Last Sunday I had a new running experience, serving as an official pacer for the Capital City Marathon. Specifically, I was a pacer for the second half of the marathon, joining up with another pacer who ran from the start. It was my responsibility to run a consistent pace for 13.1 miles so that runners who wanted to finish the marathon in four hours and 30 minutes had but to follow me to reach the promised land on time. Taking on the responsibility of not just helping others achieve their goal but to achieve it at precisely 11:30 a.m. was daunting. The somewhat out-of-body – or, at least, body-adjacent – experience of running not for myself but for others has caused me to reflect on, revise, and add to the Truths and Rules of Running that I proffered in my first book, Ten Year Run. For example:
The First Rule of Running Half Marathons: Never underestimate 13.1 miles
I started my pacing duties with a cold. The symptoms had presented themselves on the prior Monday, so by race day I was over the worst of it. However, if I was not obligated to go for a run that day, I would have stayed home to blow my nose and cough in peace. The adrenaline of responsibility sustained me, but by the end, I was spent, as if I had run the full marathon. In my defense, I joined my pacing group at the 12 mile marker, which meant I ran 14.1 miles. I think it’s that last mile that did me in.
The Second Rule of Running Half Marathons: Never pretend that you can “hold it” for 13.1 miles
All the pacers gathered at a tent near the start of the race to be given our official highlighter yellow-colored pacing balloons to match our official pacer singlets. The balloons were inscribed with finish times. Mine said “4:30.” I joined up with “4:00” and “4:15” who, like me, would start running at the halfway point. Being socially awkward, it was more than an hour before I learned their respective names: Peter and Angela. Seth was our chauffeur, and we agreed that we would stage ourselves at Mile 12 for one simple reason: it had a port-o-potty. Being properly hydrated and evacuated was essential for a pacer to carry out their leadership responsibilities, as it would be uncouth to stop to pee during the race. If I pulled over to relieve myself, my followers would be forced to strike out on their own or mill about the port-o-potty waiting for me. The idea of a group of people waiting for me to pee was unbearable, and I’m certain it would have made it all the more difficult to relax enough to get a good flow going. Since we had more than an hour to wait before our respective groups arrived, I made three trips to the port-o-potty, which gives rise to a new rule:
The First Rule of Race Pacing: Always exercise caution when entering or exiting a port-o-potty with a balloon tethered to your shoulder.
It’s easy to forget you have a balloon looming over you, and on my third trip, I left my balloon behind when I stepped out of the chamber and closed the door. Fortunately I didn’t break the string or pop the balloon, which would have put an inglorious end to my pacing career. While we waited for our runners to arrive, we had the opportunity to see the three lead marathoners cross the 12-mile mark. I noted the time and did the math to determine that they were running a 5:45 per mile pace, nearly twice as fast as I would be running. Humbling, to say the least.
Marathon Running Rule 19: Never operate heavy equipment or attempt algebra after 15 miles.
I need to amend Rule 19. While it’s still valid, I would lower the calculation threshold to 10 miles. As a pacer, I was armed with a lot of data. On my left wrist I had my chronograph running and a borrowed GPS fitness tracker monitoring my progress from space. I strapped a printed pace chart to my right arm that provided mile-by-mile information on how fast I should be going. I also had my pacing partner, Andy, by my side, and he was similarly equipped. Throughout the run, I consulted Andy and my wrists incessantly to ensure I was staying on the 10:17 per mile pace. The stress of my responsibility was amplified by the fact that every data point available to me told a different story. My chronograph was a few seconds different than Andy’s, and our GPS trackers had different ideas about how far a mile is. Even our pre-printed pace charts provided different split times. Over the course of eight miles, it became clear that, while different, there was a consistency to the data, which made the stress manageable. However, around mile 20, Andy dropped back, leaving me as the sole 4:30 pacer. On the positive side, there was only one person running with me by that time. Our group of 4:30 finishers had faded away, leaving only Tammy. Of course, the down side is that if I failed in my duty, I would be breaking one very specific woman’s heart. I would rather face a mob of disappointed runners than one woman wanting to know why I let her down. I consulted my mobile spreadsheets and determined that we were about two minutes ahead of schedule heading into the brutal Eastside hill. Those two minutes would come in handy, I decided, if we slowed down making our way up the mile-plus ascent. That’s when my mental calculator started having trouble. As we crested the hill, it seemed that perhaps, according to my pace chart, despite what my chronograph lap timer and GPS were telling me, I was about five minutes ahead of schedule. While my greatest fear had been finishing late, I was now confronted with the possibility that I would finish early, which has happened to me before (wink, wink). I was still trying to determine how we could have banked so much time over the most challenging part of the course when a runner came up from behind me and said, “You’re going too fast.” I responded, “I know, but I’m trying to keep up with her.” That’s when another Noble Truth of Running occurred to me:
We are stronger together.
