Emily Halnon looks into the uniquely vulnerable and rewarding runner-pacer relationship.
It was the middle of the night and my runner Eli had a chafing situation.
Friction had hit him below-the-belt-buckle – and left his nether-regions screaming in pain.
“The tutu was a poor choice,” he winced.
Eli was 69.8 miles into the Cascade Crest Endurance Run, a 100-mile race through the Washington Cascades, and he’d hit the point in the race when encountering a low is as likely as finding a salted potato at the next aid station.
I was intimately familiar with that reality since I’d run this race myself a few times. Eli was about to hit the ominously named “Trail-from-Hell,” followed by some mercilessly steep peaks known as the “Needles,” all while juggling the physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and mental undoing that can happen when you run for more than 24 hours.
I frantically dug through Eli’s bag, looking for lube or tape or any sliver of gear that might relieve some of his pain. This was part of my job as his pacer – to help him solve any hiccups that might pop up. The 100-mile distance is full of unknowns, but if anything’s certain, it’s that hiccups will happen.
And the Kachess Lake Aid Station had turned into a hiccup convention. Two of our other friends in the race had serendipitously ended up in the aid station at the same time as Eli and they were dealing with their own eventful lows. Dani had just popped a squat to pee and surprise pooped a little in front of another runner. And Alli had just gagged herself with a toothbrush trying to scrub away 70 miles of Honey Stingers and gummy worms.
The three of them were now collapsed in a row of camp chairs, limbs splayed in every direction, faces smudged with trail grime and sweat, and disgusted scowls aimed at piles of untouched food. The night air was humming with their groans, delirious cackles, and a steady stream of “this is stupid hard,” “this is so fun!”, “why do we think this is fun?”
I looked at my three friends and thought about what a familiar – and beautiful – sight they were.
It was something I’d seen a lot over the last year, as I supported, paced, and crewed friends doing big things from Arizona, to Colorado, to Washington.
I’d witnessed enough tears to fill an alpine lake, listened to soft voices trembling with doubts as the miles got impossibly tough, and I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times I heard some version of: “This is really hard. I am struggling.”
Or, said it myself during my own big runs.
As I remembered all those races and looked at the three low-migos sitting in front of me, I thought about how powerful it is that trail races invite such raw and very human moments.
My pummeled, filthy, hiccupping friends were posterchildren for one of the most special parts of ultra runs: the fact that every runner shows up as their most vulnerable self – and invites other people to be there through every messy bit of it.
It’s something that doesn’t happen very much in other parts of our lives.
I don’t walk into a conference room at work, or the line at the grocery store, or the slab wall at the climbing gym and proclaim: “I’m here and I’m a messy, complicated, raw human who’s dealing with some shit.”
We’re conditioned to hide our most tender bits from others. When my mom was sick and dying from cancer, I frequently sprinted into the bathroom to hide my bouts of crying from colleagues. I squeezed back tears on planes when I was traveling to see her. And I buried my face in a napkin when I lost it at a wedding – thinking about all of the big life milestones that my mom would miss.
Society has told me to feel shame over my emotional lows. And so, I hide them.
When someone asks me how I’m doing, I often lie and say, “I’m well, thanks, how are you?” Even if the truer answer might be, “Well, I can’t sleep because my antidepressants give me night sweats, I’m feeling insecure about my worth as a writer, and I’m terrified of the grief I’ll feel on the anniversary of my mom’s death, how ‘bout you?”
But when we toe the line at an ultra, we are walking up to the start line and embracing our vulnerabilities. We know we’re going to hit lows, we know we’re going to feel doubts and fears, and we know that the most real and honest version of ourselves will be on display.
And we don’t just let that happen – we invite others to share it with us. Friends, family, volunteers – pacers.
It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And it was happening again, right in front of me.
I kneeled next to Eli, who had just finished stuffing tape down his shorts, and coaxed him up with a gentle, “Are you ready to get going?”
We still had a long night ahead of us and I wanted to keep him moving. He fumbled with his bright red hydration pack and slung it over his shoulders.
“I guess I can just push that tape out of the way when I need to pee?” he giggled, mustering up some late-night pep and cheer as we headed out of the aid station.
But when we started the long grind of a climb up to the Needles, that pep and cheer faded into the dark forest that surrounded us. The sky was still black and cold overhead, the hill stretched into an endless oblivion, and Eli had grown quiet – which is an unusual state of being for my especially jovial friend. I could see he was sinking into one of his deeper lows of the run.
I frantically sorted through my brain like I ransacked his gear bag at the last aid station – trying to think of anything that might help him. But I’d been there plenty of times myself – in life and in ultras – and I knew there wasn’t a lot I could do to ease his current low – short of gifting him a new pair of legs or fast-forwarding to the finish line.
He was going through something hard and he was struggling.
As I watched him slump into his stride, I thought about how one of the most powerful displays of support that I’ve felt through my own life lows is when someone is willing to be with me through my hardest moments. The people who have created the space for vulnerability that is so rare in our world. The friends who called on the day my mother died, knowing there would be inconsolable sadness on the other end of the line. The people who haven’t tried to shush away my tears or assault me with toxic positivity and silver linings. The friends who have found ways to say, “I see that you are struggling and that’s okay. And I’m not going anywhere.”
And I knew that the most powerful thing I could do in that moment was the same beautiful thing Eli did when he showed up to the start line, when he decided to embrace every low, vulnerable, complicated, messy part of being human – and share it with me. The same beautiful thing he’s done countless times when he’s showed up with pizza and a hug when he knows I’m deep in a pit of grief.
I didn’t need to fix anything. I just needed to keep walking beside him through the dark night, letting him know that I would be there with him through it all.