The Art of Pacing

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Why your next long run should be someone else’s race

A runner and his pacer approach Thorp Mountain, mile 84, at the Cascade Crest 100 in Easton, Washington. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

One part coach, one part babysitter and one part therapist, pacers can play a crucial role in helping ultrarunners reach the finish line, by keeping them awake, fueled, on course, moving forward and, if possible, in a positive mindset.

For elite runners, a pacer may literally “set the pace.” For the rest of us, a pacer is there to provide company and a psychological boost. In some races, such as the Leadville Trail 100, pacers are permitted to “mule”—that is, carry and provide supplies to their runner between aid stations—though this is not the norm. (Know the race’s official rules ahead of time.)

Here’s a primer to get your pacing career off the ground.

Why Pace?

Beyond the selfless joy of helping a friend accomplish something, there are many compelling reasons to be a pacer. First, you’ll get to run as much as half of a race course without shelling out an entry fee. (Some races may ask pacers for small donations to offset resources consumed at aid stations.)

If you’ve never run an ultra or a particular course before, pacing can be a terrific way to try it out before fully committing. Even if you have no interest in completing an ultra yourself, pacing allows you to be part of the high-energy scene.

As a pacer, you’ll run on fresh legs, while your runner will likely be fatigued and moving relatively slowly—so it may feel like an easy, relaxed training run to you.

Ahead of Time

Beforehand, set expectations with your runner. Racers run the gamut from laid back to high maintenance—so, if your runner has a book of instructions for you, better to know that in advance and prepare accordingly.

Ask your runner: What are your good-, best- and worst-case time goals? Would you prefer I run in front of or behind you? Do you like to talk when you run, or do you prefer quiet? Do you have allergies or medical conditions? What else can I do to help you reach your goal?

Pace-Day Tips

Being able to “read” someone well is key. You’ll need to gauge whether your runner prefers positive encouragement or tough love, whether humor will be a bane or boon during rough moments. If possible, do some long runs with your runner before race day.

Be prepared to be selfless. Keep an eye on your runner’s food and water intake; remind him, as needed, to replenish. If a time goal is at stake, monitor the time, be efficient at aid stations and keep stops to a minimum.

At some point, your runner is likely to want to quit. Your job is to prevent that. Be encouraging, be strong and don’t for a minute let your runner doubt your confidence in his ability to finish. On the other hand, monitor for warning signs that he should stop, or at least rest significantly and/or replenish calories. Know the difference between “Agh, everything hurts, I’m so miserable, when will this be over?!” and a firm, “I need to stop.”

Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Dress warmly. If you do bonk, best to let your runner go on without you—and don’t take it personally.

Find Yourself a Runner

You might already have a friend in mind. Or, if you’re game to jump into the adventure of a 10-to-50-mile run with a (likely) tired, grumpy stranger, online race message boards and Facebook groups are great ways to find rogue runners to pace.

If all else fails, don’t be afraid to park yourself at an aid station and announce your availability to pacer-less runners as they come through. You might just make someone’s day!

This story originally appeared in our October 2013 issue.

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