Last Friday, the world’s best track distance runner, Mo Farah, kicked his way to victory in the men’s 10,000 meter race at the Pre Classic in Eugene, Oregon. His triumph came against a stacked field of some of the world’s best runners, and Mo’s time of 26:50.97 was the fastest in the world this year.
And yet, Farah was disappointed—and he wasn’t coy about why. “It was pretty difficult, actually, because of the pacers,” said Farah, who wanted to run closer to 26:30, in a televised interview. “I just didn’t have that even pace where someone at the front takes you through all the way through 5K, 6K evenly.”
Also referred to as rabbits, pacesetters, or pacemakers, pacers are elite-level runners whom race organizers will enter into both middle and long-distance events to provide a quick tempo for top competitors to achieve fast times, and decrease the likelihood of a slow, tactical race. The practice has a long history in the sport; when Roger Bannister became the first man to run under four minutes in the mile in 1954, he was running behind two different pacesetters for most of the race, only to take the lead at the very end. In the marathon, whenever a world record is broken, it is almost always thanks to the help of good pacesetting early on, although rabbits rarely get any of the credit.
At the professional level, pacers usually drop out of the race; if they were capable of sustaining their tempo for the entire distance, they would be competing to win themselves. (And sometimes they do. At the 1994 LA Marathon, 35-year-old veteran pacemaker Paul Pilkington was paid $3,000 to set a fast pace for the elite entrants. They let Pilkington get so far ahead, that he decided he could hold on and win, garnering him an additional $27,000 and a Mercedes.)
But assisted pacing isn’t only useful to those looking to set world or course records. Pacesetters are also responsible for delivering a steady, consistent tempo and bringing those who are able to stick with the group over the finish line in the advertised time. But while it may be tempting to find a fast pace group and try to see if you can hang on, this may not be your best move. Here are three bits of wisdom to help you run with pacesetters:
Mark Your Arm
When Mo Farah ran his 10,000 two weeks ago, his coach was yelling out split times to him at every lap. You are unlikely to have this luxury at your next big race, so it falls on you to know what your watch should read as you’re coming through the mile markers. Rather than fumbling with your Strava or doing calculations in your head, your best bet may be a visual aid that tells you where you need to be, time-wise, at every stage of the race. At the expo for the 2015 Airbnb Brooklyn Half in May, entrants had the option of picking up a bracelet that had split calculations for over 20 different goal times. For a more customized approach, temporary tattoos can be ordered online for any pace and distance. Or go old school and write your splits on your wrist with a Sharpie.
Watch Your Watch
Pace group leaders are assigned target times that are significantly slower than their personal PRs. This, as some have argued, can pose a risk that they might go out too fast. While an experienced pacesetter is unlikely to make this mistake, you still need to know for yourself what the target pace should feel like going into the race. (Running a half marathon? Try running 3 x 1 mile at your goal pace five or six days before your race to familiarize yourself.) Even if you are running with a group, it's wise to always keep an eye on your watch, especially during the early miles, to make sure you are hitting those splits displayed on your arm. Don’t blindly follow the herd.
Beware the Crowd
Often, running with a pace group means running with a crowd, which isn’t always optimal, especially when passing aid stations. One solution is to enlist the help of a fast friend to run your target time. When Lance Armstrong ran a sub-three hour marathon in 2006, he had individual pacers help him along the way. (One of these was Alberto Salazar, which, given this week’s doping allegations, feels depressingly appropriate.) Just make sure your speedy friend doesn’t leave you crying in the dust. Go on a few practice runs together and try to nail down your pace. Promise to buy your friend a dinner afterwards–but only if they can deliver the goods.
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