Paced to Perfection

Pacers-2

Daisy speaks to two Serpies who help others achieve their race goals.

For those of us more familiar with chasing an elusive time rather than the leader bike, one of the pleasures of taking part in a large-scale race is the inclusion of pacers. For those unfamiliar with the term, a pacer is a person who runs at a pre-determined speed in a race – other runners follow or stay with the pacer, to ensure that they’re running at their desired speed. Good pacers must be steady, consistent runners who are focused on maintaining their speed and helping other runners realise their goals.

Whilst pacers have come to be expected in commercially-organised races, these days they can even be found at some parkruns. Having personally benefited from the skills of pacers in previous events, I wanted to get to know a bit more about the people waving the PB flags. I spoke to two pacers, Kevin Murray (who many of you will know from the Sunday Richmond run) about his first race as a pacer, and Rick Ganzi – a former Serpie with an impressive pacing CV, who now lives in the US.

Rick spent eight years trying to qualify for the Boston marathon, gradually chipping away at his time in search of that elusive sub-3:15, and in 2002 he thought he might finally do it. At the Chicago marathon, he initially pulled away from the 3:15 pace group, but when they caught up with him at mile 23, seeing their 3:15 sign was exactly the boost Rick needed to accelerate and find a second wind, which enabled him to attain his qualifying time. After the race, Rick was so delighted with his performance that he e-mailed the race organisers to ask them to pass his thanks on to the pacers who had made it possible.

Never forgetting what happened in Chicago, some years later Rick began to think about the possibility of being part of a pace team himself. With an improved marathon PB of 2:50:44, the first marathon he paced was the Arizona Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon. Rick was asked to pace for 3:10, attracting a group of 10 runners from across the US. The whole group stayed together, with some forging ahead at the end, and Rick found himself on the receiving end of the ‘thank you’ e-mails. The group of 10 have even met up since to run together at other marathons, and the whole experience certainly ignited Rick’s passion for pacing. He was later invited to pace at Chicago marathon, and has carried on doing so for the last 11 years.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, Kevin was facing a heavy schedule of races last year and was disappointed to see that one of his favourites, Ealing half marathon, fell in the weekend between two of his target races. Determined not to miss Ealing, he got in touch with Xempo, who were organising the pacing groups for the race. With a half marathon PB of 1:21:05, Kevin was asked to pace the 1:45 group, alongside another more experienced pacer. His only specific training in the lead-up to the race was to get a feel for the 8-minute-mile pace on a couple of long runs, and the first time he got to try on the small rucksack that held the flag was actually only on race day. Despite being initially apprehensive, Kevin quickly forgot about the pack – so much so, in fact, that he nearly got caught up in some low-hanging branches en route… In the US, pacers run carrying a placard – Rick recalls how initially these were large lollipop style signs, up to a meter in diameter and 5lbs in weight, meaning your arms could be as tired as your legs by the end of the marathon. These have now largely been replaced by smaller lightweight signs, but Rick still encourages his pacers to do practice runs holding a stick in one hand.

In Ealing, Kevin was encouraged to get to the start pen early, and found himself immediately surrounded by people asking to run with him. Despite initial concerns about speeding off at the beginning, he quickly settled into the pace, his group growing as runners began to sort themselves out. Kevin himself admits to a natural inclination to natter, putting him in the perfect position to encourage strangers through their race. Whilst the bag of jelly babies he carried helped to keep the group going, his bad jokes seemed to make some runners run faster to get away… When they were slightly ahead of time at mile 4, Kevin explained to the group that they were going to slow down slightly, so as to get back on track. When some people began to flag at 10 miles, Kevin describes how the bonds which had been formed between runners during the race caused the group to become self-supporting, encouraging each other on and not needing him to do so. At mile 11, Kevin reiterated his objective to bring the group in at just under 1:45, but encouraged those with something left to push on and go for the best they could achieve. After shouting encouragement to those clearly struggling in the final half mile, Kevin found it a strange sensation to cross the finish line feeling like he had been on a training run, rather than in a race. However, he was soon mobbed by people delighted to have achieved a PB and grateful for his support. Rick also described how the stronger runners will speed ahead towards the end, while the people who aren’t coping with the pace will struggle to stay with you, so often you finish alone. But Rick accepts this as a necessary evil, as he sees his role as getting his “pacees” to a place where they can have their best race.

