How to Tackle the Role of Running Domestique

It’s grey, cold, and dumping buckets outside. I’ve been in a car for six hours listening to the strum thwack of wipers, squinting to determine if I’m staying between the striped lines, and white-knuckling the steering wheel driving to Marin, CA. The closer we get to the city the more compact everything seems to become. Gaps between cars close quickly despite visibility being a car length at best. I’m having flashbacks of swimming midpack at Ironman Canada. From a mile up we must look like one large, steel serpent slowly slithering over hillsides, across waterways and disappearing into concrete and mist.

Why am I subjecting myself to this chaos? Because this week I’m a running domestique. I’m accompanying my partner, and team leader, to Northern California for a race through the trail system around Mount Tamalpais. After a few tough years away from racing, Susan is jumping back into the trail running scene. I’m in a support role this week.

While neither as physically nor mentally challenging as the event itself, supporting and spectating at endurance events is taxing. I can recall many years watching my brothers race at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. I never wanted to mention to them how tough the day can be, walking, standing and photographing in that heat, but I was always crushed after those humid October days. I’d walk for miles out the Queen K to get decent photographs for Trifuel. By the end of the day my back hurt, my feet ached, and my stomach was caving in because I never fueled properly. I’d leave the island wishing I had done more specificity training for the World Championships of Spectating.

As a support person we often act as travel agent, Uber driver or soccer mom, coach, strategist, therapist, food runner, and cheerleader. These are roles we gladly assume despite our athlete not asking or requiring us to take them on. The typical endurance athlete is independent, stubborn, and innately resistant to guidance and help. As a side note, always use the word “support” over “help” when speaking with your athlete.

As travel agent we attempt to take on as much of the travel logistics as our athlete will allow. Planning a trip itinerary includes breaking the drive into manageable chunks of time (the impossibility of predicting traffic in the Bay Area made this stressful), reserving several evenings of hotels, scheduling time to visit with family and friends, peppering the trip with enjoyable sightseeing and foodie experiences that do not keep the athlete on their feet for too long, and helping find places to get in that last week’s training, as well as your own training requirements (though, to be honest, I happily let these slide because I’m prone to allow for excuses not to train in poor weather).

As Uber driver we assume the role of soccer mom, not only driving the bulk of the distance from the Google Maps starting point to the destination, but shuttling our athlete to and from packet pickup, Whole Foods, the local running shop, that bakery she secretly wanted to visit that was disappointingly closed due to unforeseen weather damage, and of course delivering her to the start line race morning, which requires crawling out of bed three hours earlier than normal.

Acting as a surrogate coach is usually a well-intentioned but mistaken endeavor; unfortunately we often can’t help but impart last minute wisdom and advice to our athlete who graciously listens then quickly dismisses and forges ahead with her more thoroughly thought-out and realistic plan for the day.

The unlicensed therapist role is my forte, though do not attempt to confirm this with Susan. I excel at dispensing advice when I should simply be listening and empathizing. If you take anything away from this article it should be this: Do not attempt to solve emotional issues on race day, rather, attentively listen and occasionally place your hand supportively on your athlete’s shoulder.

When spectating and running support for a long endurance event such as an Ironman, ultramarathon or gravel race, having a strategy is important for your own pleasure and the peace of mind of your athlete. On that day your primary roles are food runner and cheerleader. Many races don’t allow outside support; in those cases your goal for the day is to simply show your face and cheer on your athlete at as many points along the course as possible. At events that do allow support you need to coordinate with your athlete as to where they would like you to be, when, and armed with what.

Susan is stubbornly self-sufficient, so we agreed beforehand on only two aid stations where I would be present with food and clothing. Frankly, I think she gave me the responsibility to be at these locations so I had some objectives for the day and could appease my desire to be helpful. She didn’t need anything as the event supplied adequate fuel and hydration along the course. Additionally, she was able to have a drop bag at an aid station she passed through twice. Athletes, try to give your spectators some responsibilities on race day so they feel useful, even if unnecessary. On day-long events this can help with the boredom and anxiousness that will arise.

Regardless of why I needed to be at the predetermined aid stations, I was going to be there waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Once I saw Susan off at the start line, I briskly trekked back to the car and began plotting the drive to my appointed responsibility. Unfortunately, though Susan left me with maps and a chart of expected times she’d be at specific locations, cell service in the Marin Headlands is horrible. I headed away from the starting point at Rodeo Beach to Highway 101 hoping to pick up a signal and confirm directions to the first rendezvous. I arrived about 25 minutes later and was the only spectator waiting at Muir Beach. I went for a short run up the steepest, muddiest double track I’ve been on—maybe ever. As I peaked over the top of the ridge the wind off the Pacific whipped freezing rain against my face. I paused at the top and gazed down the coastline at grey skies, green pastures, and the rust colored lines that carved their way along the ridges and slopes, through the layers of fog, rain and brush.

I respect anyone who toes the line at an ultra trail race, but the grit and strength this day, and this course, was going to require of participants increased my admiration for them and my reverence for the power and beauty of the natural surroundings. I was honestly a little worried as these cold and wet conditions are Susan’s self-prescribed kryptonite. I ran a short 4 miles and was soaked to the bone.

Susan arrived at Muir Beach ahead of her schedule. She looked as though she had just emerged from the ocean yards away, her yellow windbreaker clinging to her small frame. She shared that her feet were cold but otherwise felt good as she quickly passed by the aid station.

Ninety minutes into the race and I saw her for 20 seconds. I sat in the car and looked at my sheet for the next place I was expected to be. It was four aid stations down the list, three hours from that moment. This wasn’t going to work for me as anxiety and adrenaline began pulsing through my mind and body as I watched runner after runner pass by. I started the engine and began jumping from station to station for the next four to five hours. I’d get a glimpse of her running past, then clap, cheer, and dispense unnecessary and unheard fragments of advice such as, “drink water,” or “stay in your race.”

At the 40-mile aid station, Susan’s parents, aunt and uncle, and myself waited for her. The rain had stopped and the sun began streaking through the clouds in slivers of gold. She looked well despite mentioning she had begun to walk some of the steeper sections. Here she paused for a moment to acknowledge her family and drop her windbreaker. I had changed back to running attire in the event she would be struggling and needed a pacer to help her tackle the last 10 miles. Of course, she said she was fine and didn’t need me to run with her, but the pause when I had asked meant she considered it or would enjoy the company. I quickly arranged for her parents to take our car to the finish while Susan kept running ahead. It took me nearly a half-mile to catch her. She was still cruising along at a good pace. Together we ran and hiked the final miles to the finish back at Rodeo Beach, chatting most of the way.

Susan crushed the race finishing 3rd female overall and first Masters female. She won a bear shaped plaque, Salomon shoes, some prize money, and a hotdog for me.

Susan recovered well over the next few days. I still drove most of the way home, but we took our time stopping along the way to enjoy a slower and less stressful pace. We found a surf break for me, a different bakery that offered gluten free cookies, a happy hour or two for some IPAs, and perhaps the best tacos I’ve tasted.

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Paul Lieto
Paul Lieto is the Editor for RaceCenter Magazine. He currently lives in Bend, OR where he writes, runs trails and rides dirt.