Chanman's Blog

Pace Setters for Road Races

Posted in Coaching by Andy Chan on October 8, 2010
Tags: , , , ,

If you tune in to watch the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, October 10, 2010 at, you are likely to see pace setters leading the race for the first half of the race. I previously wrote a blog about pace setters in track races. But pacers or rabbits can be found in road races, too, where the questions about the ethics of pace setting seems to be even stronger.

Some of the major marathons like Berlin, Chicago, and London use pace setters. Having pace setters usually insures that the winning time of the race will be fast, perhaps even a record. Pace setters can also entice elite runners to come to the race, because they know they will have pacers to help them run a fast time. A fast or record setting winning time, or a big name runner in attendance brings attention to the race and makes sponsors more likely to support the race (and the sport in general) in the future.

Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World had this to say about possible pace setting at the Chicago Marathon this weekend:

The Chicago organizers, led by Carey Pinkowski, have always done a superb job at this. They’ve probably got a couple of guys lined up to go through the half-marathon in close to 1:02. And if one of the pacers can make it to 30K at that pace, he’s going to get a nice bonus for himself. (Note: I don’t have any inside knowledge about what Pinkowski et al are planning pace-wise, but this would be a reasonable and typical approach for them.)

In order to promote head-to-head competition, with less emphasis on just the final time, the New York City Marathon and the Boston Marathon do not use pace setters. When the NYC Marathon announced that they would stop employing pace setters starting with the 2007 race, New York Road Runners CEO Mary Wittenberg said, “Most of [our elite athletes] know how to be strategic, most of them know how to pursue the thrill of victory and make that the number-one priority … In the end, it will be better for everyone to tune in and care from mile one rather than from mile 16.” Pace setters make for fast marathon times, but often unexciting finishes, because those who cannot hold the fast pace drop off the back of the pack until only one person is left, usually somewhere around mile 22.

Again there are two ways to look at this. Having no pace setters allows the opportunity for a less heralded runner to get the win but it also can set-up a sit (for 23 miles) and kick (for 5K or less) type of race, which isn’t a good test of one’s overall marathon ability.

Meb Keflezighi’s victory at the 2009 New York City Marathon may not have happened if the race was paced by rabbits setting a 2:06 pace. The leaders had to set their own pace and it was relatively slow through the halfway mark (barely under 5:00 per mile pace) and Meb could easily stay with the leaders and cover anyone’s surge. When the pace finally picked up on First Avenue, Meb was able to go with the pack at 4:37 mile pace, a pace he may not have been willing to run earlier in the race.

At the 2009 women’s Boston Marathon, because no one wanted to lead the race, the pace was extremely slow (1:18) at the halfway mark and it didn’t significantly pick-up until very late in the race. The victory all came down to a sprint finish by three women in the final mile. It was an exciting finish, but because there was no pace setter, we are left to wonder was Salina Kosgei the better marathoner at Boston or the better 800 meter runner?

The concept of using pace setters to get a fast or record time went to an extreme in 2006. Haile Gebrselassie, who used pace setters all the time in setting world records on the track, had a race set-up over the second half of the Arizona Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon course so that he could make an attempt on the half marathon world record. Only six runners started in this “race within the race” and most of them were pace setters. In the end, Gebrselassie passed all the pace setters by 7K because they were not hitting the pace needed for the record. He would go on to shatter the record by twenty one seconds (58:55). The final official results list six runners as finishing the race.

Deciding if pace setters are a good thing or a bad thing is difficult. Pace makers certainly increase the chance of a fast time and it is hard to imagine a world record ever being set again in the marathon without pace setters. In each of Gebrselassie’s two recent marathon record runs in Berlin (2:04:27 in 2007 and 2:03:59 in 2008) he had at least five pace setters. The pacers set the pace for the first half of the race, at the halfway point two of them usually drop out, and the remaining pacers do their best to keep hitting the pace. For Gebrselassie, marathon pace is 2:57 per kilometer or 4:44 per mile. The pacers can usually maintain the pace until 30K, at which point Gebrselassie takes the lead and battles the clock on his own for the final 12 kilometers.

Before you jump on the “pace setting is unethical” bandwagon, consider this. Almost every marathon has pace groups for 3:00, 3:10, etc. (usually these pace groups correspond to Boston qualifying times). Other than the fact that the group pace setters do not drop out of the race, are they any different than the pace setters leading elite runners to a certain time?

If the difference is that pace setters who finish the race are okay, but those that drop out are unethical, then how do you feel about pacers who don’t start the race but join the race in the middle? That’s what happens in ultra races. The Western States 100 rules include a whole section devoted to pacers. Pacers, defined as “trail companions” by Western States, are allowed to accompany runners from mile 62 to the end. There is even a place on the Western States website to help runners find a pacer. They are not allowed to give physical or mechanical aid to the runner. They are allowed for safety reasons, but at the end of the day, they are serving the same purpose as a pace setter on the track or in a road race – helping the runner get to the finish line with a fast time.

Pace setters are not always required to drop out of the race. Often the pace they are asked to run is challenging enough that they are forced to drop out at a certain point from sheer exhaustion. But dropping out does not always happen. In 2003 when Paul Tergat set a marathon world record of 2:04:55 (again on the crazy fast course in Berlin), one of his pace setters, Sanny Korir, felt good and did not drop out. Korir raced Tergat all the way to the finish line, finishing just one second behind and also dipping under the old world record.

One of the most famous marathon pace setter stories involves Paul Pilkington at the 1994 Los Angeles Marathon. Pilkington, then thirty five years old, had a PR of 2:11:13. He was known to be an excellent pace setter. At the 1992 New York City Marathon he was asked to pace the leaders through the half marathon in 1:04 and he brought them through in 1:04:02. He would often pace a couple marathons and race a couple marathons a year. On March 6, 1994, he was asked to pace the LA Marathon leaders through the half marathon in 1:05. After seven miles no one was staying with him. By fifteen miles, since there was no prior agreement that Pilkington drop out, he decided to go on and finish the race. He crossed the line in 2:12:13, thirty nine seconds ahead of Italy’s Luca Barzaghi, who was pretty miffed that the pace setter had not dropped out. Because Barzaghi could not see Pilkington in front of him, he assumed Pilkington had dropped out. The controversy didn’t affect Pilkington. He collected $10,000 and a new car for first place as well as the $3,000 stipend for pace setting. Pilkington went on to represent the United States at the 1995 World Championships in the marathon.

A lesser known story is what happened when Pilkington returned to the LA Marathon in 1995. Pilkington, now pretty famous for what had happened the previous year, was brought back to pace set again. This time because of his notoriety from a year earlier he commanded a fee of $10,000 to be a pacer.  In 1994 he ran further than was initially planned. In 1995, after stepping in a pothole at mile four and badly spraining his ankle, he dropped out, running less than initially planned!

Rabbits – whether you love them, hate them, or are not sure how you feel about them – they are certainly part of the sport.




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