Monday, October 31, 2011

The Yellow Balloon Club

This was my sixth Dublin marathon, and my second time as a pacer. In the weeks and days before the race, I read plenty of musings from other participant, full of nervous anticipation, and was slightly envious because I personally could not get excited about it. It wasn't until I got to the Expo on Sunday, when I finally got that familiar pre-race feeling.

Manning the pacers' stand at the expo for 2 hours and then spending some more time looking around the stands was great fun. Plenty of runners came up to say hello, including some who remarked that I looked a lot younger in person than on the photos from the blog. I was thrilled when Aisling Coppinger recognised me, and I had great, long chats with plenty of others, including Seb Locteau (Portumna RD and of fame amongst other things) and Ray O'Connor (Connemara RD amongst other things). I felt right at home. It might not have been the best way to spend the evening before a marathon, but as I was not racing it, it didn't matter.

They really look after the pacers in Dublin, providing race uniforms, expenses and, most importantly, a night in a 5-star hotel before the race, with the option of bringing your spouse, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I took up that option. Niamh doesn't get many rewards for being married to a marathon runner, but this is one of them.

We met up early and were in position about half an hour before start time. For the first time, they introduced wave starts in Dublin, and our instructions were to be right at the front of wave 2. I wasn't entirely convinced that this was the best place (I still have my doubts), but of course we did as instructed. A few runners with wave 1 numbers joined us in wave 2. They obviously intended to go out with the pacers.

Starting right at the front of a wave does have one major advantage, namely the complete lack of congestion that usually mars the first half mile of every marathon. We were right on pace right from the start. Even without having agreed things in advance, the 3 pacers fell into position, me in front and Dave and Greg a few seconds behind. As you can see from the pictures, the balloons were of incredible size. Indeed, one of my main concerns over the next 26 miles were not to get tangled up in trees or in wires going across the road.

I ran as evenly paced as I could, the Garmin displaying about 7:55 pace, to the second right where I wanted it to be. I kept checking back, and the other balloons were always reasonably close behind, perfect.

From the 3rd or 4th mile marker on, slight doubts started entering my mind. The Garmin had me bang on pace, but according to the mile markers, I was a good few seconds slow. I'm perfectly aware that you have to compensate a few seconds to make up the difference between Garmin miles and official miles; I have been doing this for long enough now. It's just that here the compensation needed was twice as big as expected.

A few of my pacees started getting antsy as well and questions started to be asked, so I did accelerate a little bit from mile 6 onwards. According to the 6th mile marker, I was 15 seconds behind pace. By the time we reached mile 10, we were about 15 seconds ahead of pace; 30 seconds in 4 miles is just about ok. Any more and I might have burnt off some of my charges.

I'm not sure if I remember things differently from years gone by, but the course seemed a lot more congested than in the past. At times we had just one lane of the road, cordoned off from the traffic, and I invariably ran into problems there. Runners had started slowing, I had to get past, but there was very little room and being tethered to a massive balloon in rather windy conditions did not exactly make things easier. I also got tripped from behind on a few occasions, once very nearly falling, which could have been a major problem, seeing as there were at least 100 people right behind me.

Anyway, we lost a bit of time due to the congestion and reached the halfway time a few seconds behind pace again. Nobody said anything but I felt a bit anxious. Luckily, we had left most of the roped off parts behind at that stage and things were getting easier again.

I'm not the most outspoken person around, I'll never be much of a cheer leader who loudly cajoles and entertains his charges for a couple of hours. I tried to give encouragement to individuals, shouted out mile splits and things like "20 seconds ahead of target", shared water from the stations because due to the large group, some people invariably missed out on grabbing a drink, and most of all tried to run as evenly as possible.

We made up time again, by mile 18 or so we were 40 seconds ahead of target, just where I wanted us to be, the other balloons were maybe 20 seconds behind, good job so far. This is where you start losing the runners that have been with you from the start, and where you pick up new ones, the ones who manage to accelerate to your pace when you catch up with them. Being a pacer means not everyone is pleased to see you, I got plenty of "oh sh*t" and "oh f*ck" as I passed people but I assure you, I didn't take it personally, not even the "F**k off Thomas and keep behind me" one.

My legs felt perfectly fine, no bother whatsoever, I felt like I could keep running at that pace for the entire day. I was entirely relaxed and managed to soak up the atmosphere. Maybe it's due to my own perception; normally, when I race, I am so far inside my own bubble that I hardly take in things around me, including the crowds, but the support from the sidelines was absolutely exceptional today, more so that I can ever remember before. At times, it was almost like running in Boston. I could not stop smiling, I enjoyed every single step and did not want it to stop.

