Saturday, January 12, 2013

My Role As a Pace Group Leader

"(Leadership) is nothing more than motivating other people" - Lee Iacocca

This year will mark the 12th annual Mercedes Marathon here in Birmingham, Alabama. I ran the first edition of the Marathon in 2002 as it traversed Red Mountain TWICE making one big 26 mile loop. A killer of a run. Looking into the future, I decided I can't look forward to RACING my local hilly marathon every year, so, I talked to Valerie McLean, the Race Director, about me leading a Pace group and for the past 11 years, I have been the Director of the Mercedes Marathon Trak Shak Pace Teams. It has been a pure joy to direct this team and help runners achieve their PR's, first marathons, or just reach the finish line. Most of our pacers have been split between local Birmingham Track Club folks and a steady contingent from the Darkside Running Club in Atlanta, of which I am also a member. I'm in one of those envious positions that if the pacers do their job, then I come out looking like a genius, and so far, our pace leaders have been spot-on. Each week around the country, this scenario is repeated in most marathons. But how does a Pace Team work, and what are the responsibilities of both the Pace Team and the runners? Here's my take on all this after 11 years. 

To run with a pace group at Mercedes, (which, by the way, has changed to a two-loop, less hilly course) you don't have to sign-up, wear any kind of identifying bib of what pace you're keeping up with, and it's free, with never any pressure to remain with the team throughout the race. All you have to do is show up, find your Pace Team Leader(s), and throw your trust in them that they know what they're doing (A big leap I realize).

But, let's also realize one important thing here...the Pace Team Leaders are human too. Runners are always told to run their own race.  When you're a pace group leader, this isn't an option.  You have to stick to a plan to finish within a couple of minutes of your target time. People are counting on you. The pace you are leading should be comfortable, but as always, THINGS happen and even a Leader's race can go down the tubes. At Mercedes, ALL paces will have 2-3 Pace Leaders for each pace just in case one of the pacers has to bail. At last year's race, we had 3 pacers for 5 hours and at 19 miles, one of our pace leaders had a terrible cramp. Vanessa Stroud was one of our pacers and she was running the race like it was a sunny day at the park, so I told all the 5 hour pacees to go with her and I walked/ran with the other pacer to the finish (5:19).

So, how does a leader get his group in within a minute or two of the target? I'll speak from my angle, and it can get a little complicated. Let's look at the 5 hour group - about 11:27/mile pace - 
 Most of the runners are trying to run the best run they can do, so to say "Let's put some time in the bank" and run much faster than the 11:27 is suicide. You know the old saying "Time in the bank...nails in the coffin!". However, a Pace leader has to study the course and decide "Where can I pick up some time to offset the time I'll lose at aid stations, hills, and the expected natural slowdown of the 2nd half?". So, I study the course...the first 4 miles are flat, so we'll average about 11:17/mi, though the first mile will be slower. If you don’t start your training runs at race pace, why do so on the most important day you’ve been gearing up for? Then we hit hills, one short, and one about 3 miles long, so there will be a controlled slowdown to 11:45/mi. This brings us to about 8.5 miles, with the next 1.5 miles up and down to mile 10. From here to the end of the first loop (13.1 miles)is pretty much flat and a gradual down hill and we'll try
 11:15-11:20/mi pace. This plan will get us in for the first half at about 2:28. I'd rather be a little closer to 2:25, but it depends on the group. You see, I don't want to run anybody into the ground, but that 5 hour target is my main responsibility. You can view a course and elevation map at the Mercedes Marathon website.

I have found the kick-in-the-butt problem with this plan is aid stations, and the hills. My plan for the aid stations is I will walk briskly at the first table and begin running again at the end of the aid stations. Should take about 45-60 seconds. Hopefully, this way nobody will lose me or have to run like a bat out of hell to catch me after choking down a drink.

