When Wilson Kipsang was beaten in the recent Olomouc half-marathon by his pacer, Geoffrey Ronoh, it probably made more headlines than the win itself. The marathon world record holder was trumped by eight seconds, with his training partner winning in a record time of 1hr 17secs. It certainly caused quite a stir in the running world (although it’s not unique – Google Tom Byers for a brilliant example). But it did make us wonder: who are these pacers and how do they operate?
What is a pacer?
Pacemakers, also known as rabbits, are runners who lead middle or long distance races. They are employed by race organisers for world record attempts and are given specific instructions regarding lap times. If a competitor chooses to lead the race they are not a pacer – just a front-runner. They can be compared to a lower-status rider on a cycling team, doing the hard climbs and pushing to allow the main rider (leading athletes) to save their strength.
Are they needed?
Well, they certainly benefit the performance of runners. Some athletes use tactics of deception in a race and pacers can be seen as the reliable time setter. Additionally, they help athletes achieve times and set records. Pacers are also hired by top runners and used as training partners, too. However, some argue that because they aren’t competing to win, they distract from the competitive nature of racing.
Who are they?
Pacers tend to be ex-athletes who are looking for a way to extend their career and to carry on living a similar lifestyle. The training and serious running continues – but the competing stops. The experienced pacers are tasked to complete the course in a given time, helping take an element of pressure off some runners. More often than not they can run a lot quicker than the time they are told to run to, but it is purely business.
What’s in it for them?
Swapping a race number for a pacer’s flag is a great transition for athletes who want to keep running but can’t do so competitively. The work to keep physically fit is almost the same as when competing properly, and it doesn’t bring an abrupt end to the athlete’s career. It is also very tough and challenging, so don’t think of it as an easy retirement gig.
Will they stick around?
Haile Gebrselassie, arguably the greatest distance runner of all time, was the main pacemaker at the 2014 London Marathon. Although they are unwanted by some circles within running, it is an important position and an ever-growing trend to hire one – and ex-athletes certainly seem to like the idea.