Much as Kevin was drawn to volunteering in Ealing due to having previously lived in the area, when friends of Rick’s were setting up the Grand Rapids marathon in Michigan in 2004, they asked him to be the pace teams director. It’s fair to say that since then, pacing has become a major part of Rick’s life, organising a family of around sixty pacers for the Grand Rapids races alone. The pacers were originally drawn from Rick’s running friends – healthy, reliable people he can trust, and now increasingly their friends are getting involved as pacers too. The teams are so over-subscribed that he has to turn away roughly 10 potential pacers each year. Whilst pace teams are increasingly prevalent, there are couple of unique elements Rick introduced at Grand Rapids: as well as championing the offer of pickle juice at water stations to prevent muscle cramps, the pace teams are named after famous celebrity finishers – for example, Team Oprah paces at 4:29:20, or the controversial Sub-3 Lancers shoot for 2:59:36, although their times are unlikely to later be discredited! Rick himself paces Will Ferrell’s Sub-4s to a 3:56:12 finish, and often starts with a field of up to 1000 runners, which usually reduces to about 200 by the 20-mile mark. Rick loves his local marathon, finding it a welcome change to some of the more sophisticated races where the pacers’ progress is tracked along the course and reviewed by the pace team organiser afterwards. For Chicago, where the pace teams are sponsored by Nike, Rick is required to finish within a minute of 3:50 (chip time rather than gun time), otherwise he is put on probation and may not be invited back the following year. But for every race he paces, Rick notes that the key is to remain consistent and not to bank time by trying to get ahead and later giving that time up – a cardinal sin I’m sure many of us will have fallen foul of in our own races.

Kevin has also caught the pacing bug, describing Ealing as one of his most enjoyable running experiences. Rather than the race being about your own PB, you’re driven by the buzz of helping others achieve their goals – a rewarding variant on volunteering. Rick loves hearing the stories of the people he’s pacing, and has come to love it so much that he paces 5-6 races out of the 8-10 marathons he runs each year. But it isn’t just about altruism – Rick uses his pacing efforts as training runs for the Ultra races he’s targeting: he’s currently preparing for Comrades in June. He describes pacing as the most fun way to experience a race: given you’re not pushing so hard, you are free to enjoy the atmosphere more. He describes how at the larger races you feel like a rock star, with everyone following and looking up to you. Kevin also underlines how it isn’t just the runners who are appreciative of the pacers’ efforts, but the crowds along the course too.

Serpentine sometimes gets approached by organisers who are looking to recruit pacers, so I asked Kevin and Rick for their top tips for runners who may be thinking about putting their names forward. Kevin advises choosing a pace close to that of your own long slow runs, so that you are able to really focus on encouraging the people around you. Rick meanwhile suggests not to rely too heavily on your GPS watch, particularly in a big city marathon, preferring to pace by the mile markers and a standard watch and adjusting each mile as necessary. Kevin had the advantage of having raced Ealing half previously, and Rick agrees that diligent pacers should know the course well, particularly any inclines or hills which might affect your timing, and the location of aid stations – so that you can warn your group in advance.

Anyone who’s keen to speak to Kevin in person about his experience as a pacer can catch him most Sunday mornings in Richmond Park, encouraging sleepy Serpies back to Pembroke Lodge for breakfast. There’s more information about Rick (and the pickle juice) at grandrapidsmarathon.com/

Daisy Gladstone holds the Race Organiser role on the committee. When not organising, Daisy enjoys taking part in the full range of activities Serpentine has on offer, from triple jumping at track and field, to training for her third marathon in October.