Chanman's Blog

Pace Setters for Road Races

Posted in Coaching by Andy Chan on October 8, 2010
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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.




What a Sunday!

The new half marathon world record holder leading the lead pack in the 10,000 at last year's World Championships

Sunday, March 21, 2010 was a big day for runners around the world, and the big news was not that the Pamakid Runners had 29 runners racing in the Across the Bay 12K.

In Portugal Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese set a new World Record for the half marathon, running 58 minutes, 23 seconds at the Lisbon Half Marathon. This bettered the old record of 58:33 set by Samuel Wanjiru in 2007. It also sets the wheels in motion for a great match-up between Tadese and Wanjiru over the marathon distance sometime in the near future. Tadese also set the world 20K record en route to the half marathon, passing 20K in 55:21, 27 seconds faster than Haile Gebrselassie’s previous record. At the 15K mark of the race Tadese’s split was 41:33, just four seconds short of yet another world record.

Tadese is a name to remember. The twenty-eight year old has an accomplished past and it appears the best may still lie ahead of him.Tadese was the 10,000 meter silver medalist at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin last summer. On the night

Celebrating the silver medal

that he won Eritrea’s first ever medal in World Championship history, Malinda and I found ourselves on the same subway as an Eritrean family. They had their Eritrean flag and were clearly excited by Tadese’s accomplishment. Their little boy asked who was on the button I had on my backpack (it was a photo button of Shannon Rowbury). I gave both the children a lapel pin and in exchange, when the family got off the subway, the mom handed us a flyer for their Eritrean restaurant in Berlin. A few nights later we had Eritrean food for dinner.

In New York Haile Gebrselassie, the man known as “The King,” raced the New York City Half Marathon. It was an all-around bad day for him. First he lost his 20K world record to Tadese, and then in his race he abruptly dropped out at the eight mile mark. He was battling Kenya’s Peter Kamais for the lead when he suddenly stopped and appeared to grab at his chest. He began running again and it appeared that he might get back in the race, but he soon stopped for good and entered a medical tent. Returning to his hotel he told a New York Road Runners staff member that he was suffering from asthma, which flared up by the dust kicked up in the city streets, possibly by a lead vehicle.

Even the greats can have a subpar day, but in Gebrselassie’s case this is his second straight race affected by a health issue. Back in January at the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon Gebrselassie did not come close to his own marathon world record, instead he had to battle two fellow Ethiopians just to get the win, which he did in 2:06:09, three minutes slower than his world record time. After the race he reported that he had slept wrong and was suffering from back pains.

In the women’s New York City Half Marathon Deena Kastor went out aggressively, building a 30-second lead over Great Britain’s Mara Yamauchi. Her 10K split of 32:30 was well under course record pace. Less than two miles from the finish Yamauchi passed Kastor to take the win in a course record time of 1:09:25. Kastor finished second in 1:09:43, just two seconds ahead of Madai Perez in third. This result sets up an intriguing re-match on April 25 as both Kastor and Yamauchi are entered in the London Marathon.

In Rome, at the Rome Marathon, the men’s marathon featured an interesting finish. Ethiopian Siraj Gena kicked off his shoes with about 500 meters left in the race and sprinted barefoot across the finish line to win the race in 2:08:39. Some reports indicate that he kicked by Kenyan runners Benson Barus and Nixon Machichim, but the results seem to indicate that he finished twenty seconds ahead of them, so it is unclear if he really kicked past them while barefoot. Gena was paying homage to Ethiopian Abebe Bikila who fifty years ago won the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome while running the entire course without shoes. There are rumors that the barefoot finish to honor Bikila was set-up by race officials, who offered a 5,000 euro bonus to the winner if they pulled of their shoes and won the race without shoes on. In any case, it added one more interesting story to what was an interesting day on the international running scene.