The Casual Runner

Pacer Problems

Ugh. I really did not want to write this article.

In fact, I considered writing it a few times over the past year, and didn’t, but now I feel that I have to. You see, we runners have a problem, a pacer problem.
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Many races of a certain size/quality offer a great service: designated pacers who will run the race at a declared pace so that runners seeking a certain finish time/pace can follow along with the pacer on the course – kind of a designated running buddy on whom you should be able to rely to achieve a desired race pace. These pacers are typically volunteers who want to help out other runners, many of whom still pay for their own entry into the race while performing a service.

So, why is this a problem? Well, while the great majority of pacers do a great job (some offer course hints and strategies, bathroom stop recommendations, and some are down right entertaining and hilarious), too-often I find myself playing cat-and-mouse along the course with pacers who are completely unreliable in their pacing. As a result, they are doing a great disservice to other runners who rely on them or use them as a gauge for their own pacing.

Recently, at the Hooters Half Marathon, I found myself playing cat-and-mouse with a Pacer who, according to my GPS watch, was a full minute per mile faster than the pace denoted on the sign she was carrying. Now, I was carefully following the time on my Soleus GPS Watch, which matched the on-course clocks and mile markers, so I am confident in my pacing, and equally devoid of confidence in hers. Moreover, I crossed the finish line around the designated finish time for this particular pacer, and she was nowhere in site, either when I crossed the finish line or at any point during the last 5k of the race. This tells me that she finished several minutes ahead of the time designated for her pacing group.

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Why is this such a big deal? Pacers are placed in the field to assist other runners, and those runners rely on the pacers in adhering to their own race plans. When the pacers go out too fast and runners (incorrectly) assume that pacing to be correct, they will fail in their own race plan by trying to keep up with a pace that is too fast for their ability or trainingEven if pacers see that no runners are sticking directly with them, they are highly visible when they are on-course and runners (such as myself) may be using them as a pacing tool, even from a distance. I think you are starting to see the problem here.

This is certainly not an isolated occurrence. Based on my own admittedly small sample size (limited to my own observations in the many races I have run), I have seen several pacers who do not adhere to their stated pacing. I have seen enough examples in my random sampling to lead me to conclude that this is a bigger problem than many runners may be aware. It happens…a lot.  And, every time this happens, the pacers are running faster than their stated paces.

I acknowledge that some pacers will run slightly ahead of their pace in order to allow time to walk through water stations or to build in bathroom stops, however, I am not talking about those that are slightly ahead of their pace. I am talking about those that are upwards of a minute per mile faster (or even more, and yes, I have seen this too) than their stated pace. I can only surmise, from just how far ahead of their stated pace the pacers are running, that some pacers simply lose touch with their own pacing, at which point, they should not be serving as a pacer.

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So, before you toe the line at your next race, what can you do to make sure you don’t get caught up with a bad pacer? Well, first thing, wear your own GPS watch or stop watch and periodically confirm your pacing against your timing.

You can and should note what time you cross the starting line, as this will let you know how far behind the clock time you are (if you cross at 1 minute and cross the mile 1 marker at 11 minutes, you know you just ran a 10 minute mile pace, and so forth). I understand this is not always possible as many races do not have course clocks placed at every mile marker, which is why having a GPS watch or a simple timer/stopwatch with you is important.

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If you are going to run with the pacer, it is OK to talk to the pacer. In fact, the best pacers are those that engage with and encourage the runners in their group.  If you have a question about the pacing, politely bring it to his or her attention. They may not even realize that they sped up the pace, and your fellow pack runners will be grateful that you did.

There are some amazing pacers as well, so keep your eye out for them and do be sure to thank them. While running the 2015 Cedar Point Half Marathon, during an out-and-back section, I saw a pacer several miles behind where I was on the course, with no runners anywhere around her. Despite this, I saw her noticeably checking her watch to confirm that she was on-pace.  During the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame Half Marathon in Canton, Ohio, I ran with a pacer for several miles who had me laughing the entire time, and thus forgetting about my pace, which was fabulous as I was chasing the rabbit during the race (I didn’t get it, but that was on me, not the pacer).

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One last thing as far as solving this problem, it really is up to race officials to stress to pacers before the race how important it is that they stay on their pace, and, if they get ahead of it, to slow down and reset the first chance they get. I have even seen some pacers stop at mile markers and not proceed until the clock time shows them that they are back in line with their pacing. This may sound strange for those who stuck with the pacers (they are of course free to keep on running instead of waiting), but it is valuable to those who wanted to run with that designated pacer as it gives them a chance to catch up and take advantage of the resource for the remainder of the race.

In talking with pacers, the pacer program really is dependent on the race itself. Some just show up, are handed a shirt and a sign, and that’s it. Others are told that their splits will be verified at the end of the race to confirm that they adhered to their pacing, which will impact their ability to serve as a pacer at future events (this obviously applies to those races that have a more developed pacer program).

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Regardless of what it takes to get it right, race directors and pacers should take the simple steps needed to get it right. Racers are an invaluable resource for many runners, and awareness of their utility and fidelity to their stated pacing at all times during the race is important.

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