The Idiot's Guide to Pacing a Friend

Amy & Jake“Amy, it’s time to stop talking.”

My friend was running her first full marathon. I had offered to meet her at mile twenty and run the last six miles with her—under one condition.

“If you want me to stop talking, tell me to stop talking.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

And at mile twenty-two, she did.

There were no feelings hurt. It wasn’t awkward. In fact, I was glad she followed through with her end of the bargain. Four miles later, she crossed the finish line, and we celebrated (talking included).

Pacing someone in a race can be one of the most rewarding experiences in a runner’s career. But there is an art to pacing, and unless you want a finisher’s medal hurled at the back of your head the moment you cross the finish line, a few rules of etiquette must be followed...

Ask, Don’t Assume. Simple enough, right? But how many times have we been struck with the pacing epiphany (“I’m in no shape to PR… Wait a second! I could pace Sally! What a perfect plan!”), only to impose our brilliant scheme on the lucky recipient without so much as asking, “Would you like me to run with you?” While your offer may make you feel like the Mother Teresa of racing, no one wants her race day hijacked. Offers—even if they are turned down—are always appreciated. Bushwhacking is not.

Ask, Don’t Assume (Part Two). Speaking of running with Sally: are you offering to run the whole race with her? Just the first half? Just the last six miles? Let her know what you’re willing (and able) to do and let her choose the rest.

Establish a Pre-Race Honesty Clause. In short, let the person you’re pacing know that she can be a total grouch and you won’t take it personally. If she wants you to shut it, she can tell you to shut it. If she wants you to talk, she can tell you to talk. No feelings hurt. No pride wounded. She doesn’t have to respond to your questions or your praise. You won’t be offended if she accidentally drops the occasional expletive (or a hundred). Basically, she can be one big Grumpy McGrumperson, and you’ll be thrilled to death about it.

Do NOT Run Ahead. You are there to run with the person you’re pacing. You can run next to her. You can run just behind her. You can even run a lot behind her. But do not, in any circumstances, run five feet ahead of her. You’re pacing, not racing, and there’s no louder, more irritating way to announce your disregard for pacer etiquette than establishing a five- or ten-foot lead. It’s not cool, bro. It’s something someone in an Ed Hardy t-shirt would do. 

No, Seriously. Don’t Do It. See above. 

Don’t Be Chatty Cathy. As a general rule, the most soul-crushingly annoying quality in a pacer is excessive perkiness. It seems only to highlight someone else’s misery. You don’t have to be the captain of the cheerleading squad to be encouraging. Instead, take emotional cues and follow suit. If it’s time to be quiet, be quiet. Simply being there will say everything that needs to be said.

Don’t Be a Name-Dropper. And by “name,” I mean “time.” As tempting as it may be to casually mention a PR or ten, now is not the time to narrate the history of your running career—no matter how inspiring you think the monologue would be. If you’re pacing someone, you probably have a speedier PR than she does. Throwing down finish times and mile splits is like saying, “Now that you are my prisoner, I would like you to congratulate me on being faster than you.” If you do come to a point that referencing a PR would be encouraging, avoid numbers. Say something like, “It ended up being one of my strongest races.” By using words to which every runner can relate, you’ll get your point across effectively and tactfully. Because “strong” is motivating. “Six-minute miles” is not. 

If She’s Having a Bad Race, Don’t Talk About Your Bad Race. Disaster one-upping is the worse kind of one-upping. It’s like telling someone who has food poisoning about the time you had a worse case of food poisoning. Respect her suffering. 

Fear the Power of Suggestion. Don’t be a schleprock. Why toss bad karma into the universe—or at least into her head? Running is so mental anyway; the last thing you need to do is provide things to worry about, no matter how positive the spin. (“Hey! At least you don’t have diarrhea!”) GI issues? Fatigue? Heavy legs? Calf cramps? IT band? Tight hamstrings? Blisters? Tennis elbow? (Seriously.) Avoid such topics like the plague.

Unless You are a Registered Race Participant Who Ran the Entire Distance and Have Not Yet Crossed the Finish Line, Under No Circumstances Should You Cross the Finish Line With The Person You’re Pacing. No. 

Remember: It’s Not About You. It’s her race, her day. Your job is to do whatever will help her reach the finish line—even if it means doing nothing. Keep in mind this one simple rule, and everything else will take care of itself.


Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious RunnerHer second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Storywill be released in 2014.  Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.

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