I was going to wait a few more weeks before launching into a soliloquy about how wonderful pacers are at races, then I looked at my calendar and realized we're about a month out from the start of the spring marathon/half-marathon season. Yikes!
I'm also starting to get inquires from runners who are eyeing times that I'm pacing in various races and, upon seeing that I'm the pacer for their goal time, correctly assume that I'm a somewhat shady looking character and proceed to question my strategy.
So, let's get this all out of the way early.
Hospital Hill, and many other local races, will be using SmartPacers this year. We've been pacing local races (and not-so-local races) for several years now. We're a lively collection of merry fools who, for reasons our friends and families don't understand, love running races at set times, taking on the stress of getting not only ourselves across the finish line in one piece, but anyone else who's been tagging along with us.
Yes, we're all nuts, and yes, we love it.
We're led by Eladio Valdez, the coach for Runners Edge here in Kansas City. He came up with the SmartPacing strategy.
It goes a little like this. Let's say I'm the 2:00 pacer at Hospital Hill (I'm not, I'm 2:05 for reasons I may or may not explain later ;-) ). This is all going to be ballpark, but you'll get the idea.
A 2:00 pace in a half is a 9:09 pace. Many pacers, for reasons passing understanding, will run a 9:09 pace all 13 miles. What the flip? Why would you do that to a) yourself or b) others?
This makes no sense. This isn't how most of us run. Our pace changes. We run slower up hills and faster down hills. We start a little slower to warm up.
Running an even pace in a race is asking for disaster.
Our strategy uses common sense, you know, that thing that's lacking in politics? Yeah, we have it all. (And may I say, we're getting way more mileage out of it than politicians usually do.)
We start races slow. The 2:00 pace group will probably run their first mile at a 10:00 pace.
This lets the group warm up a bit. It also gives the group flexibility to work through the crowd at the beginning of a race.
Mile 2 would come in at about 9:30. At Hospital Hill it may be a bit slower, say 9:45. That's because mile 2 is that MINOR climb up Gillham.
By mile 3 we'd want to be close to our race pace, so we'd probably be looking to hit a 9:00 mile.
Now, being the observent reader you are, you're thinking "hey, we're over a minute in the hole on the clock!" And you're right! We've burned a little time at the beginning of the race in order to get you warmed up and moving well for the rest of the race.
We'll get back the time we borrowed by running the core of the race a little under the race pace. For the 2:00 group, we would go through those middle miles in the 8:50-8:45 range, slowly repaying the time and banking a little for the end.
In the last few miles of the race we'll start to slow back down. At this point, anyone with the group who is still running strong should start to take off, leaving their pace group behind. Anyone struggling to keep up will notice the pace per mile slowly start to creep back up. In our 2:00 group we'd probably hit mile 11 at a 9:15-9:30 pace and mile 12 at a 9:30-9:45 pace.
One thing I didn't mention is water stops. I'll always make time to walk the water stops, at least 10-15 seconds per aid station. I'm only half a doctor at this point in my training, but I do feel comfortable saying that liquids are likely more effective when they're in you than on you, so taking a few seconds to walk and take a drink is worth it.
To make time for water stops I'll typically steal 5-10 seconds from each mile and bank it for the walk. Runners never notice. I have yet to have someone say "uhh, pacer-dude, you really suck at this because that mile was supposed to be 8:50 and you ran it in 8:45. I'm out of here."
I'll also put 10-15 seconds away for random course disasters (read: mismarked miles). This has never been a problem at Hospital Hill, but other races... It's a habit, and I think it's a good one for a pacer to have.
If you'd like to look up the pace times and who's pacing them you can visit the SmartPacing website for Hospital Hill.
If you've got any questions about pacers drop a note in the comments. I'll do my best to answer.
I'll write up a "how to run with a pacer" post in a few weeks/months. I've got all kinds of stories, like people whose entire race strategy was to stay in front of me, people who constantly ran 25 yards behind me, people who thought they had to pay me, etc.
Ahh, good times.
Stay warm, spring is right around the corner.