Pacing Aliza

At 2AM the other Saturday I laid back on the ground, turned off my headlamp and watched the meteor shower. My preparations were done. I had triple checked my gear. My caffeine headache was easing after my first cup of coffee in 48 hours. I was ready for her to arrive, but without any cell service I had no way to know when that might be. There was nothing I could do but sit with my anxiety, watch shooting stars and wait.

Let me back up.

A little over a year ago my running experience was only marginally above zero. Feeling the need to have a goal to get me moving I floated the idea of running a marathon. As I wrote about last fall (Read Here), I needed a tremendous amount of help from the whole UnTapped team. I had been feeling like I had a favor to repay and I wanted a peek into a world that from the outside seems impossible both physically and mentally – ultrarunning.  Aliza Lapierre, UnTapped’s director of sponsorships and events (and extraordinary coach to this beginner runner), is an ultrarunner and was planning to take on a new challenge this year. I offered to help.

Ultramarathoning is anything beyond 26.2 miles, generally accepted as 50k or longer. In a career that didn’t begin until after college, Aliza has podiumed at the Western States Endurance Run, finished the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc and holds the VT 50 course record (among many highlights). This year she set her sights on 200+ mile races. On foot. Nonstop.

I had tried to keep up my fitness after the marathon last fall, but after being sidelined by an injury, I realized I wouldn’t be any help to Aliza at the Cocodona 250 this spring, so rather than run through the mountains of Arizona I had to watch from Vermont as her pace and crew team supported her to a gutsy 2nd place finish in just over 77 hours.

When she signed up for the Bigfoot 200 (which was to take place only 3 months after Cocodona) I didn’t want to miss my second chance. I laced my running shoes back on, fought through several injuries and got as ready as possible to chase Aliza.

Soon Google Drive sharing notifications started to pop up. “Bigfoot 200” had lists of the sections with distances and predicted times, elevation profile, travel details, aid station info… and more. “Bigfoot Crew/Pacing Do’s & Don’ts” was filled with tips like “DO NOT LET ME DRINK UNFILTERED WATER” and “always run behind me unless I ask you to take the lead”. Or “If I say or do something that might be hurtful please know I don’t mean it.” And listed several times was the Mandatory Gear (which I had almost none of).

I had bought my plane tickets and some of the gear (with Aliza providing the rest) and was feeling ok about my fitness when we were talking at lunch and Aliza casually mentioned that according to the Bigfoot rules, she couldn’t leave me behind. I had been thinking there was an off chance I wouldn’t be able to keep up, but I figured no worries, she can muscle on without me and I’ll get to the Aid Station eventually. But now I had a pit in my stomach. I could ruin the race for her. Also, if I forgot any of the 12 mandatory gear items, she could receive a time penalty or be disqualified. I’ve had times where my stomach got off after 10 miles or so. If that happened in the woods, I would be immensely uncomfortable AND Aliza would have to wait for me. Anxiety started to gnaw.

On the morning of August 11, I had the last coffee I would have for 42 hours. Jack, Kirsten, George and I cheered along with a crowd of maybe 100 others as about 200 runners started into the woods below Mount Saint Helens. We jogged back to our car. With the remoteness and limited road access we didn’t have much time to get to our next aid station to support Aliza. As we followed her progress through her satellite tracker we noticed something exciting. She was well ahead of her predicted times. But then we realized the whole careful schedule we had built of who needed to be where, when, to do what was going out the window. Carefully planned and printed documents were flipped over and gave way to quick handwritten notes.

Aliza was allowed to have a pacer starting at mile 45, Coldwater Lake. Worried we would miss her with the new schedule, George and I arrived early. Limited cell service meant we had no way to track her, so we were still dripping from an impromptu swim when she ran down the road. Aliza quickly gave herself a pedicure and changed shoes and socks while I refilled her pack and George (husband and first pacer) got ready to run. Just as quickly as she came in, they were gone. I packed up the chair and supplies, gathered the trash strewn around and started on the 3 hour drive back to base camp (made slightly longer by having to stop and take photos of the gorgeous scenery).

With Aliza ahead of schedule, my first section would not start at 5:45 AM as planned, but closer to 2. A frivolous attempt at a nap gave way to my alarm far too soon. I loaded my gear and rushed off to drive 90 minutes to my first test.

At the pointy end of the race the aid stations have not yet given way to the feelings of triage. There are no people strewn about, asking aid station crews for all different kinds of food. No cars fighting to get in and out. When you are crew to an elite runner you park right next to the peaceful station, the aid station crew has time to sit and chat, they’ll ask what you need and help you get ready for your runner while dressed as zombies, unicorns and barbies.

An airhorn blast tears open the 2AM wilderness and two runners come off the trail.

