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September 21, 2011

Marathon Pacing: Guest Post by Danny Miller

Danny Miller runs ultras, and he writes very long posts. It’s no wonder I felt a connection to him.

He contacted me after an article I wrote about pacing, and explained that he was a marathon pacer who had some interesting stories to tell about his experiences, for better or worse. The post that follows is a little bit of both. And yes, it’s long – but like a marathon, once you make it to the end, you’ll be happy you stuck with it.

When you get there, be sure to give Danny some feedback in the comment box below.


Marathon Pacing       by Danny Miller

I was terrified the first time I lined up to pace. It was the 2010 Kansas City Marathon and I was holding the 4:20 stick in my hand, 20 or so people surrounded me who had told me they wanted to stick with me during the race.

“Crap”, I thought to myself. “What have I gotten myself into?”

Marathons had become training runs for me. I had been exclusively running 50 mile and greater races for at least the past two years. I hadn’t run 26.2 since my marathon PR, San Francisco, a 3:38 five days after fighting through the worst 50-miler I had ever run, at Mt. Hood. I forgot my body glide at that 50 - let your imagination run wild with that.

“I don’t want to screw up someone’s time. What if I do? I’d feel so terrible.”

The only marathon I’d run since then had been in training. We all know what a training run longer than a marathon is like. They typically involve many stops at the car, some sitting down, lots of eating, and a relaxed pace. They weren’t constant stretches of running, plus, nobody DEPENDED on me to run during my training runs. If my shoe got untied during a training run, I just stopped and tied it, then lounged around a bit. No rush.

“I can do this, I ran 100 miles a few months ago. If I can run 100 miles, I can do anything.”

A running buddy of mine was a pacer. He was injured and they were looking for a replacement. He asked me if I was interested. I said sure, and that was about it. I passed along some running qualifications and ended up in his spot, 4:20.

“I did that 18 mile training run at race pace last week, I was fine with that.”

“Crap! I didn’t poop this morning!” I always poop before a race.

With a boom, we were off.

I’m a pacer with a group in Kansas City called Runners Edge. We’ve got a core group of pacers that hit the local races and do some traveling: Lincoln, St. Louis, Denver, and Wichita. We’re growing and it has been a lot to be a part of it from somewhat early on. All our events are road races. Funny seeing how I’m a get-lost-in-the-woods-on-a-trail kind of guy.

We use a strategy called SmartPace. The idea is to run your first mile about a minute slower than your race pace, second mile about 30 seconds slower, then ease into race pace over the next couple of miles. You end up running the core of the race slightly below race pace to make up for the start. This is ok as you’ve had a nice easy warm-up to get you settled into that pace.

We also groom the pace to fit the course. If there’s a big climb at mile 22 (like there is in Kansas City) we slow the pace there and speed up elsewhere to compensate. Most pacers work in walk breaks at the aid stations as well. If I’m due to run a 9:35 for a 2-mile stretch and I know there’s an aid station in that stretch I’ll run a 9:25 and give the runners 20 seconds to walk through the aid stations. My medical training has shown me that Gatorade is more effective in you than on you.

Our coach, Eladio Valdez III came up with this strategy in 2005 after trying lots of other ways to get folks through marathons. He had tried everything – run a mile, walk a minute – even pace – run/walk combinations – nothing was working well. That’s when he tried the “start out smart”, “ease into the race”, “run a race to fit the course”, strategy. SmartPace was officially born in 2008. The group has paced 16 half and full marathons since 2008 using this strategy. (Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in the training Eladio does with his group and I’m not compensated as a pacer aside from free entry to races.)

What we’re doing works. Surveying 700+ runners from two recent races we’ve found that 2/3 of folks who run with our pace groups achieve their goal time. That’s not bad.

Most runners are a little hesitant to start so slow.

“The average pace for 4:00 is 9:09 and you want to run a 10:15 first mile!? Are you nuts?”

Nope, not nuts.

Around mile 5 of the race I had to pee. I wasn’t sure what to do. If I stop for a port-a-potty I’ll get stuck in a line and lose my group. Hmm.

“This is so much easier when it’s just me, nobody else to worry about.”

I spied a parking garage. It looked promising, so I handed the stick off to my co-pacer and sprinted ahead. I did my business and caught back up to the group. Little out of breath, but I was ok.

“Whew, crisis averted. Wait, I still haven’t pooped.”

I used to be one of those runners who, when I wanted to run a 4 hour marathon I started off at a 9:00 pace and held it, the whole race. The math was simple to me: 9 minute miles get me a 4:00 finish with some walking at the aid stations and a potty break. Easy math. Disregard the fact I felt like crap running like that. At least I hit those 4:00 finishes.

