Monday, October 25, 2010

Almost Like A Pro

The ideal scenario would of course be to be a professional marathon runner, get put up in a swanky hotel for free, expenses paid, and get bussed right to the start. The next best thing is not to be a professional runner but still get put up in a swanky hotel with the same expenses and the same bus. The latter scenario has the added bonus of being able to bring your wife into the same swanky hotel along with you, which makes for a very happy wife. That second scenario came through for me today.

It also included 2 hours of work at the pace group stand on Sunday at the marathon Expo, which was just mad busy but great fun. As others have pointed out, there were maybe 1 or 2 people at the other stands, while at ours they were queuing three deep and more at times.

I was slightly worried if all that time on my feet would have a negative effect on Monday, added to the fact that I had not run over 15 miles since Dingle and run a 5k on Saturday. However, I was confident I would be ok. 4 years ago I had to pull out all the stops and dig deep to get me my first sub 3:30 marathon at this very course. Today I was looking forward to a relaxing run at the same pace.

The hotel was fine, though I struggle to understand what you get for 500 Euro a night; the room looked just like any other hotel room I have ever been in. I wasn't too impressed when 4 of us turned up at 7 o'clock for breakfast only to be told to wait 30 minutes for a table to be free. The only woman amongst us got rather annoyed and pointed out the many empty tables and that we'd rather share a table with someone else rather than having to wait for a pre-marathon breakfast, and within a minute we were all seated. I shared the table with one of the 4:00 pacers and had a great chat – much better than sitting on your own anyway.

Niamh was still asleep when I left. We gathered at the reception and got whisked away in a bus together with the elites, right into the elite pen. I saw one runner warming up, I'm pretty sure it was Aleksey Sokolov, the man who put Dublin on the map with the first sub 2:10 performance here 4 years ago. There were 3 of us for the 3:30 pace group, and 2 balloons and one sign. To the relief of the others I volunteered for the sign. I'm a sucker for punishment, obviously.

It was freezing cold, but I had brought some girly arm warmers (Ewen will love this) and a pair of fingerless gloves. Neither of which will ever make the height of fashion and neither will the compression socks and the compression shorts, but function comes before fashion over 26 miles and each item worked to perfection just as planned. I'd wear the same outfit again, even though I might have looked like I had just escaped from the gimp room.

We had a good group around us at the start, wished each other good luck and were off. The first mile was as congested as expected and we were about 20 seconds behind target, but there was no way around that. With the other 2 guys carrying massive balloons I felt like the fifth wheel with my much less obvious little sign as far as pacing was concerned, but there was a good vibe going on. One of us took over as cheer leader and each cry of “Come on the 3:30s!!!” got a great response.

By mile 4 we were back on time and I got told to watch my pace, so I dropped slightly behind the leading balloon. One woman runner attached herself to me and stuck very closely. She seemed determined to hang on for the rest of the 22 miles. When I asked her how she felt she said it still felt very easy, which was good, of course. A work colleague started chatting to me as well; I was surprised to find him at our pace, but he was doing perfectly fine.

The two balloon guys were running just a tad faster than I would have on my own and at one stage I started falling behind slightly, not much but maybe 10 seconds or so. Our orders were to run even pace throughout, so when the first real climb came after 9 miles it meant an increase in effort to keep the pace the same, and I caught up again with the others but seemed to have lost my shadow. I did not see her again after that; I hope she made it through without too many troubles. The balloons were reasonably close together most of the time but at one stage the front one seemed to pull away; I took it upon myself to catch up and shout a warning to watch the pace, which explains the spike in the pace graph at mile 10.

Normally when running a marathon you focus entirely on running and not much else. Today was completely different, I was constantly look around, scanning for the other guys, always checking the watch to keep on pace, at times encouraging the ones around me; the running itself was almost incidental, which is why they give you a pace band that is much easier than your normal race pace, I guess.

Apart from carrying my Garmin I used a cheap stopwatch as a backup, but that supposedly more reliable instrument died on me after about 10 miles. I think it must have pushed against the Garmin and the stop button got pressed inadvertently. From that moment on I was reliant on the Garmin alone – and my own feeling, of course.

I was pretty sure the time was about 1:44:10 when we passed the halfway mark which would be a little bit quick, but the two balloonists said it was closer to 1:44:25 (and they were slightly ahead of me at the time), which would be pretty much on time, but there was not much difference, to be honest. The next few miles ticked along nicely. The course is a bit undulating here but the people around us seemed to remain very constant, nobody was struggling. We added another task to our list of duties, namely to share around drinks of water; with the group being rather big there were always a few people who missed out at the drinks station and were very happy to share a bottle rather than go thirsty.

I started to notice my legs, especially the quads were getting uncomfortable, but as we were heading home I knew I would be able to stay on pace reasonably comfortable. Going under the viaduct at Milltown always reminds me of my first marathon, now already 6 years ago, when I blew up here and had to run/walk the final 8 miles under ever increasing pain. This time that climb was more a molehill than mountain. The last climb, up to Fosters Avenue, has seen many a runner falter, including myself. It was here where my sub-3 dream went off the rails 2 years ago, as I told my pacing colleague, only to remember that I had felt like sh*t last year as well. This time I was cruising along, still seemingly in second gear with loads to spare.

