Pacing the Team G-Force
After six successful appearances in the Delhi Half Marathon, returning to the seventh edition as a pacer is something I’d take as a reward. In pursuit of training for the Bhati Lakes 100 miler, just five days after Delhi Half Marathon, and meeting up with new runners-I took up the charge of being an official pacer for the 3:00 hr bus in this year’s edition of the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon with a target of leading the group of runners intending to finish between 2:45 to 3:00 hours.
Runner’s Bus being introduced in the Delhi Half Marathon for the first time raised a lot of eyebrows regarding ‘what exactly a bus is’? Most of them confused it with the Marathon Shuttle service and others with a bus running on the track leading the runners with a huge clock on it. Rather funnier were the explanations when those people got to know about the bus who had never run before. The question I faced the most was, “How can you be a BUS”!?
A bus is a “runners’ bus” that runners might opt to “hop on” or “hop off” en route to the finish. It is a group of runners who will run at a particular pace with the goal of finishing the race in a predetermined time. The bus or the group is led by a “bus driver” or “team leader” carrying a flag indicating the finish time of the bus. To ease the comfort of most runners, there will be six more runners in three bus categories with the respective finish times of 2:00 hr, 2:30 hr, and 3:00 hr. List of official pacers can be accessed here
The pacer, or ‘bus driver’, or team leader, will run the race distance at an even pace, running every kilometer in roughly similar time. He’ll be doing all the mathematics for you. If the target time of the pacer suits you, join the bus; and the moment you feel the bus is going too fast/slow, you can hop off and run at your own pace. Before we proceed further, please note that these finish times are the gun times and not the time calculated after you cross the starting line (which for a half marathon with about 5000 runners may span 5-6 minutes or more). Still, a slow pace to start with will allow many runners to keep up the pace and join the bus as per their comfort with little effort.
How to recognize me? It won’t be difficult to spot a short structured oddly dressed (rather undressed) runner in black shorts and singlet with a white cap standing right at the back of enclosure B with a couple more flag bearers, his one indicating “3:00”
My BIB#: 6918 | Enclosure: B | Target finish time: 3:00
Among all the information, the most important is “how pacing works” and “what’s going to be my strategy”. There are several possible marathon pacing strategies, but only two with a reasonable likelihood of leading to a personal best performance. The classic strategy for failure is to start too hard and hope you will get away with it. If you are still trying that approach, good luck! At the other end of the spectrum, starting slowly with the expectation that you will feel great and make up for lost time during the second half rarely leads to disaster, but is also unlikely to lead to your best race. Although “negative splits” may make you look good as you pass other runners during the latter stages of the marathon, you can only partially make up the deficit incurred from running more slowly during the first half of the race.
To keep things safe, the strategy I’ll follow will be to work the marathon in four sets of equally paced 5 km each and then a fast final 1097 meters. The strategy planned to be worked out won’t be a relentless run of 21 km just to hit the wall somewhere around 16km, rather a run-walk-run to keep the recovery alongside running in the anticipated warm and humid weather.
Your optimal marathon race pace (MRP) is slightly slower than your lactate threshold pace. As your slow-twitch muscle fibers fatigue during the marathon, your body begins to recruit less economical fast-twitch fibers, so your lactate threshold occurs at a slightly slower pace. Unless you are a world-class marathoner, it makes sense to plan for this reduction in the economy and to pace yourself accordingly. Starting with 4 minute running strides followed by a minute of walking breaks and then reducing it to 3 minute running strides followed by a minute of walking breaks makes sense. Pushing back to a 4:1 pacing strategy in the dying stages will allow runners to finish on a high and take back some of the beautiful memories with awesome pictures.
For a 3:00 hr finish in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, we’ve got 180 minutes. The gun time is 6.40am, making the expected finish time stand at 9.40am, which will be pretty warm. Since we’ll be targeting to finish in three hours, so target pack of runners will start from enclosure C. I’ll start right from the back of enclosure B to ensure bus passengers can catch me with negligible effort; which in turn would mean a delay of 3-4 minutes. Another important factor to consider will be the near stampede of walkers from “Great Delhi Run”. So, carving the way through 25000 other runners will demand quite an effort. Balancing all the equations will leave us with a target time of 174 minutes or 2:54 hr finish time with 6-minute buffer to dig deep into the Great Delhi Runners. Considering the mathematics, an average pace of 08:14 minutes per kilometer will be the target.
We always speak about the pace in the marathon and not the speed, as it’s the pace that decides the finish time and not the speed. Where speed defines the distance covered per hour, pace defines the time spent to cover a kilometer distance. Marathon isn’t run with the same speed but with similar pace for all kilometers. Going too fast or too slow are rather difficult strategies to keep up with.
You can download a printable version of the pacing chart by clicking here. However, please do not take a printout of the page and help in reducing carbon footprints. When your pacer has devised the chart, trust him, he remembers everything by heart.
The pacing chart has eight columns, and each one has its own significance.