We hit a big hill, a quarter mile behemoth below the Liberty Memorial in KC - a beautiful monument with a crappy hill to run up. We walked it. It was planned out for us. Tons of other runners passed us, huffing and puffing up the hill. Groaning and sweating. We kept walking. We had a plan.

It was stressful to walk the hill, especially so early in the race. I knew once we were at the top we’d pick it up again. A little faster than our race pace, but we had 4-5 miles of easy terrain ahead of us. My runners could handle it.

“Hey, I called them ‘my’ runners. Maybe I can do this, maybe I’m not as nervous as I was at the start.”

I still hadn’t pooped.

We give out wrist bands at the pre-race expo. Sometimes the race funds this, sometimes we sell them, gotta pay for the printing. We always have a shirt that says ‘pacer’, plus we carry a stick with our time. No balloons for us. Some folks take multiple times, not sure which they’d prefer. I enjoy imagining them at home or in their hotel later, map of the course pinned to a large board in front of them, meticulously considering every second difference between 4:15 and 4:20 on the course. Not sure which band to put on their wrist. Maybe they put on all three bands. I saw a guy with five on one arm once - no joke.

The next several miles were amazing. Kansas City is famous for wide avenues and the KC Marathon uses them. Lots of space. We cruised through old Westport, and window shopped at the Plaza. Ward Parkway is beautiful as it runs along Brush Creek, huge trees surround you, cool breeze with a soft sun.

Couldn’t pick a nicer day.

Another hill presented itself, this one almost a mile long. That’s ok, it’s built into the pace. We slowed, we held our jog but we pulled way back.

“Nice and steady everyone, this is the roughest part of the race.” That was a lie.

We made it to the top, all of our crew in tow. Little bit of zig-zagging through some beautiful old neighborhoods and we were back on Ward Parkway and 4 miles of dependable terrain. Waldo awaited us.

A pain tore through my belly.

“Was that my stomach?! That’s really uncomfortable. Ohh, I really have to go.

When you’re pacing, people are depending on you whether you know it or not. Some folks stay behind you and chase you. Others stay ahead of you, never letting you pass. They may never say one word to you, but they’re watching you.

Then there are the folks who run with you, chatting the whole time. Asking your running history, what you do for a living, what you’ll name your kids. Everything. One thing I try to do is to never let on that I run ultras. The pacer isn’t there to boast. The pacer is there for the runner. Someone running their first race doesn’t need to know about how you felt at mile 80 of your last hundred. 26.2 is an enormous distance for them, don’t degrade it. It’s all about the runner.

I have buddy who brings Trivial Pursuit cards with him. Runners love that.

“I have to stop, it’s either coming out of me in the port-a-potty or on the course, my choice.”

I didn’t know what to do. I panicked. I told my pacer I’d catch them, but I had to go to the bathroom. So, I found a port-a-potty with no line and went for it. My group was gone. At least I could go.

Ten minutes later I was done. TEN MINUTES. How could I make up ten minutes of time? I was a failure.
I couldn’t keep up with my group, I’d abandoned them. I started running and freaking out. People would judge me: “who’s that pacer without a group, he must be worthless”.

I started sprinting, but I knew I couldn’t keep that up at mile 18. I needed a plan.

A guy in front of me passed his wife, as he did she yelled: “we’ll see you at the next aid station!”


“Hey, I know this is going to sound really weird, but can you give me a ride to the next aid station. I’m a pacer and I had to go to the bathroom and I lost my pace group and I really need to catch them! I swear I’m not weird or creepy!”

She did it, she gave me a ride. I freaking hitchhiked.

I always hate losing people during a race. You can usually see it coming from a few miles away. They get quiet and fall back a bit. They take a few extra seconds during the walk break. I can always spot it. It sucks. You run 20 miles with someone you really want to see them finish with you. But you can’t slow down for them. You have a job and there’s others depending on you for that.

I was standing at the next aid station, several cups of water in hand when I saw my group coming.

“Where you guys been?”

They got a kick out of what I did. I felt guilty, but whatever, they were what was important. We headed off for the last six miles. Little did I know we had one more hiccup in front of us.

It got hot, real hot. Real fast too. At the worst place possible. Around mile 22 in Kansas City you get a nice little surprise, in the form of a 2-mile long uphill. No bueno.

We slowed for the hill. We slowed too much. We were falling behind pace, and fast. I wasn’t sure if I should hang onto the group or keep moving. I was a newbie, didn’t know how to handle it. Turns out my co-pacer was a newbie also. Dang.

