Last weekend I ran my first race as a member of the MN Pacers. I’m sure you’ve seen pacers at a previous half or full marathon in the past. They are usually pretty easy to spot carrying a small sign or balloon with that pacer’s target finish time.
The New Prague half marathon is a small-town race about 40 minutes south of Minneapolis. Driving south from the Twin Cities, the topography and landscape quickly changes, even just after 20 minutes. You enter farm country; acres and acres of farm land.
It’s a great change from living in Minneapolis; almost peaceful. This is why I love small town races so much. Instead of dealing with the traffic, crowds, and logistical nightmare of getting to the start line on race morning. You park close to the venue; pick up your race packet on race morning; there are no lines for the port-a-johns (or Biffs, here in MN); and there’s a lot more greenery than asphalt.
Heading into the event I felt a bit nervous. It was a different kind of nervous. I wasn’t concerned about my own performance, but I didn’t want to lead other runners astray.
As a pacer, plenty of other runners rely on you to set the tempo of their race. Sure they have their own work to do, but pacing is such a critical part of distance running. And settling into the right pace group, especially early on, might be the difference between going out too hard and blowing up, and setting a PR.
I’m personally thankful for the role that pacers play at distance running events. They were part of my strategy for breaking 3 hours in the marathon for the first time. In that race, I hung with the 3-hour pace group for the first 8 miles or so to settle in, and then went for it.
And that’s exactly the role pacers play, whether among the elite runners at the London marathon, or with a first-time marathoner. Pacers don’t really have a stake in the outcome of the race. I didn’t run the New Prague half marathon because I wanted to place in the top 25 (which I actually did) or because I wanted to set a PR. Pacers are the unbiased constant that lets other runners know if they’ve gone out too fast or if they’re right on target.
Now, aside from running 13.1 miles with a small sign in my hand indicating the 1:35 prospective finish time, the most challenging part of pacing is dialing in the feel of the required effort. What do I mean by that? Well, one option would be to run the entire race with a GPS watch, which many pacers (and runners) will do. GPS is a helpful tool. If you’re trying to hit specific splits or hold a particular pace, GPS gives you real-time feedback. That can be helpful.
But the biggest downside of always wearing a GPS watch, in my opinion, is you never really develop an understanding of perceived exertion/effort. You’re chained to the feedback of your watch, not of your body. I’ve never run with a GPS watch. But it’s because of this, that I’ve developed a pretty intimate understanding of what certain paces feel like. I don’t see it as a limiter; it’s an asset. I think all runners should have this type of foundation.
So when it came time to pace last weekend, sure I was a little nervous because it was my first time pacing (and about 30 minutes before the race I switched with the guy who was suppose to pace 1:35 because he had a cold; I was suppose to do 1:40), but I knew I’d be able to be within the ballpark. Like always, I ran with just a standard Timex sports watch. At each mile marker I checked my time and in my head compared it with the goal pace. I paced for 1:35, which comes out to be a 7:15 per mile pace. Sure it’s a little math while you’re running, but it’s pretty simple.
My first few miles were a bit fast, closer to 6:50-7:05 pace. But, things evened out as the miles went along. I finished in 1:34:22, or 7:12 per mile pace. Not bad for my first time pacing and going by feel (not to mention the day after a hard 50 mile bike session); only off by 3 seconds per mile. In the overall scheme of things, it was a good training run building towards my first triathlon of the year in early June.
And as far as race venues go, I highly recommend New Prague. A fantastic, well-organized, small-town race with a great rolling course through the surrounding farmland.