|My debut as a pacer. My friend dropped out of the race a little more than a mile east from the end point above.|
I'd just gotten back into the neighborhood after leaving my car at Stone Mountain Village as I prepared to be a pacer for the very first time, for the Great Southern Endurance Run, one of the most daunting ultras I'd ever heard of.
The race starts at the top of Kennesaw Mountain, makes its way into Atlanta and out to Stone Mountain -- the actual mountain not the city. You have to climb to the top then make your way back to Stone Mountain Village to reach the 100K mark, which is the finish for the race my friend and her friend were doing.
But that's not all -- there's a 100 mile version of the race, the one chronicled a few years ago by AJC photographer Ben Gray, who still holds the course record for running the century in 23 hours and two minutes. From the 100K mark, the 100 mile course continues on from Stone Mountain and makes its way up around Chastain Park before heading back into the city, finishing at Centennial Olympic Park.
So I went down to the basement fridge, got a plastic bag and filled it with cold bottles of water. I pulled out my 100 oz. CamelBak -- that hadn't been used since the December 2014 Honolulu Marathon -- and filled it full of water. If the dude needed water, he could use it and afterward I would just get another bite valve.
"I think you are close to me I'll try to go out on route," I texted. "Meet at (Mile) 31.1 Plasters Ave."
There was no reply.
Probably the first mention of this race to Anna came just two days after she and her friend placed first overall in the Chehaw Challenge, a 50-mile ultra in a park near Albany, Ga. I just saw a listing for it when I was looking up other ultras in the area. The Great Southern Endurance Run seemed like the perfect thing to joke about since the start is at Kennesaw Mountain, where she and her friend frequently train.
"(The) description freaks me out. Are you thinking of doing it?" she asked.
"No, not ever," was my reply.
"Well that was easy. Never," she concluded.
By the end of February, however, her friend wanted to run in it and she decided to give the 100K a try.
It only took me a few minutes to drive over a few neighborhoods, cross under the Interstate 85 overpass and position my car at the edge of a Shell station with water and a few bags of potato chips, since they'd previously requested salty food for the run.
I waited. I did the math in my head, looking at the time of the last text message. Was I too late?
After a while a lone runner, actually walking, emerged from out of the overpass. He was wearing a white cap and carrying a water bottle. I unstrapped my 19-month-old from her car seat and carried her toward him.
"Hey, have you seen a blonde runner named Anna and a guy?" I asked.
"I think they're ahead of me," he said. "I'm just trying to wait out the heat."
I offered him some water but he said he was good and then I strapped the little one back in the car seat. Looking at the turn by turn race route, I didn't have many immediate options. The course leaves the road and then hops on the unimproved section of the Eastside Beltline Trail, running along Ansley golf course.
I've run on that section before, with a BOB stroller, hunting a geocache and it is full of hand-sized granite rocks that often line rail beds. A section of rail still exists here. Someday it will be a concrete bike path.
So there was no catching up with them by car that way. But since this area is where I train, I knew that the unimproved Beltline empties into the newest part of Piedmont Park, called Piedmont Commons. There's even a road that intersects the Beltline in a cul-de-sac called Westminster Drive.
I could go there and wait, unless they'd already crossed the road. Then there would be no catching up with them until the Park Tavern parking lot near 10th Street.
I got back on Monroe but at the last second turned onto Piedmont Avenue to try Westminster. As I pulled down the side street, Anna, her friend Stephen, and her pacer, Marty, were just approaching the crossing.
"You need to read your text messages," I said with my head out the window. It turned out that Anna's battery was low and she hadn't been checking it.
I offered them the ice cold bottles of water and the chips. Anna's friend was shirtless and looked tired. Anna said he'd started walking right before Mile 25. I offered him my CamelBak but he declined and went to find some shade, sitting on the opposite side of the road with his shirt on his head.
