I Paced My First Race

I just completed my first job as a pacer at the Georgia Marathon. I paced the 3:00 group for the half marathon as part of the Marathon Maniacs/Half Fanatics pace team. If you’re not familiar with pacers, these are people that the race employs (usually via a complimentary race entry) to run an even pace for their assigned finish time. A pacer usually carries a sign indicating their pace and/or finish time, and should be dressed to be easily identifiable on the race course. They lead and encourage the runners as necessary, providing motivation and answering questions.

In Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, after finishing my first pacing gig

My first experience running with a pacer was at my third marathon: the 2006 Columbus Marathon. There, I ran with the 5:00 full marathon pace group for more than half the race, then I had to drop back. My problem was that this pacer did not take walk breaks, and I had been training with walk breaks. I could run a slightly faster pace during run intervals, but only if I took the walk breaks. That was the negative aspect of running with that pacer on that day. The positive aspects were that she was upbeat and motivational, and she was consistent with her pace. Since then, I haven't really run with pace groups, with the exception of my friend Abbi, when she is pacing.

I was a little nervous going into my first pacing gig. While running a three-hour half marathon was not going to be an issue for me, it would be a challenge to keep my mile splits consistent at the 13:44 minute/mile pace, especially because of the hilly nature of the course through Atlanta. I knew that a pacer should finish the race just under their pace time. Ideally, if pacing a 3:00 half, I should finish in 2:59. I wanted to do the job well and help people finish the race strong. I decided that I would run intervals of 3 minutes running and 1 minute walking. On a flat course, I might have gone for 2:1 intervals, but I thought it would be necessary to “bank” a little time on the uphill portions of the course (and there were several), so I chose 3:1. I would make adjustments on the hills if my runners needed to walk a little more.

The weekend started out with my flying to Atlanta and going straight to the Georgia Marathon expo to work in the hospitality and pacing booth. I answered questions from runners about how pace groups work, and helped them to decide which group they might want to run with. There were numerous pace leaders for all different paces for the full and half marathons. The Marathon Maniacs/Half Fanatics pace team comprised some, but not all, of the pacers; others were locals who were not necessarily Maniacs or Half Fanatics. We were required to wear the same pacer shirts as all the other pacers, so I didn’t have a chance to show off my brand-new red Half Fanatic pace team shirt; maybe next time. I met a few of the other Maniac and Half Fanatic pacers in the booth, and found it to be a good experience meeting and greeting runners. After my expo shift, I drove to Chattanooga for the Raccoon Mountain Half Marathon, which I ran on Saturday morning. On Saturday afternoon I returned to Atlanta, met up with Barb and had dinner with some of the other Maniacs and Half Fanatics, most of whom were also pacers.

We ate at Noni's Bar & Deli; yum! Good spot on the back patio.

Sunday morning was rainy! It rained before we even set foot outside the hotel. It would continue to rain all day. We were given clear plastic ponchos to wear over our pacer shirts. Many of us pacers missed the Marathon Maniacs/Half Fanatics pre-race photo. We made our way to our starting corrals in the dark through the drizzle. As the last official half marathon pacer, I started in the last corral. Several runners saw my sign and came up to introduce themselves. They asked what pace and what intervals I would be running. And then, we were off!

A few of the Maniac/Half Fanatic pacers; the others were either at the official Maniac photo location or already in their start corrals
Ready to pace the 3:00 half in the rain!

Corral M, the last corral, was sparsely filled on the dark, wet morning; many runners were taking cover and would come out only after we got moving
We wound through the downtown area before heading out into various Atlanta neighborhoods. At times, the rain stopped, but it always came back. The good thing is that, at least during my half marathon, it never poured hard, and there was no thunder or lightning. I started the run/walk intervals from the very beginning, and set out at an easy pace. It was slower than I’m used to starting a race, but that was the idea. As the first couple miles ticked by, I realized that I was a few seconds ahead of pace. I figured I’d need that time, because for a three-hour half marathon, my runners would indeed be doing a fair amount of walking up the hills. I ditched the poncho after about mile 3 because it got a little hot underneath it. I was comfortable for the rest of the race wearing my long-sleeved shirt under the short-sleeved pacer shirt.

