Pacing Milton Keynes Half Marathon

On Sunday I got to do something I’ve been really keen to try for ages, and acted as a pacer at a race. For those of you who aren’t familiar with pacers, they are simply a runner who runs the course in a set time at as consistent a pace as possible, and carries a flag or sign with that time on so that they are clearly visible.

Most races have them now, and I’ve often seen them; usually trailed by a little group of runners, and often providing support and encouragement to those that are using them to pace off. That aspect of it in particular really appealed to me, so I signed up a while ago with Race Pacing, which provides pacers for a lot of marathons and half marathons in the South of England.

As a pacer you are not paid (as someone asked me while I was waiting at the start line!) but you do get free entry to the event. The real reward though, is in being a crucial part of the organisation of the race, and in helping other runners to achieve their goals. I was finally allocated a place at Milton Keynes, to run the 2:10 pace. I had offered to do anything over 2hrs, on the basis that my PB is about 1:35 and I thought that gave me plenty of buffer to be absolutely confident that I could do the pace even on my worst day, while carrying a flag, and (crucially) even while running a flat pace, and not necessarily the race plan I would want to – more on which later.

Anyway, so 2:10 seemed perfect – a nice gentle pace for me but not so ridiculously slow that I would get bored. After that I didn’t worry about it too much, since my usual running activity would be more than enough training to handle that pace. The night before, I just made sure my garmin was charged, and wrote down some splits on a sheet of paper so I could also keep an eye on splits – I thought that might be useful given that races always end up ‘long’ compared to your GPS, since you’re unlikely to run a perfect course. I was right, although since I managed to leave my sheet of splits in the car, it was irrelevant…

Milton Keynes is a good two hour drive from Brighton, although fortunately the race started at the perfectly agreeable time of 10:45 so I didn’t have to leave stupidly early, and had time to stop for some porridge at a service station. On the drive up, it started absolutely tipping down, and when I arrived it was freezing cold, windy and wet – not the ideal conditions to run a race about 30 minutes slower than I would have wanted, but never mind.

The race starts at the Xempo centre, a massive shopping/cinema/restaurant complex with plenty of parking, albeit crammed into narrow little car parks that quickly became jammed with traffic, and with no sign of any marshals indicating where might be free. Irritatingly, that made me somewhat later than I had intended to be, which probably contributed to me rushing off to the Xempo stand and leaving both my ordinary digital watch and my splits sheet in the car. I had wanted them as a back-up to my garmin and as a way to keep on track even if my garmin ended up out of sync with the actual distance, but they weren’t critical and by the time I realised I’d forgotten them, I had neither the time nor the inclination to walk back through the rain to the car.

The race started in a single wave, but with the pacers broadly used as markers, so that people could place themselves in the start crowd somewhere near the pace they wanted to go off at. As the 2:10 pacer it took us about 90 seconds after the gun to amble towards the start line and then set off, but the nice thing was that even on fairly narrow footpaths there were very few places where my way was impeded by other runners.

The main exception was under one of the countless flyovers (I noticed every single one, since I had to run under them bent forward to avoid my flag bashing against the roof) where the heavy rain had caused a fairly impressive ankle-deep flood. I ploughed through it, but I suspect that I shook off some of my group of followers here.

It was hard to tell who was really following me; I spoke to a few people at the start but only saw one of them again throughout the race. Once or twice I heard people mention that they were trying for 2:10, and in some cases I would then overtake or pull away from them, which I felt strangely guilty about, although of course I had no choice. In the end, I didn’t really feel as if I was leading a consistent group from start to finish, which was a shame, although I did get a very nice thank you at the end from one lady who said I kept her going.

As far as the pacing itself went, it’s not hugely difficult in that you just plod along and try to maintain a consistent pace. Of course, staying bang on target is always difficult, but as long as it averages out each mile and averages out over the whole race, it’s largely fine. Some of the challenges were:

  • Not being able to vary my pace much – so no negative splitting, no going off a bit faster to save up time for later, no making up time downhill and slowing down uphill, and (most disconcertingly of all!) no sprint finish.
  • Not being able to go to the toilet. Fortunately I’m fairly good at managing food consumption to avoid major issues, but I like to hydrate well before a race so needing to stop and pee is pretty standard for me, and I realised as a pacer that it was going to be a lot more awkward than usual. Sure, I could just stop, duck behind a tree as I usually would, and then sprint a bit to get back on my pace, and people would probably work out what I was doing, but a) having the 2:10 pacer sprint past you is bound to disconcert people who didn’t realise why and b) nothing puts you off going to the loo like having a massive flag on your back and realising that everyone who passes you is thinking ‘oh look, a pacer stopping to use the loo’. So I held it, which was fine. But yeah, awkward.
  • Keeping the pace down I actually found strangely tiring. Sure, not as bad as running max effort, but if you are running to a set pace that is lower than your standard, your gait is bound to be a bit off and over 13.1 miles that takes its toll. I ended the race with surprisingly sore hips and knee, which I really hope isn’t indicative of anything more serious.
  • Getting the correct pace did actually become tricky as my Garmin became increasingly out of sync with the course. I knew I had to go a little bit faster than my pre-planned pace of 9:54, but how much faster? The fact that I didn’t have my digital watch and, very foolishly, had not set up my Garmin to show elapsed time meant that it was actually quite tricky to predict what time I was going to come in on. If I did this again, I would definitely need to be able to quickly check elapsed time as well as just splits, and I would probably take my written list of splits as well. In the end, I actually came in just 7 seconds under my target which was pretty good although largely fluke.

The best things about it were:

  • Feeling really part of the race. Having race staff talk to me at the beginning and end, chatting to people on the start line, and occasionally talking to people during the race was all really nice.
  • Being able to just enjoy a run on a surprisingly pretty course (Milton Keynes, I apologise, I had preconceptions) and not worry at all about getting a PB was great.

As a race, Milton Keynes is one I’d happily do even if I wasn’t pacing, but I probably wouldn’t rush to especially given the distance. It’s flat, but windy, so probably not *great* PB potential, but no killer hills except a little one at the end, and one or two decent downhills. The scenery is pretty, and the support was decent if not spectacular. Aid stations were fairly spread out and basic, with just water, although at least it was in bottles rather than cups, so you could carry it with you and drink it more slowly if you chose to, and the finish-line goodies were restricted to a medal, a banana and a bottle of water. I’m increasingly not bothered by race t-shirts but I would have quite liked a mars bar or something…

It was very well organised, however, and the location of the race village being at Xempo was brilliant with plenty of indoor space to shelter in, restaurants to grab food before and after, and even a running and cycling shop that seemed to be doing a brisk trade in last-minute gels and stuff.

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