Tips for Pacers & Runners

I’m by no means an expert, but now that I’ve paced 4 half marathons, I wanted to write up a few of my thoughts and share some tips – to people who want to pace and to those who want to run with pace groups. Before my first pacing experience at Tiburon, I looked around the internet and didn’t find much useful information. So hopefully, some of the insights I’m sharing below will be helpful. If you’ve paced or have run with pace groups before (successfully or not), please share your experiences in the comments!

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Advice to Pacers
First and foremost, research the course. I do this anyway with just about every race I run, but definitely take a look at the route, elevation profile, number and location of aid stations, and what kind of fuel and fluids to expect. Runners will look to you for information. There’s some course info that’s not so obvious, such as number of turns (possibly affecting overall distance), congestion (either caused by field size, lack of waves at the start, and/or narrowing of the course from roads to a bike path). You may want to ask other pacers who have run the course for any peculiarities, as well as how shaded or exposed the course is, if there are particularly challenging portions of the course, etc. Googling race reports, researching the race on websites like RaceRaves, and looking at Strava activities can also be helpful as well.

It’s usually advisable to sign up to pace a group that’s 10-20 minutes slower than your usual half marathon time, but not much slower than 30 minutes. We all have a pace range with which we’re comfortable. 10:40/mile (2:20 half marathon pace) is my easy pace, but if I had to run 11:26/mile (2:30), that would feel unnaturally slow. Alternatively, I could pace a 2:00 group, but my PR (1:56) is too close for comfort. I wouldn’t be able to chat with any other runners, which is half the fun of pacing.

Use your Garmin as an aid to help you run the proper pace, but don’t depend on it. The satellite coverage could be spotty if it’s a cloudy day, or if you’re surrounded by tall buildings. The course could have a ton of turns or be too long – rendering Garmin pace useless. Most major races have mile markers – use them! Our pacing group leader prints out pacing bands for us as a reference, which I highly recommend using. My normal strategy now is to ignore my Garmin pace and look at the total elapsed time as I cross every mile marker. I make a mental note – am I ahead or behind? If I’m behind, how many miles do I have to make up the time? I’ve only been behind once (because I was too reliant on my Garmin GPS) and I ended up forcing my group to speed up by about 20 seconds per mile for the second half of the race. That wasn’t optimal, obviously.

Decide on a pacing strategy and stick to it. I think this one depends on your natural inclination and also the course profile. Some people like to run even splits, others like to negative split. Some pacers like to bank about 10 seconds/mile for the first few miles to see how it’s going. If there’s a big hill or a lot of hills, you’ll need to adjust accordingly. There are websites that will print out a pace band for you depending on your strategy and the elevation profile (like this one). Either way, I wouldn’t vary the pace by more than 15-30 seconds. Remember that there might be runners in your group who have trained for an exact pace. For example, they might have consistently worked on running 9:09/mile for a 2 hour finish. Therefore, they might be capable of running faster than that for a few miles, but probably not faster than 8:45 for a prolonged period of time. Remember that finishing a few minutes faster may be comfortable for you, but probably not for those in your pace group. When I ran 1:56 at Summer Breeze last year, I remember that the pace group leader for the 2:00 group was running my pace for the first 4-5 miles. He ended up finishing solo in 1:58 because he lost everyone in his group. Don’t be that pacer. (He’s also a classic example of someone who was leading a pace group that was too slow for him, as he normally paces the 1:30 or 1:35 group.)

Once you’re in the race, make sure you communicate your race strategy to your group. Will you walk through aid stations? Are you running even splits or even effort (especially for hilly courses)? Are you planning on finishing just under the goal time? Prepare your group mentally by setting expectations. Your goal is to finish on time, but also to encourage your runners along the way. Be positive and supportive. Ask them about their goals and experience. Try not to get carried away with individual goals – especially at small races where you might only be pacing one person. You’re there as a goal post for all runners, not just one person. If someone is struggling and you’re about to lose them, encourage them to keep you in their sights. If someone has enough steam to finish strong, cheer them on in the last miles and tell them to run ahead.

If you don’t have anyone running with you, which can be a bit lonely and dispiriting, remember that it’s still important to keep pace because all runners are using you as a benchmark. Plus, there are times when it seems like you’re by yourself, but then it turns out that there are people using you as a pacer. I’ve had the experience at multiple races where someone has come up to me either at the very end of a race or after the race and told me that they were following me the whole way. Or, they used me as motivation to not slow down – to stay ahead of me. There are external motivations to finish on time too. Finishing near your goal pace helps the reputation of your pacing group and encourages race directors to invite the group to future races. Also, how well you pace may affect your future pacing gigs. Different groups have different policies – some are very strict and won’t let you pace again if you finish slower than the goal pace.

If you have a co-pacer, discuss possible strategies before the race. Will you run side by side, or will you split up and have a front pacer and a back pacer (covering a wider range of times)? Will you take turns at aid stations and holding the pace group sign?

Finally, enjoy yourself! Yes, it can be stressful to know that people are depending on you. However, if you’re someone who is thoughtful and running well within your comfort level, the pacing part shouldn’t be too hard. Fortunately, a half marathon is a long way and you have lots of room to correct minor errors in pacing. Keeping a positive attitude (and avoiding an anxious one) will help the overall morale of the runners around you. Feel free to give your group consistent updates about where you are pace wise, so they know what to expect. Remind them to breathe and check their form every so often. And once you cross the finish line and see the satisfaction of someone who has just achieved something they’ve never thought possible – it will all be worth it.

