Today I got to pace the 10:30 pace group for the Reindeer Dash for Cash 10 miler in Greenville, NC. Not sure what a pacer is or why some races have them? That’s ok! Allow me to explain…
Larger races for longer distances (typically 10 miles up to 26.2/marathon distance) will sometimes have runners sign up to pace people with specific goals for that race. For example, the people I paced today wanted to run the race at a 10:30/mile pace so that they would cross the finish line at 1 hour, 45 minutes. This is what they trained for and worked hard for, but it is difficult to run hard while constantly checking your GPS watch to see if you are on pace. This is where pacers come in. It is the pacer’s job to maintain a specific pace so that the people in that group can run the race without having to check their watches.
Longer races are hard because they require endurance and a bit of strategy. On race day, when you line up at the start line, your adrenaline starts pumping waiting for the start gun to go off. It is so hard to have restraint and not start off running too fast. Starting too fast means you will most likely bonk because you cannot maintain that speed. This can kill your goal time for a longer race. This is also where having a pacer is beneficial because they will help you to start your race off at a pace that you should be able to maintain throughout the course. They will also consider the amount of hills on the course and adjust for that for you (more on that later).
So, what do you do if you have a goal in mind and the race has pacers, but not one for your goal? For example, say a race has a pacer for 10:00/mile and 10:30/mile, but you want to run a 10:15 pace? My advice is to try to keep the 10:00 pacer in your sight, but do not run with them. If you try to stay with that group, but a 10:00 pace is too fast for you to sustain, you will most likely over-exert yourself and miss your goal. You also do not want the 10:30 pacer to pass you. I used this strategy in the Magic City Half Marathon in 2013. My goal for that race was to break 1:52:00 (1 hour, 52 minutes), which is roughly 8:33/mile pace. There was not a pacer for that goal time, but there was a pacer for those who wanted to complete the race by 1:50:00 (roughly 8:24/mile pace). [If you are getting a headache trying to figure out paces and goal times for races, check out Cool Running’s pace calculator HERE]. I actually knew the pacer for that group and he tried to get me to run with them, but I was intimidated by that pace. I really did not want to bonk and kill my goal. So, I kept his group in my sight along the course and my finishing time was 1:51:48!
Pacing a Race
Being a pacer in a race has been on my bucket list for a while. In 2013 and 2014 I really appreciated the pacers that volunteered their time to help others reach their goals. However, at that point in my running, I wanted to go fast and hit as many PRs (personal records) as I could. In 2015 I got pregnant with my daughter and slowed way down. Even after having her in 2016, it took a while for my body to recover enough to gain my speed back – and I’m still not as fast as I used to be! However, my fitness level is now strong enough to maintain certain speeds and I jumped at the chance to be a pacer for this race.
Picking the Pace
There are a few challenges to being a pacer. You have to pick a pace that is slow enough for you to comfortably maintain for the distance of the race – you should be able to hold a conversation without needing to slow down. Your runners may need encouragement and you shouldn’t be struggling to speak to them! However, you also cannot pick a pace that is way too slow for you, because this also presents a problem. If the pace is too slow, you will struggle to maintain it, and you will end up running too fast for your group. Constantly speeding up and slowing down can eventually exhaust your runners. I chose the 10:30 pace group because I knew that I could comfortably hold this pace while encouraging other runners. Chris and I average this pace when we do long runs pushing the stroller and talking to each other – in Seattle, Washington, which is MUCH hillier than Greenville, North Carolina. I had also thought about pacing the 10:00 group, but that spot had already been filled. I knew the 11:00 pace would be challenging for me to run at a constant speed, so I did not pick that group.
