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The Inside Lane: Strengthening Bonds at Western States

Mario Fraioli writes about his experience pacing his friend Chris Denucci at the Western States 100.

Going for an 18-mile run when it’s 90 degrees out at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon will test the strength of any relationship—especially when one of the parties involved has already been running for over 11-1/2 hours.

Such was the situation two Saturdays ago at the Western States Endurance Run when I picked up my friend Chris Denucci at the Foresthill aid station, 62 miles into the oldest 100-mile foot race in the world. It was his debut 100-miler and my first time being a pacer and a crew member. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about screwing up his race, going off trail or getting dropped somewhere on Cal Street.

As we set out of the aid station, we met up with the rest of our six-person crew, along with a few other Bay Area friends, who kept Chris cool by packing his arm sleeves with ice, restocked his nutrition and cracked a few jokes to lighten the mood a bit as he prepared to tackle the final 38 miles to the finish line in Auburn. In a race that lasts all day for some (and even longer for others), having a crew that’s on top of things can help mitigate many of the problems that are sure to surface over the course of a hot 100 miles in some of the most remote areas of Northern California. A point-to-point one-hundred mile race really is a total team effort.

Serial racer Michael Wardian, who Chris had been running with for most of the preceding 50K, passed by on the road as we finished taking care of business at Foresthill. We caught him a few miles later on some switchbacks and played leapfrog until about mile 73 when we opened up a small gap coming out of the Ford’s Bar Aid Station. In a road race, this back-and-forth jockeying for position might have been cause for annoyance; on the trails, it was laced with easy-going encouragement.

PHOTOS: 2015 Western States 100

A quick aside on the aid stations at Western States: From where I picked Chris up to where I handed him off, we hit six aid stations over the course of 18 miles. I was blown away by the enthusiasm of the volunteers at each one, despite a fierce afternoon sun and temperatures well into the 90s. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen at any other race I’ve been a part of in my 18 years of running.

Back to the race: My main job as a pacer was to keep the mood positive, remind Chris to continue eating and drinking at regular intervals and make sure he kept going when the going got difficult. I wasn’t so much pacing a racer as I was accompanying a good friend, which, looking back, wasn’t much different than any of the 6 a.m. training runs we meet up for before work during the week. Over the course of 3-1/2 hours, we strategized the miles ahead, talked about the race unfolding at the front of the field, shared a few laughs and covered any number of random topics two friends might talk about over the course of a long run.

There were also long stretches of silence where words weren’t necessary to communicate the sheer awesomeness of what we were experiencing. Even though Chris and I have logged more miles together than I care to count, these were some of the most memorable we’ve ever shared. The two of us have helped each other out a number of times in different ways throughout the course of our friendship, and this was how I viewed my assignment for the day.

After the Rucky Chucky river crossing at Mile 78—a refreshing cold-water dip we talked about with excited anticipation no less than a dozen times over the preceding 16 miles—we power-hiked up to the Green Gate aid station with Fernando De Semaniego Steta, another good friend and Chris’ second pacer, whose positivity and incessant energy would no doubt help power our bearded buddy through the final long leg of the race.

Once my work for the day was done, I made the long way back to my car with Chris Blagg and Drew Smith, two more members of our crew, and just sat in the front seat for a few minutes trying to process the entirety of the last few hours before heading to the finish line to catch the end of the race. Thoughts ranging from “That was amazing!” to wondering if my friend and training partner could keep the momentum going over the course final 18 miles ran through my head. After spending over three hours together on the trails—me feeling fairly fresh the entire time and Chris in an increasingly fatigued, but still incredibly focused state—witnessing his suffering firsthand, watching him battle savage heat and a tough course, yet still finding the will to put one foot in front of the other when his body was screaming at him to stop, will forever be one of the most inspiring experiences of my life.

Back at the track in Auburn, we waited with anticipation as the online tracker told us Chris was getting close. The rest of our crew, which also included his girlfriend Jenny and our friend Luke, jogged backward on the course to Robie Point just before the 99-mile mark, where we would meet up with Chris and run him on in to the finish line. In the meantime, we saw a few more runners come through the final aid station, including our friend Stephen Wassather, who was on his way to a top-20 finish, and Magdalena Boulet, the women’s winner, who would break the tape in her first 100-miler, showing the grit, poise and talent that landed her on the 2008 Olympic team. Their faces wore expressions that were equal parts joy, pain and relief, which is to be expected when it’s near midnight and you’ve been running since 5 a.m.

When Chris came through Robie Point, we jumped alongside him and crested the final hill together before we unexpectedly started rolling down the road at under 7 minutes a mile, the noise and excitement from the finish line now palpable and pulling at us like a giant magnet. Approaching the Placer High School track, we congratulated Chris on his effort and encouraged him to enjoy the enormity of his accomplishment over the final 300 meters to the finish line. Upon crossing, he was greeted with a flurry of high-fives and hugs from his fellow competitors, race officials, friends and crew—not an uncommon finish line scene, but one that somehow takes on a whole new meaning when someone has just finished running 100 miles for the first time.

As the excitement continued to unfold at the finish line in Auburn, over 19 hours after the race set out from Squaw Valley, I took a quick second to thank Chris for asking me to pace him in his first 100-miler—an experience that no doubt strengthened a friendship that was already solid.