The Pacer: The Unsung Hero of the Running World

It is the first Friday in April, so it is time for another First Friday Flashback!

This is about pacers.  Not the AMC Pacer, which has the claim to fame of being the car that did the corkscrew jump in The Man with the Golden Gun.

No, I am talking about running pacers.

As runners, we all appreciate volunteers, as they are the backbone to a good race.  But what about the pacers that help you get to you goal?  These folks are a small, but integral, part of the running community. 

There are three types of pacers in running: there are the organized pacers at races that run with time goal signs; there is the known or unknown person in front or next to you in a race that you keep up with to hopefully meet your race goal for that day; and the last type is the pacer for ultra-marathons.

Pacer with a sign (photo credit - marathonpacing.com)

Pacer with a sign (photo credit – marathonpacing.com)

Organized Pacer at a half or full marathon

I could probably never be a pacer carrying a sign.  If I was given the 2:00 or slower group for a half marathon, I could finish under that time, even with the sign. The problem is I have a hard time maintaining an even pace without a pacer.  I take walk breaks and I will speed up or slow down, even if the terrain is flat.

Most good pacers will get you to that time goal about a minute or so before the goal, so there is some leeway. This allows folks at the back of the pacer pack reach their goal time.  That said, you should always start the race behind your pacer, and do your best to finish before them.  This gives you a bit more cushion on your chip time, and allowing you to meet your goal.  Also, if you do walk breaks, try to get ahead of the pacer, so that when your walk breaks ends, hopefully the pacer has just passed or just caught up to you.

The Phantom Pacer

The second group of pacers, or “phantom pacer” as I have named them, often don’t know they are pacers at the start of a race, and sometimes still never know they were a pacer at the end of a race.  Sometimes, you have talked to a friend and they agreed to be your pacer to help get you to your race goal.  That is always cool. 

Other times, you see somebody that is running at the pace you want (it helps if that person has a nice posterior), and you follow them for as long as they stick to that pace.  They may slow down, take a walk break, or speed up (I hate that), and you can’t stick with them anymore.

Other times, you meet up with somebody on the course, start chatting and time goals get mentioned.  The other person (or you) says, “Stick with me and we can get that finishing time for you.”  I have been on both sides of this pacing experience.  And, other than getting your own PR, there is nothing better than helping somebody get their PR.

The Ultra Pacer

The last group of pacers, those who run with ultra marathoners, are a different breed.  I am proud to be part of this group wackos.  During the long ultra marathons, 50 miles or more, many races allow pacers for the second half of the race, or after the first 25 miles or so.  After running for 4 to 6 hours (or more), a runner’s brain starts to fry, especially when they start to think that they have 25 (or more) miles left to run.  As any runner can tell you, running is at least 50% mental.  And the mental component increases the more miles you run.  The mantra, “Just keep going” constantly runs through you mind. A pacer will often run more than 13.1 or 26.2 miles for no t-shirt, no medal, and no “official” time.

Having a pacer helps keep the runners brain focused away from the pain in their legs, the exhaustion, the heat, the cold, the lack of sleep, and any other ailments they may be experiencing.  Other things that pacers do include running ahead to aid stations to get food and replenishment prepared (especially if time is of an essence); pointing their running in the right direction (especially at night); pointing out hazards like poison oak/ivy or rocks; and really anything else the runner needs.  Pacers are encouraged at night to help keep their runner (who is probably delirious from lack of sleep) on course, or wake them up after a short nap. I have seen pacers feed their runners pancakes while running. Basically, the only things a pacer can’t do is push, pull, or carry their runner; nor can they carry supplies for their runner, aka “muling.”

I have been a pacer for an ultra runner a couple of times.  My first foray into this realm was when I paced Endorphin Dude at the American River 50 race over a year ago.  He talks about it in my post about The Real Reason Why Runners Run.  I was waiting for ED at Rattlesnake Bar, the last cutoff for AR50 before the finish.  He was about an hour or so behind schedule.  When he finally showed up, he barely made the cutoff (by 11 seconds) and they actually stopped all other runners behind him.

