I first met Jay Smithberger in 2009. I was a brand spanking new ultrarunner, and I had just finished my second 100 miler. That was the year I went off course for 6 miles and still ran a then PR of 22:33. As Darris and I limped through the parking lot to our hotel, I saw my physical therapist Joe Simko. Joe had rehabbed a particularly nasty Achilles injury for me the previous fall, and we were both a little surprised to see each other. I asked if he ran, and he said no, he had paced his brother-in-law. He then introduced me to Jay, who DB knew peripherally from some races. Like I would ask anyone, I asked Jay how his day went. He said something along the lines of “good,” or that he was happy with it.
I would later learn that he was the second place finisher. Like half a day ahead of me.
Then I forgot all about Jay Smithberger for a year, until some other new trail friends talked me into a night run up on the Mohican trails. As I asked a little more about the pace, the distance and the attendees, I stopped a bit short when I heard “Jay Smithberger” as an attendee. I immediately announced that I might not be a good fit for this particular run; after all, I was no 16 hour 100-miler. About 6 hours off, to be exact. I was quickly reassured that Jay was “the best” and that he would run any pace, with any one, any time. While he valued his own training, he also valued time on the feet and the company of others. Mildly reassured but still filled with trepidation, I confirmed my attendance.
This was a particularly epic run, one that lasted about two hours longer than we expected and ended with a thunderstorm and lightening show. I tried to be “cool,” but there was no doubt that I a) felt like I was totally in the presence of ultrarunning celebrity (dude has WON the Mohican 100), and b) totally wanted to pick his brain in a very uncool and dorky way. After what I judged to be enough time (or hoped was enough time), I proceeded to do so. And he was incredibly sweet, and nice, and kind, and ready to answer just about any question I wanted to ask.
Part of the reason I loved that run so much is because it was probably the last time Jay was nice to me.
I kid, of course. Freud may have said there are no jokes, but there are indeed. And in our case, they’re usually dry or sarcastic, somewhat like a brother and sister that won’t stop picking on each other. In truth, it started that first night, when the topic of massage came up and I announced my almost religious belief in getting a bi-weekly massage in spite of the expense. That’s when Jay told me I could always skip the massage, save the $100 and log an extra 8 miles a week. A somewhat antagonistic friendship was born.
Over the years I’ve come to trust him more than anyone with my questions and my training. No, he’s not my coach, but he never hesitates to give his thoughts, and I don’t always like them. And they’re not all necessarily right for me, but he’s certainly made me think. Even when I don’t agree with him, he’s given me the opportunity to examine why I’m doing what I’m doing, and if what I’m doing is actually paying a dividend in my performance or just making me feel better. Yeah, I’ve got a big old trail crush on him, even when he’s mean to me.
When we went out to Umstead a few years back, I almost cut him off as he crossed the finish line with a wicked fast, almost stupid PR of 14:53. Yeah, for a 100 miles. Seriously.
I still had 25 miles to go.
But when I crossed the finish line myself with my own unexpected, wicked fast, almost stupid PR of 19:24, he wasn’t nearly as surprised as I was. Because sometimes other people believe in what we’re capable of long before we do. We’re the tall and the small, long ago bestowed with the trail nicknames Skinny Beast (him) and Cupcake (me). We have covered many, many miles together. He has listened to me ramble on without a filter more than once and managed to forgive. We have whined together and picked on each other more than I care to remember. But Skinny, man, he’s FAST.
So when he broached the subject of who I was pacing at Western States this spring, I was understandably nervous. Touched, but nervous.
At first he was going to have three pacers, split between Joe, Darris and I. But he did say he wanted me at the end; that I was the one he wanted in the dark through the last canyons. Then Darris wanted to do more miles and 3 pacers was really a bit of overkill. Which meant that as we all traveled out to Squaw Valley, Joe was to pace Skinny for 15 miles, from Foresthill (mile 62) to the Rucky Chucky River (mile 77), and I was going to take him the last 22 from the river crossing to the legendary track at Placer High.
I’ll write another post sometime about the magic of Western States; the history, the lore, the absolutely epic tales. There’s so much I have to leave out of this one alone.