- The first column tells the distance covered in kilometers
- The second column tells the closest checkpoint. In other words, if you are in the run for particular minutes by now, you must be around the checkpoint to keep the check on your pace at given time.
- The third column shows the facilities around the checkpoint that can ease the nerves as well as lungs.
- The fourth column depicts the smart pace strategy or the run-walk ratio.
- The fifth column describes your pace in the last kilometer.
- The sixth column keeps the record of total time spent on the track so far into the run.
- The seventh column compares your last kilometer’s pace with your average goal pace. I got a question that when we are increasing the pace with passing kilometer, why isn’t the average pace increasing. Well, the answer is pretty simple. The average pace is not the instantaneous one, rather it’s average target pace calculated with net time to keep the track if we are faster/slower than required pace.
- The last column shows the total time taken if you run at a constant average pace without getting tired. (again it’s a virtual parameter for comparison and keeping check on how well smart strategy works)
The pacing chart is devised such that the start is slow with more running and less walking. 4:1 will be the ratio of run/walk with walking at a speed of 6 kph and running at a speed of 7 kph. As the body gets warmed up, lungs synchronize with the stride length and we get over the START goosebumps, we’ll slightly increase the speed with more frequent walking breaks in 3:1 ratio to ensure that at no point of time, we are pushing too much or taking things very casually. 3:1 pace strategy is a tested strategy that worked brilliantly even in my last ultramarathon in the extreme weather of Maharashtra.
The pace will be kept constant for the middle section of the run where we’ll vary the speed to mix it up for the muscles and recover as we are going ahead. By two-thirds of the distance, there’ll be a significant increase in temperature and things might get tough to push with a somewhat tired body. To keep up with the plan, we’ll decrease the pace for a few kilometers to relax before pushing on the last leg of final few kilometers. My goal will be to push you to 20 km mark under 2:45 hours. The choice is on runners after that, they can keep the same pace with me or if they are still feeling good (somehow), they can hop off the bus and run the last mile faster. Remember, do this only if your muscles are still feeling relaxed—one doesn’t need a great deal of talent to pull a tired muscle in pursuit of fulfilling some unnatural heroics.
Should I join the bus?
I’m one of those runners who didn’t believe in the concept of running in groups or pacing. It was at the Bhati Lakes Ultramarathon last year when I realized the benefits of pacing. After running 140km in jungles of Suraj Kund, I was almost dead. With no energy left in the body, little strength in muscles and absolutely no sense of mental presence, it was a game over for me before my friend Aditya Bee stepped up to pace me on the final leg of 20km. He did all the mental calculations for me and I followed him blindly. We not only finished, but we finished really strong -sprinting madly the final few meters. There I discovered the joy and comfort of having a pacer pushing you, that forms a strong emotional bond as well. And my pacer is one of my better pals and he’ll be with me on my next run.
In answer to the above question, it’s completely up to you. There’ll be many runners running with a target time same as of yours. If the pace and finish time of a bus suits you, run with them, it’s a comfort. If it doesn’t, then keep going ahead and look for someone running at a similar pace as of yours and somewhat similar finish time target. Finish on high, that’s what is more important.
Something for Race Day
Eat a really light breakfast in the morning of your half marathon. Oats, sandwiches or bananas accompanied by fresh juice or energy drinks can be a good option. Do not try anything new on race day. If you doubt anything, avoid it like the plague. This is not the right time to play around with things—you have an entire year ahead to experiment. Keep drinking in intervals while you reach the start line and stop drinking 20 minutes ahead of the start. Wear a beautiful smile and look for your friends or make hundreds of new ones.
On race day, try to adhere closely to your pacing plan, yet maintain a degree of flexibility due to the weather, how you feel, and the pacing of other runners. Learn your planned splits (writing them on your hand is useful if you get confused later in the race) so you can monitor your progress along the way. If the weather is hot, you will need to run conservatively (and drink more) during the first half and can expect a greater decrement in performance as the race progresses. There is a large psychological and small drafting advantage to running in a group, so you should adjust your pace moderately, if necessary, to stay with other runners. When you are running into a headwind, the drafting advantage becomes significant, so conserve energy by “tucking in behind.” When you get out of the headwind, you can then pick your pace back up to MRP. If you are feeling strong during the last few miles of the marathon, pick up your effort based on how you feel with the confidence that you have paced yourself wisely.
Do not skip any of the water stations. Do drink some and pour a little over your head to keep cool. It’s better if you are running with a cap, as it’ll come in handy in the warmer hours. Even if you’re not feeling thirsty while passing a drink station, do stop to take a sip or two to keep a check on hydration for next two kilometers.
Last but not least, do not forget your pacer who made you finish in your goal time. In order to payback him, pace someone else next year with similar courage and zeal.
Wishes for a successful and safe half marathon. Running is a journey with no end to learning. You’ll make mistakes and grow with every run. Run less and run smart is the only strategy that can work in final few weeks and on race day. It’s your day and you’re the champion of the day. Unleash the athlete in you to climb the first ladder to endurance running and true meditation.
See you on the start line. (I’m equally excited about my debut as a pacer)