Wise words by: Matt Crownover
Did you know that an ultra marathon can be a lot like prom? Sure it is: there is all the planning, the drama, the angst, the anticipation, the venue selection, and the group you will hang out with (that is your crew). Thankfully in my experience, the ultra marathon experience has largely spared me the inevitable let-down of prom (in fact I get anxious even daring to remember those awkward teenage years). But one area where the analogy really holds up is in the area of pacing. “Do I tell him I want to go with him, or do I wait for him to ask? There are so many other great pacers, maybe he does not even know I exist….. Oh my heavens—he did invite me to pace! I’m going to prom!!—I mean Western States!!!” Now what?
Well, in this moment it really is a lot like that awkward dating culture, right? In our ultra marathon culture there is a custom, not a firm rule, but a common custom that the runner pays for lots of the costs. There is also the funny thing that the pacer does not voice any concern about the run, at least not his meager contribution of only 40 miles, at breakneck pace, in the dark, staying up all night….. So yeah, it feels a lot like high school: “I sure hope he invites me and pays the bill.” “Oh, what, staying up all night?—why but of course—I am totally so cool with that.” “Oh, running like hell at warp speed?—no problem? What’s that you say? Oh, you’d rather walk (the truly deluded ultrarunner might say he is “power hiking”) slowly for 17 hours while I inspect your vomit and urine, and pray privately that the upgrade of alien abduction might befall me?—I’m up for that too, yeah sure whatever Dude.”
And the metaphor ends here, mercifully. For while the play-it-cool bravado, the nervous energy, and the absurdity of it all might recollect some of prom, the truth is that stepping into an ultra—esp as a pacer ,means stepping into the very thing that is manipulated and eluded by most of our prom culture: love.
Yes, Paul is a card-carrying studmuffin beefcake of an athlete, but that is not how I mean “love” at all. To understand what I mean, consider first the ways that ultramarathons are different from the sort of running many of us come from. The world of running I came from (road, track, marathon) was very much about “not screwing up.” Don’t wear the wrong shoe. Don’t eat the wrong thing. Don’t “blow your race.” If you managed all of this well, you had a great race. Well, an ultra race is different. When we stand at the starting line of an ultramarathon, we are knowingly stepping into a space where we know we will become vulnerable–for we simply cannot control all of what happens if we set out to cover 100miles on foot. In fact, I can know for certain that something will go wrong. My shoe might really hurt. My stomach might turn on me. I might get lost. Or stung by wasps. I might be traumatized by seeing Tom Crull moon me in an effort to answer the call of nature. And isn’t life just like that? There are days when this job, this parenting, this relationship—whatever, just does not seem to be working the way I want it to. It can actually suck at times. So what do we do? Freak out? Get mad? Pout? Blame somebody? Ultras are like a lab: a sort of place I can experiment with these ideas that constitute what for many of us is life’s cup, mixed as it is with blessing and sorrow.
All of this gets thrown into even sharper relief once we invite a pacer. If we are having a blast, it will be that much more fun to share it, right? Or what if he is struggling, and I really help him, wouldn’t that be great? Then again I might really bug him, or even get in his way. As a runner myself, I have worried: “oh crap, my buddy took time off work, came out here, and now I can’t even run that well….”
So what does any of this have to do with love? Well, most of the worlds rich wisdom traditions suggest notions of love that are well beyond our prom culture’s tendency to confuse love with just an intense experience of having a great time. In my own Christian tradition, love is presented pretty plainly as self-sacrifice. The notion of “laying down one’s life for his friends” does not require—thankfully—that I die. But it does mean I need to set my own agenda, my own desires, aside. My own race will come another day—this is not my day, this is Paul’s day. So yes, dying to my own will, and attuning my ear so that I hear a voice besides my own—yes, that is pacing with love. What might this look like? Who knows?—we all have our stories. But one example I will offer: as a pacer there is no higher honor than having your runner do well. I am pretty sure I can hang with Paul, given his 100k warm-up. But just for the record, if he is moving so great as to dump me in the woods in the middle of the night—yippee—that means I have done a great job keeping him moving, and knowing that it is not about me today anyway helps me serve in that way.
Another spiritual lens through which we might view pacing as love regards covenant, as opposed to contract. A contract is a fine way to make a deal, nothing wrong at all with that. Contracts essentially say: “you keep up your end of the bargain, and I will keep up mine.” Not a bad deal. But covenants are different. In a covenant, we experience faithfulness regardless of circumstances. This, by the way, is why we have two traditions of marriage: one civil, one sacramental. In the latter I am saying: “you know what Babe, I am pretty sure that sooner or later you are gonna let me down, piss me off, and all of that—but my faithfulness to you will flow from who I am—not from your performance. This is one of the many great ideas we ripped off from the Jewish tradition—God is faithful not because we are awesome badasses—but because God is God. I’ve got no contract in pacing Paul. I am not electing the fair weather friend option. I’m making a covenant. I hope we have a blast. I hope it does not suck, but I will stay and work and try even if it does.
So, I imagine lots of fun things when I think about pacing Paul at Western. I have been on the course 4 times now, so I can visualize a few things, and I really look forward to so much about the run. I look forward to that awesome descent down to the river, I look forward to the maddening way you can hear it long before you can see it. I look forward to the funky way they put glow sticks on the riverbed, and the splash of climbing in, out, and up to Green Gate. Of course I look forward to the best finish in the whole sport: to hitting that track at the school, to peeling off there at the very end, finding Meredith, and watching through tear stained eyes as my friend gets to make a dream come true. How often do I get to do something like that?
So when you get the call, it always feels a little crazy: “Wanna burn some vacation time to go get completely clobbered for absolutely no credit—then come home hung over and exhausted? Hooray! But then we remember, we re-member our very selves and become who are created to be: with servant hearts, caring for another’s concerns more than we’d care for our own. We become fully human.
I’ve been fortunate to be a runner for about 24 years now. I have seen lots of stuff. While I have only run 8 or so 100s, I have paced about 3-5 times as many. If anything I say here is true, it is because I’m humbled to have learned it from a few friends kind enough to teach it to me. As for Paul he is a phenomenal athlete, probably the only guy I actually know that could have been a pro athlete. He’s ultimately outta my league, so picking him up with 60+ miles on his legs is probably the only way I am gonna get to run much with Paul these days. The fact is that he’s got a shot to put up a pretty aggressive time, and yeah, I hope we have a helluva time trying for that. But that’s not why I’m pacing him…..