Canton Half Marathon – A Pacer’s Point of View

Heavy Medals and Free Beers at the Finish!

Ever run with a pace group at a marathon or half marathon? Ever wonder what the race is like from a pacer’s perspective? Well wonder no more! I’m here to give you the low-down of my most recent pacing gig. Last Sunday was the innaugural (sic. sadly one of the inaugural mistakes did indeed include spelling inaugural with two nn’s on the bibs) Canton Ohio Marathon. I was there with my pace sign on a stick and ready to lead some runners to some great performances!

Before a pacer even gets to the starting line she usually has some hardcore negotiations to do. Marathonpacing.com was the pace team for this race and Pacer Jim wrote to me a few months back to see if I could pace. Typically pace groups are a little slower (most speedy runners know their pace and don’t use a group, though many have friends to help out!) and I wasn’t sure the coach would want me running 13+ miles slower than the training plan called for. I told Jim and he agreed I could pace the time I wanted so I offered to pace the 1:40 group as that was pretty close to the 7:30’s I was typically running on long runs lately. I was tempted to pace an easier paced marathon for fun but I knew that would not go over well at all with the coach.

With predicted hot weather last minute the pace team decided to back off the marathon groups and get rid of the 3:10 group. With that in mind Jim asked if I could pace 1:35 and serve as a “rabbit” of sorts for any marathoners targeting 3:10. Given how awful I have been feeling lately on the long runs and tempos I was really nervous about this but I agreed. Eek.

Pacers aren’t infallible. While I know it is ridiculous to think I couldn’t handle 13.1 miles at 7:15 pace, I was nervous nonetheless as I knew it would be hilly and it was predicted to be hot. I haven’t paced in about two years and I haven’t been running many miles at 7:15 so I wasn’t feeling very confident. I knew it would get done, but I wasn’t sure how “perky” I would be while doing it. Having run 16 breathless miles at 7:30 pace two weeks before with my mom and my boyfriend on bikes I was feeling a bit stressed about holding pace and being chatty enough to keep my group engaged and focused.

Pacers are really good at pretending they’re infallible, though. I put my pace face on and was determined to have a good time.

Pacers gotta work long before the race starts. Usually my pacing gigs involve working the pace team booth at the expo and this race was no exception. I must say for a first year marathon Canton nailed the expo. Lots of great vendors, good schwag bag, nice shirt, and informed volunteers. Two thumbs up!

Pacers gotta hustle. I worked the early shift on Saturday so I could get back home for a kids birthday party with the boyfriend. Working the pace booth involves informing runners about the pace team and letting them know their options. We try to get them to “sign up” by wearing a bib with their name and goal on their back. This is a lot of talking and a lot of “coaxing” people over to the booth. Perfect job for me, and I love chatting with all the runners about their goals. I signed up many runners though only one for my own 1:35 group so I wasn’t sure how many runners I would actually have in my “group” the next morning.

Pacers gotta wake up crazy early. Canton had a 6:00 a.m. start, which is smart if your marathon is going to be in June! Pace teams always gets to the line and in place 30 minutes before the start. This way we can address any runners concerns, answer any questions, do a little pacer promotion, and it helps to stagger runners at appropriate intervals based on predicted race pace.

Pacers sometimes make mistakes. Usually the starting line stuff is pretty self-explanatory, but as I arrived early and attempted to go out and survey the first mile and get in a practice 7:15 I was met by another pacer who informed me the start was actually not where I thought it was and that we were supposed to head down to the start earlier than I thought. Hmm. I thought he must be playing a joke on me to be honest. All of the corals were where I thought the start was. All the people were there. Where he had pointed was blocked by a gate and it was completely dark. Surely that was not where the start was. But there were no directional signs from where I thought the start was to make the first turn so I jogged back up to the football hall of fame to figure things out.

I found Pacer Lloyd and found out that by getting to the hotel late I indeed missed out on the info that the corrals were actually just a staging area and that the start was indeed about a half mile from where I thought it was. First year marathon hiccups. Now the problem was all the pacers were heading down to the start but all the racers were still up in the staging area. I did my best to roll with the punches but I felt really badly as I had told every runner I spoke to I would be up by the corrals and now I was down at the start holding my sign by myself :)

Eventually a few runners trickled in,my buddy BW was running the full marathon and remarked that the course was hilly. BW loves hills so this statement made me a little more cautious about my effort. Based on the profile I assumed moderately rolling with maybe one or two tricky hills. I was also joined by a potential future pacer who I was instructed to mentor. No pressure :)

Closing in on the 6 AM gun and we were just finally getting runners lined up so clearly the race was going to start late. The predicted high temperatures were being held at bay by clouds and other than some humidity it really was pleasant for a June race. But the earlier the start the better for those marathoners! I gave my pacer speech a few times to the runners around me but only had one or two runners interested in being actively social. So I waited for the start with everyone else and made small talk with a few local friends.

