I stood in the starting corral, holding up my sign for the 2:50 pace group. My watch and pace band were on my right wrist; my phone was in my left hand as another timing method.
At the OCMD Island to Island Half Marathon today, April 30, I participated in a race as a pacer for the first time. A pacer runs the race at a consistent, specific pace throughout the course in order to help runners meet their goals.
My friend Veronica, who had paced this race before, was able to get me on the pace team for this year, and after giving pace group organizer Diane Walsh a range of times I felt comfortable pacing, I was assigned the 2:50 group, which is a 12:58 pace. We’re allowed to come in within two minutes under the listed pace, but not over.
At the race expo the previous day, I was able to get questions answered by Diane: Should I start my watch as I cross the start line, so that I am tracking the chip time, not the gun time? (The answer is yes.) How much walking should I do? How should I hold the sign?
She also advised letting my group know out loud when I planned to walk and when I would plan to run again, as well as making a holder for my sign, out of something like paper towels and tape, which I did.
The race began at 7 a.m., and Veronica and I had to catch a bus from the Ocean City Inlet at 5:45 a.m., so we left my house in Salisbury at about 4:45 to be sure we made it. It was very windy at the Inlet, which made me happy I’d decided to wear a long-sleeved race shirt underneath my pace team shirt and capris. (I realized on the run I really would have been fine in short sleeves.)
Right behind us on the bus happened to be two former classmates from my high school in Carroll County, which is three or so hours away, and it turned out that at least one of the people who was initially running with me was also from Carroll County.
Once we started the race, I had three or so people with me. The group members changed often, which was fine. The race starts at Assateague State Park, so early on the route to Ocean City is the Verrazano Bridge. Since I was already planning to do a walk-run, I led the group in a walk up the bridge; we ran down.
I think that walk was a little longer than I expected, but since I already said we’d walk up the bridge, I didn’t want to do something other than what I’d said. I missed the one-mile marker, but my watch logged the first mile at 13:02.
I didn’t want to be behind already. I was supposed to hit Mile 1 at 12:58, and while it was only four seconds, I wanted to be on the other side of 12:58. I was also watching my average pace on the Strava app on my phone.
My watch logged my next mile at 12:34, but for the first few miles, I kept hitting the mile markers after what was on my pace band. My watch and the mile markers were not lined up, and Diane had said to match the cumulative times listed on the pace band to the mile markers. This was great advice, and by Mile 6-ish, I was consistently ahead of the time on the pace band when I hit the mile marker.
I had prepared with some practice runs, but one thing I didn’t prepare for was the mile markers being different than what was on my watch. That made things a little harder, but I was able to get used to it.
I believe it was Diane who noted that as a pacer, you’ll hear reactions from other runners. Almost right away, two people running together said something about staying in front of me, and after I passed someone when we were almost to Mile 7, I heard a “Shit.”
People were definitely taking notice of my sign, which I thought was great. I also had a good group of 5-to-7-or so people, particularly during the middle miles. I don’t remember exactly when I started doing this, but rather than just walking at times that seemed good, I changed my strategy to doing a run, but then stopping to walk at each mile marker. That’s what I often will do in my own races, and it gives people something to look forward to.
It also gave me an opportunity to get closer to the pace — for example, if I arrived at Mile 6 at 1:17:00 (that’s a made up number) and I was supposed to be there at 1:17:51 (that’s a real number from the pace band), I could at least walk with the group for those 51 seconds.
My watch still didn’t line up with the mile markers — I was hitting the miles on my watch before I arrived at the mile markers — but I had gotten on track. I also walked through most of the water stops.
Because I was going at a slower pace than I normally do, I felt great and was able to talk to people who were running with me if they wanted to, announce when we’d gotten to each mile and let people know when I was planning to walk. I was also extremely happy that I didn’t feel the need to stop for a bathroom, because I wasn’t going to be able to leave my group/the course.
Some people had questions for me, such as when the next water stop was, and next year, I’m going to study the course so I can be prepared for questions. I just was honest if I didn’t know something, but I used whatever information I could think of from when I’d run the course two years prior or what I’d heard about the race.
It was around Mile 10 or so that my group really got smaller. I ended up running the rest of the course with just one group member, and we continued the pattern I had been doing of walking at the mile markers. She’d been running with me since at least a little bit before Mile 4, because she pointed out I had accidentally announced to the group that we were almost to the Mile 3 marker — I was so focused on the pace that I misspoke about which mile it was.
I didn’t see a mile marker for Mile 11, so I had to guess on that one when it came to when to walk. Mile 12 was also a little confusing because the mile marker was on the opposite side of the Boardwalk, where runners were going the other way. However, we figured it out and kept going.
Because I was pacing, I was not at my usual tired state at the end of the race, but I think it would have been frustrating for someone who was tired. We were running generally toward the Inlet, but we took a left to go around some of the carnival rides, and then would two right turns before taking another left to the finish.
The woman I was running with stopped to walk, but we had so little to go that I told her she could do it and she caught back up with me. Another woman was near me for much of the race and ran with my group for a little bit, and she finished just ahead of me, setting a personal record. Both of them thanked me, and it felt really nice to help them.
I also saw some other people who had been in my group as I made my way to the finish, and cheered them on, telling them they didn’t have too far till the turnaround.
During the race, another woman running with me told me she wanted to buy me a drink, which was nice — I didn’t even need the extra drink; I just appreciated the thought. I think that was the same person who said I was her motivation.
At least one or two people asked me how I was doing this, and I explained the techniques I was using to them. People would also ask if I was on pace, and I would tell them I was a little ahead of pace.
My phone, which I was using to see my average pace, died a little after I hit Mile 11 on my watch, but by then, I had settled into a rhythm and had a cushion, so I didn’t really need it anymore. I just paid attention to my watch and the pace band.
My watch ended up logging the course as 13.2 miles (I was not surprised at all that I logged a longer-than-13.1 distance based on the rest of the race), so I’m glad I had that extra cushion. Normally at the end of a race, I’d speed up as much as I could, but I actually found myself going more slowly so that I could ensure I was in the two-minute window from 2:50 and not finish too fast.
My watch, which I probably stopped a little bit late, had me at 2:48:10; I just saw my official chip results, which tracked me at 2:48:06. I made it!
I got a couple snacks, a beer and a piece of pizza and listened to the awards — four of my friends won something — before Veronica and I headed to the Bayside Skillet, where I had crepes that included the most delicious whipped cream I have ever tasted. Being a pacer made the race registration free, and I also got a ticket each for a piece of pizza and a beer.
This run also put me over 400 miles for 2016 so far.
I had an amazing experience as a pacer and cannot wait to do it again next year.
Mile 1: 13:02
Mile 2: 12:34
Mile 3: 12:43
Mile 4: 12:38
Mile 5: 12:55
Mile 6: 12:24
Mile 7: 12:43
Mile 8: 12:48
Mile 9: 12:41
Mile 10: 13:04
Mile 11: 12:37
Mile 12: 12:33
Mile 13: 13:02
Last part (watch logged .2): 2:24
Average: 12:44 for 13.2 | 12:50 according to the race results
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