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.




Pace Setters for Track Races

Posted in Coaching by Andy Chan on August 5, 2010
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The rabbit Kelly Strong checks her watch after 200 meters to see if she's on pace at the 2008 Payton Jordan 1500 meter race.

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 metersLauren 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.