Perfect marathon pacing is part art, part science, part quest for the Holy Grail. Practically every marathon runner has a story about the race where they got things horribly, horribly wrong. From flying out too fast to being bamboozled by a GPS watch meltdown or knocked off stride by runner congestion, every marathon has pace-related challenges – and the Virgin Money London Marathon is no different. But whether you’re a first-time marathon runner or a seasoned finisher with PB hopes, the solution to your pacing problems is the same: simply follow one of the Runner’s World x New Balance Pace Team.
To find out why falling in behind the pace flag is your best bet, we spoke to RW Editor and experienced race pacer Andy Dixon and Steve Vernon, Elite Performance and Activation Manager at New Balance – the new official Virgin Money London Marathon clothing and footwear sponsor.
How does it work with the Pace Team at the Virgin Money London Marathon 2018?
The Virgin Money London Marathon RW Pace Team has flag-bearing pacers running finish times in 15-minute increments from 2:59 to 5:14. You’ll find them at the back of the start pens corresponding to those finish times at each of London’s three red, green and blue starts.
Because London has multiple starts, each pacer’s flag will match their start colour. It’s important to stick with the pacer sporting your start colours even though you may run into the other pacers with your target time when the runners from all the routes flow together. This is because the time they crossed the start line might not be the same as yours and that could lead you to a different finish time. Pick your pacer and stick with them!
Why following a pacer can help you have a happy marathon
It’s one less thing to worry about…
There’s a lot to think about on race day, from travelling to the race start and finding your pen, to managing fuel, hydration and preventing chafing. You’ve enough to stress about without panicking about pace.
By dropping in behind a flag-carrying pacer, you have one less thing to worry about. It allows you to get your head down, to focus on the running and to be led to the line in your target time.
They will stop you going out too fast
The way you run the first six miles of the marathon can dictate how your entire race pans out. Here’s why: the ideal marathon pace is close to your lactate-threshold – that’s the point beyond which your muscles stop being able to clear out the lactic acid that eventually causes them to lock up. Bust this threshold in the first six miles and – without a serious drop in pace over subsequent miles – your legs will struggle to recover.
Starting slow sounds simple enough but amidst the excitement and adrenaline of race morning, when everyone else is shooting off like rockets and you’re feeling great, it’s easy to get swept up and go off too quick, even when you’ve told yourself not to.
“You’ve got to remember that – congestion aside – the first three miles can be quite fast because that section is downhill. But this is a 26.2 mile race and if you go [off] too fast in the first six, you set yourself up for a miserable next 20,” says Vernon. “Be cautious in your first six so you enjoy your last six. It’s always better to chase time than gain time at the beginning and then suffer.” This is something the pace groups have been designed to do.
“The reason the pace teams originally came around was to stop people setting off too fast,” says Dixon. “Generally pacing yourself sensibly in the first half is key to ensuring that the second half is going to be less of a struggle, particularly for a first-time or beginner marathoner. It’s still going to be a physical challenge, but it’ll prevent you hating every moment and having to stop.”
Pacers run even
Pacers are charged with running even splits, completing the first half in the same time as the second. By following a pacer, you remove the temptation to go out hard to ‘bank time’.
“Naturally your instinct is to make hay whilst the sun shines,” explains Dixon. “You follow the logic that ‘if I’m feeling this good now, I’m going to take advantage of it’. But that’s the wrong thing to do.” It sets a prime marathon trap that even experienced runners stumble into, whereby you underestimate the hefty price you’re going to pay for this early over-exuberance.
“If you set off too fast in a short race you might have a bit of discomfort or slow down. But if you do it in a marathon, it’s critical,” says Dixon. “You’re more likely to hit the wall or generally have a difficult time in the second half – whether that’s from halfway, from mile 20 or during the last few miles.”
They offer motivation and safety in numbers
While pacers can prevent you running the first half of the race too fast, in the second half, they give you something to cling on to. There are decent psychological benefits from running in a group of like-minded people, all trying to achieve the same goal. This creates a camaraderie that you can’t match running on your own.
“If you feel like you’re flagging, there’s comfort in running in a group – a psychological ease. All you have to do is look at a flag and stay there or thereabouts,” says Dixon.
It’s not just amateurs who can make the most of running in a pace pack either, says Vernon. “You see this idea of working as a group right at the elite end too. When runners try to break world records there might be six to 10 of them and five of them will be pacemakers."
