This year I was asked to be the Pacer Captain for the 2012 Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon. What is a “Pacer Captain” you ask? My position was to organize the Pacing Group for the marathon. Now you are asking, “What is a Pacer Group?”
A Pacer is a runner who agrees to run (I’ll be generic here) a race at a certain pace with the goal of finishing at a certain time. Typically this is done by someone who has run a number of races and is familiar with what it takes to run and maintain a certain level of effort to reach the goal time.
Specifically, say you want to run a Sub 4 hour marathon and your current fastest time for the marathon is 4 hours and 7 minutes. You would run with the 4 hour Pacer and (in theory) finish in a time of 3:59:59 or faster, thus meeting your goal.
So why run with a Pacer, why not do it by yourself? There’s a couple reasons why running with a Pacer is beneficial to meeting your goal.
First, they have probably run a marathon (or three, or twenty) before and so they know what it takes to finish a marathon. Each course is different, however, the experience of what happens to the mind and body during those 26.2 miles is pretty consistent. I have a Boston Marathon ad from a Fitness Runner magazine that says:
The Seven Stages of the Marathon:
It’s pretty accurate in what goes through the mind during a marathon. Running with someone, anyone, can help the bad feelings not hinder as much and the good feelings maybe come a little quicker.
Second, the pace that they are running is typically an easier pace for them. Why is this important? Two reasons: easier to maintain later in the race and easier for them to talk. A pretty standard mistake for newbies and veterans alike is to start off way too fast. At race start there is so much excitement and anticipation in the air that you can feel it and it energizes you! Also, the starting lines are often congested and it makes getting started actually a little difficult.
Big races try to alleviate some of this by having starting corrals which, in theory, have runners line up approximately by their goal time. Even in a perfect world where each person is running so that the faster people are ahead of them and the slower people are behind them, it could take anywhere from 1/4 to a 1/2 mile to find enough separation to run not in a crowd. Since we don’t live in a perfect world, the distance is usually around 1/2 to a full mile of running a pace slower than desired. This can cause anxiety early in a race, which leads to #3 Denial from the list above.
More often, it causes a runner to try to make up the time more quickly by running at a faster than goal pace to make up for lost time. This leads to burn out. By running at a pace which is easier for them, Pacers are able to regulate their pace so that they can speed up or slow down based on mile split times where they can see how well they are doing.
Third, typically they are free. Mid to large marathons will typically have pacing groups as part of the marathon experience. Anyone and everyone can use them or not use them. There’s no authorization form or check-in sheet, just find them out on the course. Actually, you might be able to find them at the Marathon Expo where you pick up your race packet. There you can meet some of the pacers (maybe even the one you want to run with on race day) and ask questions if you have any.
On race day, marathon pacers are usually pretty visible at the race start. Usually they are holding up a flag or balloon that has their goal finish time printed on it for easy sighting. Also, they typically have an extra bib pinned to them (back and also the front) which also has their finishing goal time. Sometimes, they even have a certain type of uniform, like say a neon green singlet, to help you pick them out of a crowd or sea of runners.
So what’s in it for the pacer? So why on Earth would someone agree to be a pacer and run a marathon at a slower time? First, you get to volunteer your time to help others meet their goals. Second, you might get a snazzy singlet that says “PACER” on it that you can wear around town. Third, pacers can use that marathon as a training run for another marathon. Fourth, usually the pacers are given a free entry to the race.
Now, even though I have been talking about how awesome pacers are I will confess that they too are mortals. Just like any other runner, a pacer can have an off day, or even hit the proverbial “Wall”. My first experience at being a pacer was a disaster. I had agreed to the 5 hour 15 minute pacer for the 2009 Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon but in the days leading up to the race, I became more and more anxious. So anxious that didn’t eat or drink very much during those last days. I last about 13 miles when I first had the initial signs that my running day was going to turn for the worst. At Mile 14 I “knew” I was in serious trouble and tried to eat anything and everything, but it was too late. I even had one of the cyclist patrolling the course to help with some aid. It was much appreciated but not enough. Around Mile 17/18 I took down my flag and took off my Singlet and at Mile 21 I found an emergency vehicle to take me back to the stadium for me to drop off my equipment. I learned alot from that DNF (Did Not Finish) and somethings that I only could have learned that way.
So 3 years later, I was asked to be the Pacer Captain and I agreed. I knew at that time there could only be one word that would describe my pacer experience for the 2012 Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon… Redemption.
Recruiting Pacers is fairly easy for the slower pace times but a little more difficult for the faster times. Some Pacers will inquire directly to the race director and some will be a result of being asked, such as through a group like the Marathon Maniacs. Also part of my responsibility was to order the pacer singlets which included picking out what color and what to put on it.
I ended up picking a neon green because between a choice of either neon yellow and neon green, The Elder and The Younger picked the green. The green also went with the Volunteer shirt of different shade of neon green!
As the captain, I was also in charge of distributing the supplies that the pacers would need: their pacing bibs, pacing flag, and their singlet. Through the generosity of the race director, I was able to give the pacers some marathon logo sock as well as a nice drawstring back to put everything in.
The one, non-mandatory, requirement that for the Pacers was that they have a shift of about 2 hours at the Marathon Expo. Not every Pacer was able to do it and that is okay. Some of the Pacers were travelling and some working at the expo as a volunteer. I was only able to stay for about 4 hours in the morning because of family commitments. It all turned out well… except that a Pacer flag was left pinned to the booth as a display. Whoops!
On race morning, we all met in the Convention Center before race start. This way I could make sure that everyone had everything they needed (not like I could do much at this point) and that we could get a group picture.