Imperfect Pacing

I had two worries when pacing the marathon. The first was that I would go too slowly. The second was that I would go too fast. I was more concerned about the second, and with reason — I knew that was my weak spot.

When you pace a marathon you agree that you will reach the finish line at a certain time. The people who run with you depend on that time (it might be a boston qualifier, or it might just be a nice round number), and they get understandably upset if you go too slowly and they miss their time. But the other problem is almost as bad; if you go too quickly then they (who have trained to go at a certain pace) will tire too soon and slow down and again, miss their time.

Conventional wisdom is that if you want to pace a marathon for a given time you should be trained to run a marathon ten minutes faster than that.

When I volunteered to pace Rusty offered me either 3:15 or 3:30 as a finishing time. My best marathon is 3:06, so 3:15 would be sort of borderline… And anyway I’d be three weeks before my own marathon which would mean I’d be tired. 3:15 sounded too fast. That is — I could probably do it, but I wasn’t sure. And I didn’t want to discover at mile 20 that I couldn’t go any further at the correct pace.

3:30 sounded easy. It’s just 8 minute miles (8:01 if you want to be pedantic). Heavens, I had run faster than that when I didn’t know what I was doing and ran my first marathon in long trousers and no training.

But as the time approached I started worrying about going too fast. How accurately could I hold a pace? Well… at my own race pace I can slot in to the time fairly well. No perfectly, but I’m usually happy with what I’ve done (until I fall apart at least), but there are both physiological constraints and lots of practice to make that pace easier to find. Here I’d have to pay very close attention, and perhaps people in my group would get more upset with me over fluctuations than I would…

And then there is the course itself. SB has a frightening hill at mile 23, most of my friends expect run the mile of the hill a minute slower than race pace. Now Rusty claims you can make it up on the 2 miles of downhill that follow the hill — but I’ve always been too tired myself. So… it seemed better to run the first part of the race slightly fast to have a cushion of a minute or so that we could afford to lose on the hill.

That also might annoy people, but at least if I announced it beforehand people would be prepared. So when Jeff (who was in charge of the pacers) gave us a webpage on which to pontificate, I did so.

Would anyone run with me?

The webpage gave my email address, and a couple of people sent me mail asking how to find me on race day morning. Mmm. No one had really told me that either. Well, I knew I’d have a sign saying 3:30 and a shirt saying the same; so I told them just to look for the sign.

What would it be like running with a sign? I didn’t know. I bought a dowel so I could at least practice running with a stick. That wasn’t bad, but it didn’t have a flat sail attached to it. Then I learned I didn’t need to run with the sign for long, just at the start. (Though I knew last year some pacers had carried their signs the whole way. Still… I didn’t have to if it proved hard).

Then the NY marathon was canceled. And my friend Jana decided she wanted to run with me instead.

I went to the expo and picked up my bib, my sign and my shirt. The sign was bigger than I had anticipated…. Oh well. The bib surprised me at first. It didn’t have my name on it anywhere; just my anticipated finishing time. Then I realized that that’s what I should be expecting. My name didn’t matter, I was the pacer. I was not a racer. I was 3:30:00 (or close).

That made me wonder a bit. Would my name appear on the results? I was running a Boston Qualifier time for my age, and it’s always handy to have one of those (just in case disaster strikes at CIM and I drop out or something). But then… did I really want a time that slow recorded? Ah well. It didn’t matter. Either would be fine.

Race day dawned and I climbed into the shuttle bus with my sign. Two people perked up and said they wanted to run with me. Yay! A little later Craig walked in with his 3:40:00 sign. When we got to the start we all moved to the gym which was warm, while outside was cold and windy. Craig and I started to gather little groups around ourselves as more people joined us.

Craig had carboloaded, I knew. I had not. It didn’t occur to me that I might need to until I learned that Craig had done so. Would I hit the wall at mile 20? I didn’t in 1992… but that was 20 years ago.

Would I be able to control my speed and be accurate enough to make people happy? I felt I couldn’t talk about my own worries — the last thing that a runner wants to hear is the insecurities of the pacer on whom he is depending.

I learned the names of some people, Stephanie and Steve were very chatty and turned out to be good runners. I got to know Chris later. I didn’t learn the names of everyone. I think there was a David too…

They announced that the start would be delayed by 15 minutes (Poor Rusty, he almost always has had to delay the start). After a bit I asked if anyone wanted to go for a warmup jog. Steve was my only taker. We went out about half a mile and then turned back. I started at my usual warmup pace which is somewhere around 8 minutes and usually gets a bit faster… and then remember that was a really bad idea. Slower than 8 minutes for the warm up, else we’re already racing.