Most people are familiar with the concept of pacing, of pace teams, of being a pace leader. Marathon pacing is how I make my living; not the pacing itself, but as part of my job with Clif Bar to organize and run their program. Being a pace leader is an amazing opportunity, a chance to share in other runners’ accomplishments. I am grateful for it every single day. But pacing someone in a 100 miler is a completely different animal. There are no splits, no groups, no signs. And while a marathon is indeed challenging, it doesn’t often come with the amount of vomiting, dizziness and soul-searching exhaustion that a 100 does. It’s less about running a split, and more about keeping the runner from splitting apart.
After following him around throughout the day, I stood at the far side of the Rucky Chucky River absolutely giddy with anticipation. Gathered with other pacers who had waited all day to finally get their chance on the course, the energy was electric. Before I knew it, Skinny was descending the steep hill to the river (alone) and headed over to my side.
His first pacer Joe had been having some problems and dropped out 5 miles earlier. But Skinny was centered, strong and ready to go. He mentioned that he had the very beginnings of stomach trouble; some burping and a bit of dizziness. He was going to get some fizz in his water to hopefully burp the problem out.
We hiked the steep 2 mile climb up to Green Gate, where he changed his shoes and got some fizz and caffeine. I told Joe’s wife about his situation, while Skinny’s wife tended to his.
We were off, and I was NERVOUS.
A little bit senseless, honestly. Jay and I have logged countless miles and countless hours together. And as he is so fond of saying to me, “it’s just running.” But it wasn’t. Not that night.
Remember the first time you slept over at a new friend’s house? Like when you really, really liked them and wanted them to like you and didn’t want to say or do anything stupid that might change that? Yeah, that’s kind of how I felt. I’ve paced more than 80 marathons and four people finishing 100-milers, but I was suddenly fumbling. Fumbling hard.
He was taking a Clif block every 10 minutes and he wanted me to set the timer on my watch. I NEVER use the timer, but I wasn’t going to let Skinny down. The next time we started hiking a hill, I fumbled and hit random buttons and punched things in. And miraculously, I got it set. For 10 hours.
Then he asked me how long ago we had left the aid station, how far to the next aid. I managed to simultaneously read the pace chart wrong and realize that in trying to set my watch timer, I had stopped the running clock. And I hadn’t yet figured out why 15 minutes had passed without the damn watch timer beeping.
That was about the time that another runner went by with his pacer, and they were yacking away.
I felt like an absolute, consummate failure. Seriously, I wanted to drop out at the next aid station. I had less game than the guys on Jersey Shore.
So I did what any good ultrarunner does. I let it go, dug deep, and went after it. Because when you can’t change the conditions, you change your attitude.
I started riding that poor man with a cattle prod. Yeah, he had mentioned he was dizzy, but I could also tell he was headed deep into a pity party. And it was time for that sh*t to be over.
Which is precisely what I told him. It was something along the lines of this:
“So my watch is fixed, the timer is working, and this is where we’re at. The pity party is OVER. This is nothing you haven’t felt before and nothing you’re not going to get through. Which means you’re going to start running. And unless you’re dizzy or there’s a legitimate hill, you’re not going to stop. Because anything else is an excuse, and quite frankly, I’m not interested.”
So he started running, and he ran for a long time. Every ten minutes, the beeping of the watch punctuated the running and I would say “block.”
A runner passed us and I called “trail” to let them by.
“I don’t plan on doing that again, so you better get moving.”
He moved, but the burping was getting worse and nearly turning into dry heaving. He was mentioning the dizziness more and more. I told him to look at the stars; that made him nauseous and I’m sure he didn’t appreciate it.
The next time a runner passed, we were getting close to Brown’s Bar, the aid station at mile 90.
“Pick it up,” I said. “He passed you but we’re sure as hell not letting him go.”
I knew he felt like hell. I’ve been there, late in a race, exhausted and aching, already off my pace chart with my stomach revolting. He was kicking rocks, slamming into things on hard downhills.
“It doesn’t matter. Deal with it later.”
At some point we discussed how he could look at the stars later, laying on his back on the track at Placer High. That became our mission, to get him on his back looking at the stars.
I’ve learned almost everything I know about racing 100’s from this guy. And there was no way in hell I was letting him off easy. Even when he was grunting and “ouching” and letting out whiny little moans. I hope he didn’t expect anything less of me.
“Oh for the love of God,” I said, after one particularly bad moment. “You couldn’t possibly think you were going to feel good the entire time.”
