Monday, November 18, 2013

Pacing the Race

On a bright, crisp morning in November, I find myself gearing up in anticipation as the SMIVM (Santa Barbara International Veteran's Marathon) lead runners approach the half-way mark.  I'm watching at the half-way mark because I will be taking over the Official Pacing for the 3:30 pace group.  It will be my job to carry them from mid-way to finish ensuring they'll break a 3:30 marathon.  For many in the group, this will qualify them for Boston.  Though I'm not racing today myself, I feel the typical pre-race tension.  In this case it may be due more to the pressure I feel of accomplishing the task at hand, not for myself, but for those who are relying on me.  The pace I will be keeping for them is not a difficult one for me, but keeping it straight on for them will be difficult.  My warm-up is minimal.  I'll warm-up some more once I take the 3:30 Pacer Sign and settle into the feel and rhythm. 

Several spectators have gathered at the half-way point, and we clap and cheer as the first two male competitors move through.  I note that they don't look particularly good at this point but perhaps their pace will be manageable and they can stay with it to the finish.  Next through was the first female.  She came through the 1/2 marathon mark in 1:19 - an amazing third position overall.  She looked focused and smooth but she was working.  I wonder if hitting the half-way mark is a positive or negative.  One might say, ah, now I can begin counting the miles back down to ZERO.  Another may worry that they have to cover that same distance again before reaching the finish.  If it were an out-and-back course, it's easier to mentally work it out that once you are half-way, you are headed back home, but for a lot of these folks coming through on this point-to-point course, a look of dread seemed to linger.

The first Pacer group (3:00) came through.  In nice even increments of 5 minutes, soon there was the 3:05 group, the 3:10 group, the 3:15 group, and on it went.  In some cases, the same pacer journeyed on, and in other cases, the duty was handed off to the fresh new pacer.  I was happy to be a fresh new pacer.  I saw in the distance, a dancing "3:30" sign and my eyes widened as I jogged backwards on the course to meet up with my pacing partner Dan Rudd!

Dan and I had this perfect plan of continuity.  So that we didn't lose track of a single second, Dan wore my Garmin watch and started it at the race start line.  Our exchange consisted of transferring my watch to my wrist while jogging through the half-way point, and the sign was put in my hand.  There were quick introductions and with a simple nod and thanks, our little pace group said goodbye to Dan and hello to Cindy.

Dan had the group perfectly ahead of pace by one minute.  Our plan was to ultimately have them ahead of pace by two minutes at the base of Cliff Drive (mile 23) in order to fully factor in the difficulty of climbing that hill in the final miles of the race.  We didn't want our 3:30 group to crest the top of that hill and have to scramble to get back on pace and possibly miss it in the end, so we planned to bank it and any left over could be spent gliding on the final descent.

My first observation was that the sign was difficult to keep up in the air.  Some of the other Pacer groups dumped their signs and went on only with the Pacer t-shirt announcing them.  I had it in my mind that I would rather keep the sign and use it as a beacon to those lingering behind; a target bouncing along in front of them.  The sign also came in handy every time we passed a group of spectators.  It showed them that this group had a goal and they cheered them accordingly.  I soon found that the sign wasn't so bad after all and I held it high with pride most of the way. 

My second observation was that with the variations in the course, it was not practical to run a straight 8:00 min/mile pace.  The down-hills allowed for a pick up in pace and the up-hills caused an obvious slowing.  Along with this, the GPS watch is inaccurate to an ever increasing degree so it could not be fully relied upon.  I had to keep the projected and required mile times ever present in my mind and make mental notes every time we passed another mile marker.  In this way, it was difficult to perfectly judge the pace and I worried constantly that I was either too slow or too fast.  Either one could kill the day for these runners.

My third observation was that when I first took over the Pacer sign from Dan, there was a notable group of runners hovering close by.  Within a few miles, the number of runners hanging in there with me was dwindling.  I worried if my pace was much altered from what they had been running with Dan.  As we ran along the bike path, past miles 15-19 I still had a group and though I opted not to talk during the race, I took a moment to recommend they grab a gel from the aid station at mile 19 so that they could consume it a bit later on.  Somewhere between that bit of instruction, and mile 19, I lost most of my group.

There were a few running along with me still and I saw that our 1 minute banked time had grown to 2 minutes of banked time and we hadn't even gotten out onto Modoc yet.  I announced to those laboring along-side me that we had all the time banked that we need and now we can afford to take it easy when we got back out on the road!  Which we did.

On Modoc I was aware that I only had maybe two guys hanging in there but we were going nice and easy and they seemed to be handling it fine.  We chatted just a bit up the incline and when we approached a water station I suggested they take their gel at that point.  From there, I watched every mile very carefully, actually trying to pull it back a bit so as not to continue at a faster pace than was required.  We hit the nice bit of downhill on Las Positas and I lost one of the guys.  He slowly drifted back.  I was hoping he'd recover before the hill.  At mile 23 just before the climb, we were exactly where I had planned, 2 minutes ahead of pace.  When I began climbing the hill, I lost the other guy and hoped he'd come back to me at the top.  In the meantime, as I had caught up to others along the course and a few hung onto me as a guide.  Although I had lost the initial group, I was able to pick up others who had gone out at a faster pace and were still hoping to make it in under 3:30.  I found that the Pacer sign did a lot for those around me, including the spectators who were anxiously awaiting their friend or loved one.  They asked as I went by if I was "on pace" and used that as a gauge.
Hoping my couple of guys would catch up, I made my way slowly down the hill toward mile 25 and came across it only 50 seconds ahead of pace.  I couldn't afford to lose any more time in waiting and coasted on down.  I came into the La Playa Stadium alone with my little 3:30 sign feeling a bit odd that I was the only one in my Pacing group - my Official 3:30 Pacing group.  But there were a few who ran ahead and a few that might still make it behind.  As for me, I crossed in 3:29:03. 

Walking through the chute I immediately doubted that I had done a good job.  I had pictured the whole experience would be quite different than how it turned out.  My whole purpose today was to help others achieve a goal and really nothing else mattered.  I had the "mother hen" mentality as we ran along but this mother hen didn't have any of her chicks with her in the end.  It was a tough day for some of the chicks - was there more I could have done to help them?

This will be my question until the next time comes.  Like anything else, experience makes us better and wiser and this was my first time as an Official Pacer.  I was so happy to have done it and will certainly do it again (if they let me).  It was an honor.