Pacers in Ultras – Should we or shouldn’t we?

Well.. should we or shouldn’t we?  On the one hand they’re a great way for race directors to ensure the safety of runners out on the course… on the other, do they create an unfair advantage for those that have them over those that don’t? Are runners who are allowed pacers but chose not to, doing themselves a disservice by not having one? Do runners with pacers gain an advantage over those that don’t?

Before we answer some of these questions, what let’s try to is present the two sides to the argument and then let you guys, the runners decide for yourselves.

The case for

I think one of the biggest reasons for the permission of pacers is from a safety perspective and the fact that in a pacer you have someone who is more “compus mentus” than the runner is after 140kms of say a 100 miler in 35 degrees of heat. Things can go wrong out there and I’m sure we’ve all been in a state of delirium once or twice where the guidance of someone who’s relatively fresh is an absolute godsend. I think also given the potential hazards that you encounter on Australian trails and around the world too, (the main one being the risk of snake bite or even falling from a cliff), having someone with you could mean the difference between life or death in some cases. Extreme maybe, but it’s a very real possibility and has happened in races around the world.

Ryan Sandes at Leadville with his pacer Adam Chase (photo from GoTrail)
Ryan Sandes at Leadville with his pacer Adam Chase (photo from GoTrail)

Now admittedly I only know one trail runner who has been bitten by a snake, and the instances are pretty rare, but it only takes one and that one will happen one day for sure and it will change the way things are done. In a pacer you have someone who will look after you and make sure you’re doing the right things like eating and drinking when you’re meant to and staying in the best possible shape you can to get you to the finish.

On a personal level, I’ve paced a few people and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It allows the runner to in some respects switch off (if there’s a navigational element to the race), as well as just follow the back of someone’s heels and run. I recently paced Canadian ultra runner, Mathieu Dore in the 240kms Coast2Kosci race here in Australia and for me, it was awesome to share such an experience with him. But one of the main reasons I’m sure pacers are allowed in this run in particular, as well as many others is that from a race director’s point of view, it’s another safety mechanism they can rely on to ensure that their race runs as smoothly as possible and that no runner’s decide to play chicken with the cars on the road.

The case against

Quite clearly, those who use pacers are being hand-held along the course. They’ve got someone else doing the thinking for them and you could raise the accusation that if the pacer wasn’t there, would they be moving along at the same rate had they not been there? I think here it also comes down to a mental aspect too. How hard are you capable of driving yourself and sticking to it if you didn’t have a pacer?

While this depends very much on the personality of the runner. You could argue that with a pacer, the runner is pushed to run a little beyond their own expectations, thus inflating their performance. For example, the pacer can glean information that the runner might not have thought to get hold of and then change the picture so to speak.

I’ll give you an example – a few years ago I paced my Ultra168 team-mate Darrel Robins at the GNW 100miler. We reached the last checkpoint with 25kms to go and in his head all thoughts of chasing the next runner were gone – she out of that checkpoint 45 minutes ago. But I looked further at how long she’d taken to do the section we’d just done and it was 45 mins longer than Darrel had taken. She was slowing down. I immediately told Darrel to get out of his chair – we were going to catch her. Sure enough, 12kms later we overtook her and gained another place.

Was that fair? I was certainly playing within the rules of the race, but would Darrel have thought to look at that information and act upon it? Probably not, which meant he might not have gained that extra place. It’s all hearsay now and to be honest irrelevant, but it makes you think – does having a pacer create that unfair advantage versus runners that don’t?

I do feel some sympathy here for those who don’t have pacers, as you could argue that it should be all or nothing i.e. everyone has pacers or no-one has them to create an entirely level playing field. The same happened at Coast2Kosci while pacing Matthieu up the last stretch of the course – a stretch that I knew intimately well and the runner in front (3rd place), maybe not so much. I knew how much to push Mathieu, what the course was like exactly and how we could get that extra place. In short, we had an advantage over the runner ahead. Yes we’re playing within the rules, but is it morally fair?

The long road up the hill to the summit of the C2K race in Australia - and pretty close to where we overtook the 3rd placed runner.
The long road up the hill to the summit of the C2K race in Australia – and pretty close to where we overtook the 3rd placed runner.

Final thoughts

So… should we allow pacers? Well the simple answer to this is that if the rules allow it, then why wouldn’t you? If you’re aiming for the stars in your races, you should take advantage of every possible way to get you to that finish line as quickly as possible. For those who don’t use pacers? Well, that’s your decision not to, and while we can argue whether its ‘pure or not’, the fact remains that there’s no brackets after the race results and times.

Morally however, I do think that it should be all or nothing, and maybe that’s something race directors should get a steer on from a runners point of view. But should you force a runner who doesn’t want a pacer to have one? I do think that for certain races, a pacer can be pretty critical and not just one, but two for different sections. As runner safety becomes more and more of an issue after some of the recent incidents we’ve seen in the media, I think the arguments for a pacer may actually be decisions made that are out of our control. Just as C2K has a mandatory crew requirement, I think some races in the future will see mandatory pacer requirements too.

What do you think?

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

3 thoughts on “Pacers in Ultras – Should we or shouldn’t we?

  1. It’s compos mentis…
    And as you said it, it’s not hearsay. Perhaps the term you are searching for is “moot”.

  2. I think you have to offer pacers for the safety of the runners, HOWEVER, I think pacers should have to register (for free) so you can keep track of them and results should include a little “+#” to indicate how many pacers the runner had. For example :
    FIrst place : John Smith +3,
    Third pace : Sue Doe +5.

    I just finished a 12 hour ultra and got 4th place. I’m happy with my result, but all three of the men who beat me had pacers. Most had 3 or 4 pacers who jumped in to pace them the last 5-6 hours. In watching them run and listening to their pacers encourage and guide them as they complained about the heat, I feel certain that without a pacer they would have slowed up in the midst of the 90 degree (F) day.

    I was also in a 100 mile race where the winner was running at times with 3 pacers at once and for the day I estimate had over 12. Somehow I think it would offer a much more accurate picture of results if you showed how many pacers a runner was using. Personally i would have much more respect for the guy who came in 10th with no pacers if place 1-9 each had pacers. I would also be more impressed with the guy who wins with 1 or 2 pacers then the guy who came in 2nd with 10 pacers.

    If you did that I think it would encourage runners to cut back on pacers and only use them when they really need them.

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