Russ Evans: A Pacer's Worst Nightmare
By John A. Dodds
I first met Russ on a cold, rainy day at Gap Creek just over three years ago. It was my first VHTRC training run and Russ was the one who organized it. Since then I have run innumerable times with Russ at MMT, Shenandoah National Park, and in races. We have exchanged emails many, many times and talked on the phone often. This is a story of the special relationship that develops between a racer and his pacer as they run together in the rain, over countless rocks, up and down mountains, in "peaks and valleys," hour after hour, sharing thoughts, and pointing out to each other the wonders of the forest. It is a relationship of trust, counting on the other person, and sticking together through thick and thin. It is not built on sand, nor like a house of cards, nor like a strand of dominoes. It is a primal enduring relationship yet to be fully understood by the most learned psychologists of the day.
Let me share with you a great feeling I had during MMT100 last weekend. I had joined Russ at 211East at about 6:45 p.m., and we had made the long climb up to Scothorn Gap, then up Jawbone Gap, up and across dreaded Short Mt., and up Waonaze Peak. Just after the sun came up, we started the climb up Menaka Peak. We were about halfway up when Russ said how much he appreciated me being his pacer and that he wanted me to cross the finish line together with him. He said he might even hold my hand (I like it when Russ talks dirty). By this last comment, he was referring to an email I had sent to him and Gary after BRR50 pointing out that of the hundreds of pictures Anstr had taken of the runners in that race, there were only two pictures of runners holding hands at the finish-Russ was in one picture and Gary was in the other.
On Friday out at the ranch, a number of people kidded me about being Russ's pacer because of an email I sent to the list on Monday before the race. To bring everybody up to speed, here it is:
I just wanted everybody to know that I completed the two-week qualification process to be a pacer for Russ Evans at MMT. (I had planned on running myself, but on the last day you could mail in your check, I had to mail a check to Vicki for my Boston dinner.) Russ had some pretty strict requirements. You not only had to have been a pacer for someone at MMT before, you also had to have run the race before. I met those screening criteria. Also, I did pretty well on the written exam and ok on the oral exam. In the compulsories, I managed to get by. These were the usual technical aspects of trail running, including crawling under a log, jumping over a log, walking over rocks at a stream crossing, quickly filling up your Camelbak, wolfing down chips, etc. Then there were the required training runs with Russ. My short program (Moreland Gap to Woodstock, 16 miles) was better than my long program (Gap Creek to Gap Creek, 25 miles). The worst part was the withering critiques after the training runs. I hear Russ is going to replace Simon on American Idol next year. And I learned the kinds of questions not to ask. As we were running the other day, I asked Russ, "What kind of flower is that?" Obviously annoyed, he answered: "Purple. And don't ask me those kinds of stupid questions again." As you
can tell, I'm really looking forward to this weekend.
I was kidding, wasn't I?
The night before. For some reason, Gary missed the pasta dinner. Then we found out Bunny hadn't eaten yet either. Although I had eaten, I offered to drive them into town for dinner. On the way, we passed my favorite sandwich place - the Rivermont Grocery - and we decided to stop there for sandwiches. Gary and Bunny had roast beef sandwiches, and since I had already eaten, I got two Hostess cupcakes and a cup of home-made potato salad. We sat at the only booth in the place; it was close to the refrigerator with the live bait in it. We ate our food and told dirty jokes. Actually, that's not true. I didn't tell dirty jokes; it was Gary. Bunny tried to tell one, and fortunately, we had heard it before so she didn't need to say the punch line, which I'm sure she would have otherwise remembered
by sometime Sunday afternoon. But here's the best part: Bunny paid for our food! Don't even think about writing anything, Brian; we ain't paying her back.
