Pace My Race: Understanding The Role Of A Pacer In Marathon

Role of a pacer

Ever wondered how a simple sport like running can go a long way in building camaraderie, character and confidence? The answer lies in understanding the role of a pacer in marathon. Read on to find out how.

In this article, we will discuss the concept of pacing, who are the pacers, why they pace runners and what is in it for them, and what are the benefits. Runners who wish to take the role of a first-time pacer and runners who wish to take the help of a pacer for the first time will find this article informative.

Pacing has been there in the world of distance running for quite sometime due to the popularity that the sport enjoys. There is considerable amount of effort and planning that goes into selecting pacers, making it known to other amateur runners who will be part of the event so the runners can take the help of pacers to fulfil their race timing ambitions.

Who is a Pacer?

Pacers are a set of experienced runners who volunteer themselves at a race or at a running event to help other runners achieve their race timing goals, in some cases help them achieve their personal best. It is a great initiative by race organisers to create a platform whereby new runners can take the help of these experienced runners who have walked the path before and are willing to extend all their experience, guidance and help other runners to accomplish their race objectives.

There are pacers for both half marathon and full marathon in all running events. They are handpicked by the race organisers based on their previous track record and race credentials.

pace card

A pace card shared by runner/pacer Dinesh Heda

Pacers are called Bus based on the placard they carry with the timing that they are helping others to chase. For example, some popular bus in a half marathon are 2:00 HR Bus, 2:15 Bus 2:30 Bus, 1:55 Bus, 1:50 Bus 1:45 Bus and so on. Some popular full marathon bus timings are 4:00 HR Bus, 4:30 Bus, 3:45 Bus and so on.

They are called bus metaphorically so that runners can board on any of the bus that best suits their comfort and time targets. Runners can sign up by connecting with the respective pacers based on the time the runners aspire to chase in the running event.

Once a pacer has agreed to pace and has chosen a specific time, for example 2:00 HR Bus, the pacer is completely accountable to ensure that she/he brings in a few runners to the finish line in 1:59 and the seconds can be from 0-59 and this is sacrosanct. A good pacer is the one who will reach the finish line just a few seconds short of 2:00 HR bus. This holds true for all the Bus mentioned above.

So any pacer who has volunteered for a 2-hour Bus should ideally have a personal best of 1:45 or less to easily navigate the others and push them to the finish line.

It may look simple but requires high degree of accuracy, planning and strategising before the race, including communication and motivation which we will cover in the latter part of the article.

I have worn the hat of a pacer on a number of occasions, getting an opportunity to pace in the 2016 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2:00 HR Bus and in other running events such as Pinkathon 2:30 Bus, Super Sikh Run 1:55 Bus and SBI Run 2:30 bus. I can completely feel the energy and the emotion from both sides, pacer and runner as I share my experience on pacing.

Why Pace?

Runners, who constantly work on themselves to improve their timing, working towards their new personal bests, feel after a couple of years a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction to give back by helping others win.

    • No Drive, No Thrive: Pacing is purely this passion to see others win. Some runners may feel it’s time to give back to the running community after having learnt through years of experience.
    • There is also a popularity quotient attached to it which comes through good work and adds a feather in the cap of a runner.
    • Sometimes runners are not adequately trained to achieve their new personal best and hence they feel it’s a great idea to help others through pacing.
    • We also see some runners pacing their friends personally, not formally, which is also an amazing gesture.

Whatever may be the driving force, it is indeed a great selfless act to help others succeed which truly requires demonstrating leadership, accountability, integrity and ownership.

Is it easy to race or pace?

There are different thoughts to this statement. When we say you are racing, the runner is running his/her own race, the runner need not worry about anyone else. Their only aim in the world is to run their race strongly, reaching the finish line within their race time target.

Pacing is helping others reach their finish time goals. It is not at all about your race, it’s the pace that you will set that will help runners achieve their timing goals comfortably.

The job of a pacer requires practice and precision. Both, skills and experience, come handy and are truly tested.

What are the key components of a good pacer?

A pacer has to focus on two main areas: Practice and Planning.

Practice: I call this practice with precision. There is no room for any tolerance on race day. Irrespective of your running credentials, six to eight weeks before the race, the pacer should practice running the race route ideally twice if not once. Why twice? Once you run on your own to ensure you can make it within the targeted time for which the pacer has taken the responsibility for. The second time you run with the runners to get a feel of what it would be like pacing on race day.

It’s not necessary to run the entire route the second time, but even if one can run half the race distance to understand the run rhythm and running behaviour of some of the runners who are likely to run the race with you, you can hit the start line with confidence taking some learnings from this.

It’s also a good idea to have a back-up runner for the pacer, in the event of any unexpected incident, this back-up runner can take over your role so the runners, who have placed faith in you to achieve their PB are able to achieve the same. This is not a global practice, but it’s definitely an idea worth considering.

Usually in running events, there are two pacers for the same time, they go with the same philosophy. What I am referring to is having your own personal back-up and make this thing known to the race organisers which I am sure they will appreciate. It is not about not feeling confident about yourself, it is about the integrity and the service that pacers do for the runners.

