Why Races Are Better Without Pacers

Did you not holler at the screen when wraith-like Meb struck out on his own only eight miles into the Boston Marathon? No! Don't do it man! And when loping Wilson Chebet (Finally! Idiot! Why did you wait so long?) closed to within six seconds—almost touchable—could you not, like Meb, feel the Kenyan's breath on the back of your neck? Painful, so painful to watch.

And Shalane? Talk about your element of surprise. Eventual winner Rita Jeptoo had to consult with her girls, the discussion resulting in the consensus that, dayum, this was a real race, homegirl was for real, and they'd best be after her if they wanted to really enjoy the after-party. The hunt was on, and it was excruciating, the American hopes wounded along the way positively cauterized by Jeptoo's flaming coup de grace.

I was flushed. I may have cried a little. It was stand-up, adult-dose racing, the genuine article—something fans get when there are no hired pacers.

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Pacers are paid by race organizers to pull runners through at least the halfway point, sometimes farther, hitting metronomic splits along the way before stepping off the course. They lay smooth and solid groundwork for a pre-determined finish time. It's up to runners to complete the plan, which, given the abuse that a 26.2-mile race will mete out, still entails plenty of agony. It's not as if someone's doing the running for them. But by clipping in to a pacer's virtual guide rope, runners are spared the heavy responsibility of decision-making early in the race, and the horrors of bad calls. They're doing their own running but not their own racing.

Some race organizers and athletes, usually candidates on the short list for a record, like pacers because they're a proven tool for producing fast times, one of the few legal and predictable factors in an event known for its vagaries. Even splits, varying by only a few seconds per mile, skewing incrementally faster over the final 10K (so much easier said than done), are the recipe for a fast marathon. Bold moves and crazy surges, particularly in the early going, while crowd pleasin', are wasteful and usually don't result in a fast time. Pacers have played a role in every world-record marathon back through the 1980s. And that's swell. For Wilson Kipsang. And for the Berlin Marathon. Chicago, London, and Tokyo all hire pacers, too. Those marathons have hosted smoking-fast performances, at the expense of hair-still-on-it racing.

For my eyeball time and emotional investment, though, I want mistakes to be made, and paid for. I want runners sizing up their opponents, and covering a move. Or not. I want to see ridiculously fit athletes making their own decisions and taking responsibility for them, hopeful start to exhausted finish. I want to think what a fool Buzunesh Deba is for laying it out there at, what, six miles into the 2011 NYC Marathon, and then hector the chase pack for letting her go. I want to change my mind and think Deba is crazy like a fox, then agonize, cringe as she's caught and passed. I want to see bold moves and crazy surges, flameouts and clawbacks and real, no-holds-barred racing.

You don't get that when pacers are part of the picture.

The Boston Marathon has never employed pacers, partly in keeping with its purist ideals and partly because the downhill, point-to-point course is ineligible for world records anyway. Thus viewers were treated Monday to the mystery of 10 or so sub-2:08 guys out for a jog until suddenly realizing it was statistically impossible to catch that likable American with the nice smile. Oops. Incredibly stupid racing, incredibly smart racing—you got it all, without the flattening influence of the pacers.

Of the world's major marathons, Boston, New York, the world championship, and the Olympic contests are not paced. David Monti, professional athlete consultant with the New York Road Runners, said the NYC Marathon abandoned pacers after 2006 because "pure head-to-head racing was more exciting for the fans, and provided a greater test for the athletes and their racing abilities."

I have to think the 2005 edition of the five-borough throwdown helped them make that decision.

Despite the pacers, the race had already featured nervous surges and slowdowns when Hendrick Ramaala tired of playing and scorched a 4:22 17th mile, the fastest single mile recorded in a marathon. His First Avenue energy blowout worked. Temporarily. But Paul Tergat, the marathon world record holder, soon showed Ramaala the foolishness of his ways, gradually reeling him in and finally coming shoulder to shoulder with the grimacing South African in Central Park. Oh, the horrible drama—sleek cheetah snags the exhausted kudu by the hock, the desperate eyes of the hunted. Sadly now, as the nature shows would say, there can be but one conclusion. But why did Ramaala keep struggling? How could he? Why didn't Tergat put him out of his misery? On and on, every step tore a wound even wider. Straining, staggering, more writhing than running, they went on like that for the full, agonizing final mile. The crowd was nuts, sweat spattered and hoarse.

Neither fans nor NYC race organizers turned away in disappointment over the relatively pedestrian 2:09.30 winning time. It was made irrelevant by glorious, brutal competition.

The issue of pacers is ultimately a proxy issue for a trickier issue about the very nature of the sport. Is racing about Ramaala vs. Tergat, Davila vs. Kilel, you vs. your arch rival? Or is it about runner vs. clock, runner vs. record book? Fans might prefer the former view. Accountants and marketers prefer the latter view; it's easier to sell a potential world record to the public than jockeying that may happen between two athletes with no Q ratings to speak of. Where records are the goal, pacers will be a fixture.

We already know what this looks like. The Berlin Marathon, heavy users of pacesetters and the host of more world records than any other marathon, has become almost irrelevant as a competition, a snorefest time trial so dull you wish it would be over faster than 2 hours and 3 minutes. Not to be outdone, the recent London Marathon assembled a star-studded field with pacemakers to match. The weather cooperated, everything was in place for a world record—and it took 2 hours 4 minutes and 29 seconds to become the biggest non-event of the year. None of the stars collided, no fireworks were produced. The reason?

"I was eyeing a course record and the possibility of improving my world record," said the first guy across the line, Wilson Kipsang, "but the pacesetting let me down."

He's not the only one.