Race pacers help marathon runners keep the perfect tempo

Race pacers help marathon runners keep the perfect tempo

At Saturday's Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon, 21 runners wearing shirts that read "Joe's Pacers" will stagger themselves throughout the area behind the starting line along with around 5,000 half-marathon and marathon runners and hold up signs affixed to long sticks.

Those runners are the official race pacers, and the time listed on that placard will be the time that athlete runs. Almost exactly.

"They are tasked with finishing the marathon within 30 seconds of the target assigned to them," said Jim Crist, director of the Illinois Marathon's official race pacers, marathonpacing.com. "That's 14,400 seconds, and I've got them doing something within 30 seconds, so that's within two-tenths of one percent accuracy."

Crist's stable of over 200 runners works marathons across the country throughout the year. His pacers will run as many as eight in a year, and some pace for just one.

The goal of Crist's runners is, at its base, to protect runners against their instincts. At the beginning of a race, the surge of adrenaline can take a runner off-pace and hurt them a few hours later.

"If you were to go and survey runners throughout a marathon and say, 'How evenly did you run?' 90 percent of them would say, 'I started off too fast and I fell apart,'" Crist said. "My guys will run the first mile the same pace as the last mile. Nice and even."

Before becoming a pacer, runners are vetted extensively. On average, they've run 30 marathons and paced 12. They're all interviewed before their first race with Crist's team, and near the beginning of each interview, he always asks the same question.

"If I plop you down on a nice flat course, could you go out and run a 10-minute mile without wearing a watch?" he asks. "Then, I provide them with training and exercises that will help as far as pacing.

"Then I see what they do in their debut. Most of the time, they will do well. Every once in awhile, you get a new person, and they don't do the job that you want them to do."

Given the exact nature of their task, those runners will be looking down at their wrists throughout the race on Saturday.

"They do wear watches in the race because they need to be very accurate," Crist said

Crist's athletes, though, aren't just on the course to provide a silent reminder of the speed a racer needs to run. They're vocal cheerleaders for the athletes.

"A good part of what they do isn't just acting like a metronome out there," Crist said. "It's actually coaching the runners as they go through the course, giving them advice on when to take fluids, which is a challenging aspect in the last couple of miles or so."

The fastest pacer on Saturday will run a 6:52 per mile pace for the half-marathon. The slowest will run 12:36. In the middle of the pack, they'll be staggered five minutes apart according to goal time.

So on Saturday, Crist doesn't want runners to be intimidated when they see the runners with the signs on sticks and the loud, encouraging voices. Instead, he wants them to join a group.

"A lot of times I'll hear from a newer runner, 'Oh, I'm not good enough to run with a pacer,' or 'Oh, this is my first marathon, so I don't want to run with a pacer. I might be embarrassed,'" Crist said. "We really want to remove any trepidation of them running with a pacer who might be too good for them or something like that. No, we want them to come and run with us. That's why we're there. They will be made to be very welcome if they're going up with a pacer."