“Your pace or mine?” – pacing the Adelaide Half Marathon


Yesterday I had the honour and privilege of being a pacer in the half marathon at the Adelaide Running Festival. It was a no-brainer for me really. I had decided early on in the year that I was not going to enter any of the events, having committed to the Barossa Marathon, and my later decision to enter the Gold Coast Marathon confirmed my decision. 2 marathons in one year was plenty for me! Besides, my focus after Gold Coast was always going to be trail and ultra training. So very early in the piece I had emailed Michael, the event director, and offered my services as a volunteer. I didn’t care what role I did, I just wanted to be involved in some way.

Some time later, I received an email from SARRC seeking pacers for the marathon and the half. I definitely didn’t have another road marathon in me, I was completely unprepared for that, but I could always manage another half! As volunteer roles go, this is a pretty good one as you also get to run!

For those unfamiliar with the concept,  a pacer is someone who runs at a set pace, with the aim of finishing just inside a specified time. The idea is that those runners who want to run around that time, can follow or run with the pacer,  then they don’t have to concentrate on their pace, they can just ‘sit back and relax’ while the pacer does all the work! The pacer is usually carrying brightly coloured balloons to make themselves visible, and often wearing a wacky outfit.  Yeah…  I could do that!

When I had had my shit run at Clare earlier in the year, and had seen how much my friend Sarah had enjoyed pacing her friend in her first half (in a MUCH slower time than me), I thought “There’s something in this pacing caper… I should really try it one day”

So, with little hesitation, I put my hand up to pace 2:15, well within my capabilities (all my halves have been in the 1:40s). I was quickly talked out of this. I didn’t do the sums at the time, but 2:15 is an average pace of 6:23 per km. In contrast, my best half marathon for this year was an average pace of 4:53. Although it should theoretically be easy to run at a much slower pace than my best, it really isn’t! The easiest pace is your natural pace. Anything much faster or slower than this is an effort. I’d be exerting more effort than those who I was pacing! So I quickly changed to the 2:00 pacer which is average 5:38 per km. MUCH more comfortable for me!

At the moment I think I could probably beat my PB if I were to race a half marathon. I have managed to do PBs over every distance I’ve raced this year (12k PB came during the 14k City2Surf but I’m confident of an official 12k PB at City-Bay this year) except for that elusive half marathon! The good and the bad of pacing is that a PB is off the table. Good because it takes all the pressure off me. Bad because I could get frustrated knowing that I could run so much faster. But when pacing you have to have this mindset: “Today is not about me. It is about helping all these people to achieve their goals. My goal today is to get as many people across the line under 2 hours, as I can.”

Being a pacer is a big responsibility! You don’t want to let anyone down. Run too fast early and you could lose people, and they may not have the capacity to catch you again. Run too SLOW and you might miss the target time.

I heard a story last week about a pacer that clearly put himself first. He was a 3 hour pacer in a high-profile marathon. During the race he realised he was on track for a PB and he ditched his balloons (and in turn the people who were relying on him) and went and did his own thing! Needless to say those who were running with him were NOT happy! I don’t know if he got his precious PB but hopefully karma stepped in and he didn’t!

I’d never paced before, other than 30 minutes (6 minute kms) at parkrun when I still wanted to run but I was saving myself for a race the next day. I didn’t really know how to go about it, so I asked my knowledgeable Facebook friends for some advice. The general consensus was that I needed to talk and give constant encouragement to my ‘posse’. A constant pace was important,  something that had never been one of my strong points!

One of the things I decided to do to get my pacing right was to go out for a few runs at 5:38 pace. In the week leading up to the event I did 3 5k runs at race pace. In all of them I ended up averaging 5:35 which was not too bad. In fact in one of my regular runs that week I also averaged the same pace so that seemed to be my ‘comfortable’ pace! The later 5k runs were more consistent pace too, not so much up and down, so I was confident I could run at that pace on race day. My Garmin has a ‘pace alert’ setting and I had it set for 5:30-5:45 (15 seconds was the minimum ‘window’ you could set) so if I ran outside that range it would alert me.

Next item on the agenda was race kit. Well actually that was the first thing I had worked out. It’s useful for a pacer to wear an eye-catching outfit (as well as the coloured helium balloons) to be easily visible. It didn’t hurt that I also don’t mind getting dressed up and making a bit of a fool of myself! So I thought I’d go in my Snow White outfit (sans wig – I couldn’t see myself running 21.1km in a scratchy wig!) and yellow balloons. The socks I would wear were white football socks, which were NOT my standard Nike anti-blister socks, so I taped my feet in the blister-prone arch regions. On race eve I debated whether on not to wear a hat… I had never raced without one but it might look a bit weird with my Snow White headband on top of a hat! Decisions, decisions! (In the end, no hat won the day and I was glad of that because it looks much better in the photos. Always think of the photos!)

It had already been a fantastic running weekend. Friday night I had been to a function at SARRC with race ambassadors (and LEGENDS) Steve Moneghetti and Pat Carroll. Saturday those two had come and run Torrens parkrun with 300-odd others and I had managed a new PB – first time under 21 minutes for 5k! Given that I was going to have to run within myself on Sunday I thought a hard hit-out on Saturday wouldn’t hurt!

The alarm went off at 5:45am on Sunday and I was raring to go. All my kit and breakfast had been prepared the night before so it didn’t take too long for me to be ready and out the door.  The plan was to get there in time to see the start of the marathon at 7, the half starting 50 minutes later. Unfortunately the road closures which were supposed to start at 7, were already in place, so the subsequent detour cost me some time and I had a blonde moment or 2 trying to get out of the Adelaide Oval carpark! I didn’t get to wish everyone good luck for the race but I did get there just in time to see the start.