One thing I have found is NOT to get hung up on "What pace am I running at this moment?". I try to get in the flow of checking overall pace every 3 miles or so. I'd say 75% of my focus is to get through the first half of the race ON PLANNED PACE. The 2nd half of the race is a different animal and the Pace Leader's responsibility is to see who is still in their group and get them home. If runners are drifting from the safety of the leader, this is not a case of no runner left behind...EXCEPT, remember, we have 2-3 Pace Leaders per group, so we can throw a runner a lifeline late in the race with one of the leaders to encourage them and get them home a few minutes behind schedule. That's a good plan because I usually feel like crap at the end of the race and can act magnanimous by sticking with a fading runner while backing off myself!

Along the way, a Pace Leader will also try to keep the group motivated and divert their minds from the 26,000 steps required. We can coach, cheer, give advice, tell stories, tell jokes, get the runners involved with their own stories. I'm pretty familiar with all the sights we pass through downtown along the way, so I'm like a tour director. Birmingham is an old Southern city with a lot of it's landmarks still standing and new sights springing up. I tell my runners that I don't mind them watching their own watches, but don't give me CONSTANT updates on the pace...I've got a plan - and you don't know if I'm on Plan A, Plan B, or Plan K. Once, when I was pacing the 4:30 group, a runner asked at the start "If I stay with you, do you guarantee I'll finish in 4:30?". I answered "No, I guarantee I'll finish in 4:30!". 

Seventy-five percent of the runners who start with a particular pacer won't go on to finish with the group.  Some will go ahead, and a few are forced to drop back.  It's not usually a problem with the pacer, but with the runner's expectations. Some people who choose to run with a pace group are pushing themselves to the limit, trying to reach a goal that is right on the outer fringes of what they are able to achieve.  But when they do make it, the rewards are spectacular. Usually, I'll start with about 15-20 runners and finish with 4-5, and none of those were any of the original 15-20. 

The nice thing about pace groups is you aren't married to them. If the pace isn't right for you, you can take off, drop back, or just split away. The 3 most common mistakes I see a Pace Leader make are:
1) Starting out too fast. It’s very easy to give into the temptation of starting out too fast with the adrenaline rush of race day.  If you’re thinking about starting out at the targeted pace, that usually doesn’t allow people to warm up properly. So, I like to start off slowly, let the group get organized, and instill some confidence in them that I'm not going to kill them (at least not early in the race!).

2) Rushing through the aid stations. There is no worse feeling then relying on a Pace Group and watching them run off into the sunset because the group has all broken apart at the aid station. The reality is that the early aid stations are the most critical for optimal performance. Therefore, the Pace Leader should tell the group what the plan at the aid station is. I like to begin walking at the first table of the station, go to the opposite (less-crowded) side of the street, and begin running slowly after the last table.

3) Pushing too hard on the uphills. You will always use more energy going up a hill than you will gain going down. You need to back off on the up and use gravity to assist you on the the way down. Trying to maintain an even PACE is suicide - you need to expend an even EFFORT, which means you’ll naturally and appropriately slow down and speed up according to the terrain to conserve energy.

Some can run with a Pace Group and for some, it drives them crazy. It's up to you. I just think it’s so much easier to let someone else set the pace (especially someone who will do so intelligently) and simply follow along. As in training, it's much better running with a group. But just remember, these Pacers are humans. Most of them ordinary runners, who sign up for the job. This isn’t their full time job. They didn't go to Pacer College. They are not experts at pacing marathons, though they all are accomplished marathoners. They are there to help you reach your goals. Run with them all the way, drop them in the middle, or just pick them up in the last few miles to help get you in. Do what you think will work for you. Use the pace group as a marker and for motivation during the race, but rely on your own sense of pace (or watch) and natural strengths and weaknesses when it comes to executing your race strategy. Take advantage of the pace group as an
 opportunity to have a barometer to assess your progress — as well as a group for motivation, should you need one.

So, that's it in a nutshell. I am sold on Pace Groups because I know these folks are dedicated to try to get you to attain your goals. They all love to talk and along the way, you can have a rolling Q&A session, or talk about just about anything. If you get the right pacer they can be your biggest cheerleader.

And so, remember that tomorrow morning (Jan 13th) we will meet downtown at 6:30 at Boutwell Auditorium and run on the Mercedes Course. If you have any questions about the Pace Groups or our Sunday runs, be sure to contact me.

I'll see you all on the roads - AL 

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

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