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Ok, so diving into a hot topic that is usually on everyone’s minds when talking about a big effort like 100k distance plus. I’ve been writing a bunch lately, mostly for myself to get through these trying injured times, but love writing to give back and educate. So let’s chat guys. Pacing.

What is a Pacer?

A pacer is a person. Cool huh? Hah, almost got you. It is a person who is willing to help a runner out on their path to their destination, whether that be 50 miles, 60 miles, 100 miles, something in between, or beyond. Depends on the race really! Reminder: always check the race website for details! In short, you’re running (maybe walking or hiking even) along and you get to pick up this awesome person who you get to share part of your journey with. This person, or people–more on that later– just runs with you!

What’s in it for them?

Nothing, really. Nothing but the intense satisfaction that they get to help you reach your goals and be along side you. Expectations are weird. As a pacer, you should not expect anything. This goes for anything from being paid, or paid to travel, paid to stay in your tent or hotel, or race goodies and beyond. Nada, nothing.

Pacers should plan on paying their own way, which can be asking a lot. But I promise you, it’s worthwhile and greatly gratifying in the end. Being asked to be a pacer is like a badge of honor. Some runners will offer their pacers more however, but for the sake of this article, it is certainly not expected.

At the event, usually pacers will check in like runners, sign a waiver releasing the race of responsibility of their person being on course, get a bib (sometimes), and can partake in all the aid stations while on course just like the runner.

Although some of these things may not be standard listed above, and a pacer is responsible for checking the rules on the event site just like their runner or if they were running the event themselves.

Pacer Etiquette

Although there usually are pacer rules and expectations from the event itself, some events won’t really give you much to go on. So here are some things that, in general, pacers rule by.

  • Pacers are not allowed to pace someone until a certain point in the race or time. Generally this is 50ish miles into a 100 miler, 50k into a 100k, and usually at aid stations designated by the event (you can’t just randomly enter and exit the course as you please).
  • Pacers cannot mule. This means a pacer cannot carry things for their runner like nutrition, jackets, etc. Think, pack mule…nope.
  • A runner can have one pacer at a time.
  • A runner can have multiple pacers in an event with the exits and entrances of the pacer at specified aid stations.
  • Be nice to everyone. As a pacer, you are fresh, as well you should be. Everyone else is probably tired by the time you enter. Respect everyone will feel differently.

Now that we have some of the important stuff out of the way, how can you be the best pacer for your runner?’

Being a Pacer

You don’t necessarily need to be good at the distance your runner is attempting to be a good pacer. Although knowledge is always useful out there, and experience, your runner might experience a whole different array of stuff than you. Therefore, experience of the runner’s distance is not required. If you are asked to be a pacer, then think about it before committing.

  • Can you competently do the distance required by your runner? If asked to pace for 20 miles for example…
    • Don’t let this be the first time you do that distance. Both party members don’t need to be struggling at the end. You’re there to help!
    • Don’t be in the middle of your own training that you are too tired to help your runner or risk injury yourself!
    • Make sure you are prepared to do the distance, train yourself up!
  • Be prepared for the terrain and conditions your runner will face, you’re in it together!
  • Feel open to decline the invitation…
    • You have two different run styles., think quiet versus talkative.
    • You run too differently of paces.
    • It’s under conditions you aren’t comfortable with.
    • You are recovering from injury.
    • Any situation in where you would hinder your runner.
  • Ask any and all questions to your runner before committing, and when you commit, do it fully. A runner whose pacer drops last minute could be a huge mental downfall for them and causes unneeded stress.

Choosing your Pacer

IT IS BETTER TO HAVE NO PACER THAN A PACER WHO WILL HOLD YOU BACK OR IS A RISK TO YOUR RACE. YOU are the runner.

How do you choose a pacer then? Is your race flat, steep, high, technical? Find yourself someone you know who would excel at the things your race has. If your event has a long pace period, say 30 miles or longer, see if you can break it up between multiple pacers. 30+ miles is asking someone to do an ultra with you! Some people would love to do just that, some might be afraid to decline your request, and then end up struggling. Keep your pacer and their skills in mind. How much experience does your pacer have at the distance you want them to do? See the list above and ask your pacer!