It was a bit cold but I didn’t have a matching jacket to go with my Snow White outfit so I decided to do an early bag drop and then went to get my yellow helium pacer balloon. Initially we were going to tie it to the bow at the back of my skirt but quickly realised that would result in those following me potentially having to look at my Skins-covered arse for the duration, so we quickly changed to the shoulder strap!

After posing for a few photos and wishing a few friends well (some of whom didn’t want to see me during the race… I didn’t take offence, that just meant they wouldn’t be doing as well as they’d hoped), and a quick media interview (promo for next year’s event, look out for that one!) it was time to head to the start line. It was ideal running weather, a bit chilly to begin with but the chill soon wore off and the sun was very warmly (pun intended) welcomed!

I had planned to start my watch as I crossed the start line but Min-Qi who was standing next to me said I should go with gun time, to account for people who were starting way behind me (there were over 1000 runners in the race). I hadn’t considered that – a lesson for next time! I didn’t quite start my watch on gun time but not long after.

The start was a bit slow due to the congestion, which was to be expected. I wasn’t too concerned – there were plenty of kms to make up the time. It was actually probably for the best because I do have a tendency to start too fast (I had warned my posse that this might happen and not to be alarmed as I would slow down as soon as I realised).

I was on my own pretty early on as a few of the girls I run with regularly who were in my posse (Sally, Victoria, Ali and Libby) had taken off… happily they all made it in under the 2 hour mark even without my help!

It took about 8km to reach my goal pace of 5:35 per km, due to the slow start, gun time vs net time confusion, and also the fact that I didn’t want to increase the pace too quickly.

I really enjoyed the run. I quickly got over having people recoil in horror at seeing me go past them… I kind of felt like the Grim Reaper! I quickly reassured them all that I was running UNDER 2:00 pace so they didn’t need to worry,  they just needed to keep me in sight. Not hard to do, given my outfit!

I didn’t have anyone running with me the whole way but people came and went. It didn’t really matter whether they were with me, just behind me or just in front – what mattered was that they knew I was there, and that they were ‘there or thereabouts’ when it came to pace.

Because I was running a bit slower than usual, I was able to enjoy the scenery and some of the more eye-catching cheerleaders (Tracey, Nikki and Michelle in their bright wigs, Hoa and Rula with their cowbells near the end, and the 2 ‘mad cows’ in their onesies with their motivational signs in the Botanic Gardens, to name just a few!).

Like Barossa, there were a few points where we got to see some of the marathoners – one particularly memorable moment was when a marathoner dressed in full Spiderman suit was high-fiving people along War Memorial Drive… I find it hard to imagine running a full marathon in such an outfit!

I didn’t stop at any of the drink stations and I didn’t have any nutrition with me, but running well within myself I never really felt I needed it. I just wanted to concentrate on holding a steady pace, and I didn’t want to lose momentum.

Towards the end I was running behind a girl (Sarah I think her name was) who was struggling a bit and she had a friend running with her for a while. It was near Jolley’s Boathouse. It was around that point that I saw the sign that said ‘Marathon half way’. I said to her, “It could be worse… you could be running the marathon!”

I thought I was comfortably inside 2 hours (I was looking at somewhere between 1:58 and 1:59) but as I ran past the girls with their cowbells, near the Festival Theatre, well inside the final km, I heard the MC (Pat Carroll) from the other side of the river, saying something about nearly being at the 2 hour mark for the half! CRAP! Had I miscalculated? Surely not! I quickly yelled out to anyone who was in earshot “Right! Gotta go!” or words to that effect, and took off. I also said “This is the best bit! Enjoy it! Remember it!”

As I ran onto the very picturesque Riverbank Footbridge I started yelling, screaming and cheering. I was proper running now. I remembered having run the ‘trial run’ the week before last year’s Marathon, and when I had reached this point, for a split second I wished I was running it for real, so I could experience this amazing finish.

I don’t know if there is any video of the finish line but if there is I’d love to see/hear it… the way I was carrying on you’d think I’d won the thing! It was a mixture of excitement and relief… according to the clock it was about 1:59:30 and according to the official (provisional) results it was 1:58:16 (based on the time I crossed the start line). I had done my job and it was so great to see so many people get under that magical 2 hour mark. I also got a pretty sweet piece of bling to show for it!

I hung around the finish line for a while to see the presentations, watch some friends finish their marathons, and chat to some of the people who had been running with or around me. It was starting to get a bit chilly by then and a bunch of running friends were going to the pub for a celebratory beverage, so after a few last minute photos I headed back to the car, satisfied with my day.

I just want to take this opportunity to thank SARRC and each and every one of the volunteers who made this such a fantastic event. Nearly 500 runners in the marathon and over 1000 in the half, not to mention the shorter events – it really was a huge undertaking and they did a stellar job. Certainly it seemed that SARRC had some contacts upstairs because the weather was just perfect, but weather aside it was a magnificent event, despite the hiccup with the half marathon medals. Everyone will get their medals eventually.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. I’m actually considering offering my services for the McLaren Vale half in October… initially I wasn’t going to run that one as I’m racing the Masters Games half the day before… but I’ll put my hand up if they want me!

Would I recommend pacing to anyone else? HELL YEAH! I had the BEST time. Yes, it’s a big responsibility but the payoff is well worth it!