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Advice to runners
Thinking about running with a pace group? This topic came up recently on the Marathon Maniacs Facebook page, so I thought I’d share some tips from the runner’s perspective as well. First, try to research the pace group. Are they reputable? Or is it a random collection of people organized by the race director? Our pace group, the Trivalley Running Club, always publishes a chart after every race on the group’s Facebook page detailing our results and how far off people were from their goal paces. Except for a few DNFs due to injury, the TVRC pacing group does a great job. We all generally finish within 60 seconds faster than the stated goal time. Some races, like CIM, will post their pacers’ running resumes a couple of months before the race, which can be helpful in building trust in the pacers’ abilities to lead the group to the goal time.

Some questions to ask your pace group leader:
– what is the pace strategy?
– have they paced before?
– have they paced or run this specific course before?
– what is their running history? (especially if they’ve never paced before)
– are they aiming for exact finish or just a bit faster?

Additional tips:
– If a pace group isn’t available for your desired pace, start out behind or in front a group, depending on what strategy works best for you. Use the pace groups as indicators, even if your aren’t running with them.
– If you have time, tell the pacer what your goal is and maybe a bit about your experience, perhaps what has been helpful to you in the past. Sometimes you can do this in the first few miles if you don’t get a chance to talk to them at the expo or before the race. Some racers are more chatty and others quiet, so don’t be offended if you get a quiet one.
– If your pacer is not abiding by his/her plan (i.e., going out too fast or too slow), don’t be afraid to leave the group and do your own thing. There might be others willing to break off and work with you to form an impromptu pacing group.

We’ve all heard about or experienced good and bad pacers. Remember that pacers are humans, not robots, and are susceptible to bad days too. Plus, most pacers are volunteers. While their bibs are comped by the race organizers, they aren’t getting paid, nor are they professionals. Most of them are trying their best, or doing what they think is best, so try to be understanding.

Hopefully this was helpful to somebody out there. As always, leave questions or comments below. 🙂

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About

Howdy! My name is Jen and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I like to eat, run, and blog, but not usually at the same time.

Posted in Advice, Pace Group, random
10 comments on “Tips for Pacers & Runners
  1. bt says:

    Very thoughtful and helpful. Thanks!

  2. gracechua31 says:

    This is super helpful! If I ever did pacer duty I would need a lot of rehearsing in advance (I guess that’s what those pacer training runs are for, huh?). As it is I can barely even chew a shot blok and run at the same time!

    • Jen says:

      Haha. Yeah, I definitely practiced running the exact pace before my first attempt. I’m sure you could do it if you paced a slower group. For me, I have a tendency to speed up – that’s the hard part. I forgot to mention that the other reason 2:20 is a good starting point for pacing is that there’s less pressure – seems like fewer people aim for 2:20 because it’s not a round number for pacing or finish time. I feel like more people go for 2:10 (just under 10:00/mile).

  3. Paulette says:

    I ran with a pacer for CIM the year it was really rainy/windy/flooded. I did it because I wanted to be distracted from the weather, but I loved the pacer leading the group. She kept things even splits and was very friendly. I ended up having to drop back for a porta potty stop at mile 20ish, then finished about 3 mins behind them, but still an overall great experience. I really appreciate the pacers!

    I also followed the 2 hour pacer at SLO Half but not really ‘with’ them as you mention, more like trying to stay ahead of them. It really does help.

    • Jen says:

      That’s great that you had a couple of positive experiences with pace groups. I haven’t had much luck, but I think it’s because I went out too fast. The one time it worked out well for me was at the Santa Rosa Marathon, when I purposely started out with a slower group and then dropped them after the first 3 miles.

  4. ErinAMG says:

    These are really awesome tips for both sides. I paced a couple half marathons and one full, and you’re so right about needing to be consistent and to not pay a whole lot of attention to your Garmin. Ultimately, if your watch says you’re at 13.1 but you still have a quarter mile left of the course to go (how awful would that be!!), you’ve gotta keep going!!! I’ve found that I’m way more nervous pacing than I am racing, just because I tell myself that so many folks are counting on me, but it really is such a great and rewarding experience. Nice job 😁👊

    • Jen says:

      Thanks, Erin! Yeah, I feel a lot of pressure too while pacing. Like, what if I have to go use the bathroom during the race or I bonk? The funny thing about pacing with the pace band and not with a Garmin is I think about all of the times I’ve targeted a pace time with my Garmin – a fools’ errand! No wonder I was just shy of a sub-2 hour half all of those times, I was probably using the wrong pacing strategy. LOL.

  5. Mike says:

    I’d say that with four halfs under your belt, you ARE an expert on pacing! These are thoughtful tips & tricks, thanks for taking the time to share them. I’ve only paced friends so far, but one of these days I’m sure I’ll end up pacing in a more formal capacity, and when I do I’ll be glad to have this resource available. It really is important to keep in mind, as you noted, that even if no one is running alongside you, there may still be other runners behind who are looking to you as their benchmark and their life line—your circle of influence may very well extend beyond the radius of your shadow.

    I tried wearing a pace band once and it stressed me the hell out, never again. Life’s too short.

    And great photo from Tiburon—for both the official clock time and the happy finisher, that one should go on the cover of “The Ultimate Pacer’s Handbook”!

    • Mike says:

      (BTW, shouldn’t pacers get free race photos??)

    • Jen says:

      I think the pace band can be your best friend (in good times) or your worst enemy (when you’re way behind, at which point you should rip it off and throw it away at the next aid station). I had a pacing temporary tattoo when I ran CIM in 2012 and that was helpful as a guide. I think as long as you take that perspective instead of thinking you have to tick those mile splits exactly – that’s probably much more useful (and sane).

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