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At races around the area, you can often find pacers spread throughout the corrals, holding signs with a finish time or pace-per-mile time on it. If you can stick with these people throughout the race, you have a good chance of finishing within a minute of the time they advertise.

After having run a few races, and utilizing pacers to help achieve your goals, you may feel like you want to help others in the same way. Becoming a pacer is a big job, but with some practice and passion, you might be the reason someone hits their biggest PR yet.

Becoming a Pacer

Runners can turn into pacers in various ways. For smaller events, it might be as simple as becoming aware of a need and wanting to fill it. Christina Chapan, who has paced various races around the area including those put on by All Community Events, the Allstate Hot Chocolate Chicago 15k, and the Chicago Half Marathon, realized that a local event needed a 2:40 pacer and offered to help.

“I had no experience, and other than coaching and keeping on pace, I did not know what to do,” Chapan says. “The first race, I was only 15 seconds off, so I knew I would enjoy pacing.”

Others, like Dan Lucente, became a pacer as a desire to further their involvement in the sport.

“I started pacing races in 2012,” Lucente, whose pacing experience includes the Chicago Spring Half Marathon, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon and the Fox Valley Half Marathon, among several others, says. “I was becoming more and more active and into endurance sports and wanted to share my growing passion as well as help others. So I started doing more within the local running community.”

Runners interested in pacing larger events, such as the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, will generally need to prove that they can handle the challenge.

“We take it pretty seriously,” Paul Miller, the Nike+ Run Club Pace Team coordinator for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, says. “We want our pacers to have fun and enjoy the experience since they’re sacrificing their race and goal time, but we treat it as a serious job. [Pacers] are ambassadors for us. When we look for new pacers, we ask for running resumes and treat it as a job interview.”

Knowing You’re Ready

Photo from CARA Marathon Training

To successfully pace a race, runners should know that they can maintain a steady pace over long periods of time. Tim Bradley, director of training programs with the Chicago Area Runners Association, suggests doing mile repeats on a track and checking your splits after the fact. If you’re able to turn in the same time mile after mile on a track, you can try doing the same thing on the road.

“The way [pacers] like to go out and race is that they enjoy finding and locking into their pace and clicking off splits,” Bradley says. “It’s as much of a mindset as it is the actual execution of it. No one’s going to be perfect, but if somebody runs three miles on a track and there’s a variance of 20 to 30 seconds [per mile], they’re probably not ready.”

Having the right mentality is important when it comes to pacing. Denise Liss, a local runner who is part of the Beast Pacing team, says that pacing is a selfless thing.

“I can tell who can do it and who’s good at it because you can see that they care about other people instead of themselves,” she says. “Some people are still interested in their PR and what they’re going to do. They’re not worried if their friends are behind them. The ones who finish and go back to find their friends, they might [be ready to pace].”

A pacer also needs to be mentally strong, Chapan says.

“[Pacers] should understand that if a runner can’t stay with you, you might have to leave them behind,” she says. “If you are pacing, when people get upset that you leave them behind, you need to have a thick skin and realize that you are doing a good job and want to do well.”

Where to Start

If you’re interested in pacing, you don’t have to immediately jump into a race setting and hope you can handle the responsibility. Bradley suggests pacing someone one-on-one prior to moving into pacing a group during a race to get an understanding for what it’s like. You could also start by pacing a training group rather than a race group, Lucente says.

“I would suggest becoming more involved within your local running community and even volunteer at a local running shop to be a long run pace leader to practice and really find out if it’s something you enjoy and would like to pursue,” he says. “That will also kick start your networking within the running community. Most specialty running shops either sponsor events or put on events that might utilize a pace team.”

Pacing as a group leader can also help you build your confidence. While runners count on group leading pacers to set and maintain the pace for a long run, not having a clock running at the finish line takes some of the pressure off, allowing you to figure out your pacing style in a low-stakes setting.

“I think there can be a lot of imposter syndrome of thinking, ‘I don’t really belong here, so I can’t really pace,’ but it’s a lot easier once you get going,” David Rovani, a training site coordinator for the Chicago Area Runners Association, says. “It’s repeating the same thing every week with a slightly different distance and weather. It’s okay to come out even if you don’t feel like you’re ready yet. We don’t want any new pacer to feel like they have the weight of the group all on their own without anyone there to support them.”

If you have your sights set on pacing an event on the scale of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, consider starting small to test the waters, both in terms of distance and event size.

“We encourage people to start off pacing a half marathon or shorter distance, and if you can, to pace a smaller marathon to understand what the dynamic is like and the consistency needed,” Miller says. “It’s one thing to keep it up for five, seven, 10 miles. It’s another thing at mile 22 when people still expect you to hit your 9:05.”

Whether your pacing journey leads you to a training group or a world class race, you’ll likely make new connections along the way.

“I know people all over the country now and see people you saw at a previous races,” Liss says. “I end up being friends with these people on Facebook afterwards. It’s part of the fun. There are millions of people running, but it’s a small community.”

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