There was still time to goof things up one more time; I had missed the previous 2 mile markers (being short sighted and running without glasses means that's always tricky), and when a guy told me around mile 22.5 that we were behind time, I believed him. We were running down Nutley Lane faster than necessary but then I saw the 23 marker, we were one minute ahead of time and the panic subsided. At that stage I knew perfectly well what pace was required for the rest of the journey, I tried to persuade my runners to stay with me, gave plenty of shouts and also started to wring some extra support from the crowds, which worked like magic.

I tried to tell my runners to push ahead if they had anything left, but very few took up the offer. Most of them were just hanging on for dear life, and I felt slightly guilty for still feeling like I was out for a relaxed jog. The crowds were heaving over the last 2 miles, I could hardly make myself heard, and for most of it we just ran towards the finish. Over the last K I ran backwards at times, signalling my charges to give it all, but I could not fail to notice that almost all the runners right around me wore the orange numbers from wave 1, and unless they had moved back to wave 2 at the start, they were on 3:35 time rather than 3:30. I concentrated on giving extra encouragement to the couple of guys with green numbers.

I crossed the line in a net time of 3:29:10, actually right where I think the first balloon should be, so that was good, The other two pacers followed maybe 20 or 30 seconds later, so I call this a job well done, under tricky circumstances. Well done to Dave and Greg, my fellow pacers.

Because of the low number of runners with me at the line, I wasn't quite sure if I had been of much help, but plenty of guys and gals came up to thank us, and one sent me a note:
Thanks again. I don't think you have any idea how much it helped. You guys and the balloons became my focus. Distracted me that tiny bit from all my tiredness. I needed something to block out the pain. It was incredible. All I could think about was keeping focused on the balloons. I had absolutely nothing left until you guys gave me a renewed focus.
I would love to buy you all a pint some day because the feeling I have since it is something that will stay with me forever. I beat my target time by 11 secs so thank you for getting me there. I tried to go and thank you all but I couldn't go any further when I finished and you were gone when I started moving again. I barely remember the finish as I thought I was going to pass out.

The help you provided was MASSIVE. THANK YOU

which gave me that warm, fuzzy feeling. I don't want to plan too far ahead, but I'm pretty sure this was not my last stint as pacer. From a personal point of view, it helps ensuring that I remain on training effort and not be tempted to race this instead. My next real race is still some way off, but today was a big marker in the training for it.

29 Oct
8 miles, 57:03, 7:07 pace, HR 149
30 Oct
5 miles, 35:16, 7:03 pace, HR 148
31 Oct
Dublin Marathon, 3:30 pace group
   26.2 miles, 3:29:10, 7:58 pace, HR 151


  1. well done thomas, another job well done.

  2. Such a great job! Really nice of you to do it!

  3. Thomas love your blog. You have paced me twice in marathons over the last 2 months(dingle and dublin) and both times gave me encoragement to keep going. Any tips on avoiding cramping quads at 20 miles! On both occasions I have had sufficient water/electrolytes. Any tips appreciated. Thanks clive

  4. well done thomas. didn't close to you at all -happy as i was to stay half wy between you and the other 3.45 pacer. great fan of the blog and of that book you recommend- advanced marathoning

  5. I've never thought about the dark side of being a marathon pacer, people telling you to F off etc, but worth it in the balance.

    Well done keeping it together. You know I saw some pacers in the Osaka marathon last weekend, first time to ever see them in a race here. I might get my chance to do some pacing soon enough. Sounds very rewarding!

  6. Well done Thomas,

    I must say, my only experience of a pacer was as they passed me after about 18 miles and I knew my day was over. Still, people need a hook.

  7. You did a great job! It was great to have you in front and the other pacers a little behind, I could stay within that zone, speeding up sometimes, slowing down sometimes, but knowing that if I could see you but not Dave and Greg, I was doing okay. (I might not have felt so comfortable if I'd known just how close behind the other two were!)

    There's another video here
    of the bottom of Fosters Avenue where you can see just how big a group you were dragging around

  8. Great report Thomas and congratulations on a job well done as a pacer.

  9. Well done Thomas, you made it look easy

  10. Good job Thomas. I'm in two minds about marathon pacing groups. It's good to 'ignore' them initially (as Grellan did), then use them for motivation at the end. Running exactly with them all the way doesn't seem to work that well.

  11. Thomas,
    fair play to ya running a marathon to help others by pacing them

  12. I lived and ran in Ireland for a while and loved it. I really enjoy your Dublin marathon tales and photos, so colorful!

  13. Thomas
    would you have a link for the times that have Pacers for the DCM 2014 ?

    1. If you just want to know the times, they are every 10 minutes from 3:00 to 5:00.

      More info on who is pacing here:, but you'd need to get access to that forum first.