A few months ago, I volunteered to be an official pacer for the Long Branch Half Marathon 1:50 group here in NJ. I have paced individuals in races before, but that is a much different experience. Goal paces and effort can be readjusted as you go along in order to help the runner have a good experience.
To pace a group, means I need to run a specific time and the race needs to be evenly paced. To the extent possible, every mile should be run at the same pace. This is a challenge.
I should not sound so worried. After all in March I ran a 50k (31 miles) in 8:14 pace, with such little variation per mile that I was in awe of myself. I did this without using a Garmin or even checking my watch each mile. I just ran what felt good and tried to not fade. I ended up negative splitting that race by 5 seconds. I then went on to run a few other very evenly paced runs and races, again without using anything but how I felt.
However, Official Pacing means not running for me but running for others at the pace they need or want to run. To make sure I didn't mess this up, I decided that it is time that I learn to use my Garmin as a tool for telling me what to do rather than as the record keeper that tells me what I have just done. I adjusted a few settings to Average Pace and Lap Pace. I was able to see what my pace for the lap and my cumulative pace for the entire run.
I needed a test run so I ran a 15k on Saturday just to try out the settings.
April 30, 2011. Clinton Country Run, 15k
This race started a little hectic. To keep a record of my races, I pay by check. I threw my check book in my pocket and jogged to the start, only to discover I had no check book upon arrival to register. Panicked, I retraced my steps to find nothing. I called Martin to tell him that I lost my check book. While sorting out what I needed to do, a runner said he saw it and someone had picked it up. The DJ announced my dilemma. A woman heard and hollered out, "I found it! I gave it too the police". I retrieved my book and I was able to register in time. Phew!
I decided to run this race in 8 minutes per mile. I wanted to see how hard it is to hit a goal pace when using the watch to guide me. I did not trust the watch when it said Mile 1 was a 7:22 pace, but it turns out it was right. From Mile 1 onward, I was able to run every mile in 7:58 or 7:59 except for uphill Mile 9 which was just over 8 minutes.
It was liberating to not be racing. I was able to cheer on the women near me and not feel bad when I didn't feel compelled to beat them. By the end of run I reached my goal of running a 7:57 paced 9.3 mile run. Close enough to 8's and I was happy.
May 1, 2011 Long Branch Half Pacing.
Confident with my Garmin's ability to help me, I arrived at about 7:45 for an 8:30 start. I got my pacer balloons, which blew off the stick. A runner in my pace group suggested we tape it with athletic tape! She was a genius. We all waited for a port-a-potty, but the line was slow. We jumped into the corral (literally jumped in over a fence) because the alternative was to walk to the back of the corral.
We were just short of a minute behind the start mat. My group was small maybe just 3 runners at the start., but as I ran we collected more runners along the way. Between Miles 3 and 7 we had a nice group. At 3 miles, Martin who was also part of today's group, pulled ahead (not too bad for a 65 year old man!)
At 7 onward runners started to drop off. I was sad to not be able to drop my speed as well to offer encouragement, but I had to stay on pace. My splits were mostly 8:22 -8:24. It was really nice to see the watch guide me to what I needed to run.
At about 6.5 miles, one runner said "I am so glad I found you!" I responded, "Wow, that is always so good to hear ;)". She laughed and explained that it takes the pressure off. I wanted to add that I actually know where that pressure when, I am fully carrying it, but that is my job and not her concern. I must say that a part of me was worried about messing this up somehow. However with 6 to go, I knew I was going to be just fine.
At 10 miles in I was losing most of my group. I knew we had a little time buffer to play with, technically 60 seconds between 1:50:00 and 1:50:59, so I slowed down to see if they would come back to me. Once down to 8:35 pace and they were not gaining on me, I had to get back on pace. I am sure others were pacing off me and I didn't want to no do my job.
The last 2 miles I ran pretty much along, trying to encourage everyone around me to beat me to break 1:50.
Here is where I saw a man on the ground getting chest compressions. It was tremendously upsetting to witness. I pray that he was attended to in time and his life was saved. All I could think is that someone is waiting for this man to finish and he almost made it.
I caught up to an older man, who was working hard to finish but starting to fade. We had less than .4 to go so I encouraged him to try to finish strong with me, but honestly I couldnt help but worry about him after what we both just saw. He still found a way to dig deep for a strong finish. I stayed with him and at the end I could see him get wobbly. He leaned on me and I am lucky to not have collapse since I am less than 5ft 2in and not very good at catching jelly-legged dudes about to go unconscious. I started calling for help and eventually people seemed to understand that I meant it, but no until after I asked about 3 different people to get me some help. Once a wheelchair came out of the crowd, I felt at least he had a place to sit and catch his breath. He was wheeled off and I continued on through the finish area, a bit rattled and hoping that there are reports that the man survived his collapse today.
I got home to do some research on cardiac issues in marathoning and despite the fact that reports of collapsing runners seems to be on the rise, studies do show that we are generally better off running than we are not.
I think a few issues are contributing to so many emergencies on the race courses.
I think that fact that race courses are staying open longer to encourage walkers are somehow encouraging untrained runners to take part as well. I believe in the past, average marathon finishing times were much faster and race participation was lower. Runners who were well trained and ready to compete were able to register right at the race and at registrations fees that were much lower. I suspect that all those factors create a situation where people who are prepared to run end up running and those unprepared do not not feel compelled to show up, register, and push themselves too hard.
I wonder how many runners show up at races feeling unprepared. If someone asked me this morning, do you think you could run a marathon today? I would say yes, with confidence. If they asked why, I could say that because I have logged enough miles in training to know I could finish. I wonder how many runners at the start of our races can say for sure they feel they did the work required to finish the race.
I wonder how many runners show up, not having logged nearly enough miles, but since they made a commitment they feel compelled to race. A marathon trip could cost a person's a months rent or half their mortgage. Hundreds of dollars are spent on hotels, race numbers, flights, car rentals, food, and many other things. I wonder if this sense of feeling obligated to race after spending so much in advance acts to contribute to those being taken away in ambulances on the race course.
Lately races require pre-registrations months in advance. Runners think they have time to train later. Race Directors do not allow refunds, or even transferring of race bibs to others who may be better prepared to tactle the challenges.
For all those runners who felt unprepared to race, I wonder how many would have gladly transferred their bibs to runner willing and able to take their place. I bet a compelling case for bib transfer can be made in the interest of public policy, but that is just me rambling.
Thanks for reading. Prayers to the man I saw on the course today.