Pacers – the leaders of the pack

Follow that balloon! (Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho)

If discussion boards and word of mouth are a fair indication, then it seems that first-timers running in this year’s Dublin Marathon are curious – perhaps even concerned – about how they will judge their pace to meet their target time.

The questions are many, the worries great. What if I start too fast and blow up early? What if I start too slowly and miss my target time? And aren’t we all going to splatter into The Wall anyway?

Never fear;  the marathon has people who’ll take all this worry and uncertainty out of your hands. Not only will they help you, but they’ll do so while wearing a colourful balloon or flag.

Pacers are the heroes of your local marathon. These days any race worth its entry fee will have them. These experienced marathoners will run the race at the right pace to meet their designated target time, be it sub-3 hours or sub-5 or points in between. You can still keep an eye on your watch while running off a pacer, of course. All you have to do is sit in behind them and follow on, your mind relieved of pace-keeping calculation duty and allowing you to focus on more important things: the atmosphere, the sights, the plates of sweets offered by spectators. (Mrs Mars Bars in Walkinstown: I’ll be back for you this year!)

The Paris Marathon claims to be the first race to use designated pacers, back in 2000 – so the race guide from this year’s event tells me. I gather that Dublin started using pacers in 2009. For many non-elite runners they have become an essential part of the marathon experience.

In entering the Dublin Marathon you’ve already indicated your estimated time, and you’ve been assigned to a designated zone at the start. There you’ll see the pacers, with a coloured balloon or flag flying above them all along the route so they’ll stand out. In last year’s race there were two or three pacers for every 15 minute interval between 3 hours and 5 hours.

By now, with less than four weeks to race day, you should know what your target time will be (unless you are just running to finish it regardless of time, of course). Race day is no time to suddenly change your plans and ‘upgrade’ to a faster pacer. But there’s always one who’ll chance it – and he’ll learn the hard way.

If you choose to run with a pacer, you don’t need to stick to your one like cheap underwear – just be near enough to keep pace comfortably. A nice touch I’ve seen is where pacers have their water fetched by their followers – a simple act of gratitude that lets your pacer keep his or her rhythm. And if you’re having trouble, the pacer is there with a few words of advice and encouragement.

But don’t write off your marathon experience if you lose touch with your pacer. It’s not a race against the balloon. While the pacer is there to help you, ultimately you’re the one who’s doing the running for you.

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