For the past 13 years, RW pacers have helped runners cross the London Marathon finish line - with a smile. Here's why joining one of our pace groups is so rewarding, for you and for us.
The woman hesitated before she approached the Runner's World stand at the London Marathon Expo. "What's this?" she asked over the din, waving a leaflet with a grid of marathon finishing times on it.
"It's about the Runner's World Pace Team," I replied. "You can take one of these and use it to pace yourself." I gestured to the sets of paper wrist bracelets, printed with mile splits adding up to a marathon goal time. "Or, if you like, you can run with one of our pace-group leaders."
"How much does it cost?" she asked. "Nothing," I said. The woman looked puzzled. "You mean I can run with my own pacer...for free?"
"Well, there'll be other runners with you. But you don't have to worry about your mile splits. Just stay with us, and we'll get you across the finish line in the time you want."
She raised her eyebrows. "I'll see you at the start line, then! I haven't run a marathon in 20 years. I wish you had been around in those days."
The RW pace group is born
Indeed, 20 years ago, the only runners with pacemakers were the elites. Today, however, pace groups have become as much a part of the major marathons in the US and Europe as timing chips, gel stations and space blankets.
In the UK, this magazine has provided pacers at the London Marathon since 1998. "The original idea was that we were worried that a lot of people new to running the marathon were starting off too fast and struggling to the finish, and so they had a bad experience," says then editor Steven Seaton, who has paced in 11 London Marathons. "We were trying to tackle the 'never again' fear of marathon running."
Like most good ideas, the principles behind the pace groups were simple. We wanted to guide those new to marathons to run even splits, conserving more energy for the latter stages and helping them enjoy their race. And the best way to do this would be if we were out there running with them. In addition, it would be free of charge, with the magazine's staff forming the core of the pacers.
Pacing for all abilities
So for the last 13 years RW pacers have completed the London Marathon, and selected warm-up half marathons, leading groups ranging from 6:50 per mile (for a sub-3:00 finish) up to run/walk combinations (to come in at around 5:15).
Part racer, part cheerleader
Being a pacer requires a few basic attributes. First, there's fitness - all of the pacers are assigned target times that are well within their capabilities, so there's no danger of them conking out mid-race. Pacers wear GPS pace monitors, but a good innate sense of pace means they don't have to refer to it continuously.
There's also the need to carry a flag for up to five hours (we experimented with balloons but they failed the windy day test). Above all, the pacers are also part cheerleader, part psychiatrist - they can spend hours during the race encouraging and reassuring scores of strangers to their dream finish line.
While running a big event like the London Marathon with no ambition towards a personal best might seem odd to some, being a pacer is undoubtedly a hugely rewarding experience. For starters, there is more opportunity to enjoy the overall experience and absorb the atmosphere of the crowds when you are not chained to your own solitary goal. Then there is the amazing feeling you get from seeing people across the finish line and helping them to achieve their goals.
Of course, things don't always run smoothly. A few years ago a pace group leader opted for an ill-advised curry the night before the Great North West Half in Blackpool.
A few miles into the race, his gut started asking some serious questions. There was nothing else to do but hand his flag to a startled fellow group member and push to the front of the nearest toilet queue. After taking care of business he sprinted to catch up, whereupon he was clapped by spectators who thought he was an elite runner.
Leading a pace group also gives you more opportunity to observe your fellow racers. There is the classic hare and tortoise runner, who bounds past you in the first mile only to be seen again as you overtake them as they struggle four miles from the finish.
Then there are runners who seem to think it is the ultimate insult to be overtaken by a pace group - when they see you they look panic-stricken and desperately try to stay in front. Or there is the occasional runner who tries to stick to the pacers like glue. One pacer was nearly tripped three times in a race by someone who was "hanging off [his] elbow like a horny puppy".
But the experience of pacing is almost always overwhelmingly positive, whether you are pacee or pacer. "The memory that stands out for me the most is the first time I was a pacer at the Silverstone Half a few years ago," says RW advertising director Jason Elson.
"At the end of the race three people came over and hugged me, two in tears. They couldn't believe they had cracked two hours. That's when I appreciated just how much it meant that we were there to help them."
For more, go to runnersworld.co.uk/pacing
How to behave (and how not to) in a pace group:
DO make sure you're in the right place. When in doubt about whether to go with, say, the 4:10 or the 4:20 group, always choose the slower one.
DON'T run ahead. Some runners want to prove to themselves or others how fit they are by running off in front. But if you want to lead the pack, leave the pack.
DO take your cues from other runners. Some groups are quiet, others chatty. Same goes for the leader - some offer encouragement, others focus quietly.
DON'T expect the pack to cater to your needs - it can't stop if you need to answer the call of nature...but if you have to stop, don't panic. Do your thing, then take your time catching up to your group. As long as you keep an eye out for the flag, you should be able to rejoin them.
DO give the leader space to run - they go at the same pace throughout the race, and won't magically disappear if they are a few metres ahead of you.