Both Anna and Marty seemed fine. She'd run 32.6 miles officially at this point and it looked like the two of them were just another pair of weekend runners enjoying a four-mile loop through the park.
We chatted about how things were at hand and I told them before they continued that I would be in the area in case anyone needed a pick-up.
My original plan when I volunteered to be a pacer was actually to connect with them there, at the top of Piedmont Commons and then run with them as far as I could in-town before getting the wife to pick me up.
But they'd suggested that having a pacer in the last 15 miles or so would be more helpful, so I looked on the course map and decided that I could meet up with them at the aid station at the Columbia Theological Seminary. It's Mile 48.5 on the course map. I estimated I'd run about 10 miles with them until the next aid station in Stone Mountain Village. No way would I want to do that and then go up and down the mountain.
Anna's original estimate was that they would reach there around 1 p.m. With her friend not doing so well in the 82 degree heat and high humidity, their timetable already was pushed back. Yet without other updates I wasn't sure what to do but try to be in the area around the original estimated time, waiting for them to show up.
When we arrived at the seminary my family and I didn't see anybody. It was a little after 1 p.m. and we decided to go to a church playground across the street to wait it out.
Then, a little before 2 p.m., her pacer texted me, "Anna left Stephen behind." Anna's friend posted on Facebook that he had some issues with his hip and Anna continued on a Turner Field but he still intended to walk the rest of the way.
Marty indicated Anna was at Mile 42.5 at this point, which meant she was six miles away from the aid station, which easily could be another hour before she arrived. I wondered at this point if her pacer was continuing to run with her or if she was now running by herself. I texted to see if he was continuing to pace her. I didn't get a reply.
I decided that I would try to see if we could drive down the course to meet her and I would run a little farther on the route. We drove down through Oakhurst and then into Kirkwood. I actually made a wrong turn off the route and by the time I got back on the route I wondered if Anna had already passed this part of town.
So I had my wife drop me off in Oakhurst, about a mile away from the seminary aid station. I wandered down the course a few blocks away from the bar and restaurant district and settled down on a park bench where I'd hunted a geocache in the past. I put down my backpack and waited.
Doing the math in my head, I wasn't sure this was a good idea. If I guessed wrong, then Anna would already have passed this section. I'd then either have to run seven miles home or about 12.5 miles, the new length of my pacing route back to my car parked in Stone Mountain Village.
And then, I saw:
|Marty and Anna running through Oakhurst.|
After getting me caught up on what had happened, he turned around and ran the six miles back to the aid station. (I don't know how many miles he logged this day but it had to be more than 20 since he did two out-and-back routes of the course).
As we trotted through Oakhurst at a slow jog, I told Anna what I had available with me, basically what I'd brought to support both her and her friend -- four water bottles that I'd frozen the night before, four GU gel packets, two pocket-sized emergency ponchos that my friend Hal had given me at various tailgating events, and a smattering of snacks -- granola bars, a bag of pretzels and Goldfish.
By this time we were trotting up the hill alongside the seminary when we heard someone clapping. Since I didn't think the aid station existed, I wasn't sure if this was part of the race or not. But Anna saw it was Ben Gray, the 100-mile course record holder and the host of the seminary aid station.
It turned out she was the first person to visit this aid station. As in the first person in the entire race, 100K or 100-miler, to reach this point.
He had a cooler for water and another for snacks, describing various things at Anna's disposal, including an ice water sponge that she used to cool down. She drank a cold paper cup of Ginger Ale.
"It was the best Ginger Ale in my whole life," she said later down the road.
Now that we were back on the road, I was in familiar territory. Thinking that a good pacer should know his section, I drove the 10-mile route the day before and immediately had some concerns. There were parts of the course that did not have sidewalks and put you on the road with cars, with little shoulder, including one place that to me had a bad blind spot.
This crushed my original thought to carry water and food for them in a cooler that I would push in a BOB baby stroller. Instead I carried all the support water and food in a small daypack that I thought I could run with. In doing so, I carried less of both since I no longer had a cooler's capacity.
