Being Pacer

Back in 2011, Rajesh Vetcha offered me the first opportunity to be a pacer in that year’s Hyderabad Marathon, when such concept was hardly heard about. A pacer is someone who runs to finish in a pre-designated finish time at a steady pace to help other runners finish within the same time. They also share how they intend to accomplish the task, be it their split timings for different laps, or aid-station breaks. It was a new experience for both me and Karthik Padmanabhan, and somehow, we managed to finish the run 2 minutes under our designated time of 5 hours. We were largely guided by our experience of running a marathon under 5 hours a few months back in the Shahid’s Ultra. The next experience of pacing was at Hyderabad in 2015, and this time, it was the 5:30 bus. The plan was more like not to plan and I went by few simple pointers as laid out in my blog. The third experience of pacing was at yet again in Hyderabad in 2018. I had to pace the 5:00 bus and the plan was simply to cover 9.5K, 9K, 8.5K, 8K, and the rest over the 5 hours.

In early November, Shiv presented me with an opportunity to pace for the 5:45 bus at the Mumbai Marathon. I had long decided not to run Mumbai Marathon again as explained in my blog post (it garnered the highest viewership among my blogs). However, it was difficult to say ‘No’ to Shiv, as he has been a pacer for events at my request in the past. The course being a flat one with minimal complications, it did not require me to know the route well (run it 5 times in the past). One of my aversion to Mumbai was that the event is an out-and-out commercial one and altruistic concepts like pacing is certainly alien to them. With plenty of commercial interests at stake, the joining formalities was certainly complicated.

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Profile pix by Gautham

To start with, a profile picture with conditions more stringent than the one required for visa purposes. Thanks to Dr. Gautham, I could get it done at zero budget. Some additional complications like not sporting brands other than the ‘official ones’, restrictions on communication, and so on – didn’t matter much given that I don’t have any commercial interests in running. The real shocker was when I was told to register for the event paying a hefty fee of Rs. 2,300! Most events in South India offer free entry to pacers as a token of appreciation, as they sacrifice their personal quests for a greater cause. By then, I had booked by flight tickets and hotel room, and financial stakes of cancelling were high. I had no choice but to pay and register for what I would call as the “Most Expensive” city marathon in India. Over the next two months, I worked on my plan to ensure that I do a decent job for the sake of runners trusting me on the run. If not for the organisers, this one was for the runners.

Pacing Splits

Most events prefer runners from that city for pacing as they would be familiar about the weather, route, elevation, key intersections etc., Such varations would normally be factored in their timing splits for the event. Finishing at 5:45 had only two challenges – the elevation was at the Peddar road flyover, which lasts for less than 2 Km, and the run at Marine Drive towards the end between 10:00 AM – 11:00 AM, for which splits have to be adjusted. I prepared a fairly straight forward plan, starting my runs at 7 minutes 40 seconds per Km in the beginning and gradually tapering down to 8 minutes 30 seconds towards the end. As suggested, I added a minute in the first half and another in the second half for bio-breaks. I wasn’t sure of the aid stations and felt I could adjust in the time provided. I only wish I factored some time for taking pictures at the Sea Link Bridge and with spectators at Peddar road.

Run-Walk-Run

One of the the best ways to run long distances is to mix walking with running, popularised by Jeff Galloway, as the ‘Run-Walk-Run’ method. We resort to walk breaks at some point over the 42.195 kms to ease the tiredness. In this method, the walk breaks are taken up at fixed intervals from the beginning, like running for few minutes and following it with a minute of walk. The average pace required for a 5:45 finish was about 8 minutes and 11 seconds – I split it into 2 cycles of 4 minutes each with 3 minutes of running and 1 minute of walk. The walk breaks were helpful in pacing the run to its perfection. It also helps runners to take a sip of water or grab something to eat at the aid stations (well, there wasn’t much to eat in Mumbai marathon!).

Training in the pace

Typically, a pacer chooses a time much slower than his/her comfortable running pace. Training runOn the face of it, it does look easier to start the run in such slow pace. The challenge, however, is to sustain the pace over the long hours and the distance. The physical and mental fatigue can kick at any time and it requires some composure to finish the run in designated pace. If not trained, pacers end up running faster initially and slow down towards the end; Or worse, they start so slow and have to catch up towards the end by running faster. Both strategies may help them finish on time, but it does not help others to follow them. The training runs are oriented to develop the rythm at slower speed and sustain them. While I was fairly confident of my ability to withstand 6 hours on the sun, I wanted to make sure that I am well trained to run in the desired pace. During the 2 months leading to the event, I made sure that all my runs follow the 3:1 run-walk method and gradually reduced the speed in the process. My last training run of 24K, a week before the event, boosted my confidence to do so (splits above).