Johnny Poncho. Saturday was a pretty leisurely day for me. We got up early (I stayed with Russ, Gary and Keith in an RV (collectively, we're known as "The Boys in RV107"). I went to the race start, hung around for awhile and then drove to the Shawl Gap aid station. As I left there it started to rain. Back to the ranch for a leisurely shower and then off to a local restaurant for French toast and home fries with "savory sausage gravy" (eat your heart out, Brian). I was very much concerned about the rain, and my main thought was to try to keep dry during the day because it looked like it was going to rain all day. Even though I had a poncho, I went to a store and bought a cheap poncho and a rain suit. Beth, Russ's wife, was going to drive out from home and start crewing about 11:30, so I thought she might need something, too. As it turned out, I gave the poncho to Michele Burr (it was camouflage colored and très chic) and the jacket to the rain suit to Beth. I wore my own poncho, which I hadn't worn since MMT 2000 as a crew. Goofy as those cheap ponchos might look, I wore mine all day and it kept me dry.
Crew. People who crew for others are usually relatives (spouses, parents, siblings, sometimes offspring) or good friends who don't have anything better to do on race day. And they lose their normal societal status on that day. For example in making introductions, a runner would say, "This is Beth; she's crewing for me today. Only if asked, he would say, "She's my wife." A runner would not say, "This is my wife Beth. She's crewing for me today."
When Beth and I were riding down Crisman Hollow Road, I reminded Beth of the detailed instructions in the notebook that Russ had prepared for her several years ago. Beth and Russ's daughter Michelle crewed for Russ at MMT 2000. She started laughing. She said that it was about 15 minutes before Russ was due to arrive at an aid station for the first time that she and Michelle decided that perhaps they should read those instructions since he had gone to all that effort to prepare them. She and Michelle cracked up laughing as they read them. Beth said he even wanted her to buy him a cheeseburger and serve it to him after first taking off the pickle, which he would eat later. Laughing, she said he was so anal. And this is what Russ wrote in his MMT 2000 race report: "They had also removed the pickles as my anal instructions had requested."
I'm not sure whether Beth has crewed for Russ since then. I don't think she has. But she is an expert. I think what makes her a good crew is because Russ sent her to a pit stop school run by the Penske Racing Team. I think her specialty was changing the left front tire. With that experience, she qualified to be a crew for Russ. As a result, Russ spends minimal time at an aid station. Here's an example of a particular technique they've developed for the night time. As Russ approaches an aid station and before he can recognize anybody in the dark, he calls out her name. And then she calls out his name. And this is repeated until they see each other. It goes like this:
It's like two kids playing "Marco Polo" in a swimming pool. But it works.
Russ is very appreciative of having Beth as a crew. And he tells her so. But she's not an ultrarunner, and no matter how grateful Russ says he is, I don't think she truly understands how much of a help she is. Why do I think that? Because she doesn't make outrageous demands for pay back. She'll say, "Can we now go over to our friends' house and watch the last episode of Survivor?" Instead, she should say, "On your way home tonight, would you please pick up some milk and bread? And don't forget to go to the travel agent and pick up the plane tickets for our trip to Tahiti."
Even though Beth would crew for him, Russ did have drop bags on the course at numerous places. Although there is much dispute about how many drop bags you should have, I had six drop bags plus what I call a "master bag" (Russ calls his a "run bag") that Beth would carry in the van.With all these drop bags, I sort of deluded myself that I was a runner, too.
Joining Beth that day and night were Dave and Tracy, friends of Beth and Russ. Tracy was a big help to me at the aid stations. I'm not sure that inviting friends out to watch a 100-mile race is such a good idea; bowling seems to be more appropriate.
