How to become a race pacer: Time to get your fellow runners some PBs

The unsung heroes of races around the world
Why you need to be a race pacer

Why would you pace a race for other runners? If you’ve ever run a marathon then you’ll know that there are very few greater feelings than crossing the finish line, absolutely exhausted but delighted with what you have achieved, especially if you’ve managed to hit your target time.

One of the greater feelings, however, might well be crossing that finish line leading a whole squad of people to their own target time. That’s the joy of being a marathon pacer, and if you’re reading this there’s every chance you fancy getting in on the action.

Here’s everything you need to know about pacing marathons and being part of one of running's most rewarding experiences.

What is marathon pacing?

In simple terms, marathon pacing is setting a pace for others to follow. At the front end of races that means athletes running at a ludicrous pace for half or two-thirds of the marathon to help someone like Eliud Kipchoge break a world record, while for normal runners pacers will go right through to the finish line, guiding those with them to finish at their target time.

How to become a marathon pacer

At major events like the London Marathon there will be an entire squad of around 65 pacers running to hit various times, usually ranging from three up to six or seven hours in 15-minute increments.

Pacers usually run in pairs, and they carry flags on their back advertising the time they are pacing, so it’s easy to spot the one you want to run with even at a crowded start line.

How does it help runners?

There are many reasons to run with a pacer, starting with the fact they will prevent you from committing the classic marathon folly of starting too fast. Pacers aim to run even splits throughout the race and are experienced marathoners that know how to adjust their pace to do that even in crowds or when running over a hilly section of a course.

Not having to worry about pacing the race yourself takes a lot of stress out of the equation, especially in the later stages of a marathon when your brain is fried and trying to work out the splits you need to hit your target becomes very tricky.

How to become a marathon pacer

There are also usually crowds of runners around pacers, which does have its negatives at times – keep your wits about you at water stations, in particular, to avoid crashing into people – but is overall a major positive. You enjoy the camaraderie and support of running with a group all aiming for the same goal, and if the weather is bad, you can find some shelter in the crowd.

How do you become a pacer?

Running an even pace through a marathon is a skill, and one that even many experienced runners don’t possess. To become a marathon pacer you have to only have several races under your belt, but also be able to prove you can pace a race correctly.

“I have been a pacer since 2013, pacing lots of 10Ks and half marathons with the Xempo Race Pacing Team,” says Nicki Petit, who was a pacer at the 2018 London Marathon. “I built up quite a running CV and record of pacing times, crossing the line within five to ten seconds of my target time, so I spoke to the team at Runner's World about pacing London and my name was added to the list.”

At many major marathons, the pacing teams are put together by sponsors who you apply to if you want to be a part of the squad. Runner’s World assemble the pacing squad for several marathons, including London, while Nike is behind the pacing team for the Chicago Marathon.

The time you are given to pace naturally depends on your own running ability, which you’ll need to show some proof of. You’ll generally have a target time that’s 20 or 30 minutes slower than your own marathon pace, which allows you to run the race reasonably comfortably so you can support those around you.

“I had to provide my running experience, previous race times and also pacing events/successes,” says Petit. “As a pacer, we've everyone else's race on our shoulders so we have to be confident of our ability to not only be able to complete the distance comfortably in a given time, but also to be able to talk, motivate and cheer our team to the finish line!”

How to become a marathon pacer

How close do the target time do you have to be?

On the day the aim is naturally to finish under the target time, but not too much under it – people aiming to scrape under four hours could be left behind by a pacer that runs to finish at 3:55. Usually, pacers will be advised to finish within one or two minutes of the target time, but sometimes they will be even more exact – the Manchester Marathon has three pacers at around the four-hour mark, one running 3:58, one 3:59 and one 4:00.

“I was the 4:30 pacer, which is a very busy and popular race time so my aim of course was to come in sub 4:30 to help as many people get PBs as possible,” says Petit. “I crossed the line in 4:29:34!”

How do you keep a steady pace?

There are several tools a pacer can use to keep them on track in a race, and most of these are available to non-pacers as well. Pacing bands with your target splits per mile or kilometer, GPS watches, and the markers on the course can all help. However, what an experienced pacer has that marathon newcomers probably don’t is the ability to run their pace on feel.

How to become a marathon pacer

“It's so important that you know how your body feels running at a certain pace – posture, footing, stride, arm action,” says Petit. “The watch plays a massive part of the pacing job but you can't 100% rely on it – what happens if GPS goes out? Or if the watch doesn't match the mile markers? Or even worse, it stops working on race day!”

It’s definitely worth noting that you can’t expect your watch to be accurate in a major marathon, for several reasons. One is that city marathons often have routes that pass tall buildings or go through tunnels, which can scramble the GPS signal, but more important is the fact that you won’t be running exactly 42.2km – you’ll be running more than that, because it’s impossible to stick the perfect racing line given the crowds of people you’ll be running with.

That means each time you pass a distance marker with a clock, you need to do some quick maths to work out if your pacing is on track.

“There are a lot of calculations that go on through the miles – it’s just as well we each have a pacing partner so we can do the sums! I also use a pacing band that I wrap around my wrist, so I know the exact minute and seconds for each mile through the race and whether I need to pull back or speed up for a short while.”

What happens if you can’t hold the pace?

Just like every other runner, pacers can have a bad day. While it’s more unlikely for them because they won’t be going all-out during the marathon, things can still go wrong, which is why there’s usually two of them for each target time.

How to become a marathon pacer

"Out on the course pacers are generally in pairs so if the worst happens and we get injured or can't keep up with the pace then you remove your flag and let the other pacer lead the group to the finish line,” says Petit.

Pacers also have to put in the training for the race and can get injured then, in which case it’s important to let the organizers know so they have time to find a replacement.

"Sadly I did get injured ahead of London Marathon in 2019,” says Petit. “I gave my notice one month ahead of race day and the team found a replacement. I was gutted to miss out on the event but as a pacer, it's your responsibility to help others and if you're not in tip-top condition, well you won't be able to do your job, let alone enjoy the miles.”

Is pacing stressful?

While there’s undoubtedly a lot of satisfaction to be enjoyed when you cross the finish line, the responsibility of pacing people through the race might sound a little bit stressful. However, those who have paced a race are quick to suggest it’s a brilliant experience.

How to become a marathon pacer

“I absolutely love pacing,” says Petit. “It's amazing to see the other side of a race and to be part of a team. Running can be seen as such a solo sport, but when you're pacing you have a big team huddled around you!

“I've never felt it to be stressful. It's a challenge, but I thrive on a challenge and knowing that my role is to get hundreds of people to the finish line to achieve their race PB or first marathon, it's such an incredible experience.”

Is the flag annoying to run with?

One last question that anyone who has seen a pacer on the course might well have. Surely having a big flag strapped to your back isn’t a lot of fun to run with?

“The flag is super light!” Says Petit. “I didn't really know I was wearing it on race day. Sometimes gusts of wind can be a challenge – or low hanging trees in many races I've paced! For London, I ran a few practise runs ahead of the weekend with the running pack – the backpack that the flag sits in – so that I could tighten the straps comfortably. Just like any runner testing their race kit, this is another piece you want to fit perfectly, so it doesn't move or rub.”

As well as the pacers organized through companies like the Xempo Race Pacing Team, many events will have their own pacer programs. To find out about the pacing options for a race check the individual websites to see if they have an initiative set up.

Main image credit: Virgin London Marathon

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