Marathons often try to lure in elite runners with offers of prize money and rocket-fast courses. A world record is a valuable commodity for a race. To help the swift of feet break those records the race director may hire Pace Rabbits – human metronomes that do the hard work of keeping an exact tempo for the runners. The pacers run to a designated point at which they bow out of the race (usually the last pacers dropout around 30K). I haven’t researched this, but I suspect the term comes from greyhound racing – just as the dogs chase the hare around the track, the runners chase the rabbit to the finish line. Finish times are decidedly faster and records fall when the crazy-quick have pacers to help them along the way. Rabbits may do even more then just pace, like forming human windshields when blustery conditions thwart fast times. Pacers take some of the skill, mental effort, and hard work out of the race, leaving the elites with the sole job of running fast. These professional pace rabbits are paid handsomely for their services and big races often employ several elite pacers for any given runner or finish time, just in case one of the rabbits has a less than hopping day.
Race pacemaking has been controversial since Roger Bannister first used rabbits to help him break the 4-minute mile. Those who oppose pacemakers argue that in the spirit of competition everyone should be trying to win, not grabbing bags of cash and stopping midway. But the 2009 Women’s race in the Boston marathon is a notable example of what can happen without pacers – a slow moving race in which no one will take the lead. A world record paced race can lead to an aggressive start and nail-biting competition – all the makings of an exciting spectator event. In a world filled with marathons the title world’s fastest course is a sure-fire entrant draw. Yet complaints have recently emerged around race directors instructing pacers to start at these potentially disastrous record-shattering speeds, in the hopes the pack will hold on to the end and history will be made.
Running in the footsteps of elite runners are the rest of us chasing our own dreams of glory. Many races also have pacer programs in place for the less-than elite. We get bunnies, not rabbits, to help us meet our goal times (in ten to fifteen minute increments). These runners may not be chasing a prize purse, but they are looking to finish strong, set a new PB, or BQ, and they want a bunny they can count on. Pacing must be very stressful – you need to reign jumpy runners in at the start, ensure relatively even splits throughout, and inspire the group through the rough times near the end. Pacers need to calm nerves, build confidence, and take the mental stress out of running for a particular time. A pace bunny is part coach, part motivator, part pacer. A good bunny must to be comfortable enough with the distance that the race isn’t a race effort; so a typical marathon pacer will lead a group around 30 minutes slower than their most recent finish time (about 15 minutes for half marathon pacers). Presumably the ability to pace evenly is also a top criteria. No one wants a haphazard bunny, jack-rabbiting (ha) fast, slow, fast slow, fast, slow – even if they do come in at the target time. Pacers are supposed to make it look easy, doable, achievable – like the Energizer Bunny, they can keep going and going and going. No one wants to see a bunny hit the wall. That would be messy.
Running with a bunny is a bit of a gamble. Bunnies are, afterall, merely mortals and they might have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day during your big race. Although pacers are an important part of the race experience for many runners, they aren’t guarantees – we’ve all heard bad bunny horror stories. I once knew a would-be rabbit scheduled to pace a group I suspected to be his race pace (on a good day) and sure enough by 21K he bruned out and tossed in his ears feigning a knee injury. Husband recently watched a bunny ditch the ears and sign a mere 7K into the run, taking off to do his own thing. Seems pacing wasn’t for him. Bad time to figure that out. Look closely 500m from a finish line and you may see bunnies hiding in the bushes, obviously early and biding their time before crossing the finish line “on schedule”.
Not to be (too) cocky, but I think I’d be a great pacer. I pace training groups all the time and I can run consistently at a variety of speeds. Admittedly though, I’m a wee bit nervous about race pacing. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never applied. And much as I would like to pace-set for other runners, I’ve never actually run with a pace bunny. With my need for control I could never place my eggs in a bunny’s basket. Husband was a pace bunny this morning for the Mississauga Marathon. He paraded around all weekend in his pink rabbit ears and ‘follow me’ t-shirt. He was an eager little bunny, studying his pace band so he wouldn’t flunk out of Rabbit School. The plan was to finish one-minute under gun time. He came in at 50 seconds under gun and ran almost perfectly even splits, so I think he earned a gold carrot.