Was I ready? Russ and I had agreed that I would join him as a pacer at 211 East. To tell the truth, as the day went on I wasn't all that thrilled at the prospect of running in the rain. It looked like it would rain forever, which includes the night. Then I spotted an opportunity to shirk my responsibility. At Gap Creek 2, Russ came in with another runner; they had obviously been running together for a while. They left together. I next saw them at Visitors Center. They both arrived and left together. I thought that perhaps they might run together for the rest of the race. My plan was to meet Russ at 211 East, and if they were still together, I would say that why don't I just start at Gap Creek 2? If that worked and if they were then still together at Gap Creek 2, I would say why don't I meet you at Moreland Gap? And so on. I discussed this with Mike Bur, Kerry Owens, and Quatro Hubbard at 211 East, and they all seemed to think it was a good idea. The only drawback was that I would have to change into my running clothes in case Russ didn't arrive with the other runner. Mike suggested that I could tell Russ I wasn't ready. I told him that wouldn't work because Russ would ask what I
had been doing for the past several hours that I couldn't change clothes. Mike then suggested that I could tell Russ that I wasn't mentally ready. While that was true, I didn't think Russ would buy that either. Even though he's such a cheapskate, Mike sure has some good ideas. And I can't believe that Kerry actually tried this later with Jaret and got away with it-at least for one aid station.
Anyway, I reluctantly changed into my running clothes and anxiously awaited Russ's arrival. The runners come up a short, steep hill into the parking lot at 211 East, and the first thing you see of a runner is his/her head seeming to come out of the ground followed by the body. I saw Russ's head pop up. And then he came into full view. I waited, my heart pounding. Where was the other guy? More time passed. And then I realized that my hopes were dashed. I later learned that Russ had left the guy on the climb up Bird Knob. With Beth's help, Russ cleared the aid station very quickly. I grabbed a couple sandwich wedges from the aid table and ran to catch up with him as he crossed 211.
Mike. Before I continue, you need to know about Mike. Although what I am about to write is public information, some of you may not be aware of it. Mike Gholson was Russ's pacer in MMT 2000. You should know that Mike had just completed the Umstead 100 only weeks before in pretty miserable weather conditions. Let me tell you about what happened to Mike in Russ's own words from selected portions of Russ's 2000 report.
"Somewhere along this stretch [Moreland Gap to Edinburg Gap], Mike indicated he had rolled his ankle. He said it was OK and not hurting him, but he was trying to be careful how he landed on it."
"Mike has told me that he has rolled his ankle a number of times on this last section [Edinburgh Gap to Woodstock] and asks if he can ice it for a few minutes at the next stop. I say sure, but I am also anxious about other runners catching up to us and we have not yet caught any more runners."
"I knew the next section [Woodstock to Powell's Fort] was very runnable and slightly downhill. I wanted to press it and try and catch the two runners in front of me. For Mike, the trail running was becoming extremely tough; he was in pain because his ankle was throbbing. Yet, I was totally driven now in my desire to catch other runners."
"Mike was pretty quiet back there and I knew this pace must be hurting him, but I did not dare slow down. Nor did he ever complain. I felt bad that I was pressing him so much, but I was totally consumed in my drive to catch other runners."
"We had made good progress hiking up the mountain [Menaka Peak]...Mike was fine going up hills and we were able to talk again as we headed up. He said he only had problems with his ankle on the downhills."
"Mike is now [coming down Menaka Peak] having a hard time keeping up to me, though he never falls far behind. ...Mike I know is also having to deal with the pain I know is in his ankle, but never once does he complain. I keep thinking that surely the next runner must be close!"
"At this point [parking lot just outside the Elizabeth Furnace aid station], I am frantic. I just want to refill with fluids and go. Mike says he needs to remove some rocks from his shoes. Beth reminds me to take some electrolytes. After five seconds, I tell Mike, 'I can't wait, catch up to me on the trail or ride with Beth and Michelle, and I dart away.'"
Notice how accommodating Russ was here. He actually gave Mike a whole five seconds to get ready. It should come as no surprise to you that Mike rode. But Russ would later write: "Mike was the best pacer anyone could ever want with his constant upbeat talk all along through the dark of the night." In the past several years, we (including Mike) who run with Russ joke about how, as Russ would later admit, he "abandoned" Mike. As you will see later, I didn't get no stinkin' five seconds.