We slowed. Newbie mistake.

By the top of the hill we were at least two minutes behind pace with about three miles to go. Whoops.
We never made the time up. We finished around 4:22.

The lady tried to put a medal around my neck – “no thanks, I didn’t run the whole race.”

I was sure I’d never be asked to pace again.

I was asked to pace again. I’ve paced seven races now with four more scheduled for the fall of this year. The butterflies before the race have disappeared also, although there’s still some there – I think it’s good to be a little nervous about everything. I also learned that Imodium AD before the race helps with GI issues. This saves me some sprinting.

Course markings are always fun. Usually they’re right, sometimes they’re not. Trust your Garmin, that’s my mantra. Well, trust it to within .1 miles. If you’re at 11.5 and you haven’t seen the 11 mile marker yet, you won’t. Or, if you do, and it’s in the wrong spot, move on. Bank those minutes for the end of the race. Maybe they fix it later, maybe they don’t. Coming in sooner is better than later.

Also have learned to stick to my pace, I have to leave people. They understand.

My goals? I’d love to pace a really huge race like Chicago or New York. That’d be fun. Although, I like the little ones too. I like the chance to really get to know the runners. That’s really why I’m out there anyway, for the runners.

Danny Miller is MD/PhD student at the University of Kansas Medical Center.  Read more from him at A Marathon Is A Warmup.

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jen,  9/21/11, 5:15 AM  

Great post-I ran that race and I have to say it got hot way before mile 22. The weather was great for spectators though and it is a really nice, albeit hilly, course. Sometimes I actively run with the pacers and sometimes I just stalk them-either way they are indispensable.

SlimKatie 9/21/11, 5:47 AM  

This was such an interesting post! I've not yet run a marathon (I think my first will be next year) but I know when I do, that I'll be looking for a pacer--and reading this helps give me their perspective on it. Great post!

JimDog 9/21/11, 6:45 AM  

Excellent guest post!

Wes 9/21/11, 6:57 AM  

Awesome post - marathon pacing can be tricky especially if you did not taper correctly because the pace can feel so different if you did not get proper rest. Always a tricky thing.

Jean 9/21/11, 7:47 AM  

I wish I could contribute something better than "great post" (it was!), but alas I've got nothing. I've always been interested to hear what a race is like from a pacer's point of view.

JBK in CA 9/21/11, 8:43 AM  

Thanks Danny. Fun report and the Imodium AD hint is one I'll take to the bank (better than the john...)

Mary Parlange 9/21/11, 9:20 AM  

nice post - I've always been wary of running a marathon because of the gastric issues... but if you build a potty break into your pace, you can only be pleasantly surprised if you don't need to use it, perhaps? I like the slow start idea - it really worked for my husband when he ran a high altitude marathon.

Timbeaux 9/21/11, 9:37 AM  

Great Post Danny! I have a friend who is going to pace his first marathon soon. I am going to send him the link so he can see how it's done!

theresaa,  9/21/11, 11:31 AM  

you got me through my first marathon that fateful day in KC, only reassuring and never letting on you were dealing with nerves yourself...ill be looking for your pace sign in STL in a month!

Tony,  9/21/11, 12:24 PM  

Great story!

runningfarmer 9/21/11, 8:34 PM  

Danny, interesting stuff with the Smart Pace idea. My running buddy and I have discussed using that strategy at Twin Cities in a couple of weeks. Start easy, allow the crowd to thin out and hit our pace by mile 4. Hopefully this conscious effort to slow roll the start will help us from going out too fast and wasting energy fighting the crowd for position and smooth running lines. Good read here, thanks.

Gigi 9/21/11, 11:17 PM  

Interesting perspective from a pacer's point of view. Can be pretty daunting to know that there are people sort of "depending" on you.

Will do my 42K this December and hopefully see a pacer with my target time :)

eli 9/22/11, 10:04 AM  

Great story! Last year was my first year to stick with a pacer and let me tell you... It was a very disappointing experience, he took a 3hr 10min pace at an incredible 6:15 to 6:35 mile pace for the first 5 miles.... sad to admit but I was done after 12 miles...

My solution: I built my own app to incorporate terrain and so level of fatigue after mile 19.. You can check the app on the android martket heres the link if you are interested... (http://tinyurl.com/3jtxauw)

Gretchen 9/22/11, 10:12 PM  

Hilarious, Danny!

All my best marathons were run in a negative split, but then, I always pooped before the race rather than during, and never hitchhiked.

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