Remember, your pacer is doing a lot for you. Just you! It is up to you, but maybe figure out some way to help them or do something nice for them. Invite them to be in your post race pictures. They aren’t getting a finisher medal or shirt. Pacers aren’t getting any race swag. They are there out of the goodness of their hearts for you. Now they may have to put up with a lot from you, but hey, ultras bring out the weird in us all.

Local/Volunteer Pacers

Keep in mind that some races do have local pacers available. More popular ones might, but never assume. You should assume if you do not have a designated pacer for your race, that you may go without one in the end. Local pacers are volunteers that show up to a race and offer to pace. You may get a mixed bag which there are pros and cons to.

The major pro is that you get someone new to you and that can be exciting and refreshing. New conversations to pass the time faster even if you are going slower. Perhaps you even make a new friend! The major con is of course getting someone who you do not mix well with, whether that be pace is not what you need, or someone who won’t shut up or conversely won’t talk at all.

However, these people do not expect anything out of it and are usually just good people trying to help. They probably know the course, which is a bonus. Though, there is a possibility of them pacing more than one person in the event, wearing them down. Again, do not assume you will have access to one when you need one, though it is a good option if you can’t find anyone.

Things to think about between Pacer and Runner

There are a few things to consider for yourself, either as a pacer or runner. It rather comes down to what kind of person are you?

  • Are you a talker or listener? Some people are both chatty, and that’s fine. Some people are silent runners and need peace and quiet. Know what you like and what could bug you over hours of time together.
  • Do you prefer interval running? Do you plan on running uphills? Talk it out beforehand to see if you two fit. Pace is important as a pacer.
  • Can you both adapt? Don’t call it quits as a pacer if the weather gets bad, but know your limits. Did you fall while pacing and got hurt and could further hurt yourself? Your runner should understand if you drop out in case something bad happens. And as a pacer, know your runner and be tuned into when they might need to medically drop. Know pain and injury are different.
  • Night person/Morning person. As little of a detail as this is, it’s good to talk about.

How to Pace

In the end, what do you do for your runner?!

  • Get rid of your negative thoughts, leave them off the course. Your runner doesn’t need to hear it when they could be in a dark place.
  • Know when your runner is in discomfort versus when they could be in medical need. Dehydration/Hypothermia are two biggies.
  • Keep an eye on their hydration and nutrition! Are they drinking at regular intervals? In ultras, people tend to forget to do things as time passage becomes a blur. Be a reminder!
  • If your runner gets the grumps, make them eat. Eating solves a lot of issues. Always try to get in some calories if things are looking bad.
  • You are entering at their hardest part of the event, keep in mind you are coming in with fresh legs. They may be slower than expected, but keep them moving forward.
  • “You’re almost there”, whether the finish or aid station, or top of a hill, do not lie. This could discourage your runner, so don’t mention distance or perspective, as it could be taken the wrong way. Make small goals for your runner, like the next tree, or bend in the trail. Something visible!
  • Ask what your runner needs at all times.
  • Help your runner at aid stations. Fill up their water, refill their tummy, assist them in getting in AND out. Keep track of time at aid stations and don’t doddle.
  • Know the time cut offs for your runner. This is a very nice detail to add and know. Thinking becomes hard. Math is hard. Help your runner out and know what pace you need to keep. As a pacer this is your final duty. 🙂
    • Make pace adjustments as needed. Can’t run? Try running from tree to tree, start there, and soon your runner may learn they can do more than they thought. Strategize.

In the end…

A pacer and their runner should be a great harmony of success and an enjoyable experience for both! If you haven’t tried out pacing, it’s a wonderful experience and just a once in a lifetime experience with this person you run with.

If you have any questions regarding this article, feel free to hit us up at contact@becomingultra.com, the facebook page, or on Instagram.

Do you like what we do and would like to keep these educational articles coming? Consider donating on Patreon, it mean so much to us. If you’d like to be part of Team BU, go check us out, we’d love to grow our team and it’s a place for everyone. Check out our coaching page too as we accept new clients one the regular, whether it’s shooting for your first or 100th ultra. Every form of support matters. <3

Stephanie Dannenberg

Steph has been running really far in really hot, cold, dry, and rainy places. She is the newest coach for Becoming Ultra and contributes on the podcast regularly!