Tammy and I had run together for eleven miles at that point. She was determined to set a PR and I was determined to deliver her on time. It was hot, I wasn’t feeling great, and she had twelve more miles of pain on her legs than I did, but we sustained each other. She depended on me to keep her on pace, and I was resolved to get her up Eastside hill, the very hill that broke me last year causing me to fall short of a 4:30 finish. We climbed our own little Everest together, and when we returned to flat ground, we weren’t thinking about 4:30, we were just running to the finish. She was feeling good because a PR was just two miles away, so she sped up, and I matched her speed. Fortunately, the guy behind me, who could still do math, reminded me of my responsibilities as a pacer.
Even if you don’t think you’re a leader, someone might be following your lead.
It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t all about Tammy’s PR. I was going too fast, and she was doing just fine. I needed to get back on pace, because that was my job. While I had no evidence that anyone else was running with me, there might be someone watching from a distance. I dialed back my pace significantly, letting Tammy continue on to her glorious finish. I even walked for a quarter mile before resuming a slow running shuffle, so I could finish the race at my appointed time. Over the last mile, a woman sprinted passed me, then stopped to walk, allowing me to pass her. She repeated the pattern a half dozen times as we neared the finish. It became clear that my balloon was her beacon. She was using every last bit of energy to ensure she would cross the line ahead of me, sealing her fate as a 4:30 finisher. With about 20 yards to go, she sprinted ahead and I shouted, “Go get it!” I was elated to see her finish ahead of me at 4:29. Congratulations, whoever you are.
One footnote to the story of my first official outing as a pacer, and another rule: Only use your stalking powers for good
My father-in-law is a semi-pro photographer, and he took the opportunity of watching his son-in-law cross the finish line to take lots of pictures. He stopped by the house in the late afternoon following the race to present me with three 8x10s of the pictures he took that morning. Two of them were of me crossing the finish line. In both photos, I looked tired, which I was. Had I known I was being photographed, I would have put on a brave face, but as it was, he captured my true feeling of exhaustion. The third photo was of a couple: two twenty-somethings holding hands and smiling broadly as they crossed the finish line. They were remarkably photogenic, clearly having enjoyed their half marathon more than I did. It was a great picture, but I didn’t understand why he gave it to me. I had no idea who they were. They were not pacing with me, and I didn’t remember seeing them in front of or behind me when I crossed the line. I looked at him with confusion, and he told me he just thought they were a cute couple, which they were. Later on, it occurred to me that I could search the Results page of the marathon website to match their bib numbers with names, which I did. With names in hand, I found the young man on Facebook. The good news was that his Facebook profile indicated he was, in fact, in a relationship with the woman he crossed the line with. I would have hated to have photographic evidence that he was running with another woman. The bad news was that I was officially stalking these people. Knowing my motives were innocent, and hoping he was not of a prosecutorial mindset, I messaged him to share an electronic copy of the photo and congratulate them on their finish. He thanked me and said his girlfriend would be delighted to see the picture.
Truths and rules aside, I think my pacing was a success. I made at least three people smile, and that’s a good day’s work by any measure.