Knowing the Course
Another challenge to consider is the terrain and elevation profile. You should look at the course map for the race before committing to a pace group. In this case, the race was on the road with only a couple of minor hills. If the race had been on a trail, or if there were several steep hills on the course, I might’ve considered pacing a different group. Trails slow most people down, as do hills! You still want to be confident in your ability to get your runners across the finish line by their goal time. Even after looking at the course map, it is a very good idea to run the course at least once before race day. Practice maintaining the pace you are being asked to run for the race, and look at where you ran too fast or too slow. This way you can adjust for race day. Also, if your race has a monster hill or several tough ones, knowing where they are on the course is so helpful. As you run on race day, you can prep your runners as you approach those hills, and then encourage the heck out of them! As the pacer, you can also adjust your pacing strategy for them to compensate for the hills (for example, you may run a mile or two that covers a flat section of the course a little faster to make up for the fact that your runners may need to slow down for harder hills).
Final challenge – consider the pressure! Can you handle it? Are you an experienced enough runner to be able to run a consistent pace without race day jitters messing you up? The runners in your group are relying on YOU to get them across the finish line on time, and boy will they be mad if you don’t deliver! I have heard horror stories of pacers that picked a pace too fast for them to comfortably maintain and they ended up bonking, derailing the times for all of the runners that were following them. I have also heard complaints about pacers that ran faster than what they were supposed to and the runners they were leading couldn’t keep up! Here’s an example of why this is bad, if you need it: say you are supposed to run a 9:30 pace for a half marathon (13.1 miles), but you end up averaging a 9:15 pace. A 9:30 pace for 13.1 miles will get you across the finish line at roughly 2 hours, 4 minutes and 30 seconds. A 9:15 pace will have a finishing time of roughly 2 hours, 1 minute and 11 seconds. That is a difference of 3 minutes and 19 seconds! Trust me, this is HUGE in the world of running. I worked super hard to knock that much time off of my PR in 2014. Bottom line, if you run too slow or way too fast and cause runners to miss their goal when they relied on you, it is not going to be fun! Plus, the whole point of pacing for a race is to help others – you are not running the race for yourself. If you cause the runners to miss their goal because you didn’t think it through, chances are you will be upset with yourself. So consider the challenges, pick the pace group wisely, and then have fun encouraging your fellow runners!!
Pacing the Reindeer Dash for Cash 10 Miler
To wrap up this lengthy post, I just want to share a little about my experience pacing today. To be honest, I was more nervous in the final hours leading up to start time than I have ever been prior to a race – including the ones where I was shooting for a new PR! I had a knot in my stomach at church and after praying about it, I felt the knot loosen and I was left with excitement. I had fun today! I wore a huge, glittery purple tutu (Go ECU Pirates!) and encouraged as many people as I could along the course. This was my first time running in a tutu, and it actually wasn’t too bad. I also had a bright green pacer balloon tied to my Mt. Rainier trucker hat, so I definitely looked a little goofy.
I had a good group that started with me. By mile three, some had decided to run ahead and were able to stay there. A couple others started to fall behind and they ended up finishing close to the 11:00 pacer. One girl, Jessica, stayed with me the whole time. I really enjoyed talking to her and encouraging her. Today she ran her first ever 10 miler (in under 1:45:00!) and this is even more incredible considering that she was in a car accident a few years ago that broke several major bones in her leg. I really love getting to meet new people through my favorite sport/hobby, especially those that have overcome huge obstacles.
So, for my pace report: my watch gave me an average pace of 10:28/mi (but the race timing company had me right at 10:30/mi average) and my chip time for the race was 1:45:06. I slowed down a little right before the finish line to cheer on the runners around me. It is the first time I have EVER told another runner to beat me! Running the course beforehand paid off, because I was able to prep people around me for what was coming and encouraged them up hills. I wrote out the mile splits on my wrist and checked my time against that every half mile to gauge if I was going too fast or slow. In all, this was an amazing experience and I am so glad I got the opportunity to pace this race.
The Reindeer Dash for Cash is a 5k and 10 mile race that benefits a great cause. It is done in memory of Captain Christopher Cash, who ran races for many charities before he was killed in action. Check out the race website HERE.