find the same grit within me.

3: Maggie finished in her goal time. We ran across the finish line 18 hours and 34 minutes after Maggie started. Not only did she set a PR, she also came in first place female and beat the old female course record by over three hours. Immediately after crossing the finish line the first thing she did was thank Ken (the crew chief) and myself. The next thing she did was immediately start inquiring about how everybody else was doing.

So whats the take away? At the end of the day it's not really an individual sport. Ultrarunning is a group sport. Yes, its about achieving our goals whatever they may be. In Maggie's case finishing in under 19 hours (an amazing achievement that she deserves an applause for). It's also about the community, the volunteers that mark the course and sit in the freezing dark waiting to give away a hot bowl of soup, the crew that wakes up at the crack of dawn and follows the runners throughout the day unselfishly putting their own needs second, and all the other runners that toe the same starting line with their own goals and their own dreams.


Maggie with her Crew and Pacer

Which brings me to the second runner I want to tell you about. Mike is one of Maggie's friends, I had never met him until briefly the night before. The basics are he did not have a crew or pacers, and this was his first 100 mile attempt. We were not following him through the race because he was so blazingly fast. He was on pace for a first place finish in 15 hours until suddenly at mile 90 his body shut down. He was found on the side of the trail unable to move.

Maggie and myself got word of this when the new leader passed us and told us that he had found Mike and he had summoned help for him. Maggie immediately stopped and began to discus with me how we would send Ken (her crew) to go care for Mike if somebody else hadn't already gotten to him (read the above paragraph again and realize that this would have potentially put Maggie's goal of sub 19 out of reach as she would be going the last 20 miles or so without crew or her specific aid). Luckily Mike was taken care of and brought back to the finish where after some rest and food he began to feel better.

After Maggie finished we were sitting around trading stories when suddenly Mike came up and said, "I have a crazy Idea. Can I go back out and finish tomorrow morning?" The race director agreed that as long as Mike had somebody with him, he would be allowed to go back out to the spot where he was found unresponsive and he would be able to finish.

Without even thinking I said, "Mike, in the morning feel free to wake me up and I'll go finish this with you."

Jump to about four hours later I hear Mike outside my tent saying, "Dylan, can you go with me." I quickly got dressed and Ken drove us out to the trailhead where Mike had dropped before and we began walking the final 10 miles. It rained on us, actually it poured on us but we kept running and moving forward.

It took us just under 2 hours to finish the last 10 miles and Mike got his finish. It wasn't the 15 hour finish he was on track for, but 26 hours and 53 minutes after leaving the starting line Mike finished 100 miles.

This brings it all together. Grit, it being about more than just a race, and believing that its possible.

The lessons and experiences that I witnessed in the 38 miles I had the privilege of running next to these two athletes this past weekend are remarkable. I'm not sure I even have the words to describe it. I guess all I can ever say is if you've never been to a 100 mile race go hang out at the finish line sometime. And if anybody ever asks you to pace or crew them, say "yes." The life experiences you will have will be worth it... I promise you.

So whats left to say except Maggie and Michael, Thank You.