A formation of jets passed overhead (it was veteran’s day weekend).

When we got back I popped into a port-a-pottie, and then it was time to line up. I found the 3:25:00 pacer and stood some way behind him, holding my sign high. My group coalesced around me. Jana wondered where I’d been earlier. I guess I should have gone for the warmup a little earlier.

Jill Zachary showed up. I hadn’t realized she was racing… She stood with us, but ran faster.

A bagpiper played the national anthem, and then a bugle call announced the start. We were some distance back and it took a few seconds (which seemed like forever) before we moved. 🙂 And then we were over the chip mat (start watch) and away.

Photo by Ruth Morales

I’m not the only one who wants to go too fast, the start is always exciting. I try to rein everyone in a bit, especially on the first downhill section, I’m not too concerned; I know we’ll slow on the uphill that follows.

Stephanie wonders where all the crowds of cheering people are? I point out that no one actually lives on this section of road. There are some orchards but no houses. We’ll meet cheers once we get to UCSB (about mile 4).

The first mile marker is hidden in the press of runners, and the confusion that surrounds the first water stop. So I can’t calibrate my watch. I always expect the GPS to be off by a bit, so if the watch says I’m running a 7:55 pace, I might really be doing 8:00. Oh well, I missed it.

We head down Los Carneros and when mile 2 comes up my watch reads 15:52, which is as close as I can expect to my desired pace of 2*7:55, so I feel a little cocky. Then it’s up over the freeway and down the other side. I know from experience that we’ll go too fast on the downhill here, and I try to slow people down. But I don’t try hard enough and at the next mile marker we find we’ve done a 7:43. Now that’s really too fast. Gleep. Some of my runners are worried (as they have reason to be) and express their concern. All I can do is apologize.

Oh. And slow. The next mile is 8:00.

We are now in UCSB and there are indeed more people, but Stephanie would like even more.

Kary cheers us on. Last year we were running together, and her husband and kids cheered us both…

This mile is 7:48. Again too fast, but it’s been downhill. I know that the hills of Hollister will slow us soon. Luckily no one complains.

At the corner of Pacific Oaks and Hollister there are some orange highway cones, and in one is a sign reading “3:15:00”. Chrystee has dropped off her sign in a rather unexpected spot. Hmm. I wonder if I should do so too? I think I’ll carry it to the end of the loop and drop it off at what was the start.

I have brought a little camera with me, and had thought I might run ahead and take a picture of my little group. But I realize now that would be stupid on two counts: 1) They’d want to run with me (even if I told them what I was doing it’s natural to speed up when someone else does), 2) how long would it take me to find the pace again? So the little camera traveled with me the entire race and never was used.

Jana told me earlier that she expects me to take her mind off things by identifying the plants we pass. She’s been told I do this. Well I do it when on the trails, but I don’t know the plants people have in their gardens (which is all we saw earlier). Now we are passing some rather faded examples of Menzie’s goldenbush. They aren’t impressive but at least they are blooming. Nothing much else is.

A gust of wind blows my sign around and I mention that I’m thinking of dropping it off. The general consensus of the group seems to be that they like it. When I mention that it makes it difficult for me to reach my GU packs, Jana offers to carry it for me for a bit. OK, I guess I’ll keep the sign, it is easier to carry than I expected.

I’m becoming a little less attentive to the pace. This doesn’t mean that I’ve improved, simply that I’m resigned to imperfection. I hope my pace group is too.

More people are along the streets and we are now running through the suburban part of Goleta. Plenty of people cheer us on.

When we reach the halfway chipmat I look at my watch. 1:43:17. Oops. I’m 45 seconds ahead of where I want to be. Is that OK?

Shortly after mile 14 we turn off Cathedral Oaks. Last year this is where I sped up a little bit, because we have a mostly downhill stretch for a couple of miles heading down to Atascadero Creek. I suggest that this might be a good place if someone in the group wants to pick up some time, but no one wants to, and we continue together.

When we get to mile 16 there is great consternation in the group. Our watches say we took 9 minutes to run that last mile. Now I had looked at my watch not long before and it said the pace was 7:55. It’s really hard to believe in a 9 minute mile. No one else believes it either. We conclude the mile marker is in the wrong place.

