Have You Got What It Takes to Be a Pace Runner?
After successfully pacing Roger Bannister to the first-ever sub-four minute mile in 1954, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway arguably started what has become a common phenomenon in middle- and long distance running: Pacesetting. And while purists feel that the use of pace runners detracts from professional athletics by eliminating the need for pro athletes to think and strategize for themselves in the early parts of a race, it appears to be here to stay.
The use of professional pace runners in pro athletics
Some of the bigger city races, like the Boston and New York City Marathons, don’t make use of pace runners for exactly this reason. However, many other race organizers embrace the concept of pace running with enthusiasm. They feel that professional pace runners contribute to faster winning times and even the setting of new national and world records, which, in turn, attracts media attention and increases the popularity of races.
The use of pace runners in amateur athletics
And while clocking new course- or world records is generally and realistically speaking far from any back-of-the-packer’s mind, the use of pace runners has trickled down to the ranks of amateur athletics as well. Many amateur runners have come to depend on pacemakers to take some of the pressure off clocking that elusive new PB or beating a race cut-off. All while raising their hands in the air and greeting each hill with a song.
In fact, so-called “pace busses” and their associated “bus drivers” have become an institution at events like the internationally acclaimed Comrades Marathon in South Africa. Vlam Pieterse, 59-year old runner from the Hartbeespoort Marathon Club, has become legendary in his role as “driver” of the 12-hour pace bus of this iconic race. With a wealth of ultra-running experience to his name, Pieterse is an expert in leading hundreds of runners home only minutes before the race’s 12-hour cut-off.
He does this by taking the minds of his fellow runners off the distance at hand through singing, chanting and waving their hands in the air. And although this might sound like fun and games, Pieterse takes his responsibility as pace runner very seriously. “I have learnt to remember that I am a pacesetter, not a nurse, and I have to keep the best interests of the group in mind. I must stick to my pacing chart to ensure that everyone in the bus gets to the finish on time. I cannot slow down or stop for anybody who can’t keep up, even though it breaks my heart to see them drop off the bus.”
What is an amateur pace runner?
And while not all amateur pace runners follow Pieterse’s fun and flamboyant methods, they do all have one thing in common. They need to complete a course in a given time, with the dreams of many others depending on their accuracy. According to George Anderson, running coach and organizer of the pace team for the Mizuno Reading Half Marathon since 2002, a pace runner is an experienced runner with the task of completing a race in a specific time. He or she generally carries a flag or something similar to distinguish them from other race participants, and is usually capable of running at a pace much faster than that which he or she is assigned to.
“2013 Flying Pic Marathon (Mile 19) – 3-10 Pace Group by Raymond Castro. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
What are the other qualities of an amateur pace runner?
But that’s not where it ends. A pace runner also needs to even out the pace bus’ pace throughout the entire race, thereby eliminating over-zelous starts and inevitable crash-and-burns. Running legend Hal Higdon confirms this and adds that a pace runner needs to be able to “crank out the same pace mile after mile after mile…”. Remember that technology may fail on race day and that a steady pace needs to be kept nonetheless.
And although hitting the perfect pace for an extended period may sound easy enough, it’s not an ability that every runner is naturally blessed with. Higdon recommends training often and measuring yourself with a watch – seeing how close you can come to an exact target pace. He also suggests doing a few test races in which you run at a steady pace (don’t rely on your GPS only!) that is slower than your normal race pace. This will teach you to run under control.
And in addition to metronome-like pacing skills, a pace runner also needs to be prepared to double up as motivator and encourager during the final miles of a race. This will obviously require some multi-tasking, as well as a love for chatting on the run.
Do you have what it takes?
So if you’re yearning to make a difference through helping fellow runners nail a PB or beat a race cut-off, and you possess some or all of the above-mentioned skills, why not sign up to be an amateur pace runner? Or, if you’re hesitant to dive right in, why not start off small by pacing a running friend to a new PB at your local parkrun? You might just discover that helping others reach their running goals is just as satisfying, if not more, than clocking a PB yourself.