Pacers save you from fuzzy fatigued marathon maths
There are plenty of ways to pace a marathon yourself. You can pick up pace bands at the marathon expo with mile or kilometre splits for a range of target times. Alternatively, some GPS watches have race-finish-time predictors that estimate when you’ll cross the line. Or – if you’re old school – you can always opt for the time-honoured tradition of writing your splits on the back of your hand.
However, there’s one flaw with all of these methods. As you get deeper into the marathon, fatigue makes it increasingly difficult to do even simple maths. And as the miles clock up, the sums get harder too, and any miscalculation at this point can cost you your target time.
“The pace group offers the comfort of knowing that someone else has to worry about the time. You don’t even need to look at your watch,” adds Vernon. “You just follow the person with the flag in front and that takes the stress away.”
Pacers know how to run a smart race
Although the pacers are tasked to try and run even splits at the Virgin Money London Marathon, it’s not always possible. In the first two or three miles congestion might force you to run slower than your goal pace. While it’s a relatively flat course, there are also a couple of hills and a couple of pinch points, which might mean your pace drops there too.
“Let’s say you’re trying to run nine-minute miles and you end up running the first mile in 9:15, that’s when people start to say “ohhh we are off pace, pacer!” says Dixon. But ultimately, the pacers are experienced runners who know how to respond.
“They know that if they have a couple of slow miles, they have to get back on pace. But it doesn’t mean running the next two miles at 8:45. It means gradually just clawing back 4 or 5 seconds per mile. It’s easy for first-time marathoners, running on their own, to forget that it’s a long race and to feel the urge to win back the time with a fast mile rather than a more gradual approach. Pacers can prevent this.”
They don’t malfunction like GPS can
At least they shouldn’t do. Pacers, in theory, are all running well within their comfort zones and so the chances of your flag-bearer blowing up or letting you down are limited. Not so for GPS watches.
“I’ve seen people get quite panicked when you go into the tunnel at the start of Canary Wharf and it takes a while for your GPS to log back on. It can look like you’re running a really slow split.” If you’re in behind the pacer you’ve got the reassurance that you’re still moving in line with your target finish time, no matter what happens to your technology on the day.
You can use their experience of the course
It’s a pacer’s job to know the marathon course inside out, taking account of all the twists and turns, quirks and idiosyncrasies. By following a pacer you also get the benefit of their experience. “We encourage the pacers to interact and chat to the people running with them,” says Dixon. “And that can be anything from simple instructions to sharing your life story.”
“For example, some of the narrow parts, like the hairpin bend at the Cutty Sark, are always quite crowded. If you're running with first timers it’s just good to reassure them that they might slow down here but not to panic.”
It will be a smoother run
Congestion on the course can force you to weave throughout the race – ultimately adding distance and burning energy, Dixon explains. However, running in a pace group generally offers a smoother run.
“People will generally move aside when they see the flag coming towards them because the pacers command a little bit of respect,” adds Dixon. “Sometimes the pacer may even ask other runners politely to move, so if you’re behind that pacer it means you can get a clearer path without having to wander all over the course.”
Convinced? If so, how do you pick the right marathon pacer?
Choosing which pacer to follow depends a lot on your training. Vernon recommends setting a realistic goal time, particularly if this is your first 26.2.
“If it’s your first marathon, it can be very nerve-racking. I’d always advise a beginner to err on the side of caution. You want to have a positive experience, so don’t set a goal that’s over-stretching yourself. Set a target that’s challenging but achievable.”
Finding that sweet spot to aim at comes down to a combination of factors. Dixon suggests weighing up how well your training’s gone, whether you’ve managed to get four months of training under your belt without getting injured or ill, and without family commitments getting in the way. As well as evaluating how you’ve performed in some benchmark races during your build-up.
If you can, run a half marathon halfway or two thirds of the way through training to get an idea of marathon potential. You can plug this half marathon time into an online race calculator or a race predictor to get an idea of your projected marathon time. A very rough rule of thumb is to double your half-marathon time and add between 10 to 20 minutes.
“For first-timers, finishing your first marathon feeling great – and like you could have gone faster than you did – is probably the sweet spot,” says Dixon. “It gives you something to build on and that’s a better place to be in than setting too ambitious a goal and hitting the wall, and then hating the race, thinking you’re never going to do another one.”
Ready for the race? Then pick your pacer.
Visit the New Balance London Marathon hub to find the best running shoes for marathon day!