Dear Race Directors and Athletes- From Your Pace Group Leader

If you have participated in or watched half or full marathons across the country, you may see some runners with large signs with numbers on them.  These are pace group leaders- runners who finish the race within a minute of a specific goal time.  They help others on the course by providing a guidepost for those that want to finish by that specific time.  They also provide company to those out on the course who may otherwise be alone.  

I have the joy of pacing with three different organizations and it's been a great experience. I've paced half marathon groups for 2:45, 3:00, 3:30 and sweeper (dead last finisher).   I work for one of the largest and best national pacing companies- Beast Pacing- which provides pacing teams for half and full marathons across the country and for large series like the Hot Chocolate races.  I also work for two regional race organizers that provide their own pacers.

Pace group leader signs for half and full marathon times

Race Directors: How We Can Help You

What are the advantages of having pace teams at your event?

We are experienced runners who can help your participants achieve their goal finish times, including Boston Qualifying times.  

We can help participants avoid going out too fast at the start, and avoid burning out on hills.  

We can help other participants come in under a time limit.  If your course time limit is three hours, the 3:00 pacer will show other participants where the end of the race is and can help encourage participants to the finish.

You can have a pacer serve as the last finisher.  One of the pacing positions often used is called the “Sweeper.”  It is that person’s job to be the dead-last finisher.  There’s an advertising point to participants- "you won’t be last; we have someone for that!" (Think of how many people are afraid to be last.)  Also, your volunteers and your police details can see where the end of the race really is.  

Pacers are often stacked in times that allow participants to drop back to another pace team if the one they are with is too fast for them, or if they feel themselves slowing down.  For example, someone may start with a 2:15 pace team and fall back to join a 2:30 group.  Other participants may have a goal time in between the pace team times and will choose to stay in between the groups, keeping the one in front of them in their view as a reference.  As we pass people on the course who are falling behind, we invite them to join our group or offer cheers and support.

Having pace group leaders is not a violation of USATF rules.  Since organized/official pace teams are available to all race participants, there is no USATF conflict.  The rule violation is if one individual has his/her own pacer, such as a runner or a cyclist on the course.

Experienced pacers know their exact pace for each mile, let their group know if they are ahead at each mile marker, and are often wearing two GPS devices just in case one fails.  

Pacers are conscious of the weather conditions, traffic, and course safety.  Pacers will remind participants to hydrate.  We will ask participants to not run wide across the course so others who want to pass are not blocked.  We will also remind participants to be sensitive of their safety, especially on open courses.  We’re often shouting to those ahead of us to warn them about oncoming cars.

Occasionally we have to be the voice of reason and experience to a runner who is medically struggling on a course.  We have advised participants who are clearly injured or in medical danger to stop at an aide or medical station.  

When you choose your pace slots- don't forget the back of the back. Some half marathons have pacers just go up to 2:00 or 2:30. Slower paces can benefit from pace groups just as much as faster groups can. 

If you need verification of how much pace teams are worth having at your event- watch the pacers that get hugs from members of their group at the finish line; watch the pacers that are asked to pose for photos; or look for the thanks the pacers get on your race’s social media pages.  To a pacer, that finish line hug is the ultimate sign of a job well done.

The Celebrate Life Half Marathon Pace Team (Rock Hill, NY). Photo credit: Adam Osmond.

To Athletes- From Your Pace Group Leader

Being a pace group leader in a race is a privilege and an honor. It is an amazing opportunity to help other people out. Most of us are doing it because we want to help others achieve their race goals.

Yes, most pacers get their race entry for free for their services. We are not paid. The free entry covers for what we are doing- coming in (usually within a minute of) a specific time to serve as a guide for those on the course. We're racing for others, not for us. We are getting a comped entry for our service, like someone may get a free entry for volunteering.

Most of us pace 20 to 30 minutes slower than our regular race times (depending upon the distance) so we are at what is an "easy" pace for us, meaning we can talk and interact with people comfortably for the whole race.

Most of us take our pacing very seriously. We don't want to let people down. We're checking where we are at each mile. We're learning the names of everyone we are with and cheering them on. We're telling bad jokes, celebrating when we're halfway there, pointing out the last 5K, and psyching people up for the last mile. We're reminding you to hydrate and asking how everyone is doing.

Pacers are a guide. We are not a replacement for poor or inadequate training. You need to have an idea of what your pace is. If you don't know your pace and your estimated finishing time, whether you run, walk or do a mix- you didn't train correctly.

Sometimes people line up with the wrong pace group and are over-ambitious and then bonk out. If you run a 2:30 half marathon and you start with the 2:00 group, you are going to have a lousy experience.  Others will try to stay in front of us with their goal being that they want to be ahead of us the whole time.  I think you will be better off staying with us for at least the first half of a race and then pull ahead later, so you don’t use up all your energy up front.

If you didn't train- we are not miracle workers.  It's a pace sign, not a magic wand.

I tell people: race the way you trained. If you're a Galloway person (you do run/walk intervals) and I'm straight running, we're going to cross back and forth a lot, but we will balance out. Don't switch to straight running just because I am, because you're going to ruin your race.

Most of us opt to not pace a race we have never done before. In the case of an inaugural event, we'll drive the course the day before (if roads allow) to get a feel for it to see where the hills are and what the roads are like. We know where the hill from hell is. We know where the water stops are.

If we are alone on the course, we are not "doing it wrong." In some smaller races and for some of the later pace groups, we are often occasionally alone. This is what is happening... We have people in front of us who are looking back to make sure we are still behind them, and their goal is to stay in front of us. Or, we have people behind us who are keeping us in their sight. We're still the guidepost and we're still maintaining our pace.

Some people do better following a pace group by using them as an indicator rather than staying with them. Some people realize halfway through a race that our group is too slow for them and they go ahead. Some people will catch up to us and pass us in the last miles. Some people don't want to be around others and stay just behind us.

Pacers may finish alone. At mile 12.8, I might tell you to take off if you have it in you.  Some pace groups pick up people who fell back from a later pace group or went out too fast. If I am pacing in a sweeper position, I stay behind whoever is last and finish behind them. 

Pacers are human. It is rare, but occasionally a pacer gets sick, gets a cramp, trips/falls/gets hurt, or for some reason cannot continue and has to drop out. We apologize to our group and get off the course at the nearest water stop.

Pacers have different strategies. Some do straight run through and slow down through water stops, while others walk the uphills and the water stops. The strategy may change from race to race based on the time being paced and based on the nature of the course. Pacers should be telling their groups what their strategy is before the start.

Our goal time is based on when we crossed the start mat, not when the clock started (chip time). Don't panic if clocks on the course or at the finish makes us look off (gun time). This also means if you started well ahead of us in a larger race, we could be a minute or more off from each other.  If I catch up to you, my time will be faster than yours.  The exception is for races that are gun-time only (meaning there is no starting mat time captured and the finish times are based on when the race starts).

If your expectations about what a pace group can do for you are realistic then we're going to have a great time!

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