How to Get the Most Out of Running With a Marathon Pacer

Consider them your personal mid-course coach, and use these eight tips for stealing their support for your race-day goal.

naomi mitchell and clara evans get led by pacers

Tom Dulat – British Athletics//Getty Images

Whether it’s your first marathon and you’re not confident about maintaining a specific speed or you have a dozen races under your belt and want reinforcements to nail your BQ or PR, having someone in your corner to help you stick to a pacing plan can be a big help come race day. Enter: the marathon pacer.

Consider these on-course runners your race-day cruise control setting. They carry signs with projected finish times and provide someone for you to run along with when you want to finish 42.2 with a certain time goal.

If you’re considering running with a marathon pacer for your next race, here’s what to know, including tips for using them in favour of a personal best.

What a Marathon Pacer Actually Does

Marathon pacers are usually volunteers appointed by race organisers to lead runners through the race, so they finish at a designated time. Pacers wear an official t-shirt and carry a sign with their projected finish time overhead, so they’re super-visible on the course.

The concept is simple: Follow along with the marathon pacer and they’ll get you to your goal. For example, if you want to finish a marathon in under four hours, for example, you might run with the 3:55 pacer. (Most marathons will list the pacers they have on their site, including this weekend’s Chicago Marathon.)

Ideally, pacers know the course well and can adjust their speed accordingly throughout the race, so runners stay on track. For example, your pacer might bank some extra seconds in the kilometres ahead of a difficult stretch of the course, like a hill, so you can comfortably slow down without getting behind on your target finish time.

But they’re not just there to help keep the pace. These runners may also offer up course intel, provide motivation when the kilometres feel tough, and help you run an evenly split race.

So, should you race with a marathon pacer? And what should you do if, mid-race, you feel like you’re not totally jibing with your pacer? These tips help you figure out how to run with a pacer, plus when to pull back if it’s not working out.

8 Tips on How to Run with a Marathon Pacer

These tips will come in handy on race day, so you can meet your specific time goal or crush a PR.

1. Pick the Right Pacer

Be realistic about your time goal and select a group accordingly.

“It might help to start with a slightly slower pace group, and then speed up if you’re feeling good,” says Adam Kimble, a professional ultrarunner, running coach, and motivational speaker in Truckee, California. “For example, if someone wants to run with me in the three-hour group but they tell me they aren’t sure they can hold the pace, I will tell them to start with the 3:05 pace group and then try to catch up to us later in the race if they’re feeling strong,” adds Kimble, who will be an official pacer for the California International Marathon for the fourth time this December.

If you’ve been training for a four-hour finish, the 3:30 group is likely too aggressive, as joining a group that fast may give you a big buffer to hit your goal time—but it may also leave you hitting the wall early. If you’re aiming for a PR or BQ, go with the finish time group that matches your goal (but not faster). Otherwise, it’s generally better to err on the side of caution than to push too hard.

2. Introduce Yourself Early

Meet your pacer before the start of the race if you can. This will help ease any anxiety you have about course specifics and you can notify your pacer that you’ll be at their side during the race.

“Expos normally have a pacers’ station set up where runners can ask questions,” says Marc Teismann of Bellevue, Kentucky, who’s paced the Flying Pig Marathon seven times.

“I will always suggest that if you plan on running with a pace group, find them the morning of the race in the coral and introduce yourself and ask any questions,” if you didn’t get to chat at the expo, Teismann adds.

3. Ask About Their Running Plan

Ask your pacer about their race strategy to give you an idea of how they might adjust their pace throughout the kilometres. This can help you adjust your mindset throughout the course, too.

“I always tell the runners that the goal is to run relatively even splits, but to slowly bank a few seconds here and there so that we have a little bit of a buffer as it gets later into the race,” says Kimble. “Negative splits work really well for some people, but I find that generally, running even splits is a smarter approach for most people.”