Pacing Endorphin Dude at AR50

Pacing Endorphin Dude at AR50

For the next 9 miles I made dumb jokes, laughed at him when he had emotional breakdowns (I am male, and I laugh at my friends when they break down for no reason), told him silly stories about myself, warned him about the poison oak (which he regrettably ignored), ran ahead to fill up water bottles, and gave him the motivation to push up the last hill (800 foot climb in the last 4 miles). His fastest mile I was with him was that last mile up the hill, and I cheered him every 100 yard dash up that hill.  I gave him goals to run to, “Run to that tree’s shadow.  Okay now keep going to that crack in the road. Now walk for 30 seconds and we will run again.” We crossed the finish line with a hair over 2 minutes to spare.  

Crossing the finish line at AR50 with 2:11 left on the clock.

Crossing the finish line at AR50 with 2:11 left on the clock.

 

Post AR50 celebrations

Post AR50 celebrations

My next pacing experience was barely four weeks later and was supposed to be just a few miles, but turned into 16.  A friend was running the Gold Rush 100k, and the course is along my usual running route.  I figured I would meet up with him and run a few miles as part of my weekend long run.  Well, that weekend in May was a scorcher.  The temperatures were in the 80s, not that bad, but 10 degrees warmer than normal and almost 20 degrees warmer than it had been the previous few weeks.  Besides, 80 degree weather is not the best to be running in. I got to the aid station about thirty minutes before he was expected to arrive, but he ended up being 2.5 hours behind schedule.

While I was waiting, I helped out at the aid station, running up to runners as soon as we spotted them, grabbing their water bottles to fill them up, and generally helping out.  Eventually my friend showed up. He was doing good, but the heat had slowed him down.  I decided that I would stick with him to the last 16 or so miles to the finish just to make sure he kept going.  Again, I told dumb jokes, silly stories, recounted my experience pacing Endorphin Dude the month before, and we had a very interesting talk about being vegetarian.  He is a vegetarian, I am not. We just chatted most of the time.  I also got some insight into ultra marathons, and trail running. We also made fun of our mutual friend, Endorphin Dude.

Pacing at Gold Rush 100k (photo credit Myles Smythe at Michigan Bluff Photography)

Pacing at Gold Rush 100k (photo credit Myles Smythe at Michigan Bluff Photography)

We trudged along until we picked up the pace for the last two miles, finally crossing the finish line in the top third of all finishers.  However, of the 300 entrants, less than 90 finished the race.  Many missed the cutoff due to the heat. I was super stoked that he finished as well as he did. Would he have finished the race without me? Absolutely.  Would his time have been the same? Maybe.  But, I would like to think that I helped him shave at least a few minutes off his time by distracting him from the heat.  If nothing else, I made that last 16 miles be more enjoyable.

At the finish line for the Gold Rush 100k

At the finish line for the Gold Rush 100k

What does it take to be a pacer for an ultra marathon? Well, you need to be able to cover the distance and terrain that your runner is doing.  You can’t jump from a road half marathon and expect to pace somebody 25 miles up a hill on single track trail.  You also have to comfortably run at their pace.  Now, in theory, this shouldn’t be a problem.  Somebody running a 50 miler will run at an average pace approximately 45 seconds to a minute slower per mile then their marathon pace over the same terrain, and they tend to run slower the second half of the race. So if you have similar marathon times as your runner, you should be good.

But the most important ability a pacer has to have is to keep a positive attitude and be a therapist.  When you runner is complaining about pain in their legs, or how they can’t go on, as a pacer, you need to give them the encouragement to keep going.  Remind them why they are doing this race, how great it is going to feel when they cross the finish line, and how much fun it will be see the reaction on people’s faces when you tell the you ran 50+ miles.

Pacing duties - (Meme Credit - Tony Nguyen)

Pacing duties – (Meme Credit – Tony Nguyen)

Being a pacer is quite an honor. You are running for somebody else and helping them reach their goals.

Have you ever paced somebody for a race? Put your story in the comments below.

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