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More than Pacing

An Olympian discovers ultrarunning, and all its joys.

Alexi Pappas

March 29th, 2023

12 min read


My first brush with Western States was when Lucy Bartholomew reached out and asked if I might like to pace her for 20 or so miles of the 100-mile race. Western States is a race I’ve admired from afar like a cool older cousin. I was enamored. I wanted to know more. I saw myself in it, almost, but it always felt too far away to reach.

At the time, I had a very specific idea of what pacing someone in a race meant. My closest point of reference was when I had paced Genzebe Dibaba in the 5k at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon during the height of my track days, when she was attempting to break the world record. 

As a pacer in a track race, your job is to run a precise pace at the head of the pack to help the whole race (or a specific athlete/group of athletes in the race) achieve a certain time benchmark, like an Olympic qualifying standard or breaking a world record. Track races can often become tactical, with athletes jockeying for position or pulling other maneuvers that can slow down the overall speed of the race, and the presence of a pacer leading the pack helps keep the athletes dialed in, like a metronome. Pacers help the athletes not have to think. 

My job was to run 1k in 66-second pace, then drop out (track pacers are only allowed to run a predetermined number of laps before they must step off the track and let the racers finish on their own). I felt the pressure. This was a world record attempt, so every fraction of a second mattered. I saw it as a huge honor and a great responsibility to unwaveringly maintain the correct pace, like a robot, to help Dibaba chase her big goal. And I did it, perfectly, partly because it was a paying job and I do what I say I’m going to do, and also because I love teams and I will do anything to support my teammates. That day, I saw myself as Dibaba’s teammate.

Having a background in soccer and other team sports, I am always looking for a way to enjoy running as a “team” sport, and I loved my experience as a pacer. So when I heard from Lucy about pacing Western States, I felt similarly honored—Western States is like the Olympics of the ultra marathon world, and I was touched that Lucy wanted me to be part of this momentous event in her athletic career.

But I had never met Lucy in real life and I was still very unfamiliar with the task at hand. From afar, I admired Lucy. She’d chased and achieved big goals at a very young age, and she also had the maturity to step back and find health as an athlete, a story she has openly shared in interviews and on social media. I was also aware that she had previously podiumed at Western States, and also that this race was going to be her first major ultra marathon after taking a substantial period away from competitive running during Covid. I could imagine that for Lucy, there was a lot of mental buildup for this race. I didn’t want to let her down. 

Right away, one major difference I noticed between pacing Dibaba at Hayward Field and pacing Lucy at Western States is that in an ultra, pacers start at the second half of the race. Instead of revving up the athletes and letting them go, in an ultra you’re there to scoop up the athlete when the going gets tough. That’s another big difference: in track, even though I was there to specifically help Dibaba hit her goal pace, everyone in the race followed my lead. That’s just the nature of a track race, especially toward the beginning, where everyone is close enough to touch each other. Whereas athletes in an ultra become spread far apart, often miles away from each other, so pacing is much more of a one-on-one endeavor. 

I understood that my role as a pacer here wasn’t necessarily about time—in a track race, the pacer’s job is to run the assigned time no matter what, even if the athletes can’t keep up—it was about being there to help Lucy reach the finish line however she needed. If she needed to walk, I’d walk with her. If she wanted me to push her pace, I’d push her pace. If she needed me to tell her a long, rambling story to help pass the time, I’d do it. I was excited for this new adventure in teammateship. 

When the race started, I waited with the rest of Lucy’s support crew and eagerly tracked her progress remotely—until the unexpected happened, as it so often does in ultra marathons. At 50k into the race, Lucy tripped and hit her head on a rock. She desperately wanted to continue running, and she tried, but her vision was swimming and she kept throwing up—and ultimately, a tough decision was made to pull Lucy from the race. She was later diagnosed with a concussion, but in the moment, it was confusing. None of us on her crew could find her right away. It was a professional photographer who actually ended up finding her and bringing her to the next fueling station. 

