Ultra Tip #24 – The Art of Pacing

by Carilyn on April 18, 2012

Pacing at Badwater - Running ahead of Alan to fill his bottles

Many longer ultras (usually 100 miles +) allow a runner to have pacer in the later miles of a race. This can be a wonderful gift, or a truly big pain in the backside, depending on how well the runner and pacer work together.  While a pacer’s basic duty is to keep the runner safe in the later hours of an ultra when it is dark and she is fatigued, his actual job is so much bigger than that. A good pacer can really help keep a runner motivated, focused and relaxed by taking on navigational duties, keeping the runner company, and just generally lifting the runner’s spirits. And a bad pacer can do just the opposite.

So, here are some tips for being a good pacer:

1.  Talk to your runner ahead of time to establish what her expectations will be during the race. Does she like a lot of conversation, absolute silence, or something in between?  Is this her first long ultra?  Does she need certain things at the end of a race – motivation, calming words, or just company?  Ask questions to really get a sense of what your runner expects from you.

2.  Know the rules for pacing.  Most ultras have very specific rules about how much aid you can provide your runner, where you can run in relation to your runner, how many miles you are able to run, and what needs to be done if your runner has a problem.  You need to know the rules.  It would be awful if you got your runner disqualified because you didn’t follow the pacing rules.

3.  Know the rules of the race.  Because you are officially on the course, you have to abide by the race rules.  For example, strict “no littering” and course conduct rules apply to pacers just like they apply to runners.  Each race has specific course rules – know them.

4.  Have thick skin.  By the time you start pacing your runner, he will be extremely fatigued – and probably a little (or a lot) grouchy.  It is very common for runners to snap at their pacers, or to not be the most communicative. Don’t expect him to entertain you or to treat you with kid gloves.  Remember, he has already run about 70 miles before you even started.  Be patient – and tough.

5.  Be adaptable.  Your runner may be very talkative and outgoing off the course, but that doesn’t mean she will be like that by mile 70.  She may have said she wanted a talkative pacer, but then when you meet up with her during the race, she wants silence.  Go with it. Being able to gauge your runner’s mood and adapt is a very wonderful skill in a pacer.

6.  Remember that this is not your race.  You might have to do a lot of walking in the last miles of your runner’s race.  Don’t act impatient about it.  You are not there to get a good workout or to see how hard you can push.  This is your runner’s race – follow his pace.

7.  Take care of yourself.  It is very important that you stay fed and hydrated if you are to help your runner.  It is not uncommon for a pacer to end up in the medical tent because she didn’t pay attention to her own body.  Don’t ignore your own needs, or you will not be good for your runner.  Eat and drink regularly, just as if you are racing.

8.  Know your runner’s pacing preferences.  Does she like you to run in front, or behind? (check the rules on this).  Does she like to be pushed, or completely control the pace?  Does she have a run/walk strategy that she will want you to help her carry out?  Every runner likes to be paced differently, and you will be more effective as a pacer if you know how your runner likes to be paced.

9.  Keep taking your runner’s pulse.  By this, I mean, keep paying attention to how your runner is doing physically and mentally.  Do you need to back off the pace because you notice he’s fading?  Do you sense that he wants to go a little faster?  Has he gotten really quiet and it’s time to give him a rest from conversation.  Remember that things change mile by mile, so pay attention to the clues.

10. Be trained.  As a pacer, you will be required to run anywhere from 15 to 30 miles, on average.  Make sure you can easily cover the distance, and at the pace, required by your runner.  Stories abound of runners having to leave a pacer who wasn’t trained adequately for the pacing duties required – either in distance, or pace.  Train to be a good pacer.

Pacers are an important part in a runner’s success in long ultras.  Runners are always looking for good pacers, and are SO appreciative of someone who knows how to pace well.  Being a good pacer is an art form, and one that takes practice.  Look for opportunities to pace to perfect your pacing skills.  An added bonus: you will be amazed at how much you will learn about running just by pacing others.

Next week:  How to Be a Good “Pacee”!


What do you look for in a pacer?


Happy Running!




Marcia April 19, 2012 at 4:40 am

Wow, great tips. I can definitely see how a runner would be grouchy. It’s amazing the various effects fatigue has on people.

olga April 19, 2012 at 8:37 am

Remember to grab toilet paper when asked for one!
No, really, what you need is to be a mind reader.
OK, a psychologist as well.
And hopefully a pretty accomplished at the distance your runner is attempting (and may be this course).
Never mind, I had a couple of boys who never run an ultra, and they did great, but I think they were scared of me and just listened.
So, there, best advice: listen to your runner! Be cruel and comforting simultaneously. Love what you do!

Carilyn April 19, 2012 at 11:07 am

Yes! In the middle of the night, there’s no room for modesty 🙂

Carilyn April 19, 2012 at 11:08 am

Yes, nothing like being sleep-deprived, physically exhausted, and bonking. Makes for some very grumpy behavior 🙂

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