Pacers sometimes go out a wee bit too fast. Around 6:10 they sent off the wheelchairs and a minute or two later we started. The first mile was mildly fast and I did my best after that to cool it. It wasn’t hard as the rest of the course was mostly rolling uphills. It has been a long time since I have paced and I found myself micromanaging a hair more than I would like with the hills, but I did my best each mile to let runners know our pace, that mile split, where aid stations were coming up, when to take advantage of tangents, and even occasionally talked about my race experiences.

Mile Two – gabbing about our upcoming split and taking the corner as a group

Pacers love enthusiastic pacees! After the second mile or so I was settled in with a pack of runners around 7-10. I had two runners that went the entire way with  me until the finish and they were easy to talk to and easy to engage in the pacing process. Thank you both! My pacer in training was doing great, but she decided somewhere around the 6 mile aid station to pull ahead and I never did find her at the finish. I have no idea if she learned anything from me or if she still wants to pace, but hopefully she had fun!

Pacers really pull for their pacees to make their goals. I only had one or two marathoners with me when the half veered off around mile 6 and we wished them well and I advised that they group up and work together. I know the second woman finisher was amongst them and she finished around 3:12, which with that course was a great run! Hopefully many others followed in her footsteps!

Pacers aren’t big fans of big hills. After mile 6 it was basically simple math each mile and trying to make sure we stayed within my 30 second under buffer. This was tougher than I thought with a nasty little hill at mile 8 that gave back that first mile “cushion.” From that mile forward we were right on our 1:35 target pace. I could tell after 9 some of my runners were working harder and a few were feeling perky but surprisingly even the perky ones stayed with me through mile 12 when they finally pulled ahead as a small pack.

Pacers can’t wait to hit the finish line too. I wasn’t feeling all that great, sour stomach, and my heel was barking, but thankfully I have run and paced through both before so I think I hid it well. There was less talking than I have previously had, but this was a faster pace group for me than normal, and this was a hillier course than normal! Not going to lie, that hill at 8 had my quads searing!

At 12 I was staring at yet another long uphill and I was starting to get a bit nervous about us coming in a bit over 1:35 so I upped the effort (My last pacing job the course ended up being mismarked a bit with the last .1 being more like .2, I did not want to go over again!). Thankfully this didn’t seem to bother the group and they all stepped up to the plate pulling ahead of me before we hit the stadium when that uphill turned into a fast downhill.

Stadium Finish

As I closed in on the finish I realized I had overcompensated and cruised in to a 1:34:24, 6 seconds faster than my 30 second window. Rookie pacing mistake! But two more runners that had been tailing the group all day made it right on 1:35 and I was happy to hear from many in the group that they had either PR’ed or hit their goals successfully! My other pacer mistake was not promoting enough to my runners to email Pacer Jim and let him know how I had done and what they like/dislike about running with the pace team.  If any of you are reading here’s my belated plug: Email Pacer Jim here and let him know you love me ;)

Pacers have opinions about the races they pace. Overall Canton did a really nice job with this race. Personally I would prefer not to race a marathon in June, but I can see the draw of running a great local event! Hopefully next year they will figure out a better way to stage and get runners to the start. This was not a fast course by any means with the hills, but I can see this half marathon as the perfect challenge for someone training for a hilly fall marathon! Or the full as being the perfect lead up to a summer ultra.

It was great to get out and give back though I’d like to have my next pace job be a little less impromptu! I like to have a few training runs where I practice the pace, and I should really brush up on my fun half marathon stories so I have more to talk about! I actually prefer pacing the full marathon over the half, though clearly with the focus on getting faster that wasn’t feasible the past three years. With the half I feel very pressured to nail every mile, it is a “short” race and one fast or slow mile can really screw things up whereas with the full marathon you have 26.2 miles to correct any small errors! Pacing is a great experience and I am fortunate that running a set pace comes pretty naturally to me. Look for a post on more pacing tips coming soon!

Have you used pace teams before to hit your goal? What do you look for in a pacer?

