Pace Setters for Track Races
Pace setters, a.k.a. rabbits or pacers, are pretty common in the sport of running. If you went to the Brutus Hamilton Meet at Berkeley or the Payton Jordan Meet at Stanford last spring you saw rabbits in many of the races. On Friday, August 7 at the Diamond League Meet in Stockholm the rabbits will be an important part of Meseret Defar’s World Record attempt in the women’s 5000 meters. Lauren Fleshman is one of the rabbits and she talks about it in her most recent blog post.
These pace setters set a goal pace for part of the race and then usually drop out. The rabbit nickname came from the 1920’s when a mechanical rabbit was used in dog racing to give the dogs a target to chase.
In track races, pace setting creates fast races because the pace setter runs the goal pace while taking the wind. One study on wind resistance found that at middle distance race speed the energy spent overcoming air resistance is 7.5% of the total energy cost. So running one meter behind another runner (such as the rabbit) can reduce energy expenditure by a significant amount. The other runners can draft behind the pace setter, running relaxed, using less mental energy worrying about the pace and splits, with confidence that they will be on pace, and they are using less energy. A really nice article about rabbits was written up in conjunction with the 2009 Kansas Relays.
While there is no known record of the first pace setter, history suggests that they have been around for quite some time. When Roger Bannister broke four minutes for the mile, for the first time in history, in 1954 he employed two pace setters – fellow teammates Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. Brasher paced the first two and a half laps of the record setting run and then Chataway paced until there was only a half lap to go.
In fact teammates often run team tactics in championships races, which is in essence pacing. It requires one teammate to set the pace while the other(s) sit back, and save energy for a late race surge to (hopeful) victory. This tactic has been employed most famously in 1500 meter races, such as the 1968 Olympics (Kenya and Kip Keino over Jim Ryun), the 2000 Olympics (Morocco and Hicham El Guerrouj), and the 2005 World Championships (the Russians).
Pace setting, however, is most commonly seen at track meets where the athletes are going for a certain fast time. These rabbits are usually athletes who are not quite good enough to be in the race but are close. They’re hoping to be like Noah Ngeny, who once rabitted El Guerrouj to a world record and then came back and beat El Guerrouj for the gold medal at the 2000 Olympics. Pace setters are told what pace to run and they are expected to run an even pace. And that’s where it’s an art. The pace setter is not helping if they are way out in front of the pack. The pace setter needs to be aware of where the pack is and must try to get them to hit the correct splits while also keeping them right on his or her shoulder.
Pace setters are not required to drop out of the race but they do need to get out of the way so that they aren’t blocking the other runners. Usually you will see the pace setter peel off to the outside or jump off the track onto the infield when their pace work is done. After that, they become cheerleaders with a great seat; and they tend to cheer pretty hard because there is often bonus money for them if the race winner hits a certain time or sets a record. Pace setting, while not super glamorous, does not go uncompensated. At major US meets, pace setters are paid about $300 with another $100-$200 in bonus money if a certain time is achieved (for example $100 for a sub-four mile and another $100 for a meet record). The pay is higher at the big meets in Europe where it is said to be the equivalent of what the third place runner might be earning, which can range from $4,000 to $8,000.
In February 2010 when Bernard Lagat set a new American record for the indoor 5,000 meters Lagat got a great deal of media attention. But the pace setter was not overlooked; Adam Perkins got a write-up in Runners’ World.
In 2005 one of the best pace setters of all-time, Martin Keino, son of the aforementioned Kip Keino, retired. Martin’s prowess as a pace setter was evident in the media coverage that his retirement garnered. Even five years after his retirement he gets interviewed about his career as a pacemaker. This is a man whose resume includes: pacing world records for Daniel Komen (2 mile and 5,000), Haile Gebrselassie (5,000 and 10,000) and Kenenisa Bekele (5,000 and 10,000).
Pace setting is not without its share of controversy. Team tactics are certainly part of the sport, but there are people who question the ethics of pace setting for world records or fast times. If the point of the sport is head-to-head competition, perhaps it isn’t ethical that someone who is not trying to win the race (and in fact has no intention of finishing the race) participates and effects the race.
For the casual track fan, these pace setters can create an element of confusion (“look at that guy way out in the lead, I bet he wins” or “how come the woman that was in the lead at the beginning dropped out?”). For fans of head-to-head competition pace setters disrupt the mano-a-mano aspect of the sport. For fans of fast times and records pace setters are invaluable.
You can love them, hate them, or feel indifferent but, pace setters at least at this current time, are part of the sport and you will be a more knowledgeable fan if you understand what their role is.