Readers Roundtable: Should I Run with a Pace Group?

It would be easier to choose to go with a pace group if I knew my pacer was Mint!
It would be easier to choose to go with a pace group if I knew my pacer was Mint (in hot pink buns)!

Marathon taper doesn’t just mean running fewer miles, it means it’s time to hammer out all of our race day details.  The New York Marathon is my goal race and it’s just two weeks away! I’m busy hammering out my gel and hydration plan, going over my race outfit options, and making sure my legs own goal marathon pace. However, there is one question I just can’t seem to answer myself.

Should I run with a pace group?

One side of me says yes, sign up for the pace group! Pacers can do the mental work of finding the right pace and the group dynamic can make goal pace feel easier than if we were running it on our own. Of course, pacers are a little insurance that we will behave; they can keep us from going out too fast or from surging to pass the guy in the cow costume.

The other side of me thinks signing up to race with a pace group is a bad idea. Pace groups are only available at set race times, so we often either need to stretch or sandbag our goals to choose a pace group. Worse, pacers are human! They can make mistakes, just like anyone. All pacers are capable of running much faster than their assigned race pace, so I particularly worry that the pacers, themselves would be prone to going out too fast. Also, racing in a group can cause congestion at water stops and falling behind the pace group can be demoralizing.

For me personally, if I went with a pace group I would choose a pace group targeting a slightly slower time than my goal and I would have to take a worse starting position, which is a huge consideration at a large race like New York. However, the allure of the pace group is strong.

What are your views on pace groups?  Did you or are you planning to race with one this fall? What do you think I should do? 

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If you’d like to see what my training for New York has been like, you can read my training logs here!

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40-something marathoner frequently found on running paths in New York and Connecticut. Running habit supported by work as attorney/law firm partner. Cheered on by husband and two children.

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19 comments

  1. I occasionally work as a pacer so I fall into the pace group fan club. Honestly, though, my favorite use for a pacer is when I am not attempting a PR, but rather running a training pace. That said, quality of pacers varies so much I think it’s pretty important to talk with your pacer in advance to find their policy on pacing (even splits, smart pacing, negative splits, 30 sec under, 2 min under, etc) as well as their experience.

    For PR attempts, I like running by feel. I just look for the pacer signs as I’m running to make sure I’m not getting too far ahead or behind.

    1. I’ve always used the presence or absence of the the pace group to gauge how I’m doing! If I hear them coming, I know it’s time to get my butt in gear and get moving! Or if I was having a bad race, it’s the worst to have the pace group fly by. Oh! It hurts just thinking about it!

  2. I didn’t know you could or had to sign up for a pace group. I have run with a pace group during marathons a few times. They do keep you honest and can keep you from going too fast early in the race when you still feel human.
    Andy

    1. Hi Andy! Some races you can sign up for a pace group and talk to them in advance and for other (usually smaller) races you can just show up and run with them, which sounds like how it was for you.

  3. If the pacer isn’t going goal pace for you, I say run your own race. You’ve trained hard and I think you should trust yourself to get the job done! Plus, it’s not like you’ll be alone at NYC 🙂

    That being said, there are plenty of quality pacers out there – Pepper, Clove and Mint just to name three! But not all pacers are created equal. Many local/regional marathons do not use experienced pace teams, but rather runners from the community who should be able to pace the pace group on paper, but without the experience many of these community one-off pacers don’t know how to do it well and I think this tends to be more true the faster the pace group. I had a terrible experience with a pace group at a smaller marathon where the pacer was running too fast, at one point we were going almost :30 faster than MP! I DNF’d, the whole group broke up and he ended up finishing the race over 5 minutes too slow. So unless the race is a big one that uses a trained pacing staff (a la the Cliff Team), I’d err on the side of going it alone.

    1. The Clif Team pacer I ran with was great, also the Red Lizards (I think that’s what they’re called) at the Portland Marathon were spot-on timing wise.

  4. I strongly dislike most pace groups because the crowding stresses me out. I got caught up in a pace group yesterday at Columbus during a water station and people were veering left and right and I just wanted to get far far away.
    I can handle small pace groups, though. It’s a great way to share the work especially when it’s windy.

    1. I totally agree. I obviously wasn’t planning to run in a pace group for Chicago, but I got stuck behind one and it was literally impossible to get by until mile 12 or so. It was just a huge claustrophobic glob of people. Plus I saw the 3:30 marathon pacer go out for the first mile at 7:30’s, which seemed a bit. . .WAY TOO FAST. I think pace groups are just not my thing. I would much rather run my own race.

  5. Bahhh! I had some success with pace groups for my first couple of half marathons, but had a disastrous experience when I used a pace group for my first marathon. My goal pace for my first marathon was somewhere in the 11:00 min/ mile range, and we went out the first mile at an 8:30 pace. WTF?! Our pacing was all over the place and I got so frustrated that I fell off the pace group by mile 12. Live and learn I guess!

  6. I love pace groups and have had only good experiences with them (but I’ve heard of horror stories). I agree with Salty, use them only if there’s one that fits your plan. Stay with them only if the pacer is doing a good job. The couple of times where the pacers started waaayyy too fast (cardinal sin in pacing) was luckily only for training runs, so it didn’t ruin a race.

    Talking to the pacer beforehand to figure out their strategy and experience is very helpful because it helps you to gauge whether you should go out on your own or stick with him/her.

  7. I ran with a pace group my first two marathons (3:50 for #1, I got 3:48 & the BQ for #2- I qualified). Great experiences for both, got exactly the right time for both. As a novice, it was nice to not have the self-pace stress and just got to focus on keeping those balloons in sight. As a more seasoned marathoner, I’ve not run with one. . Starting with one a touch slower that your goal and then breaking away after you warm up might be nice though. Hmmmm.

  8. I had a great experience with a pacer last year, at a relatively small marathon. We started as a group of about 10 but by 15 miles there were just 2 or 3 of us. The pacer was very experienced and she was such a cheerleader. She knew I was going for a BQ and gently reminded me I needed to come in at least 2 minutes ahead of her (would have been better to be 3 minutes ahead of her… as my BQ sadly didn’t get me in for 2016). She was almost like a mama bird pushing us out of the next – very good experience.

  9. Pace groups always mess with my head. There a million different ways to get it the same end time, and apparently mine is always different from the pacers. I find I do best when I run by feel. There is nothing worse than watching your pace group slip away from you… Even if they are going too fast… It always shakes my confidence!

  10. I ran with the 3:35 pace group at Columbus this week kind of unintentionally. I had the idea that I would start out a little behind them, keep them in my sights, and fall back a little since my goal was 3:40. What I found was that my body, legs, and mind was able to keep pace with them. I made the commitment to stay with them somewhere around mile 15-16. There were a few times where they got a tiny bit ahead of me, I felt like I was slacking off, so they motivated me to keep pushing forward on pace with them. Somewhere around mile 20/21 I made a decision that I had a good amount of gas left in my tank and wasn’t against any wall and I wanted to try and push for a faster time then the 3:35. So, I basically inched my way ahead of them and pushed with all I had the last 3-4 miles. I ended up with a 3:33:19, which is almost a 3 minute PR for me. I saw the pacer after the race and sang my praises to him for his motivation. I think the pace group came in about a minute after me, so he was pretty much on pace the entire race.

  11. Depends on the course. I actually slowed down some in a half to run with some people on pace because I thought damn I am going to fast. I really should have ran past them at the time. The last 2 miles of the half had some brutal hills and they ended up finishing about 2 min ahead of me during that phases. The hills are no prob to the pacers but for a normal runner could kill you. Next time I will study the elevation of course more but also go with my gut instinct.