India’s fastest half marathon, the Vedanta Delhi Half Marathon, is returning to the national capital on October 16 after the pandemic-enforced hiatus. It was at this race that Avinash Sable, the Commonwealth Games silver medallist in the steeplechase, set the national record during one of his training runs two years ago. Given the lower temperatures and humidity and the flat track with plenty of long straight stretches, the Vedanta Delhi Half Marathon is the perfect race to improve your timings and hit your best. This year’s event features the half marathon and 10km races as well as a 5km Great Delhi fun run and Champions with Disability, a special race.
No matter how good and dedicated the training, oftentimes runners, especially the newer ones and those trying out greater distances, can’t find a rhythm or pace themselves properly over the distance and miss out on their target times.
To help such runners, most top race organisers arrange pace-setters or pacers, experienced runners whose job it is to help others complete the race within a target time. “Participants choose the Vedanta Delhi Half Marathon as their preferred destination to achieve their personal best. To enable our runners to accomplish their time targets, we present an impressive line-up of experienced runners as pacers who will lead all the 21k and 10k runners. This year for the feature race, we have 22 pacers who will extend their role to lead from the front, and for the first time in the 10Km, we have an all-women pacer squad,” said Vivek Singh, joint managing director at Procam International, the promoters and organisers of the race.
Who needs a pacer?
Mint Lounge’s dedicated in-house runner Sohini Sen usually prefers to run her own race at a steady pace that she picks for herself for distances up to the half marathon. “Pacers usually have a strategy, and many of them choose to run the first half slow and then push in the latter half, and I don’t like that,” she reasons.
Bengaluru-based management consultant and long-time runner Sunil Chainani, 64, a five-time pacer at the Delhi Half Marathon, is quick to point out that not everyone likes to run with a pacer. “The pacer is usually joined by new runners who haven’t yet figured out how to pace themselves over a long distance. Most go out too fast and burn out too early. By the time they finish the race, they are literally struggling. So, new runners definitely stand to benefit by following a pacer as pacers are experienced runners who are running at a pace much slower than what they normally run at and know how to maintain a pace or stick to a strategy over a race distance because they have run the distance many times,” says Chainani, who will line up at the Vedanta Delhi Half Marathon as a pacer for the half marathon a week after running the full marathon in Chicago, his fifth World Major race.
The other group of runners who are likely to use a pacer are those who are trying to achieve a target time and those looking to improve their timing and get a personal record, says Rashmi Mohanty, 50, a Gurugram-based finance professional who has paced five races in her dozen-odd years of running. The most popular and challenging target for the half marathon is the 2-hour mark. Finally, there are runners who have been running for a while but are attempting to run a longer distance; they also tend to seek the help of official pacers at races. Take, for example, Sen, an experienced recreational runner who has run multiple half marathons and 10km races, who says, “I would most likely follow a pacer if I ever run a full marathon just so that (s)he can motivate me to keep going.”
How does a pacer help?
There are clear and obvious advantages of running with a pacer. “You never have to worry about pace or keep checking your watch. That’s the pacer’s job. You can focus on your run and leave the calculations to the pacers,” says Mohanty, adding, “The pacers help their group find a running rhythm quickly. They also motivate their group and, more often than not, help the runners in their group by alerting them about the hydration stations and aid stations along the course.”
Pacers try to keep the runners in the group together and push them on helping everyone feed off the collective energy and common goal. They also provide a reality check when needed. If someone can’t keep up, many pacers make it a point to let the struggling runners know that they are better off slowing down or leaving the group. The reverse is also true. If a runner is feeling strong at the 17-18km mark, Chainani asks them to pick up the pace and break away from the group. “If they have it in them, I ask them to go for it. In case they can’t maintain the faster pace on their own, I assure them that I’d pick them up on the way,” says Chainani, who experiences as much thrill in helping someone else finish a race as getting a personal best himself.
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How to pick a pacer?
Most races have multiple pacers for each target time, and each pacer usually has their own strategy for the race. Once you have set the target time, Mohanty says you must contact the pacers and check their strategy, how you feel after talking to them, and their running experience and performance before zeroing in on a pacer. It is also important to know the performance of the pacers over the distance they are pacing.
Typically, they should be pacing at a target time that is at least 12% slower than their regular race pace. Also, you need to be realistic about your target times. Don’t go following a 2-hour half marathon pacer if you are usually a 2-hour 20-minute half marathoner. “After all this, you need to see which pacer makes you feel most comfortable, with whom you could develop a good rapport and whose strategy would suit your running style. Based on this information, pick the best fit for you,” she says.
And even if you don’t join a pacer, you could always use them as a marker to know how you are faring in the race because they are the ones running with a flag or balloons that are readily visible.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.