The art of pacing – What I learnt as an “unofficial” pacer

Robot pacer

The real thing!

Running pacers remind me of that old joke about drummers:

Q: How many drummers does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: They’ve got a machine to do that now.

Really, with advanced running watches  including such features as a “virtual partner”, the need for pacers is greatly reduced in the world of running.  Or so I thought. Today I had my first experience of pacing other runners, and not only was it awesome fun, but out of the 3 runners we achieved 3 massive personal bests…. And it got me thinking… Maybe there is something in this pacing lark.

My watch is innacurate? No. Those are just "Mars Miles".

Today at work I offered to run my recovery run as a 45min 10km “pacing run”, so that anyone who wanted to run a sub 45min PB could use me as their “non-virtual partner”.  I just threw the idea out there, but it turned out to be surprisingly popular.  It got me thinking about qualities of being a pacer and whether I have them.  Here are the qualities that I thought would be useful:

  • Must be able to do the distance “with a hoof in the air” (comfortably).  Well I have that. A struggling pacer is like a chef asking the diner if he knows how long to cook chicken for.
  • Must run fairly consistently.  I have that one too.  (I’m not called T1000 for nothing. Actually I’m not called T1000 at all)
  • Must have some kind of fancy watch that is fairly accurate and not based on Mars gravity, timings and distances.  I have an Garmin FR70 and it was out by only 0.2% over 20 miles so I’m pretty confident I’m on earth time there.
  • Must be pretty good with sums.  Yeah, I’m good with my running maths.  In fact better than I am with my running.
  • Must be a motivational type.  This could be the weak link…

Rainman had the maths of pacing nailed. The running ability and calmness... not so strong.

Before we started the run I worked out the per-mile pace for 45 minutes and it came to 7:15.  I then worked out the following mile marker times:

1st Quarter  : 1:49
1st Third      : 2:25
1st half          : 3:37
2 Thirds        : 4:50
3 Quarters    : 5:26
Full mile        : 7:15

and took it strictly mile-by-mile. Once I had these remembered I could easily workout whether we needed to speed up and slow down. I managed to make miles splits of:

7:16
7:11
7:13
7:15
7:12
7:21

which put me 2 seconds out overall.  Not bad.

It was an interesting experience in the sense was that I expected was that everyone would sit flush up behind me, clinging for dear life as I clawed them kicking and screaming over the line.  But it wasn’t like that at all.  It was not a very talkative run.  Right from the start all 3 of my mates went into “business mode” and the only soundtrack was their increasingly heavy breathing.  I spent most of my time looking at my watch, trying to work out if we were under running or overrunning.  Sometimes it was like a computer game.   Run a 45 minutes 10km, dodge that child on a scooter, duck under that bridge, avoid the cyclist and the woman with the pram and make sure you announce each mile marker.

We managed to keep together for about 2.5 miles and then one of my friends dropped off. It feels quite brutal to maintain a pace once someone has dropped behind it, but I guess that is exactly what your job is.  I thought in my head:

“He can still see me up ahead. He’ll reel me in.”

A mile later and one of my mates decided I was going too slow for him and pulled away.  Then the other guys started to edge a lead over me and I thought “this is fun, running on my own, no headphones on and stressing about time. Who’d do this?”  In the end my 2 friends destroyed me finishing well faster than 45 minutes and my other friend who finished behind me still achieved a PB with 45:30ish.  And I managed to find time to tell a kid that the reason I could overtake him on foot when he was on a bike was that he was too fat because he eats too much KFC.  But pacing was fun.  You don’t push yourself too hard and it is a lot of fun helping people achieve their goals.  I’m going to pace a half marathon at some point in the future.  I still wouldn’t do a marathon because I’m not confident of the “toilet aspect” of the distance.  I wouldn’t want to have to turn around to a bunch of runners at 22 miles and say:

“Okay guys… Two choices, either you pace the last 4 miles home on your own… Or you get to be with me while I finally poo myself in public.  Then you can just follow the smell for the remaining 4 miles.”

In all serious I think the advantages of “human pacing” are:

  • You can turn off a Garmin virtual partner and no one will ever know.  A pacer has actually taken the time to be there.  It motivates you to go harder.
  • When you are just ahead of the pacer, your are remorselessly driven by the sound of their footsteps.  It is a big motivator.
  • Sometimes when the pacer randomly insults overweight teenagers it can distract you from the pain.
  • A pacer can provide “verbal motivation”.  The Garmin one just tells you if you are ahead or behind.

Although the motivation aspect is a two-edged sword.  I decided to stick to basic “mile complete” messages and leave the Dean Karnazes motivational stuff alone.

I could imagine their reactions to my various clichés:

Me: C’mon guys!  Only 3 miles to go.

Them: Great.  21 minutes and 45 seconds more agony.  I feel so much better now. Dickhead.

Me: You’re all doing great.  You’re running really well.

Them: Could you sound any more patronising?  Save the gait analysis for another day w**ker.

Me: Remember, pain is just weakness leaving the body.

Them: Shut up you annoying little s**t or my pain will leave my body and enter yours.

Never pick a fight with an animal that has a 1 metre long neck.

Me: I’m not happy with the look that Goose gave us.  I fear a BIRD ATTACK is imminent.

Them: I’m so bored of your hysteria about the BIRD ATTACK.  Hang on… Is that Swann carrying a bowie knife.  Help!

So I stuck to “end of mile” messages.  3 PBS.  Can’t argue with that.

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