Just a few hours before I drove the route, I popped into the Big Peach running store in Decatur and bought a Mizuno sleeveless shirt to help with the projected heat during the race segment. But after seeing that blind spot I opted to wear my bright orange technical shirt from the 2014 Publix Georgia Half Marathon. Safety before comfort.
In Avondale Estates our route was more of a walk-run, which was really understandable given the distance. Anna had her first GU gel and then over the next few miles, all of those gels were expended. She was in brand-new territory, having never raced more than 50 miles before.
We made our way over the Interstate 285 bridge and then over the blindspot hill that I worried about. It wasn't as bad as I thought but I didn't want to take any chances. It dawned on me that maybe Anna had signed a waiver for this race but I, the pacer, had not. So what was I doing here? The short segment on Indian Creek was similar but the road was already being used as a sidewalk by other pedestrians here.
Right before Mile 54 we crossed Memorial Drive, a section the race instructions said to "USE EXTREME CAUTION."
At this point the thunderstorms that forecasters warned us about all day came through. It poured down rain and I scrounged through my bag for one of the emergency ponchos and my Atlanta Track Club hat. I offered the other poncho to Anna, who declined.
It probably was a bad sign. At the next intersection we went about a half mile and then she said she probably could only walk from there on. I looked down at my running watch. It said I'd run a total of 5.19 miles -- I usually stop the watch whenever I walk.
We continued along Rockbridge Road. The rain had let up and I did some rough math in my head. We were about four miles away from the aid station and from there, four more to the finish, including the trip up and down Stone Mountain.
She stopped to eat a granola bar at a gas station that I told her has some of the cheapest gas in town. She'd gone through two water bottles and I went through the other two. Freezing them beforehand was pretty much useless, since half of the water we had was still ice. (The two bottles I drank out of finally defrosted the next day). We continued walking. A few men in a car honked as they drove by, likely not because we were in their way but because there was a skinny blonde lady walking down the road.
My friend wasn't feeling well and then with maybe 2.5 miles to the aid station, she'd had enough and decided to drop out of the race. I think the heat had something to do with it and the careful balance of hydration and nutrition you need for long runs like the marathon. She told me her knees were bothering her and why not -- that's a lot of punishment after 56 miles on the road and concrete.
Dropping out of the race happened pretty quickly -- I'd just texted her friend Marty that she was doing fine although we were walking the course from here on out. Another runner, who was seven minutes behind Anna at the seminary aid station and ultimately finished first, stopped and offered Anna encouragement to continue if she could.
He continued on and I wasn't sure what we were going to do. Then I realized that some of our geocaching friends were near the aid station and one of them graciously picked us up.
At about this point her friend who told her to go on at Turner Field had reached the seminary aid station. He then went on to finish the race in 15 hours, 35 minutes. None of the three women -- including Anna -- who participated in the 100K finished it, according to the results.
This was one of my most bittersweet moments in running. I'd prepared for many things as a pacer in the race but it didn't occur to me that the result would be Anna not finishing it. I went over my running data -- did I run too fast? My splits for that 5.16 miles was in the 10:15 to 10:30 range.
If I ever did this race -- and I promise you, I never will -- I would plan to have a series of pacers covering the entire course, as is currently permissible in this race.
I would also have a person drive along the course with me in a car, to help with aid, since the aid stations are far apart and maybe there should be more aid stations closer to the end of the race to help with aid and potential dropouts. I would also have a good communication system, including cellphones and chargers but also maybe two-way walkie-talkies that don't rely on cell service and don't burn battery so quickly.
And yeah, that part of the course that haunted me, the uphill curve with little shoulder and no sidewalk on Rockbridge, no thanks.
POSTSCRIPT: A few days later, Anna congratulated the runners in the race. "It hurts that I couldn't finish, but that gives me even more motivation to come out next year. Yep, see ya next year," she wrote on Facebook.