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A gal on a mission to save Cuyahoga County streams one storm water facility at a time. An ex runner of many facets including marathons, pacing, ultras and more. Chronic left side issues have me cycling more than running these days but I'm attempting to get back to my running roots.

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15 comments

  1. Great job on getting your paces in under goal! I’m sure they were thrilled to have your guidance!

    I have applied to pace a metric marathon here in November. I’ve never paced before, so it was great to read your tips here. Fingers crossed I’ll get chosen!

    Finally, I was in the Akron/Cleveland area that weekend and noted the unusually hot temps and thought about people running the marathon. Yes, June and marathons don’t really go together in my book!

  2. That course was killer!! I ran the last 7 mile leg of the relay and I was overjoyed to finally be done. But, as much as I was cursing those hills, it is good to be challenged like that. I have had only one experience with a pacer (CLE marathon this year) and it wasn’t a good one. However, the conditions were less than perfect, so I can’t fault any of the pacers. I planned to run with the 3:30 group, but after the first three miles being 7:30, I knew it was smarter to stick to my own planned pace & not try to hang with them. I’m not sure what happened, but somewhere around mike 16, my friends & I passed up the pacers, only to be passed up by a replacement pacer who sprinted past me at mile 21. It was disappointing, but again, the conditions were not optimal. I plan to run with the 3:30 pace group at Akron this fall, and I am hoping for a more even, conservative pacer. I give major props to you pacers. It is not an easy job to be a cheerleader, keep pace, and think about your own running all at the same time! Way to go Pepper for your well paced half at Canton:)!!

    1. Yeah I am not a fan of the way Cleveland handles pacers. I just don’t think it is good to have someone with “fresh legs” jump in mid race. Especially not for the full. Yes Pacers are only human, but Cleveland uses local runner volunteers, many of whom have never paced. Not a good recipe for pace group success!

      marathonpacing.com is in charge of pacers at Akron and I have heard only good things about all the pace groups there except for the really fast (3:10) ones that seem to struggle with nailing the pace on the hills. Fingers crossed you will get a great pacer, but if not use your Cleveland tactics and run the race you are there to run!

  3. I loved running with a pace group at my first marathon; I wa so glad to have the help and know I was doing okay (I felt slow the whole time, but it turned out to be just right for some negative splits at the end). What a great way to give back to the running community–great job, Pepper!

    1. I think the pace groups are great, but I am a social runner so I could see why the solo runner might not like them. I do think if you are feeling race day ready that running with the pace group early makes it feel easier! Of course that is if you set your goal realistically it does!

      Glad your pace group experience was a good one!

  4. I would really love to pace a half some time, but I agree that it does sound a bit nerve-racking. Thanks for walking us through what it is like on the other side. I think good pacers are like gold and it sounds like you nailed it. It is definitely an art though – I have seen pacers blow up marathon groups by going out WAY to fast to put money in the bank.

    1. I have no idea why a pacer would “put money in the bank” that goes against the whole purpose of pacing which is to run as evenly paced splits as possible! :) Hilly courses are trickier obviously, but in general you don’t ever want to be 5-10 seconds outside your mile pace range unless there is a mountain that mile!

      You’d be a great pacer!

      1. Thanks ladies! I tried running with a pace group during my second marathon when I was trying to qualify for Boston. The pacer went out crazy fast and I fortunately was smart enough to drop back right away and rely on my Garmin. I caught up with them at mile 20 and a couple runners were throwing up and ended up having horrible races thanks to going out way too fast. After that, I have just observed pace groups rather than run with them.

        Even worse (and I’m sorry but I can’t recall what marathon it was, Eugene maybe?), I was running a 3:25 pace and the 3:50 pace group passed me at mile 7. It was nuts.

        1. That is crazy Mint!! I felt a similar experience at Cleveland. What Pepper said about how the CLE marathon picks their pacers all makes sense now. They definitely should not throw someone in at the half with fresh legs. I did the same thing with my race. When the 3:30 group took off, I relied on my Garmin. Thank God I did. It got me the BQ I worked so hard for. A few people that I knew who took off with the 3:30 group at the beginning just lost steam at mile 16. I am so glad I wasn’t one of them. There is something to be said about just relying on yourself and your own body/intuition!

  5. You may not know this, can’t remember if I told you or not, but at Akron 2009, I caught up to your group you were pacing around mile 8 while I was doing the half. I stayed with you guys because you were doing such a great job. I felt so great and you doing what you do best helped that! I eventually sped up about a mile before the split but emailed Jim afterward because I was so impressed with your pacing duties! And now I know you personally! Star struck! hehe