Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pacing the Racer

For the first time in a while I won't be running a fall marathon.

My lovely daughter, Carol, is getting married in early October so most of my attention is focused on that exciting event.  Later on I'll be running my 10th half-marathon, the aptly named Run-Like-Hell Half Marathon.

And for the fourth time in my life I'll be pacing someone for part of a marathon.  Which got me to thinking about what makes a good pacer.

Some runners thrive on pace groups, where you start and (hopefully) finish the race with other runners all striving for a certain time goal.  Others like me prefer either running by their lonesome or meeting new people along the way.

A solid number of my marathoning friends enjoy having someone jump in with them towards the end of the race.  When a buddy joins you it can be invigorating, especially if you are feeling rough.  And, let's face it - around the 20-mile mark most marathoners are struggling both physically and mentally.

The question is - what works best for runners at that stage of the game? Obviously it differs from one person to another but are there some solid winning moves that assure the pacer helps the racer?

My first experience pacing a marathoner came five years before I tackled the event myself.  After meeting up with the runner at the 21-mile mark I began doing what she asked me to do.  I jabbered.

The thought was that my mindless chatter would distract her from the pain and discomfort of those final five miles.  Only several days after the fact she revealed: "Ellison, you could have told me you were flying to Sweden the next day for a sex change and it wouldn't have registered..."

Good to know. Flash-forward six years when I offered to help my best friend, Monica, navigate the final miles of the Newport, Oregon marathon.  The goal was to secure her BQ (Boston Qualifying Time) on a fairly dull out and back course.

I wound up jumping in with her at mile 19 after realizing she was looking rough.  At that point she was on track to BQ but was slipping in part due to having blasted through the first two miles of the race in less than 16 minutes.  We really hadn't discussed what methods I should employ so I confess to winging it.

First I tried the Drill Sergeant method: "Come on! You can do this! Pick those feet up and move it!!!"

This earned me nothing. Next came the wheedling and pleading. "Just do it for me.  Think about Boston! I know you can do this, honey!"

Lastly I confess I resorted to shame tactics.  "You're not going to let so-and-so get to Boston before you, are you?"

Fortunately Monica had enough energy left at this point to send me a silent middle-finger message.  Which I processed and used to shut off my mouth.

From there we limped into the finish.  I cried because I felt I had let Monica down.  She wisely chalked it up to a lesson learned and began looking ahead.  (And, yes, she qualified a year later in Eugene, OR with a solid 3:38!)

My latest pacing adventure came at the 2009 Portland Marathon when I offered myself up to Jill Parker who was in town from Colorado.  We had dinner the night before so Jill could give me some pointers on pacing her to yet another BQ.

I immediately failed to meet one requirement which was to provide Jill with a small peanut butter and honey sandwich at some point.  The problem was I was doing a 10-mile training run before pacing Jill with seven of those miles at my half-marathon pace.  I told Jill cramming even half a sandwich in my fanny hydration pack probably wasn't ideal.

Jill and I met up shortly before the 21-mile mark.  This time I took my cues from her and my knowledge of the course.  This meant trying to restrain her on a downhill stretch, knowing that a hill was on the other side of it.  It meant telling her a couple of funny stories but all the while offering phrases such as "Good and steady....You're doing it...Great job, Jill!"

Just before mile 25 I turned Jill over to Sarah of Run Like A Mother fame. Who, as life would have it, has asked me to run her in the last 10k or so of this year's Portland Marathon.

Sarah and I have known each other for over six years so I'm hopeful that I will be able to pick up the correct signals and propel her towards Beantown.  This will entail calling her "Champy" several times and, if necessary, humming songs from an obscure British rock group that only she and my husband are familiar with.

What works best for you, as the racer striving for a great marathon? And/or do you have any winning moves as a pacer that make you the go-to person for all your racing pals?


  1. You were an excellent pacer, Ellison. My problem with the nutrition was just that, my problem and not yours. I hadn't been playing enough with the slew of other choices out there and the pb&j was what was working at the time and I didn't think out logistics. I should have just taken that dang GU in my pocket but I wasn't thinking too clearly. I'll forever be grateful for spotting your lime green shirt at mile 21 and jumping in to save my life!! I've never been one to be chatty on a run and have, for the vast majority of my 13 years of marathoning, trained solo, so I wasn't sure I was going to like someone there by my side yaking at me....but I loved it. And your other girlfriend was right, you could have told me you won a billion dollars and was giving me half and I'd have just been wondering how I was going to get up that hill at mile 23 and nothing else. But hey, if you ever DO want to give me half of the billion, I'm willing to listen now :).

    You're going to do great bringing Sarah in. I recently paced a friend in her first marathon and I was trying to hard to think of things to tell her and I was just drawing a blank. Like we talk ever week at the pool non-stop but when it was time to perform and tell a story that would distract her, I was just blank. I think I rambled on something about my daughter and her new boyfriend - something so dumb and she could care less.

    I'll never forget the dinner nor the pace pal - thank you always!!!


  2. It was my pleasure, Jill! and I'll remember the billion dollar story if Sarah begins to flounder. Heck! I'll think of that during my next marathon. All the books I can buy.....

  3. Too funny E. What I remember you saying at Newport was, "do it for Myles", my darling nephew who I was spending loads of time with then and just over the moon about. NOTHING could have made me happy at that race except maybe an IV. I felt so rough! Let's hope that was the one and only brush with dehydration. I should have known better.

  4. Okay, now I really feel old because I have NO memory of mentioning Myles. Oh, dear. My most vivid memory is that look you gave me - priceless! I disagree with you saying you should have known better since that was only your third marathon (right?) and you had shaved over 40 minutes off between your first two.

  5. What song/band are you referring to?? It would be interesting to know what my time would have been on Sunday had we not been afraid of the pacer-police...