Why the top elites shouldn’t be getting any extra help
Last week, the London Marathon announced its elite athlete fields. Once again, the English capital did justice to its reputation for hosting the world’s most competitive annual marathon. Kipchoge. Keitany. Bekele. Dibaba. Farah! Are you kidding me? No disrespect to Boston, but, when it comes to bringing in high-wattage talent, the London Marathon is in a separate class. This year, the lineup is enough to make any distance running fan salivate. Event director Hugh Brasher felt the same way. “This is a truly mouth-watering prospect,” he said via press release.
I’ll be waking up early on April 22 to watch the race. But when I do, I fear that I’ll be compelled to gripe about one aspect of elite-level marathoning that has always struck me as unfair, and detrimental to world class marathoning: the use of pacers.
Might as well get the griping out of the way now.
For the uninitiated, pacers, or “rabbits,” are world-class runners tasked with leading the top elites out at an agreed upon pace. They are used in many big-name races, including World Marathon Majors like Berlin, London, and Tokyo. (Pacers are not permitted at “championship-style” marathons—i.e. the Olympics or IAAF World Championships.) The idea is that this will increase the likelihood that said top elites will run a quick time—preferably a new world record. Race organizers usually hire rabbits in the belief that fast times will bolster the overall prestige of their event.
But here’s the rub: even in a stacked race like the London Marathon, only a select contingent of elite competitors have a shot of running a world record. By giving these athletes pacers to draft off of, race coordinators are effectively giving the best runners in the field a significant additional advantage over those elites who don’t have anyone setting a prearranged tempo for them. For reasons that are both physical and psychological, running alone is always harder than running with a pack. What rabbited marathons essentially do is ensure that the favorites always have a pack to run with at the start of a race. (In a 2012 article for Runner’s World, our own Alex Hutchinson cites a famous study by Griffith Pugh and notes that “at 4:30 mile pace, drafting one meter behind another runner on a still day saves about 80 percent of the energy you’d otherwise spend fighting air resistance” which “corresponds to about 1 second per 400 meters at that pace, and more on windy days.”) I fail to see the athletic integrity in that.
Another problem with pacers is that they introduce an unnecessary element of ambiguity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in debates about the women’s world record in the marathon. In London, in 2003, Paula Radcliffe ran an astounding 2:15:25, still the fastest time ever run by a woman in the event. In 2011, however, the International Association of Athletics Federations decreed that a woman couldn’t set an official marathon world record if she was working with male pacers. (Among other things, this decision seems like a blatant acknowledgement of how much of a benefit pacers provide.) Since Radcliffe had male pacers at her side for almost the entire race in 2003, her record was retroactively revoked in 2011. The decision felt especially cruel since, as Outside contributor Peter Vigneron noted at the time, Radcliffe was just following the rules.
Unsurprisingly, the IAAF received considerable backlash for their decision, with the regrettable consequence that we now have two separate marathon world records for women: one for a “mixed gender” race and one for a “women only” race. In my opinion, it would make far more sense if both women and men had separate categories for “assisted” (i.e. paced) and “unassisted” records. Although this approach, I admit, has problems of its own, since in theory there can always be unofficial pacers—i.e. athletes who are officially taking part in the race, but have secret agreements to rabbit for someone else. There are rumors that Emmanuel Bett did this for Galen Rupp last year in Chicago. This is one can of worms that I’ll leave closed for now. Better yet, try to avoid the problem altogether and discourage races from enlisting official pacers.
Aside from raising issues of fairness—and creating uncertainty about which records need an asterisk—the use of pacers can sometimes actually dampen the drama of a race. A significant drawback, since the whole point of using rabbits is that they’re supposed to make marathons more exciting.
While it may be true that the early phases of an unrabbited marathon can be boring (particularly when everyone is just trotting along waiting for someone to make a move), when the pace is artificially inflated to world record pace from the gun, the first two thirds of a race often become a time trial between the top seeds. That can be dull, too.
According to Carey Pinkowski, the director of the Chicago Marathon (which stopped using pacers in 2015, joining Boston and New York City as an unpaced Marathon Major) not having rabbits results in a more even playing field and shifts athletes’ focus from setting records to doing all they can to win the race, which he calls the “beautiful heart of marathoning.” It also gives outsiders a fighting chance. Pinkowski explained in an email that, after doing away with pacers, it was a “treat to see new faces up front, jockeying for contention, for the first half of the race.” In a rabbited Marathon Major, on the other hand, only those who can hang with the lead pack at (near) world record pace will have a shot.
For many fans, the most exciting aspect of the upcoming London Marathon is the matchup between Eliud Kipchoge and Mo Farah. (While Kipchoge is the reigning Olympic champion in the event and perhaps the best marathoner ever, Farah is a marathon novice; last summer, he wrapped up an impossibly successful track career and is now for the first time focusing solely on road racing.) On the face of it, what makes this clash of distance running titans so compelling is that both Farah and Kipchoge are exceptionally skilled racers, preternaturally adept at reading their opponents and putting themselves in the position to win.
Unfortunately, since London is a rabbited marathon, we probably won’t get to see much gamesmanship early on. The last time Kipchoge ran the London Marathon, in 2016, he set a course record and just missed the world mark, running 2:03:05. A year later, for the Breaking2 stunt, he ran 26.2 miles in 2:00:25 an unofficial world record. This pretty much guarantees that, assuming his training goes well and the weather is halfway favorable in London, Kipchoge will request that the pacers go out at world record pace. If Farah, the underdog for once, wants to have a chance at winning, I think he will have to do the same. When you’re running at world record tempo from the start, there’s a lot less room for tactical maneuvering. In theory, of course, Farah could opt to hang back early on and let the lead pack go–which he very well decide to do. In practice, it pretty much never happens in a world-class marathon that the eventual winner isn’t among the early stage leaders.
Aside from the Farah-Kipchoge matchup, the other juicy announcement in the lead-up to London was that defending champ Mary Keitany will be going after Paula Radcliffe’s (mixed gender) record from 2003. That’s right. Keitany, the three-time winner of both the New York City and London Marathons will have her own personal (male) pacing team when she lines up against her fellow competitors on April 22.
I'll be the first to acknowledge that, when it comes to individual sports at the highest level, there's always going to be some degree of unfairness. Prominent golf and tennis tournaments, for instance, will lure top-ranked players with appearance fees, while covering travel costs and proving swank accommodations. The unseeded outsiders, on the other hand, often have to pay their own way on a shoestring budget. It would be naive to think that this discrepancy never manifests itself on the court or course. While appearance fees are a hush-hush topic in the marathon, it’s an open secret that London is the Marathon Major rumored to have the deepest pockets of them all. All the more reason to adopt an egalitarian approach when it comes to the race itself.