Official race pacers. Should you use them in a race? In my opinion, they have the potential to be both a gift and a curse during a race. A gift, when the pacer is experienced, unselfish, and really wants to give the gift of their time and talent properly. A curse, when the pacer runs far faster than their volunteered pace, decides to run their own race, and casually forgets their promise to the race and runners counting on them.
Typically when I race, I keep the race pacers in my view, as a guide for how I am doing with pacing and finishing in whatever goal time I had set for myself. I don’t usually run with a pacer for an entire race. For one particular race though, which shall remain nameless, I met and had a conversation with a pacer prior to the race, with the plan that I would stay with them for the duration. I was well trained for the time I was hoping for, and felt it would be helpful to have an experienced, capable pacer nearby. And this my friends, is where I learned a valuable lesson: Do not put too many eggs in the pacer basket.
It can certainly help to have an opportunity to talk to your pacer prior to the race. Questions might be: What is your race plan? Will you begin slowly and then dial into the race pace after a mile or two, or will you go for even splits through the entire race? What are your recent race finishing times for this distance, and when did you last race? What is your personal best for this distance? How many times have you paced this distance? What is your easy long run pace and distance, currently? Listen carefully to their answers. It could go exactly as they predict. Or it may not.
In my only, and likely last experience in staying with a pacer, the pacer ran too fast from the start and all through the first half of the race. In most cases, starting out too fast can make or break an entire race. As it turns out, this pacer ran the race almost entirely by themselves, finishing about 5 minutes earlier than scheduled, despite being an experienced pacer. To top it all off, in this particular race, this person was awarded an age group medal, which at last check is still a certified result. My mind was blown that this could even happen. How can a pacer also be a racer? In my opinion, that age group medal, which I observed to be happily accepted, was stolen from another racer.
My race that day did not go as planned, although it was a PR for me, but I do not blame the pacer for my race outcome. I had several other factors race week and race day that contributed to my performance. Most importantly, I was master of my own race and should not have counted on anyone else to pace me but myself. That being said, I urge racers to be wary of relying too heavily on a pacer. Use them as one of the many tools at your disposal to carry you to your goal on race day. You have trained well and are prepared! Allow that final victory lap to be all yours!