After cresting that hill, close to the 21 mile mark, is the road where I usually have my family waiting for me. Niamh was still in town but Nana had said she might be there, but as much as I scanned the sides, I could not spot them. Eventually I figured that Nana had decided not to drag them down here.

We were now on the way home. One fella, slightly struggling, asked me how far we had run yet and my Garmin said 22 miles which is what I told him. However, 2 minutes later we passed the actual 22 mile marker and I felt really bad for having misled him, however inadvertently. But it served as a very good reminder to keep the difference between the Garmin's miles and the official mile markers in mind.

For the first 22 or 23 miles, the people around us hardly changed. I was able to recognise the majority of runners in our group and there was little movement. But at that point it really changed. I realised that we had put in a rather slow mile, about 8:20 pace. Thing is, even as a pacer you still pace yourself off the people around you, and as they were slowing down, so were we. It was clear that we had to increase the effort just to keep the pace even from here, and as a result all of a sudden we were streaming past people, even though we were doing the same pace as before. I pretty much took over the pacing effort from here on. The balloon man told me afterwards that he really started to struggle here, to the point that he thought about pulling out completely, but he certainly betrayed no sign of that at the time. Instead he followed me about 10 seconds behind, with the other balloon a few seconds behind that. The kind of work required from us also changed and we turned more into cheer leaders, encouraging and cajouling everyone around us to increase the effort for the final push home in order to beat the 3:30 mark.

One guy later told me that he had been a good bit ahead of us and then could not believe how quickly we were catching up. It's in that stretch that the pacing job is at its most important, I guess. I don't know how many runners achieved a sub-3:30 because of us, but I'm sure it's a number in the dozens. We also got a few filthy looks and muttered curses from runners as we passed them. That's understandable, of course. They had been trying to stay ahead of us all the time and did not wish to be fall behind target.

My pacer sign came in handy here with the spectators who at that stage were standing several people deep. I waved it around to get people shouting, which worked a treat every time and I'm sure it was a massive boost to our charges. With half a mile to go it was time to urge everyone who still could to sprint ahead to the finish to get the best time they could. One guy in particular was struggling badly, hobbling almost on one leg as the other one was giving out and there he was having two pacers shouting at him from both sides to keep going. All credit to him! And then we passed the finish line, my Garmin displaying 3:29:11, the two balloons approximately 10 and 20 seconds behind me. Our brief was to run just under 3:30, so I declare this a success.

The best part was yet to come in the form of at least 30 runners coming up to us, thanking us for our efforts, sounding really grateful and emotional at times. Most of them had set a new PB, many had achieved a dream by running under 3:30 and it felt really good to have played a part in so many people's special day.

Eventually I got out, met up with Niamh and went to the hotel to have a shower and a chat with the other pacers. Then it was time to head back home. My achilles, which had been perfectly fine throughout the race, started hurting as we were walking to the bus, but calmed down as soon as I got off my feet again. I'll see how the recovery is going, but at this stage I think I did get away with it. I don't even feel sore – from one point of view it was just an extended training run, but from another it was a great day. I don't think it was my last day as a pacer.

Photos by Dave Bradshaw.
25 Oct
Dublin City Marathon, 3:29:11, 7:59 pace, HR 157


  1. I don't know Thomas... you're a follower of fashion. Not that Scott Brown is any trendsetter. Girlie arm-warmers are so 2008!

    Hey, you did a good job. I'm sure your efforts were much appreciated by those that broke 3:30. Hope it was a light sign! By the way, down here they usually just write "3:30" (or whatever) on the balloons, and have different coloured balloons for each group. Also, they usually have a front balloon and back balloon, covering about 200 metres. Not all pacers are good though - especially the ones that go too fast.

  2. A great days work Thomas. Did your arm not get tired from being elevated all the time (maybe you switched arms)?

  3. Nice job with the pacing.
    You made it sound to easy, like a walk in the park!
    that's just not right :]

  4. p.s. yeah grellan has a good point, a bet you didn't hold that sign above yor head for very long, you would need muscles like Arnie to do that!

  5. sounds like you did a good job and nice to be appreciated at the end.

    well done

  6. Hi Thomas - you should have a look at your race splits - we were actually just over 30 seconds negative at the half, so not quite as fast as you though you were going.

    See you at the next one.

  7. Nice job Thomas. You were all looking very swish in your balck Adidas kits; arm warmers aside ;-)

    Sounds like a nice experience. Something I'd like to do next year maybe. Enjoy the rest and look after the achilles.

  8. great stuff thomas and i'm sure your experience and encouragement was appreciated by your group. shame about the gooners....

  9. Thomas
    Many thanks for your effort on Monday. The team got me a PB.


  10. Nice work. I think I'd buckle under the pressure of pacing such a large group. :)

  11. It's more like herding cats isn't it? You did well holding them to an even pace and pushing them on at the end when it got tough. Good work and have a nice easy recovery before MC gets on your case.

  12. Perfect pacing gig Thomas, you ran an exact race which helped so many runners hit their goal. Please aim for a spring marathon in 2011, which should mean you be free again to pace Dublin next year :)

    Delighted you came on Board, thanks a million, the sheer talent of you guys is what makes organizing the DM pacers an easy job. Hope to see you next year!

  13. That was a great read. Almost like a race report for each of the several runners you were pulling along for the 3.5 hours.