The Evans effect. There are certain fundamental laws of our physical universe: the law of gravity, the Pythagorean theorem, Bernoulli's principle, and Davidson's Constant: shit happens. And then there's the Evans effect. I didn't coin this phrase, and I can't remember who did but it was someone over the weekend. I was telling someone that Russ gets stronger and faster later in races; hence, the Evans effect. The best example is MMT 2000. You can get glimpses of this from the excerpts above, but you have to read his race report in toto to fully understand it. This effect is driven by a fierce
competitiveness with a complete disregard for the health and safety of his pacer.
And now you know: the Evans effect and Mike. We have been talking about it for years now. Is that why it took me a while to decide to be Russ's pacer? Was I really kidding in my email the week before the race? Could I follow in Mike's footsteps as the best pacer? More importantly, did I really want to?
The bonk. Let me return to the race. The long, slow climb up to Scothorn Gap was uneventful. As we were hiking up to Jawbone Gap, Russ stopped on two occasions to rest. I knew this was not a good sign. I have never seen Russ stop going uphill, but I didn't say anything. As a dutiful pacer, I knew what not to say: "Hey, Russ, you look a little tired. What say you drop at Moreland Gap and then let's hightail it back to town?" We cleared Moreland Gap okay and the hike up Short Mt. wasn't too bad. Shortly after the climb, Russ stopped to sit on a rock and rest. I was really starting to wonder at this point whether he would be able to finish the race. I didn't really know what to say, so I commented how pretty the moon looked (as the skies had cleared and the moon was out). Russ was bonking somewhat, but we pressed on and things picked up. I'm not sure exactly where we were on the trail when this happened. But I have my own theory as to why it happened. We had passed several runners who had slowed down - not uncommon on Short Mt. What I was slowing witnessing was the beginning of the Evans effect. Passing other runners gets Russ going. We were moving
quickly across Short Mt. now, and Russ came into Edinburg Gap very strong once again.
Edinburg soup Nazis. Beth got him out of the aid station very quickly, and he headed out through the parking lot to cross 675. As I mentioned before, Tracy took it upon herself to help me at the aid stations. Since she had never been to a race before and didn't even know what a crew was, it is no wonder that she was not as proficient as Beth. For example, can you imagine if someone gave you this thing you had never seen before called a Camelbak and asked you to refill it? Plus I had brought my own Gatorade in large bottles which she had to use. I helped out as well with this and getting GU refills and other minor things. I didn't get much to eat from the aid tables because I had to catch up with Russ. Coming across Short Mt., Russ was repeatedly telling me how much he was looking forward to the potato soup. While there, he had two cups of it. As I was trying to get my stuff refilled, I heard the following public announcement: "SOUP FOR RUNNERS ONLY."At every other aid station, a pacer is allowed to eat food, including soup, from the aid tables. But not soup here. So, here's my question: don't you think it's unfair to a pacer to fuel up a runner so he takes off like a cat
who's just had turpentine squirted up his butt and then don't give the same food to a pacer? How can a pacer keep up with a "souped up" runner? And if you think about this a little deeper (which I have to admit is tough for me), if you deny soup to the pacer, you are really hurting the runner. How so? Because the runner has to slow down so the pacer can keep up. Even Russ wouldn't leave a pacer behind that early in a race. Elizabeth Furnace is a different story.
After we left the aid station, Russ went on and on about how good the soup was. Finally, I told him that I wasn't allowed to have any soup, and, frankly, that since he moves through aid stations so quickly, I wasn't getting enough to eat. He got somewhat excited and said, "You have to eat or you'll bonk." Which was precisely my point. But after 75 miles of running, his mind couldn't really grasp the point I was making, which was I needed at least some time in the aid stations to eat. Never happened. I coulda been talking to a tree. As I said before, Russ left Edinburg Gap before me, and I caught up to him just before he crossed 675. At Powell's Fort, it was the same thing: "John, I'll meet you on the trail." And I would watch this bobbing headlight disappear into the darkness.
