Many half and full marathons, whether they’re a big city event or a small town affair, offer pace groups as a free amenity. You’re probably familiar with the scene; at the starting line, pacers stand holding signs bearing finish times, usually ranging from 3:00 to 6:00 (for a full) and 1:30 to 3:00 (for a half). These pacers guarantee to get their groups to the finish line no faster than a minute or two under the goal time. If you’re aiming for a certain finishing time or are gearing up for a PR, joining a pace group can help you stay on track and give you a needed mental boost. But if you’re not careful, it could also derail your race plans. If you’re ready to run smart, take some things into consideration before you decide where to line up.
Yes, a pace group is a great idea!
At their core, pace groups provide a sense of camaraderie and (free!) encouragement. If you’re used to training with buddies, a pace group can make a race feel a lot like a weekend long run (just maybe with more porta potties!).
Pacers will also remind runners to fuel up and hydrate and may even give course tips, such as when to expect hills. Running with a group can block some of the wind, especially if you tuck in behind a pack on a blustery day. Finally, if you’re the type of runner who doesn’t like thinking about mile splits or mulling over details, a pace group can save you a lot of mental energy during a race. Just follow the leader and he or she will get you to the finish line in the promised time.
No, way. Stay far, far away.
Tagging along with a pace group will get you to the finish line, but it might not be the best strategy for your race. The biggest pitfall is that the early miles can end up being way too fast. Consider this: To be a pacer, the assigned pace has to feel easy. So, if you’re shooting for a 4-hour (9:00/mile pace) marathon, the pacer’s PR is probably much faster than that. To them, they might not notice the difference between 9:00 and 8:45 pace, especially early on. But even a few seconds per mile can catch up to you and make the second half of the race feel like a slog.
Placing your PR hopes on a pace group can also be a bit demoralizing if you start to fall behind. Remember: Rough patches happen in all races, and you might be stronger or weaker in certain areas, such as hills. It’s important to know yourself and what does or doesn’t affect you during a race. You may need to turn inward when the going gets tough and run your own race instead of following the crowd.
So, pace groups—yay or nay? In reality, the answer is a bit more nuanced. Your decision will likely depend on your experience level (first time marathoner vs. 10-time veteran), your familiarity with the course and your race goals. If you decide to line up behind a pacer, it’s always a good idea to ask them about their pacing strategy—are they shooting for an even pace or an even effort (e.g. slower on the uphill, faster on flats/downhills)? Try to suss out their experience level when it comes to pacing—everyone has to start somewhere, but if you’re gunning for a BQ, putting your hopes on a novice pacer might be risky.
At the end of the day, it’s a good idea to keep the pacer in your sights. Use them as a mark to measure your race progress. Are they just up ahead? Are you gaining on them with a few miles to go? But the most important race day strategy is to have your own plan. Know your strengths and weaknesses to determine your goal pace and how you’ll customize it for the terrain. In short, pace groups can definitely be an advantage on race day, just keep in mind the potential pitfalls as well.