Peace gives way to frenzy. Take off her pack and put her in the chair. What can Aliza eat? We have cooked potatoes and eggs ready (potatoes were a hit at the last aid station, eggs have been good in the past). Potatoes again. Between bites Aliza strips off her shoes and socks. We replace tape over hot spots. Trash, empty flasks, dead batteries out of the pack. Socks on. Refill Mapleaid. Shoes on. Flasks refilled with maple syrup. Add Salted Cocoa. Batteries and flashlight back on. We’ll be climbing out of the aid station so poles stay out. On her feet and moving. Under 15 minutes from the airhorn to “Bib 123, checking out.”

I had been ready for a half hour already. Pack on, shoes laced. I forgot to tell Kirsten (off-going pacer) about the coffee I didn’t get to drink and the breakfast sandwich I left for her. We were already up the trail. She figured it out.

We spent the first 45 minutes or so chatting about whatever came to mind. Work things. Hawaiian wildfires. Mount Saint Helens. How lucky I was to just get to go run with her for a while. What was that thing hanging in the tree? When my mouth ran out of speed, I turned on music saved on my phone.

We hiked aggressively uphill and jogged flat and downhill. In the dark of the crescent moon, I could only see to the end of my headlamp. We ran along ridges, through fields of wildflowers and cross-hill on slopes so steep I could almost reach out and touch the hill next to me. I could tell there was a pond next to us, but we didn’t need any water. Slowly I could start to tell there were far away ridges backlit by a lightening sky that soon gave way to a growing sunrise.

We stopped to take a selfie before turning our attention to the last few miles of descending to Road 9327 where Jack would take over for me. As we ran into the aid station, I thought it was far too quiet so I started whooping and hollering. Several disgruntled sleepy campers pointed out that the aid station was actually over there.

Different aid station same drill. Less than 15 minutes later Aliza and Jack were back on the trail, and I finally had time to take off my pack and shoes and jump in a handy swimming hole. Road 9327 was 3.5 hours from our basecamp so George had driven there with Jack. With the logistics of the previous 21 hours George had only managed to get two short naps, so I started the drive. Less than an hour in I could barely keep my eyes open and George wasn’t sleeping, so we swapped and I fell asleep immediately. I woke up when we stopped for coffee and a breakfast sandwich. Not wanting to hurt my ability to sleep, I skipped the coffee.

Back at basecamp we had time, while Jack ran a 36-mile section, to shower, nap and prepare again. At one point, sitting on the couch watching TV, George noted “I can’t believe how hard this feels, but then I remember she’s still running.”

Before long my alarm was pulling me back to reality. I added two sandwiches, extra Mapleaid concentrate and several waffles (on top of the 6 UnTappeds) to my pack that already felt heavy in the first section to fuel me through a section that Aliza thought would be 7-9 hours.

And then I found myself laying on my back in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest watching shooting stars. We had hoped Aliza might sleep here, so I had the bed made in the car and didn’t have my pack or shoes on. It was not to be. We were in and out in 15 minutes again.

The next few hours were a blur of stream crossings, dust, ridges and trails. At 430 Aliza announced “I need to pee. And then maybe puke.”

43 hours and 150 miles. The longest she had gone in a race without throwing up. Ever.

An hour or so later she wanted to try to nap. Face down. In the dirt. “No more than 15 minutes.” Eight minutes later we were back up and moving.

The last climb of the section was 4 miles and 2,500 vertical feet. The sun was starting to warm up the day. I had trouble with my water filter at the last water source, so I knew I didn’t have as much water as I would need as I started to sweat.

“Oh good morning!” Aliza sang out, surprising me. I hadn’t heard the runner approaching behind us. We hiked with Allison for a moment before moving aside to let her continue. After giving up a hundred yards to the person who had been behind her, Aliza decided she wasn’t going to be passed that easily and turned up the pace. After 156 miles Aliza was starting to pull away from my comparatively fresh legs. I managed to dig a little deeper and keep up to finally reach Elk Peak with a beautiful view of the Cascades. 30 minutes of descending later we were at the next aid station.

Pack. Shoes. Socks. Where’s her watermelon? Feet cleaned. Tape change. Watermelon found. Close to 10 minutes, ready to go and it was Jack’s turn again.

I got to see Aliza one more time at an aid station at the top of a narrow, rutted goat path named Twin Sisters. Another quick turnaround and she was off into the later afternoon heat. I had a plane to catch in less than 4 hours. I was able to keep tabs on her progress from the tracker and pace crew texts.

“Frustrated and losing desire to fight for 2nd. Let’s get her quick through this next aid station and push her on the road section.”

George stepped up to push Aliza through the final 13 miles. Which only took 2.5 hours (a respectable half marathon time) after she had run 195 miles already. Shortly after 2AM, after 65 hours, 13 minutes and 31 seconds of running, Aliza crossed the finish line in 2nd place.

Later that morning she texted me. She was stuck in the hot tub and hoping someone would wake up soon to bring her a drink.

Photos by Doug Brown, Kirsten Workman, and Aliza Lapierre