Adding fuel to the fire. The more runners we passed, the greater the Evans effect was. For example, we ran for a good stretch on the way to Woodstock about as fast as we had run it the week before in the day time. We passed one runner (and Russ usually introduced us to the runners when we passed them) who later caught up to us and said: "Russ and John, you are an inspiration to me. I was thinking about not going on until you two passed me." This was the last thing I wanted to hear because I knew this would just make Russ run faster. Actually, this guy passed us just before we got to Woodstock, and we all arrived together. Not surprising to me, Russ picked up the pace, and we passed him shortly after leaving Woodstock and didn't see him again.
When we arrived at Powell's Fort, Mike Campbell was still there. He left before we did, and we didn't pass him until the descent from Menaka Peak. Passing Mike gave Russ a lift. But guess what? Mike and his pacer, Sean Andrish, passed us and went into Elizabeth Furnace ahead of us. I remember being very distressed at this turn of events. I remember thinking, "Aw, Mike, why'd ya go and do that for?" I just knew that Russ would be hell bent on passing Mike again. And however he was going to do that obviously meant a minimal stop at the aid station. In fact, when Russ abandoned Mike three years ago at Elizabeth Furnace, Russ didn't stop at the aid station at all. ("I do not even want to pause as I go by because I want to catch the next runner I have been so frenetically pursuing.") It would also mean a quick climb up Shawl Gap. I knew that Russ had one of the five fastest times going up Shawl Gap in 2000. As we spotted 678 on our descent, I was tempted to ask Russ what his strategy was for getting through the aid station quickly. Fearing the worst, I decided not to ask.
Elizabeth Furnace. We ran into the parking lot before the aid station; Beth was there waiting for us. She quickly filled his Camelbak. She had one of my Gatorade bottles - the big 64 oz. container - next to her, and I started to take off my Camelbak. Russ took off running. I had only unfastened my waist strap, so I quickly picked the bottle off the ground and took off , too. I caught up to him just as we crossed the bridge and running along beside him, I said, "Russ, I have to fill up my Camelbak." He gave me a vacant stare and with words I'll never forget, he said, "John, I can't stop. I left Mike." I knew exactly what he meant. In case what Russ said may be too terse for you, let me interpret this for you: "John, I've known Mike longer than you, and I left his sorry ass at Elizabeth Furnace, so I can certainly leave your sorry ass here, too." I thought about this for a good split second and said, "No, you're stuck with me." He then pointed to the Gatorade bottle I was carrying and
said I could drop it at the aid station. In a weird way, I was looking forward to this as I would be making ultrarunning history by being the only person to run into an aid station and give the volunteers a big bottle of Gatorade.
But it never happened. Why? Because Tracy just happened to be walking from the aid station back to the van carrying my drop bag and one of Russ's bags. Russ then said he had forgotten to ask Beth for GU. We looked through the bags quickly, found no GU, and he took off. I had planned to drop my Camelbak at Elizabeth Furnace and put on a single-bottle pack and pick up a Fast Draw, both of which were in my drop bag. I had no time to do all that. I wasn't sure I had enough Gatorade in my Camelbak to finish the race, but I kept it on and quickly grabbed the Fast Draw from my drop bag and filled it with Gatorade.
As I ran around the turn and came onto the field where the aid station was, Russ was running full tilt about 10 yards from the aid station, yelling "GU, GU, GU." He ran right through the pavilion without slowing down, and it appeared to me that someone did hand him some GU. When I described this to someone later, they said it was like a train going through a station without slowing down and snatching the mail bag off the pole. I am afraid to ask the volunteers what they thought of Russ.
I'd like to digress a bit here. In the world of ultrarunning, there is a certain hierarchy, a caste system, so to speak. At the bottom are the pacers who only think of their runner. The next level up is the crew who only think of their runners. Then there are the runners who only think of themselves. Upon death and reincarnation, these groups move up to the next level. The runner eventually achieves exalted status and returns to earth as a volunteer at an aid station. Without volunteers, there would be no races and runners would cease to exist. I'm sure this was on Russ's mind as he barreled through the aid station.
