Virgin London Marathon 2011: A Pacer’s Story

Image: Kevin McGarry (www.kmcgarry.com)

James Barnard is Multimedia Designer at Runner's World, and blogs about running as Sir Jogalot (www.sirjogalot.com). He paced the 11-minute mile group at this year's Virgin London Marathon - the following is an excerpt from his blog.

Two words sum up the Virgin London Marathon 2011 - hot and heaving!

After a pre-race pep talk from the Runner's World crew (no weaving, hit your mile times, no listening to music - and enjoy it!), we set off for our pens. I was 11-minute/miling and starting from the very last group (pen 9). Everyone around me seemed to be very nervous - I was bombarded with questions and even asked to fix a broken GPS watch!

There were four pacers in each time category, two at the blue start and two at the red. My pacing partner (who I called Ben for the entire day, until I found out later that his name was Rich) was a metronome. Useful, as running at the pace the watch says doesn't always work. While the watches are accurate, you can't always follow the blue line on the course and you end up running extra distance (apparently I ran 0.4 miles extra).

After a while, when the three starts merged, we began to get separated. And by the time we hit mile 5 I'd been held up so much in the crowd that I was 40 seconds down! When this happens, you can't simply speed up and make that 40 seconds back over the next mile. You have to gradually grind the seconds back over the next few miles, otherwise you risk losing people. So I ran the next mile in what I thought was a slightly quicker pace, only to find that I was another 10 seconds off pace! By now I'd caught back up with Ben (Rich), who was looking just as confused.

We decided to just maintain the same pace for another mile, doing our best to avoid being held up in the crowds and keeping the banter going with our followers (who were now starting to drop off). When we hit mile 7 we were back on track and stayed that way, running together, for some time.

At mile 9 I needed a wee. Badly. Now a true pacer, someone who was committed to the cause, would have just wet themselves and carried on. But not me! I had however planned for this eventuality and had my temporary replacement in mind - a slim chap called Stuart who'd been running with me from the start. Stuart took the pacing reins for a minute while I sprinted ahead. This all seemed to take an absolute age and by the time I was done, the pack was a couple of hundred metres ahead. Unfortunately, I'd managed to run around the barrier and was now at the volunteer end of a drink station, dodging people handing out water bottles. One of whom I ran straight into and almost knocked over.

When we hit the halfway point I made sure to remind our group to enjoy the Tower Bridge section. The pack was much smaller now, down to around 10 or so, but they had eyes on stalks and were loving the commotion. The sun was out and the crowds were truly amazing.

That was about the last bit of conversation I had with my pace group. As the sun continued to shine, more and more runners started to suffer. Because we were towards the back of the field, we were constantly blocked by people walking. By mile 16 it was so bad that I'd dropped nearly a full minute off pace. To make up the time I was forced to weave through the crowds. This made me more difficult to follow, but I hoped that it would at least mean we didn't lose any more time and that when the road widened, we'd eke those seconds back.

The sun was starting to affect me. At every drink station I had to take on water and was pouring the remnants of bottles over my head and legs. That 11-minute/mile pace now suddenly felt much quicker than it had and I was starting to get demoralised with the sudden changes in pace dodging those walking. After Canary Wharf, all my chat had dissipated. I had to focus incredibly hard on not stopping, reminding myself that people were relying on me to get round. It was much harder than I'd anticipated.

But the miles ticked by and all of a sudden it was nearly the end. I'd managed to get back up to pace and was looking like I'd come in on time. Then my left wrist clipped the shoulder of a passing runner and hit the stop button on my watch! I still had two miles to go and couldn't get the damn thing started again. So the last two miles of pacing the London Marathon 2011 were complete guesswork - I just tried to maintain my rhythm.

My target time for 11-minute/miles was 4 hours and 48 minutes.
I came in at 4:47:26. 34 seconds quick!

I'd finished the race with almost no-one I'd started with, although I had picked up a few along the way and brought them home. The heat certainly played its part. I saw plenty of people being hauled away on stretchers and I later found out that four pacers were forced to pull out. But my first marathon as a pacer went well and I found it an incredibly rewarding experience. Some runners even came and thanked me personally once we'd finished. Some said I was incredibly selfless, running 26 miles for no personal goal but to help others reach theirs. But I disagree. Just to be part of this amazing event is a privilege I'll never take for granted. True, while I'm actually running a marathon I want nothing more than to stop and during the last 6 miles I always seem to question my motives for running. But as soon as it was over I almost (almost) wanted to run it all over again.

I have a guaranteed ballot place coming up in 2012 or 2013, which I'm determined to run sub-4 hours. But for now I'm basking in the glory of a successful day's pacing (and nursing my tired legs).