Dave Wirth has prepared for the Zumbro 100-mile trail race that started Friday morning in southeastern Minnesota, as has his friend, Stephanie Hoff. She’s prepared by running a lot. He has prepared by noting what Hoff likes to eat, what she thinks is funny, what’s been going on in her life, what her goal is for this race. He is prepared to tend to her blisters, to help her change socks and shoes, and most of all, to offer positivity.
Wirth has prepared to be a pacer, running (or walking) with Hoff for about 33 miles in the second half of the race over the hilly, challenging terrain of the Zumbro River Valley. Psychologist, nurse, cheerleader, drill sergeant, and logistics specialist in one, pacers help make it possible for increasing numbers of people — average people — to finish 100-mile races.
“There’s a lot of trust between runner and pacer,” said Wirth, 53, of New Richmond, Wis. “It’s not always pretty, but that’s part of the deal. You’re on a team. You’re on a mission. When you commit to making someone else successful, the whole team feels like they won something.”
And more people are making that commitment. In 1991, there were 12 trail races of 100 miles in the entire country. As of 2016, there were 145 hundred-milers, some so popular they accept only a tiny fraction of the applicants.
The demands of a 100-miler, moving continuously for well more than 24 hours (the Zumbro 100 cutoff time is 34 hours; Hardrock 100 in Colorado ends at 48 hours), require geometrically more food, equipment and support than shorter races. Most ultrarunners recruit a crew, family or friends who meet them at aid stations to help change clothing, locate food, perform first aid, and refill the pack they carry between aid stations. That takes care of the physical aspects, but what about the mental side? In a 100-mile race, runners are widely separated and may spend the majority of the race alone.
That’s where pacers come in.
Race rules vary, but most allow runners to pick up a pacer near the halfway point to accompany them for part or all of the second half. Pacers must start and end their shift at an aid station, and have to stay with their runner while on the course. They can offer verbal encouragement, and pick a runner up if they fall, but can’t carry, or “mule,” food or equipment for their runner.
Before her first century run in 2013, Hoff, 38, gleaned from experienced runners that having the company and clearheadedness of a pacer was a good idea. Zumbro will be her ninth 100-miler.
“Just the thought of meeting a pacer keeps me going,” said Hoff, of Somerset, Wis. “Many times I’ve wanted to quit but didn’t because I had a pacer coming up who had sacrificed a lot to be there. You’ll quit on yourself a lot faster than you’ll quit on your friends.”
Hoff finds pacers, including Wirth, among her New Richmond running club. “They’re my best friends, and I know they can cover 20 or 30 miles at 20 minutes per mile — heck, they’re better runners than I am.”
“But it’s a big ask,” Hoff said. “They may have to take off work on Friday, pay for gas and a place to stay, then hang around in the middle of the night at some aid station, and be with you through some pretty low points. Asking someone to pace is equivalent or more to asking them to be in your wedding.”
She goes over expectations with her pacer pre-race: Remind her to drink every 15 minutes, eat every 30 minutes, that she’ll be in front on single track, and that they’re moving fast enough to make cutoff times (runners must arrive at each aid station by the cutoff time to continue). “I used to tell pacers not to let me sit down because I was afraid I wouldn’t get up,” she said. “And we all know, anything said in the last 10 miles of a 100 doesn’t count. You’ve been up for however many hours, you’re crabby. That’s how we continue to be friends.”
Though he and Hoff have swapped roles, Wirth relishes being on the support team.
“You’re constantly looking for ways to make it fun,” he said. “So she vomits. You say, ‘Is that all you got?’ Sometimes you have to be the bad cop. Once I told Steph to stop chattering her teeth and get going if she wanted to warm up. I try to plant the seed — ‘Yes, it really does suck right now, but here’s what we have to look forward to.’ I never ask, ‘How are you feeling?’ because you know she feels like crap. I’ll pull out my checklist of things to talk about, some jokes, what she thinks the belt buckle will look like. Sometimes we’ll go for miles and not say a word. But there’s companionship — two people’s footsteps.”
Nothing is guaranteed
Hoff credited pacers with many of her finishes, but nothing in a 100-miler is guaranteed — she’s always prepared to go it alone. To wit: Wirth had driven to northern Wyoming to pace Hoff for the entire second half of the Bighorn 100. It was unspeakably muddy and cold, and Hoff pulled in to the 50-mile aid station freezing, two hours behind schedule. Wirth was recovering from a 100-miler he’d done two months before and hadn’t been running much. A few miles after they started, Wirth slipped and fell hard. They slogged on, but Hoff was worried they wouldn’t make the next cutoff, so she picked up the pace. She thought Wirth was just behind her. He wasn’t. Eleven minutes after Hoff arrived at the 70-mile aid station, Wirth struggled in and said, “This is where I tell you ‘Good luck and have a good rest of your race.’ ”
“I got her through the night,” Wirth said. “And I thought, if she gets mad, she’ll use that for motivation.”
As daunting as running 100 miles is, Matt Wilson has discovered it’s little things that make it possible.
“In the valley of darkness, a gummi bear can go a long way,” Wilson said. “Or a wet paper towel to wash your face and hands.”
Wilson, 42, of Prior Lake, will accompany his running buddy, Scott Breimhorst, 44, of Chaska, on the fourth, and maybe fifth, of six loops at the Zumbro 100. This will be Breimhorst’s third 100. He uses pacers to help banish thoughts of quitting, but he also has evangelistic motives: “People think running 100 miles is impossible. By bringing them along [as a pacer], they see it’s not only possible, it’s life-changing. You get to this level of clarity, of basic humanity that’s hard to achieve any other way — I want to let people experience that.”
Wilson is already a convert to ultrarunning, so he’ll focus on “basically being a wingman for someone who’s depressed,” he said. “You have to know how to read them — when to sing Tom Petty, when to shut up. Scott hasn’t run a loop course before — he’ll have to leave the finish area, with the music and food and bonfire, five times. I can’t let him get comfortable there. I’m more of a drill sergeant: You can walk the uphills but you need to run all the downhills, so button up and let’s go.”
From experience, Wilson also knows what a pacer should not do. “Don’t tell your own war stories. Don’t mention organ failure in any context, or permanent nerve damage. Don’t do that.”
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.