I had a core group of five runners who stuck with me for the entire race. A few others came and went. How many others kept me in their sights but never made themselves known, I wonder. I found the pacing job to provide a different race experience than normal. I was doing a lot of math in my head to try to maintain pace, so I was a little less talkative than I might have been otherwise. I really wanted to get the timing right for my runners, and because it was my job as a pacer. I talked a little with the runners, and would have focused on their stories more if they had needed it. As it is, most of them had run a half marathon before and knew they could do it. One runner was a first-timer who hadn’t trained much, but he did great. He and his partner had fun with the experience, taking lots of selfies, running ahead of us, and then slowing back down to the 3:00 pace. I didn’t stop to take photos like I normally do, because I needed to stay on pace. Still, I got a couple quick pics during walk breaks.

We ran by historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached
I couldn't stop for a selfie, so this was my best shot of the Atlanta skyline

In the last few miles we encountered some of the longest hills. We were a couple minutes ahead of the 3:00 pace, but we could easily have fallen behind if we chose to only walk the hills. I instituted a 30:30 interval for getting up the hill, an approach I modeled from Abbi, an experienced pacer. We would walk for 30 seconds, run for 30 seconds, and continue alternating until we reached the top of the hill, at which time we’d get back on our regular intervals. This seemed to work well, and everyone made it up the hills without too much difficulty, and without too much of a slow down.

In the last mile, I told my runners that if they felt strong and wanted to charge ahead of me, they should feel free to do so. We were clearly going to break three hours, and if they wanted to better their time, I was in support of that. I would continue to stick with my run/walk intervals. I was pleasantly surprised that most of my runners decided to stick with me and not run ahead…until we entered the finish chute. At that point, they all finished before me. My official time was 2:56:54, about 3 minutes fast. In the last couple miles, the only thing I could have done to be closer to the goal was to slow my pace down and/or walk more. I didn’t think this would be fair to the runners who had stuck with me the entire race, and were going strong. I would not slow down, because I knew they would stick with me, and I didn’t want their times to suffer. In retrospect, if I had done 2:1 intervals and instituted the 30:30s on the hills from the beginning, I think I would have been closer to the goal finish time of 2:59. I’m considering this a rookie mistake, since it was my first time pacing. But even though I came in a bit fast, I think this was a success. I got 5 people all the way from start to finish, and I picked up another runner between miles 8 and 9. Later, he told me that he was very thankful to run with our group and he would have had a slower finish time if we hadn’t picked him up.

Most of my group of runners; the four on the left were with me the entire way; Jim on the right joined in later

My other runner who went the full distance with me; the crazy-tall cylindrical building in the background is the Westin, where Barb and I stayed

After saying goodbye to my runners, I couldn't wait to get rid of my pace sign. I had to cut all the way across Centennial Olympic Park to get from the finish chute to the tent where I could drop off my sign. On the way I stopped and got my post-race food bag from Publix. We had to walk through mud to get our food. Because of the weather, the post-race party was a bit of a bust, but the band played on.

The medal, which had a typo in the small print ("dowtown" instead of "downtown) - oops!
After I got showered and rested, and saw Barb (who ran the full and completed her 30th state) off to the airport, I met up with some of the pacers and other Maniacs for some food. Afterward, I drove to the airport and waited for my flight home, reflecting on my double half marathon weekend, which was unique because of the trail race in Chattanooga and the pacing in Atlanta.

Post-race Maniac/Half Fanatic meal; note the little photo bomber at the head of the table

Even though the course in Atlanta was very hilly (both up and down), and it rained all morning, I felt good. I was not tired at all, in spite of running a trail half the day before. None of my so-called nagging injuries bothered me. I did have a very short duration of side stitches, but that went away quickly. I felt like I could have kept going with those intervals for another 13.1 miles. In fact, I could have even run 4:1 intervals and felt good on that day. So…I’m wondering how much of the day’s success was due to the intervals, and how much was due to being a pacer, and putting the other runners’ needs ahead of my own. Because I was there for them, I was not dwelling upon my own discomforts. I have always believed that a large part of distance running is mental. I definitely want to pace again.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I'd like to be a pacer some day and stumbled into the 2:30 group around the 4 mile point. He was doing 3:1 intervals and did a great job. Glad you had a great time pacing!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, it was a good experience. If you have the opportunity, I recommend it.

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  2. You did awesome!!! Better 2:56 than 3:01!!!

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    Replies
    1. I missed this comment until now. I agree. I would not have been happy (and neither would my runners) if we were over 3:00!

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