But it was about two miles before Highway 49, the mile 93 mark, when the puking started. I felt helpless. Just as I did when I watched Dave’s knee completely seize up at Mohican a few years ago. Because there are some things a pacer just can’t fix. Puking. Injuries. Stuff like that. Sometimes we can work around it, but we can’t fix it. And these guys seem to become my kids when I’m pacing them. It’s not a conscious mindframe; but each time, over the course of the distance, some maternal instinct seems to come out and I just desperately want to be able to kiss it and make it better.
Instead I was actually watching him puke, because he had one last weigh-in at mile 93, and I wanted to get a sense of the volume.
He walked it off and started running again, but the tactics had to change. I wasn’t going to cattle prod the guy while he was puking.
He got through the weigh-in okay, and we had a very easy section of trail ahead to the famed No Hand’s Bridge. But there was more puking, and the dizziness was worse. That maternal instinct was kicking in again, and I had to fight my instinct to rub his back. Because he wasn’t a five-year old child with a stomach bug; he was puking what was left of his gut out after running 96 miles.
“Jay, this is easy trail through here. We really need to run if you can.”
He kept walking. I looked at my watch, I was giving him three minutes before I checked on him again.
He started running right before the time was up. He ran until he puked again.
We tried some Coke at No Hands Bridge. It was lit up with loud music playing, like some kind of mini-Times Square on the edge of the woods. I doubt it was the moment he wanted it to be, dizzy, puking and losing the race he wanted to run. But it didn’t matter; we still had to get him on his back on the track, and we had a ridiculous climb up to Robie Point ahead of us.
I told him that we needed to run before we got to the climb out, that it was about a mile to the climb and then another mile out. He ran when he could, and when he couldn’t, he went hands to knees with the dizziness or nausea. I rubbed his back.
Then he would stand up and run as fast as he could as long as he could. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I tried poor humor and perspective. How many thousands had put their name in the Western States lottery, praying for the chance to get sick at Robie Point? I told him I was proud of him. And I was.
You see, I wasn’t naïve enough to have seen my tall little trail hero as invincible. The woods don’t care who you are, or how many races you’ve actually won or how fast you’ve done it. They are equal opportunity in their punishment, and no matter how fast he had (still) done this, he had suffered the same slings and arrows that we all had. A perfect day marred but an imperfect stomach, a wrong turn, a shot knee. The hopes and dreams one enters a marathon with are not merely multiplied by four in a 100 miler, but compounded exponentially over the course of a day – and a night. 50 mph headwinds and hail in the first 5 miles, followed by a cold rain, followed by 80 degree temperatures. And that’s just the weather. Now do that to your muscles, your stomach and your head.
I was so proud of him. And most of all, because I knew just how much the whole damn thing just hurt at that point.
I thought that climb up to Robie Point might break him; he stopped two or three times to go hands to knees with the dizziness. I rubbed his back. He started moving again. At one point he swore. That’s all I remember; I don’t know what he said he but I remember telling the aid station volunteers “Now he’s swearing at me!” in a jovial manner.
They say it’s a downhill mile to the track from there, but I had forgotten that you had to climb up to the downhill mile a little bit more. And about halfway through it, there was another small uphill that I had totally forgotten. They might want to put that in the course description. The street is lined with orange footprints, which are harder to see in the dark than the light, but I picked them out. All of them. He was making some noise up there; I stole Cindy’s line and told him that you don’t quit at the end. His son met us and ran to the track with us. I turned off to watch him finish. 19:43. A hell of a first run at States, but not what he hoped for, and not what he’s capable of without vomit and dizziness.
He didn’t get to lie down on the track and look at the stars. First he found his wife; then he livened up enough to chat with the legendary Gordy Ansleigh. Next he went hands to knees in a chair. Then he fell asleep in said chair. Then there was more puking on the infield, which I missed, because I was wrapped up in some blankets sleeping on the field while I waited for DB and his runner to finish.
I thought about all I had seen and all I had learned and how awful I had felt both times that I had missed my sub-19 mark. Once because of stomach and dizziness, and once on a lost turn and a mud-slicked course.
It’s a weird feeling; to be so proud of what you did accomplish, but to know how much more you could have done.
And I was just hoping I had done enough, because that’s who I am and what I do. I wasn’t making it about me; I was just hoping I had done enough for him.
Because I still can’t believe I get to run with him sometimes. Even if it is “just running.” Because if there’s any ultrarunner I want to be like when I grow up, it’s him.
“I owe you one, Cupcake,” he said. “Just name the time/place.”
Thanks, Skinny. But just so you know, I was the one repaying favors.