I knew I didn't have any time to go to the aid station, so I headed across the field on the diagonal and fell in behind Russ just as he entered the woods. Mike Campbell and Sean were just ahead of us. Russ picked up the pace (if that were possible), and we blew by them both. It was in a watery area, and as Russ splashed by them, it so startled Mike that when he looked up to see Russ go by he fell down. I was right behind Russ, and as I went by I gave Mike one of those Hey-don't-blame-me-I'm-just-the-pacer looks.
Shawl Gap. I decided that I would stay very close to Russ on our way up Shawl Gap. In fact, at times I was only about one foot behind him. I told him I was drafting off of him. We quickly made the climb (I wouldn't be surprised if Russ had the fastest time from Elizabeth Furnace to the finish even if you added in some time for an aid station stop). [Editor's Note: He did.] I learned from Russ long ago that it's a good idea to eat a GU before a big climb. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to restock my GU at Elizabeth Furnace. In all my drop bags, I had packed a handful of seaweed crackers (I eat them because they contain sea salt). I would grab them as I would leave an aid station and munch on them until they are gone. They are pretty crisp and will last a long time in your hand. But I didn't have time to get them from my drop bag at Elizabeth Furnace. In the stretch before Elizabeth Furnace, though, I hadn't eaten all the ones I had picked up at Powell's Fort; I had decided to just put them in one of the mesh pouches in the back of my RaceReady shorts. I remembered this as we were going up Shawl Gap. So I munched on those crackers as we made the climb. I have to say
they were not as crispy since they had absorbed the sweat from my running shorts (and they were slightly saltier, too).
Somewhere during the night, Russ had been thinking about and commenting about what place he was in. Beth had tried to get this information for him at the aid stations as best she could. Russ was moving up in the standings through the night just as he had done three years ago. He was wondering if he would be able to qualify for a silver buckle again. I never really understood the rules for getting a silver buckle since they seem to be pretty complicated. I think there are so many buckles and from that number you take certain winners (first VHTRC member, first senior, etc.) and then the rest go to finishers in order, excluding those who already received a silver buckle on other grounds. As we were coming down Shawl Gap, I told Russ that if had run faster in the earlier part of the day, say, before I joined him, then we wouldn't have to have this wild finish. As it turned out, Russ missed a silver buckle by one place.
Goals. I'm not sure Russ had a specific time goal or a specific place to finish. Russ ran the 2000 race in 27:37 and probably wanted to do better this time. But we all knew what his main goal was: beat Gary this year and beat Gary's time of 27:21 from last year. I asked Russ if it bothered him that his goal was to try to run faster than an almost-sexagenarian. He promptly said no. When we told Gary that Russ's goal was to run faster than an almost-sexagenarian, he said he had been a sexagenarian for years. We finally had to tell him that being a sexagenarian had to do with age. Although Russ missed the silver buckle, he did beat Gary's time and finished in 27:12. I sort of feel sorry for Gary because he's going to have to listen about this from Russ for a long, long time.
No deals. This is an expression used by Gary. It means that no matter how often you train with someone, when race day comes, there are "no deals." Everyone is on their own. Russ has expanded on this concept and applied it - on two occasions - to his pacer. Remember all that stuff I wrote in the first paragraph-it was a crock. And what Russ said going up Menaka Peak that I mentioned in the second paragraph-it truly happened, but I had not ruled out the possibility that we might not be finishing together.
I talked to Bill Sublett on the phone the day after the race, and he asked how it went. I told him that I was thinking about writing a story about it. He laughed and said if Russ didn't go off and leave me, then I had a successful race. And I guess I did. In fact, I had a pretty darn good time, too.
Next year. I'm going to take it a lot easier next year and enter the race myself. Russ, of course, will be holding pacer tryouts beginning in March.
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