Keep in mind, each pacer has a slightly different philosophy on time buffers, says Stephanie Dunlap of Sacramento, California, who’s paced tons of races, from 16 kilometres to marathons. “The maximum time buffer you’ll want in a marathon is about two minutes. The goal of a pacer is usually to finish within one minute of their assigned finish time but never over it,” she says.

4. Trust Your Pacer

There’s bound to be an exception to the rule here or there, but by and large, marathon pacers are well equipped to get you to the finish line in their specified time, so trust that they will. “It’s ideal for a pacer to have a PR that’s at least 15 to 20 minutes faster than their pacing goal,” says Teismann. For example, his marathon PR is 2:50, and he’s paced groups from 3:05 to 3:20.

Also, the beauty of running with a marathon pacer is you don’t have to check your time every few seconds and, instead, you can focus on the run and the spectators’ cheers.

“The pacer is there to take the burden off of you, so let them do that,” says Kimble. “Don’t worry about constantly checking your watch, because the pace leader will take on that responsibility. I call out our time for every kilometre and let the group know where we stand relative to the overall time. If we cross kilometre 16 and we are 20 seconds ahead of a three-hour pace, I let them know that, and I also remind the group about aid stations and where they can get hydration and nutrition. My purpose as a pacer is to make your life easier.”

5. Know When to Ditch a Group

If you picked a pacer conservatively, a few kilometres in, you may feel like your group is dragging. Resist the urge to surge ahead too soon.

“In the beginning of a marathon, your legs are feeling fresh and everything’s feeling good—it’d be easy to feel as though your pace group is going too slow,” says Dunlap. “If you feel as though your pace group is still going too slow at 32 kilometres, push ahead then. What you don’t want to do is push ahead too soon, burn out, and then have the pace group surpass you.”

On the flip side, if you’re struggling to keep up with your original pace group, then feel free to slow down and catch the next group behind you, says Dunlap. It’s better to pull back a bit earlier on than to push at a pace that’s uncomfortable, which can cause you to crash later.

6. Have More Than One Goal

Yes, it can feel demoralising to watch your original group pull away from you, but this is where back-up goals can come in handy. For example, if your original goal time is 4:20, you might set 4:30 as goal B and 4:45 for goal C.

If you fall behind, “continue to focus on taking care of your hydration and nutrition and reframe the situation to have the best attitude you can,” says Kimble. “You might have slowed down from the pace you were hoping to run, but that doesn’t mean the race can’t still be a success.”

Also, select and practise a mantra or two (like “I can do hard things” or “I welcome the pain”) that you can repeat to yourself during a situation like this, suggests Dunlap. This positive self-talk can keep you going when it feels like your goals are slipping away.

7. Don’t Stress About a Pit Stop

Unfortunately, if you need a bathroom break, your pacer will not stick around and wait. But that doesn’t mean you’ll have to stop running with them.

If you need to stop, look ahead for an upcoming aid station or ask your pacer if they know when the next Port-a-Potty will pop up. Then, pick up your pace a bit to get there and try to catch up with your group afterward, suggests Dunlap.

If the stop took too long and it’d take excessive effort to find your group again, try not to worry too much and look for the next pacer coming up behind you instead.

8. Let Your Pacer Be Your Cheerleader

Because your pacer should be running at a pace that’s pretty relaxed for them, it should be a conversational effort. In other words, they should be more than capable of answering your questions, calling out splits, and giving the occasional pep talk.

“Listening to what your pacer has to say might help calm some race jitters that you might have and might teach you some interesting info about the city you’re in,” says Teismann, who encourages runners to ask questions midrace. “I love to know who in the group has never been to our city before so I can sort of play their tour guide throughout the race.”In addition to showing you around, keep an ear out for motivation too. “I hype up the crowd whenever we come through an aid station,” says Kimble. “I like to tell the group, ‘I will yell for you so you can save your energy for running your best race!’”

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