Once I made my way to her location, I tried my best to help a very delirious Lucy navigate the crowds at the most popular fueling exchange point in the race. I sensed that Lucy was feeling vulnerable, especially with people in the crowd who didn’t know what was going on coming up and trying to talk to her, and I felt empowered to do what I would do for any teammate of mine: I helped Lucy find a shady tree to retreat to, and I cracked jokes to make her laugh. As Lucy began to regain her bearings, it was remarkable to see her stick around and cheer for all of her competitors even though she could no longer race herself. Ultrarunning really is a sport that celebrates everyone and champions finishing over finishing first

Even though this was not what Lucy or I expected, it was in those harsh conditions that a deep friendship was born. I got to see sides of my new friend that were equal parts wisdom and bravery. Lucy became my mentor in the ultra world—something I’ll never forget is when she described ultra marathons as “running from one buffet to the next,” referring to the different aid stations along the course where volunteers dish out offerings like chips, soda, donuts, potatoes, and even home cooked meals. When we parted ways after the race was over, I knew I had made a friend for life. 

Then, a few months later, I serendipitously drove Lucy from the airport in Texas to the Bandera race a few hours away. Initially, I traveled to Bandera with the intention to run the 50k version of the race. I was still relatively new to the ultra-marathon world, and this felt like a reasonable next step. Bandera also has a 100k event, which serves as a qualifier for Western States, but that still felt out of reach to me. But then Lucy and I stopped at a coffee shop on the way to race bib pickup (she was in town to pace her dad in the 100k), and she helped me take a serious look at the curiosity deep in my soul: I wanted to try the 100k and be in a race with some of the greats of the ultra world. I knew I was getting in way over my head—not only had I never run that long of a race before, I also hadn’t set up any of the support teams that every other 100k runner had. I had nobody there who had prepared hydration or fuel for me at the aid stations, and I also had no pacers.

But something about my conversation with Lucy convinced me to take a leap of faith and just go for it. I was terrified the night before—I slept for one hour total. I carried two peanut butter banana sandwiches in my hands for the first 9 miles of the race, not realizing that there would be so much food offered at aid stations. I started the race by following an Altra teammate, who taught me that it’s better to walk the uphills if I expect to survive the full 100k. Being told to walk during a race was certainly the most novel advice I ever received. I stopped at every aid station and chugged full-sugar soda. At one point I went the wrong way for a bit and had to double back. I fell down twice and definitely looked worse for wear. 

The course was arranged in two 50k “laps,” and after my first 50k, I was genuinely not sure if I could do another. But then I recalled Lucy’s advice to just keep moving, from buffet to buffet, and I did. I knew she was out there somewhere cheering. I thought, if she believes I can do this, I believe I can. It’s the same way I used to lean on coaches and teammates ahead of big athletic peaks I wasn’t sure I could achieve. I deferred disbelief. 

As I neared the end of the race, the sun set and I used my phone flashlight because I didn’t have a headlamp. I cried twice but not from pain. Once because I decided I could do anything, and another time because the aid stations made me feel so cared for in a way that tickled my little-kid self. Growing up, I didn’t really have someone handing me snacks or asking if I wanted soda and pretzels. I could get pretzels myself from the pantry, or make heart-shaped PB & Js for myself, but it was never offered to me. I don’t blame my dad—he was doing the best he could—but when I remembered the one volunteer who handed me a warm serving of mashed potatoes in a mini paper cup, I just felt so bathed in love that I couldn’t help but cry. That was my favorite part of the day, I think, eating those mashed potatoes at mile 52. 

Ultimately, what I learned is that, yes, ultrarunning is about pushing yourself beyond your preconceived limits—but it’s also about taking care of each other and celebrating what it is to simply be in the wilderness and experience the outdoors in a wholly unique way. Human support and connection is ingrained into the DNA of the sport. 

When I crossed the finish line, I was awarded a belt buckle, which I will prize as much as any trophy I’ve ever received. One day, Lucy and I will actually race together, but in the meantime, we’re teammates all the same.

2 thoughts on "More than Pacing"

  1. Ilisa says:

    What an amazing story – I am so happy for Lucy and Alexi. And the photograph of the two of you under the tree exemplifies the essence of love and friendship- made me cry. Perhaps you two could pace this 62 year old as I debate a 50 miler? Kinda kidding/kinda not….

  2. Deborah Gilman says:

    A brilliant read, you’ve reminded me of my first ventures into ultra running. I was so naive and didn’t know what to expect or feel. The emotion and elation can not be put into accurate words. My proudest moments if I’m honest and the camaraderie on the course, feed stations and finish is second to non. I’ve now done 5 ultras.
    It’s been a while since I last took up the challenge though, due to injuries, but I have a half marathon race soon and I now feel very inspired to look beyond the marathon distance again.
    Good luck to all.
    Kindest regards Debs

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