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As a pacer you are in charge of everything and it’s your responsibility to take the runners along with you to the finish line in the desired targeted time.

Planning: This would entail connecting with prospective runners who wish to be a part of your squad. Sharing with them the insight on how you are going to approach the entire race, are you going to evenly pace, go for negative splits or faster in the first half and even or a bit slower in the second half. Every pacer will have his/her own strategy and this should be very well communicated to the runners in advance and in the form of a Pace Chart/Pace Card. Same should be handed over in person at the expo as well as on the race day so that everyone is in sync with the pacing strategy. This is super critical. Apart from that, advise the runners on race gear, hydration strategy, nutrition and keep them motivated.

Roles and Responsibility of a Pacer

Before the Race

Run the race route to familiarise oneself and the runners.

Connect with runners to understand how they are approaching their training.

Communicate clearly the strategy and the approach of the race.

Pace plan or the pace card is also important. At what mile or km will we stop for water break, walk break, nutrition break etc. All have to be laid down in advance and communicated before the race 4-6 weeks in advance. It’s not possible for the pacer to be looking at each and every runner. Each runner should be able to keep track and run their own race. It’s not possible for the pacer to bring everyone home, there will be some dropouts which is fine but the larger picture is to ensure that pacer is able to come home with at least 3-5 runners. Whatever may be the case, the Bus must reach the terminus on time.

Answer any queries with respect to pacing the race and other questions on the softer aspects such as raising the self-belief, confidence and assurance. To me this can have a huge bearing on lifting the spirits even before the race. In short, keep the moral and tempo high of your pacing squad.

Communicate with and understand each and every runner.

Communicate the race day plans clearly – where all runners will gather, warm-up time and the post-race plan such as stretches and victory pictures.

Mention the dos and don’ts clearly to the runners. It’s not possible to wait for any runner while being on the move.

Race Day/ During the Race

Reach the race venue well ahead of time to meet and greet the runners.
Share the plan again.
Lead warm-up with motivational talk and crack jokes to keep the mood light.
Extend good wishes for the race.
Start the race by sharing stories and experiences to keep them engaged.

Post Race

More the merrier: If the pacer is able to bring more runners home then why not. Having said that, in the game of pacing, the numbers you see at the start of the race may rarely be the same at the finish, based on previous pacing experiences. So expect this and be happy that one was able to bring in at least some of the runners home.

Lead from the front, do not forget to congratulate your team of runners. Take group pictures and stay connected.

Take care of their post-run hydration, nutrition which is absolutely key to recovery. Share a few recovery tips as well.

I can vouch from my personal pacing experience, some of the most amazing camaraderie and friendships take place through pacing. So nurture this relationship.

Pacing from a Runner’s Lens: Why Runners choose to be a Pacer?

New runners who are training and targeting a specific time may find it difficult to achieve them on the race day and this is where a pacer can make the task comfortable.

Training to achieve a specific time target and achieving the same are two different games. Usually, we are good in training but we may not be as good on race day. There’s no better way to convert all the hard work that one has put in the training into actual results than by selecting your pacer.

As a runner who will be taking the help of a pacer to reach the finish line, here are a few suggestions and pointers to consider:

Check their past credentials through their running bio.

Ask Questions: If you know them personally, share your training plan and approach, the distance that you have been running in your training time to seek assurance and guidance.

Meet your pacer at the expo to familiarise yourself with their pace plan and strategy.

Trust: Have trust on your pacers, trust the process. In the end do not forget the fact that the pacers have passed through some strict checks and balances and that is why they have been selected to do the job.

To summarise:

For Pacers

  • Follow the pace plan.
  • Communicate clearly with the pace squad/bus.
  • Share the plan before the race, during the race and post-race.
  • Be open to answering all queries.
  • Keep the team motivated and positive.

For Runners

  • Train well.
  • Be realistic about your timing target, it pays to be conservative.
  • Select the appropriate bus/pacer and be flexible with your finish line times. For example: If you are targeting 1:50, it’s not a bad strategy to be in the 1:55 bus so even if you miss out on the target, you can catch the next bus and make home comfortably. Sometimes conservative approach can do wonders to our confidence. Before you board the bus, keep your pacer informed about your race day ambitions.
  • Communicate and connect well in advance with your pacer.
  • Join a dry run with your pacer squad if possible to understand your pacer.

For Race Organisers

  • Design and draft clear selection criteria by inviting applications for pacers and the various bus they would like to have. This would involve considerable amount of work and due diligence.
  • There should be a pacing manual with clear guidelines and instructions for runners and pacers.
  • Communicate consistently.
  • Organise pacer-racer meet-ups.
  • Post-race felicitation: This is a good gesture to acknowledge the efforts of the pacers.

The biggest joy for a pacer is to make their squad members win. The biggest joy for a runner is an assurance that they can make home on-time taking the help of pacers.

In this article, I have tried to comprehensively uncover various dimensions of pacing. I would love to hear your comments and any areas that I have not covered. I truly believe that we all learn from each other.

Suresh Srinivasan

Suresh Srinivasan

The author has been running and practicing fitness for 20 years. He has completed seven marathons till date which includes three international marathons, two world majors.

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