Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon – A Pacer’s Perspective

The clock was ticking. The seconds felt like minutes. 3:19:54, 3:19:55, 3:19:56. My official finish time was four seconds shy of 3:20 on the dot, which would undeniably been worthy of a #nailedit … if I hadn’t been the official pacer for the 3:25 group.

As I crossed the finish line, I heard the announcer booming over the loudspeaker, “Here comes our 3:20 pacer! Wait. No. 3:25?! Someone is a little ahead of schedule, aren’t we?” Well, thank you, sir, for so eloquently stating the obvious. From this brief overview of the end result, one might conclude that my first experience pacing a marathon went terribly wrong. While in some ways it did, in other ways, it was a success. So let me tell you exactly what went down and what I am taking away from this amazing (learning) experience.

A few months ago, I received a message from the manager of a local running store that read something along the lines of, “I have open slots for pacers from 3:05 to 5:30 that I am looking to fill for the upcoming Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon. Are you interested?”

Hmm … was I? I wasn’t sure. I was already training for a marathon a few weeks after that one anyway. Would this be a good opportunity to get a long run in, or would this be a bit too much to ask my body to do? The answer to this question is currently undetermined, by the way, since my goal race is still a few weeks away. Obviously, I decided to go for it. Why not get in a solid long run and help some fellow runners meet their goals? Sounded like a win-win in my book.

Cilantro recently shared a few things you don’t want to hear from your pacer on race day. Like Cilantro, I took my pacing duties very seriously. I practiced race pace on a few training runs (it would be running an odd quicker-than-easy pace, slower-than-workout pace for me). I memorized the pace and important splits. I was ready.

Race day rolled around, and I was confident in my ability to nail 3:25. We started right on time and I started right on pace. I planned to run even splits. I needed to average 7:48 to finish a few seconds under 3:25. Certain pacing companies won’t let you pace again if you don’t come within 1 minute of your goal time. I don’t think that was actually a stipulation here, but I wanted to make sure that I ran what I was supposed to since there were other runners who were counting on me to do just that.

The course was beautiful. We ran right along the Gulf the entire way! The course was advertised as a fast, flat, BQ-friendly path along the coast from Pass Christian to Biloxi. The course is a USATF-certified Boston qualifying route and offers unobstructed beach views and a takes you past some of the coast’s most historic and beautiful homes. There were aid stations and porta potties every 1.5 miles along the entire course. The aid stations had water, Powerade and gels.

I wrote down the times that I need to be at in 5 mile increments and tucked the paper away in my glove for reference.

For anyone interested in the actual details of my splits, here they are as follows:

7:50, 7:47, 7:46, 7:47, 7:47
7:47, 7:47, 7:45, 7:47, 7:47
7:48, 7:50, 7:49, 7:51, 7:47
7:49, 7:50, 7:47, 7:50, 7:45
7:44, 7:45, 7:45, 7:38, 7:37

I had a decent sized group for the first half of the race. Several of the runners seemed very appreciative of my consistent pacing. I was appreciative that they were appreciative. It was a nice little cycle of appreciation. One guy did ask me how many marathons I had paced, to which I had to awkwardly explain that this was my first time pacing, but he didn’t seem bothered by the response. Since this was my first time pacing a marathon, there are a few things I learned:

  • Running while holding a 3-foot pole is difficult. I was SO OVER that pole by the end (heck, even by the middle) of the race. I hit a couple of people with it (sorry guys!) and kept shifting it back and forth, from right hand to left hand. Super annoying. Let’s go with signs taped to our backs next time!
  • Taking gels and water while holding a 3-foot pole is even more difficult. I somehow managed to take the majority of a gel at mile 8-ish and at mile 16-ish, but it was NOT easy. The good news is that I feel like taking gels and water during a regular marathon will be super easy now in comparison.
  • Most of the people around you are going to be wearing headphones.
  • Most of the people around you are racing and not exactly looking to chat it up. I tried to make casual chit-chat, but no one was real into it.
  • A marathon is a long, long way to run, regardless of what pace you are running. While physically I felt fine, mentally I struggled. I questioned why in the world I willingly signed up for this, why I was planning to do it again in a few weeks, why anyone would EVER want to run this far. Ha. These were lots of negative thoughts that I really wasn’t expecting. I mean, I expect these thoughts when I am racing a marathon, but I wasn’t expecting them here. Perhaps I need to work on my mental game!

