If you look at my splits across my seven marathons, you’ll see that they’re almost perfectly even. Sure, a negative split race is impressive, but running 26.2 at almost exactly the same pace is nothing to sneeze at. So I know how to pace myself. I also know that how I pace myself—for better or for worse—only affects me. If I have an off day, it’s just my race that’s affected. Or, if I’m feeling good, I know I can pick it up and it only affects me.
So when I paced a friend in a half marathon, I was more nervous than I’ve been for some of my own races. Our target pace was 8:20, for a sub 1:50 half. I typically run 8:10s for my easy 10 to 12 milers. So I knew, theoretically, that this pace should be no problem for me. But would I go out too fast? Too slow? Would my watch be off? What if she started hurting? Do I play nice or push her?
We had a “safe” word, which she would employ if she really meant, “No, I can’t push any harder.” I also made her promise to tell me if she got lightheaded—something I don’t mess around with.
The first few miles were just about perfect. A few seconds off in either direction, but nothing worth panicking over. I made a point to stay just ahead of the 1:50 pace group. But after about three miles, we were well in front of them. Our watches assured us we were on pace, so I didn’t know what was going on with the pace group.
I parked myself just behind my friend, off her left shoulder. The other two friends she had pacing her were talking and making a social event of the race. I focused and the only real talking I did was to tell the group to push ahead or fall back.
At the halfway mark, the pace group caught us. I turned to the pacer and asked if he planned on running negative splits (I think pacers should run even splits—that’s likely how their runners trained). He clearly had no idea what that meant and responded with: “We’re 25 seconds under at the seven-mile mark, and it’ll all even out, and we’ll make up time later.” What? My friend was clearly nervous. I told her not to pay attention to him, that we were on pace. The group took off, and then it started to affect my friend.
Starting at mile 8 she told me things started to hurt. In my head, I thought, “Oh boy, we have a long way to go.” But to her, I said, yes, that’s normal. We’ve been running for more than an hour. And pressed on.
By mile 11, things were touch-and-go. We stopped to walk on a hill. I urged her to run to the traffic light and reevaluate. I knew it went downhill after that and it’d give her a second wind. The last mile and a half seemed to drag on forever. I was checking my watch obsessively, telling her that she only had 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 15 minutes left.
Just before mile 12, I leaned over and said, “If you miss the 1:49, you’ll just miss it.” This is a tactic that’s worked for me many times. For me, if I miss a goal, I better miss it by a mile. The other pacer heard this and said, but you’ll still PR!
That’s not good enough for me.
I started running backward in front of my friend, telling her to just follow me, to just give one more surge. I told her I knew it hurt and that it was hard, but that’s what it was supposed to feel like. I could see the pain in her face, and I knew if she just missed the 1:49, there would be a different kind of pain.
I stayed in front of her for most of the last mile, my heart racing as if this were my own huge PR attempt. I felt like I do when I watch close sports games or races, wanting to close my eyes, grab something, and hold on for dear life. But I couldn’t. I had to push her forward, help mold what the result would be.
At the 13-mile mark, the four of us fanned out so we were taking up most of the road, screaming at her, telling her this was it, to push with everything she had left. I pumped my fist as we crossed the finish line.
This wasn’t my race, but I felt fully invested. I push myself harder than many of the people I run with. I knew that could be a blessing or a curse when pacing this friend. But unless I heard the safe word or that she was lightheaded, I’d go “Full Race Heather” on her. She did the training. She did the work. She found the mental toughness to overcome the hurt in those final miles. I was just there, lending support and quick race math. But man, that felt good.
As we crossed the finish line, we hit our watches: 1:49:36.
Have you ever paced a friend at a race? What strategies did you use? How did the experience go?