Lessons From Your Pacers

At this month’s Salinas Valley Half Marathon several members of the Wednesday Night Laundry Runners club joined the race as pace group leaders, or “pacers”. They compared notes afterward and their observations are both instructive and insightful for novice racers.

Here’s the job description of a pacer: given a target finish time they try to finish just under that goal time; it’s best to run each mile as consistent as possible based on the course conditions and hills. They carry balloons so other runners can pick them out and try to keep up. Pacers provide encouragement to those following them.

Pacing is a fun job; you experience all the excitement of a race without the stress of competing for best times or age group awards. There’s a bit of pressure, however, to keep the right pace all the way through. We’re happy to report that all of the pacers at the Salinas Valley Half finished in exactly their assigned goal times.

Here are some of the lessons they learned en route:

1. Everybody starts too far up. This is epidemic at nearly every race. Even though there were prominent signs marking the projected pace times at the start line, each of the pacers ended up passing dozens of people who thought they’d try to get our fast and get a head start on. In the age of chip timing, this strategy is especially foolish.

2. Even splits result in a lot of passing. This is the related corollary of observation #1. During the early miles, pacers running even splits had to avoid runners who shot off the start line with more ambition than talent. Later on, a steady pace assures you of passing these same runners who are now struggling just to make it to the finish.

3. Trust your body - not the runners around you. Some pacers remarked that runners with them made comments about going either too fast or too slow at various points of the race. Good pacers – and any good distance runners – learn to know different paces by feel, not by how the “starting too fast” and “finishing too slow” crowds are moving. The best even-pacing strategy is to practice a given speed in training and then work within that same zone on race day.

4. You can rally. All the pacers observed that during the final few miles of the race, whenever they passed somebody, that person would try to keep up for a while, recognizing that he (or she) was slipping behind the goal pace. Many runners rallied enough to stay ahead of the pace balloons – so just because you’ve hit a bad patch doesn’t mean you can’t regroup and finish strong.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize. Pacers reported that runners approached them after the race to say they could see the balloons in the distance and they kept them in sight all the way to the finish. Sometimes you need a visible beacon to keep you focused; if there isn’t a pace group in front of you do the same thing with a fellow runner in the distance ahead.

6. Races are parties. Spectators aren’t used to seeing runners with helium balloons tied to them; some pacers heard comments like, “Happy Birthday!” and “Where’s the party?” That’s a nice mindset to have during a race – because really, any race should be a celebration.

The next time you’re at a race, feel free to match strides with a pacer; you’ll end up running a smart race, have shared fun with the group, and you might learn a few tips along the way.

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gbrum September 11, 2012 at 5:50 AM  

Great post. I'm pacing my first half marathon next month and found this very helpful.

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