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Pacing 100 mile races - it’s about the carrot and the stick

by kirsty
Tuesday 16th June 2015
Tags  Pacing   |   Kirsty Reade   |   South Downs Way 100   |   SDW100   |   Centurion Running

Fresh from supporting a friend at the South Downs Way 100, Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade gives a lesson on 'pacing etiquette'

There is a murky underworld of people who hang around in the countryside in the early hours, meeting partners in car parks and flashing lights at each other. Yes, I’m talking about the world of crewing and pacing 100 mile races.

Having looked at pacing half marathons and marathons recently, we thought we’d examine the ups and downs of pacing long races. Whereas on the shorter distances pacing is about hitting a certain speed consistently and keeping your followers running at that pace, on a 100 mile race it’s more about keeping your runner running, or just moving forward, even if that’s on all fours. It’s about encouraging, cajoling, sometimes outright lying, it’s about the carrot and the stick and knowing when to employ each.

I had the privilege of pacing a runner (my friend Janette) at the South Downs Way 100 at the weekend. Not all races allow pacers, but Centurion, the organisers of the SDW100, allow it for the final half of all their 100s. Centurion put on fantastic events and this is in a large part down to the volunteers – on aid stations, at registration, marshalling, course marking and clearing, dealing with the enormous logistics of events like this – as well as the brilliant Nici and James. Centurion must be the only events company with a waiting list for volunteers. That says it all really.

In my experience the pacers are very much made to feel like part of that Centurion volunteer family, which is great because it’s a hard job with a lot of responsibility.

Firstly there’s the logistics. 100 miles is a really long way! You’re responsible for getting your runner to the start without them having had a nervous breakdown, you’re responsible for making sure all the right kit is in all the right places along that 100 miles (‘but I might want a Calippo at mile 86!’, ‘ok, I’ll hire a generator and a mobile freezer unit’), then you have to get yourself to the right point on the course and work out a complicated transport sharing system with other pacers. The logistics will make your head hurt.

Once you start running the most important rule is to say exactly the right thing at all times. This is quite a pressure. You have to encourage, but not go overboard. I was once trying to encourage somebody I was running with who was going through a tough patch in a race and said ‘look, we’re still overtaking people, that’s brilliant!’, to which they replied ‘THOSE PEOPLE WERE STATIONARY!’ and we then endured a lengthy, uncomfortable silence.

You also have to stay on the right side of encouraging and not cross into nagging territory. This is an example of an acceptable statement: ‘hey, what do you fancy to eat at this aid station?’. An unacceptable, naggy alternative might be: ‘for God’s sake will you eat this pork pie or you are going to die. I won’t tell you again!’. Direct orders like this are likely to result in passive aggressive responses from people who have been on their feet for 90 miles. And I think that’s fair enough.

Another fraught subject area is time. If your runner is striving for a particular time do you tell them when they’re behind schedule? In the later stages it’s unlikely they’ll be able to up the pace significantly so will it do them any good to know? You can hurry them through the aid stations, you can get them hiking at a decent pace up the hills, but you probably can’t get them to drop a few 6 minute miles in to make up a bit of time.

In fact, do you talk at all? At times companionable silence may be the way to go. Always at the forefront of your mind is that ill-judged words can send your exhausted, suffering runner spiralling into a pit of despair. Sometimes it’s best to err on the side of caution. You also need to exercise your very best judgement on matters such as ‘should I encourage them to run or should I call the air ambulance?’.

My runner, Janette, had fallen badly and cracked her ribs but I knew there was no way that she was going to stop because she is incredibly tough. So I never dared suggest that she drop out, but I did prime myself to phone 999 at the first sign of a punctured lung!

Above all, as a pacer you have to remember that this is your runner’s big day, not yours. The worst thing is that supporters will assume that you’re running the race and they will offer universal praise such as ‘wow, 100 miles, that’s amazing!’ and ‘you’re doing so well, keep going!’ and you have to keep apologising, saying that you’re only the pacer. Otherwise it will look like you are basking in your runner’s rightfully deserved limelight. Similarly, at the finish don’t drop a sprint finish and leave your runner for dead, then showboat your way over the line. That would be really bad.

So 100 mile races are exhausting, mentally challenging, emotional rollercoasters. They’re hard for the runners as well though, so at least pacers aren’t alone in their suffering. Pacers get to benefit from all the good stuff about the day, to share in an incredible experience in a small way and to witness their runner achieve something really special, but avoid the less fun stuff like blisters, vomiting and not being able to walk.

I have to admit to a few tears when Janette and my other friend Pip came over the finish line. I was really tired though. It had been a hard day.


About The Author

Kirsty Reade

I’d describe myself as borderline obsessed with running, racing, reading about running, and watching others run so hopefully I’m fairly typical of Run247’s visitors. I tend to do longer races, particularly off-road marathons and ultras, but am pretty much a fan of any distance. I'm passionate about helping runners of all levels to improve through running communities I'm involved in, such as Underground Ultra and Free Range Runners. 


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