How do I Pace other Runners in a race?

This post is the result of an inquiry from one of my runners (thanks Jason) who will be pacing another runner in Boston.

I’ll start with my aversion to official pace groups in the marathon. I have simply seen such poor pacing overall that if any of my runners want to follow them I tell them to be wary and watch the watch. Too fast or too slow.. get out on your own!
I have seen official marathon pacers complete the race 5 minutes faster than their scheduled time. I have seen groups go through the half way mark 3+ minutes up on goal pace. This is unacceptable. The goal of these official pacers is to run the average pace to hit the goal time. It is not to beat that time. It also is bad form to try to “bank” time early on in hopes that you’ll not lose that much when you tire. This is a losing proposition. You go out too fast you will gain seconds but lose minutes but the end. The tales I’ve heard about pace groups has been eye-opening. Bottom-line – learn pacing; learn YOUR pace; practice your pace; and don’t rely on someone else.
When chasing world records, elite level runners have pacers for various portions of runs (both track and road races). They may have one pacer to get them through the first half; another through the next portion and then the would-be record chaser is on their own. These pacers are highly skilled runners – elite in their own right. They are paid to lead the pack through certain points of the race. And if you have ever seen it done you realize how difficult it is to “hit” the right split times – even at elite levels.
Now To REAL Pacing
Pacing someone can be as simple as just keeping someone company and letting them hit their paces. But, if you really are there to “pace” them then you are also the voice of reason. You are the reality check that they are “on” or not. You don’t let them get carried away in those early miles with that big race “high”. You also can act as their domestique (French term for servant) as they call them in cycling. You may carry extra fluids and nutrition. You may also be the one to fight through the water stops to get fluids and allow your racer to keep steadily on.
Pacing is tricky actually and dependent heavily on the person you are pacing. You MUST know what they like and do not like. For instance:
Do they like to run side by side?
… tuck behind – follow your lead and just focus on your back?
…half stride back like track and draft off your shoulder?
This is important or they will feel like they are racing you the whole way and pacing will end up sporadic or in the least you are a distraction.
Do they want any conversation and what type? Some people get distracted when talked to while others enjoy the distraction. Some only want chatter early on and want silent focus later in the race (or vice versa).
Do you know any cue words or phrases that “click” with the person to help them through? Again these must be meaningful to that person NOT you. Terms like, “relax”, “cruising”, “you’re right on”, “perfect”, “easy”, “going strong” – all have different connotations. For one person “relax” suddenly means slow down, to another it means drop your shoulders and yet another it may mean just take a deep breath.
Some things you say can irritate the person and actually be counterproductive. Know what NOT to say. Personally I hate “you’re almost there”!
Other cues which are important are those related to being in the moment. Think about it. You don’t control your last split. You don’t control 3 miles from now. You need to focus on NOW; this next step, next block, next mile. All one at a time because that is all you ever control. Help your runner handle the ebbs and flows of a race by helping them focus on the right things.
As far as pacing itself – you are talking Boston and not a flat course. Even pacing still rules. You will NOT bank time by going faster than GP (2% margin of error by rule of thumb… that is only like 8 seconds per mile). Of course nature and gravity may have faster miles than that but ONLY because of gravity NOT because of pushing the downhills to “bank time”. I made that awful mistake in ’89 – I ran a sub-16:00 for the first 3 miles. My goal was 2:35 (5:50/mile about). Ouch.
Uphills will naturally fall off a bit and forcing the pace to stay on GP will be a waste of energy.
You know that if you can survive to 21 @ Boston and feel “ok” you can truly cruise that long downgrade into Boston. On the other hand, if you top out on the hills completely spent… you’re going to suffer minutes lost on the way downtown.
Finally, for a runner who is overly dependent on a watch and times freak them out or make them stress over each mile split; one way or another here is another approach. Take pacing and time out of the runners’ hands completely. They run without a watch. You run with one to make sure you are on pace. This serves as a mental training run. You offer feedback in the form of – “you’re right on” or “keep it going” and avoid telling them every split. They cannot “race” the watch since they don’t know the time. They can’t feel bad if the time is sluggish in the first half. It forces a suspension of judgement of the race. I have used this approach with many runners with great success. Just run.
As a bonus, for those doing the pacing, you will learn a new perspective on races and racing. I’ve paced races from the mile up to the marathon. I find that it invigorates my own running. Pacing is not easy but when it is well done, it is seamless. And your racer will be forever indebted to you. You will find gratification beyond what you imagined and an experience you won’t forget.

About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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3 Responses to How do I Pace other Runners in a race?

  1. bearrunner says:

    Great article! I ran with a pace group in one marathon and they were trying to bank time like crazy, the next moment they were no where to be found? I pace myself now as it is more reliable


  2. Chrissy says:

    From the runner who Jason will be pacing, thanks! I wouldn’t want just anyone to pace me and think that we run well together in a lot of the ways you mention. Great advice and I like that I can call Jason my domestique for the next 2 weeks 🙂

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Chrissy – you ROCK. I already got the run down on your practice run last week… you are ready. Relax.. enjoy… you’ll do fine. Most of all, enjoy the event.

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