Basically everything was smooth sailing until mile 23. My group dissipated between the halfway point and mile 20, but I still had three or so runners with me at mile 20. By mile 23, I had no one. I hated to be running alone, but I knew that my job was to keep running the pace regardless of who was or wasn’t with me. Oddly enough, while I was running by myself, I ended up with a bike escort, as apparently I was the third place female.

I was using my Garmin to keep the pace steady and the mile markers along the course all seemed in line with the mile splits on my watch. My watch was beeping a little before the mile markers the further along we got, which was to be expected, as it is almost impossible to run the tangents perfectly over the course of a full marathon (foreshadowing: keep in mind that until this point, I expected my watch to measure a tad long when we got to the finish). I picked the pace up ever so slightly between miles 20 and 25 to account for the minor discrepancy between my mile splits and the course mile markers.

The course was essentially a point-to-point course for 24 miles with an out-and-back stretch for the final 2 miles. At mile 24 we ran up the interstate on ramp (gotta love that) and ran on I-110 for what I assumed would be 1 mile. You could see the finish line at MGM Park as you ran up and onto I-110. I was running alone (expect for my bike escort). We came to the turnaround before I expected to and so I asked the bike escort (several times actually) if this was right. He assured me that it was. My watch eventually beeped to signal the 25th mile, but I never saw the 25 mile marker on the course. I had very uneasy feeling at this point. Half a mile later, we arrived at the 26 mile marker. I looked down to see 25.5 on my watch.

Feeling somewhat defeated, I ran on in to the finish line. I knew I had [inadvertently] cut the course somehow, but I was so confused as to how that could’ve happened. I mean, I knew it had to be that turnaround, but still, I turned around at the cone and the bike escort confirmed that it was the proper place. I got my medal and hung out right at the finish line to wait for some of my runners to come in. As each runner crossed the finish line, I saw a look of relief and excitement turn to pain and confusion as they realized the same thing I had realized moments ago.

The course was short.

As a pacer, part of my job is to know the course. I studied the map. I knew the course in as much detail as I thought I needed. The turnaround on I-110 was tricky because there are no road intersections on the interstate — so no reference point for where the turnaround should be. I assumed that the course would be marked accurately. We all know what happens when you assume things.

In the ensuing hours and days even, the race staff and race director adamantly defended their position that the course was certified and that runners cannot rely on their GPS devices for accuracy. As the complaints kept piling in, the race director eventually issued a heartfelt apology and issued a statement that the course had not been marked correctly on race day.

Initially, I was torn how to write this post. In some ways, I still feel like I failed in my duties as a pacer. Crossing the finish line 5 minutes early with no runners by my side was not what I had envisioned. On the other hand, I know that I did my best. My splits were consistent the entire marathon (err … 25.7 mile run). I averaged 7:47 pace, which was exactly where I needed to be. Everyone that ran the race ran the same wrong course. I was not the only person that made a mistake. Selfishly, I am relieved it wasn’t just me, but I also feel terrible for … well, everyone that raced but especially those who thought they had set PRs or qualified for Boston. The Boston Athletic Association currently doesn’t allow for exceptions for runners who run an incomplete distance, even if it is the fault of the race organization.

In running and in life, there will always be situations that are out of our control. Accepting those situations for what they are and not lamenting over potential missed opportunities is part of the process of becoming a mature runner and person.

Have you ever run a short course? Do you think the BAA should accept some sort of “adjusted” times in cases such as these?

 

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2 comments

  1. How frustrating! I love your professionalism in preparing for your pacing duties. Very impressive. And I have always wondered how pacers can stand to run a whole race while carrying signs….