Reflections from a Marathon Pace Group Leader

 

 

 

 

 

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I crossed the finish line in 4:59:14.  By simple time standards it was my slowest road marathon in 5 years. But other than when I completed my first marathon in 2009, it is among the most fulfilling.  I helped lead the 5 hour pace group for the 2015 Mercedes Marathon. And it was my brother’s first marathon, as well.  It was a big day for him and his family and his health, which he had regained control of over the past few months, citing me as an inspiration.  I’m so proud of him.

With my younger brother after his first marathon.  Enjoyed watching his proud marathon shuffle!
With my younger brother after his first marathon. Enjoyed watching his proud marathon shuffle!

Leading a pace group always intimidated me.  That’s a lot of responsibility.  People looking to you to help them reach a goal.  Of all the miles and money they had invested in the training for the race, they now look to a pace group leader to help them bring it all together.  To be honest, even though people see me as thin and fit, I still see my old fat self although I weigh around 162 lbs.  I still see 262-pound Gordon in the mirror.  I don’t equate myself with one of those in-shape, fit, and in control pace group leaders I saw at races.  So not only did I feel intimidation at the great responsibility of pace group leadership, I felt self-conscious at the idea that runners in my group would have to watch me jiggle along the course in front of them.

Before the race.  Rained a little but held off as the race started. (Credit: Suman from Mruns.com)
Before the race. Rained a little but held off as the race started. (Credit: Suman from Mruns.com)

Agreeing to lead a pace group made me accept, at least for a little while, that I was in shape.  That my body wasn’t the large thing it once was.  I had to forget about my problems and sell-image issues and focus on other runners for 5 hours.  It was a very good thing.  I need more of this.  I think I’d like to try and join the Clif Pace Team and pace at Disney.  Wouldn’t that be great: Telling my pace group that six years ago I ran this in 6:12 and now I am here to lead a group to their first finish line or a new PR?  There’s something wonderful about helping others reach a running goal.  I can’t get enough of it.

 

Here are a few thoughts that came to me as I paced this race.

Responsibility:

I was nervous as I trained for this duty.  Running a marathon is a highly individualized matter.  You rely on yourself to prepare, you are alone among thousands on race day, and you alone are responsible for your success or failure.  If you fade or DNF, then no harm to anyone but yourself.  Better luck next time.  Leading a pace group changes things.  You are responsible for providing your people with an opportunity to cross the finish line in the time you have committed to.  Your group looks to you.  They trust you.  They can relax and run, knowing that you have the pace under control. When you hold up that sign with your pace time you are telling them “Don’t fret.  I will get you there.”

Pressure:

See above.  There’s enough pressure when you run alone: was I diligent and loyal to my training? Am I ready to race this day? Will I see my goals become a reality? Telling a group of people who you are their pacer adds another layer of pressure altogether.  You can’t day-dream.  You can’t lose yourself in thought as you run. You have to be alert and in the moment, while also looking ahead to the miles to come. Your mind has to be sharp.  And to be sharp you have to be well-trained and able to not only run 26.2 miles, but also talk the whole time and do math in your head! We joked during the race that you know you are in trouble when your pace group leader starts asking for help, or struggles.

I have to chat, a lot:

I train and race alone.  I never talk during my runs, unless I’m slogging up a hill with fellow trail runners. A pace group leader has to talk.  You have to let your people know you are on schedule.  How far behind or ahead you may be, and what’s coming up on the course.  You have to encourage them to get water and nutrition at aid stations.  You have to tell stories from your past races.  Share training tips.  Talk about your running life.  I had the opportunity to share my health and weight loss story as well as tips for training for marathons.  Every mile I announced where we were with regard to our time:  ” Mile 13, we are 30 seconds ahead of schedule.  Estimated finish 4:59:30. Looking good!”  I crossed the finish line with a sore throat, but a full heart.

Can’t look back:

I hate losing people.  I hate when they fade from a group.  I’ve been there and I know that helpless feeling when you can’t quite keep up and you see the group slowly disappear into the distance.  Pacing a marathon is like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Keep moving forward.  Don’t look back. If you do, it’ll tear your heart out.  The runner in me wants to turn back and bring those people back to the group, to help them finish strong.  But that’s not my role.  I have to keep my eyes forward, stay on course, and be the steady influence my people asked for.

Immense pride:

I loved carrying that “5:00” sign.  A badge of honor. I was entrusted with this pace.  This group of people.  This honor.  As I ran by people cheered our group.  They cheered us.  I got goose bumps.  That sign was a symbol of hard work, of dedication to a goal, and of my ability to lead others to the realization of their goals.  Being given that sign meant that the race organizers trusted me enough to be the one trusted by others.

A few bits of advice if you want to pace:

1.  Pace at a rate where you’ll be strong all day long

Pace at 1.5 to 2 minutes slower than your easy run pace.  You need to be strong late in the race.  If you start to fade (and even at your regular easy pace, you will fatigue), then you send a bad message to your group, and your are less able to be that strong voice of encouragement between miles 18-26 when the dark times come.

2.  Prepare for the pace

Train a bit at the pace you will lead.  Your body must acclimate to a slower than normal pace.  It seems counterintuitive but a slower than normal pace will cause stress and strain on your body and joints.  My Achilles tendons were tender and my calves were a little crampy at the end.  This was due to the changes in stress on my body because of the slower pace.

3. Bring the right tools

Carry a pace chart with you that lists the total clock time after each mile for that pace.  This way you can know where you are.  I have a Suunto Ambit GPS watch, and it has an app that predicts marathon finish time based on current pace.  That worked great, but from time to time GPS watches can be a little off, especially if you are in an urban environment with high rise buildings.  Having all those tools made me feel easier about the pace I was running.

4. Be confident and supportive.

When your people hit the wall they need to know that it will end.  They need to hear the confidence and surety in your voice.  They want to know you have their back. They want a little inspiration.

 

Take a chance, sign up as a pacer and you won’t regret the decision.  You get to give back to a sport that has given you so much.  Running has provided me so much that i feel I could never repay her.  But I’ll try, one race at a time.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Awesome job! I love pacing. I am pacing the Asheville Half Marathon at Biltmore Estate in two weeks. Really looking forward to bringing the 1:45:00 group into the finish.

  2. Great stuff, I’d like to be a pacer one day. Was it difficult to not speed up at the end when the finish line was close?

    1. When we would approach really active aid stations or folks with music, it was hard not to pick up the pace. A couple of times I found myself a little faster than I should be, so I just slowly dialed it back over the next half mile.

  3. Congrats Gordon. I love pace group leaders. So encouraging and I am glad you got a chance to pace one. I also know what you mean about how you see yourself. It seems to always stay with you. I lost about 85 pounds 10 years ago and when I look in the mirror or pictures for some reason that is who I see. Thanks for sharing your stories.

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