The runner shuffled toward the aid station clutching her thighs. I jogged out to meet her. “What do you need?”
Her pacer replied, “We need to problem-solve. Her quads and glutes have seized up and aren’t working. We need to know what our options are.”
Other aid station volunteers rushed forward. They brought a camp chair—the runner cried out in pain as she folded herself into it—and piled bags of ice into her lap. To me her pacer repeated, “What are our options?”
“You can’t drop here, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “This station is too remote. You’ll be waiting here for hours. Your best bet is to keep moving to Cal-2 and see what they can do for you there.”
“How far is that?” asked the pacer.
“About five miles.”
Our station chief came forward. “Cal-2 isn’t much better. It’s pretty remote. If you want to drop, your best bet is to go back to Foresthill. The terrain’s pretty rough—you’ll be going uphill on the way back—but they can get you out easier there.”
The pacer’s face tightened. Going forward is always better. It keeps your options open. You might feel better. You might catch a second wind. Start walking back up the trail, and you’ve conceded defeat. Walk back several miles, and every step is pure humiliation. Every runner coming up the trail looks in your eyes and sees a quitter. The pacer wasn’t having it.
“How long can we stay here?” he asked.
“She’s in eleventh place. She can stay here quite a while and still finish strong.”
The pacer squatted and looked in his runner’s eyes. I thought about the rousing speech I would have given in his place. I would have said, “This is mile sixty-five. You are two-thirds of the way through this race. There is no tomorrow, no next week, no second chance. Today is the day. We will rest here a bit, and then we will keep moving down the trail. If we have to drop, we can do it at the next aid station. Or the one after that. But not here, not now. Not until there is absolutely no question that you cannot go on. Agreed?”
Her pacer didn’t say any of that. Instead, he said, softly, “We don’t want to quit, but you don’t want to walk the rest of the way. We’ll stay here a while. If you can run, we’ll go on. If not, we’ll call it. Okay?” The runner nodded mutely.
We fed her pickle juice and Saltines. Yeah, that’s a thing. I thought about the pacer’s manner with his runner—how he wasn’t interested in pushing her, how (I thought) he couldn’t tell that her frame of mind wasn’t right and that she’d probably quit if given the option whether or not she truly needed to. He didn’t seem to care about how she’d feel tomorrow if she dropped out now.
He knew something I didn’t. He knew his runner. She was a champion at 50 miles and a damned tough competitor at one hundred. She’d seen the inside of the pain cave many times, and had the mental toughness to come out the far side. She didn’t need some dominant man trying to make her into the best possible version of herself. All she needed to push herself onward was to be told it was perfectly alright to quit.
After twenty minutes in the camp chair, the runner gingerly stood up. The station crew applauded. She took a few wobbly steps, got a sponge bath from a volunteer at the far side of the station, and headed out with her pacer. When they disappeared around a bend in the trail, she was running.