Start and Finish Time

Every event provides a runner with two finish times – Gun time and Chip time. Gun time refers to the time from start of the event (shot of a gun) to the runner crossing the finish line. Chip time refers to the time from the runner crossing the start line and the finish line. While Chip time matters the most for runners, as it is the time taken by them to cover the distance, Gun time is considered as the ‘Official Time’ as per Rule 165.7 of The IAAF Competition Rules 2018-19. Pacing Bus must be always be based on the Gun Time. If corrals are used for staggered start, pacing must be based on the start time of the respective corrals, the pacers are assigned to. Take the example of Berlin Marathon 2019,

Berlin Pacing Bus

The 3:00 pace bus in wave 1 will finish at 12:15 PM and in wave 2 will finish at 12:25 PM. By following the wave start time, they ensure that the runners joining those buses in respective corrals finish under 3 hours. However, if someone starts in wave 1 and joins the 3:00 pace bus in wave 2, they will not be able to finish under 3 hours. In Mumbai marathon, while pacers were assigned different corrals based on the finishing time, they did not have seperate start time for different corrals. Corrals were started as the crowds were cleared. We were asked to follow our chip time and runners starting ahead of us could not make best use of the pace buses, when joined at later stage, as they were not sure of our start time.

Event distance or GPS Distance

One of the critical gadget for pacers is the GPS watches that measures time and distance. It helps them to monitor the pace during the run and the time elapsed. Most running events do not rely upon GPS devices for route measurement. They go by Calibrated Bicycle Method – in simple terms, distance measured by bicycle odometer with correct tyre pressure. For more, you can refer to this document. The differences between GPS devices and the race distance starts getting bigger as the distance increases. To avoid this, it would be best to use ‘manual laps’ in the watches. At the end of every 2 Km (by Km marker boards), the next lap should be started and the distance and pace is monitored for that lap, instead of cumulative time and distance. In Mumbai, the maximum difference between the laps was only about 60m, whereas the aggregate difference over the marathon was 360m.

Pacing Kit

Organisers of Mumbai Marathon provided runners with pacing bands that contain the timing splits for every 2K. Pacers were provided with a pacing flag and a bag to hold it. Kudos to the organisers for the excellent work on those. This helped the runners to identify us easily on the run and the pace bands were handy to follow us on the run.

Race Day Experience

The race day did not have many surprises in store. It was easy to execute the plan and I cleared each lap close to the designated time. The bus was packed with runners from the start to the finish, albeit not the same ones. Many runners appreciated the run-walk method as it helped them to clear the distance with ease. Here’s the analysis of my run through numbers.

There were some mistakes that the above data masks:

1. Lack of planning for water stations – I somehow managed to fill the bottle on the move. While it is not possible to drink as per schedule, it will be good to fill the bottles as per schedule.

2. Photographs en route – Apart from the exhorbitantly priced official pictures, there is a chance to take some wonderful pictures at the Sea Link Bridge or with the crowd at Peddar road. I could find some time at Sea Link Bridge, thanks to the time gained in previous 3 laps.

3. Peddar Road – The only elevation in the entire route was that of Peddar road, appearing twice on the route. While it was fairly easy to ascend on the onward route, it gets a bit difficult on the return as it appears between 34-36Km. The minute saved by not using the time allotted for bio break helped us to be on track.

It was certainly an overwhelming feeling when many runners approached me at the finish line to express their gratitude. More than the medal and the joy of finishing a marathon, the kind words from runners made my run very special and emotional. I must also thank my co-pacer Subramanian a.k.a. Rajesh for the wonderful support throughout. He managed the WhatsApp group, motivated the runners regularly, took care of interaction with runners at expo (which I had to miss), and supported excellently on the run.

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Personal bests in running events is not all about finishng faster. It is also about planning for a run and executing it as per the plan. What more, when your run can help others to finish well, it is certainly the best that one can have.

2 thoughts on “Being Pacer

  1. Dr. Dipak Gandhi

    Hi. I was lucky to b in your bus of 5.45 in TMM 2020. Because of your precise guidance , I finished exactly at 5.45. your pacing is awesome.

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