And then none of us sees the mile marker for 17.

Or 18.

I know where 19 is and I’m going to click my watch when we get there even if there is no mile marker. But there is a mile marker. Whew.

And now we’re on the rolling hills of Modoc. I hated this part last year. I was losing it here. My group seems in much better shape than I was. Good.

There’s a chip mat at mile 20, and when we get there I realize that once again the mile marker is in the wrong place, it’s a tenth of a mile early (or so). Again I know where mile 20 should be, and I click my watch when we get there.

This means we have not had an accurate mile time since mile 15, that’s the last quarter of our run. This is a bit worrying.

Jana tells me she’s dropping back. Oh dear.

Stephanie says she is having trouble. I try to encourage her. The top of this hill isn’t far, and the next one isn’t nearly as bad. We get to the top of the hill, and after a bit she seems OK again.

Mile 21. 7:55. Perfect.

Then down another hill, and the short steep climb before Los Positas.

(Photo by Ruth Morales) Steve is to my right (your left when viewing), with Chris on his right, Stephanie on my left and half hidden. I regret to say I don’t know the names of the others.

Los Positas gives us one mile of lovely downhill and I tell people this is a good place to go faster than the group, should anyone want to (again, no one does). We run it in 7:45 (maybe that’s why no one wants to, and then another mile that looks as though it should be flat but always seems really hard — which we do in 8:06.

Along here we start to pass people, some join the group for a while, others let us pass them.

And now —
the hill.
We’ve got a nice cushion so I’m not too worried and I slow down as I head up the hill. Steve keeps up with me, but no one else does. After a bit I let Steve set the pace. He’s going surprisingly fast: 8:35 pace by my watch (I was anticipating 9 minute pace of slower).

The hill isn’t nearly as bad (for me) at this pace as it normally is. But it’s still hard. This year our way isn’t blocked by hordes of slow half marathoners. Yay! Oh there are some, but nothing like last year. A huge improvement.

And we’re at the top. Good heavens there are Joel, Siobhàn and their children, I wave.

(Photo by Ella Thames). I look disgustingly cheerful. I’m never that happy in a real race. Perhaps there’s something to be said for being a pacer.

Mile 24: 8:28. Gleep. Way faster than I expected for this mile.

Now I’m in a bit of a quandary. Do I continue running with Steve? If so I’ll be minutes ahead of my projected time. Or do I turn back and see if I can pick up some of the others who might actually get in at 3:30? I ask Steve if he wants to run ahead, and he says, no he’ll run with me. OK.

I think I’m running his pace (rather than he mine), and it is picking up as we go down the final hill. 7:43 to mile 25. 7:23 to mile 26. And then Steve pulls out in front. I do the last two tenths of a mile in 7:05 pace; Steve faster. Steve finishes in just under 3:27 (I finish in just over 3:27).

Three minutes too fast.

How bad is that?

I console myself that about half of the error occurred in the last three miles, and I think that by running with Steve there I helped him… And everyone whom I saw after the race thanked me… But it still seems like a large error.

I congratulate Steve, and tell him I’m going to head back to see if I can pick up anyone else. I have great difficulty in getting out of the stadium (which is set up for runners to enter, not to leave). And by the time I do get out — I find this out later — most of my group has finished. They weren’t far behind. Whew. Not knowing this, I head against traffic up the course, and just before mile 26 I see Jana. She’s already got Travis running with her, but I join them and together we bring her across the line. Only a few minutes after 3:30.

It was fun. I didn’t have any problems running at that pace. I still had energy at the finish. Didn’t feel exhausted. No urge to vomit. I did want water but no more than anyone else. It’s a beautiful day. The channel islands were clearly visible as we came down that final hill. I realize I don’t look at the scenery much when racing a marathon, but I’m not racing today. There are advantages…

But I will be racing in Sacramento in three weeks. We’ll see what that’s like.

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One Response to “Imperfect Pacing”

  1. McKee-Runner Says:

    You did a fab. job 3:30! Thanks for giving me credit for staying with you until mile 20, but truth is I lost you right as we were doing that part along Nueces Drive. I lost it probably there more mentally than physically. Another day and another time I should have been with you and your 3:27. It isn’t your fault. The marathon at that pace is a sloppy business…. not super fast but not super slow. Thank you for a wonderful first 17 and finish! Next year you will nail it! I might even try again.

    Thanks You, my friend!

    Jana McKee

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