“This experience is like no other, you connect with nature in the most uncomfortable way possible.” Pablo D Blanco smiles and takes a sip of his coffee. The 37-year old Business Development Director has an unusual second job, one that’s invisible to most people. Pablo is a pacer, a key figure in long distance races. Like the role of the ‘domestique’ in pro cycling, Pablo’s job is to help the runner reach the finish line. He’s a kind of trail companion to the athlete and keeps him on track by joining him during several miles at critical points of the race. By running together, the pacer helps the runner keep his optimal rhythm, increasing his chances to reach his goals.
Pablo is talking vividly about his biggest race to date: 135 miles through California’s Death Valley. A crucial race in extreme surroundings and crushing temperatures. It’s safe to say that Badwater 135 is not for everyone. Pablo was picked as Crew Captain by Byron Roca, after he helped him come in 3rd at the Keys100: a 100 miles run to the most southern point in the United States. But there’s a huge difference between the subtropical paradise of the Florida Keys and Death Valley.
“Everything about Badwater 135 is extreme,” says Pablo. The course starts at 280 feet below sea level, the lowest elevation point in North America. Fast-forward 135 miles and the race ends at 8,300 feet above sea level in Mount Whitney. The runners go through a total cumulative vertical ascent of a whopping 14,600 feet. Around 100 of the best endurance athletes come to California’s Death Valley to join the challenge. The annual race is always scheduled to take place at the peak of the summer season, guaranteeing temperatures of over 115°F.
“You’re tested physically and mentally. Your patience is tried as you encounter positive and negative thoughts along the way and you push through them as you continue your journey,” says Pablo, emphasizing that it’s not only a runner’s physique but also his mental strength that determines his success. “You fully engage with your mind and at that moment you appreciate how powerful your will can be. And then there’s the heat,” he notes. At the time the gun went off to announce the start of first wave of the race, the thermostat showed 98°F.
Highs and Lows
The third part of the race went relative uneventful, Pablo says, but around mile 43, when the sun started to rise, Byron was going a bit too fast. “He didn’t look too good. You could see that his mind and body had taken a toll over the course of the night,” Pablo remembers. As the sun came up and the temperature began to climb, Byron – like many of the other runners - struggled. Pablo suggested that they stop and rehydrate. “Together we restructured the plan for the rest of the morning and the long ascend after Stove Pipe Wells”.
At 2pm the team crossed the hottest point of the race and Pablo could literally see the asphalt steaming: “I knew we were in for a hot treat. Getting to this point at the hottest time of the day was not easy, but we were determined to get through it”. After a long 9-miles stretch they stopped to rest, rehydrate and plan the next ascend onto Keeler Pass. They noticed the sole of their running shoes was so soft that if they picked and pulled it with their fingers, it would detach like a spaghetti string: “I had heard stories about shoes melting in Death Valley and here we are - at the end of the stretch - and as I am looking at my shoes, I pull the front tip of the sole and like chewing gum it came off.”
- Badwater 135 Ultra-marathon describes itself as "the world's toughest foot race".
- It is a 135-mile (217 km) course starting at 279 feet (85 m) below sea level in the Badwater Basin, in California's Death Valley, and ending at an elevation of 8,360 feet (2,548 m) at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to Mount Whitney.
- It takes place annually in mid-July, when the weather conditions are most extreme and temperatures over 120 °F (49 °C) are not uncommon.
- Pablo D Blanco ran as a pacer for Byron Roca on July 28 2015. The team took 33 hours to complete the race and Byron came in 16.
They began the preparations for the evening when the sun started to set. This is a critical moment for both athlete and crew. “The race doesn’t really begin until mile 80, before that it’s just a very long warm-up” says Pablo. After an entire day of running, pushing through the heat and the elevation, exhaustion begins to take its toll on everyone, although the crew members have been rotating to maximize rest.
During the last third of the race, Pablo’s main role was to keep Byron mentally active and engaged with his run. They ran throughout the night towards Lone Pine which marks the last 13 miles of the race: a full ascend onto Mount Whitney where the finish line awaits. “After 24+ hours your body takes a bit of a toll. From exhaustion to restlessness it all comes at you physically and mentally. When the sun rose, Mount Whitney turned a vibrant peach color. I got goose bumps, knowing that we had made it to the last ascent and we had about 10 miles to go”.
At 8:13am Byron reached the finish line in 16th place. Even though Pablo did not cross the finish line next to Byron – it was not his shift - he was just as emotional and happy. “We all accepted the great result and finished with a great deal of enthusiasm!” Byron smiles again. There’s no doubt that teamwork is what gets an athlete to the finish line in an extreme race like this, and Pablo is proud of his role. “We formed a bond throughout the journey,” he says, and he’s already looking forward to doing it all over again.
Pablo D Blanco is a Rezlo patriot and he recently ran 40 miles to Key West with our Euclid running shorts.