OK, first of all, that should be Seasoned Runner! We never use the term “old” around here unless talking about shoes. But, I guess I’ll make an exception this time since ‘new’ and ‘old’ kind of go together in a catchy sort of way.

Enough cleverness for now. What is this NEW experience, and even more importantly, why was it HUMBLING?

1988 - Long before this blogger could be called "Seasoned"

1988 – Long before this blogger could be called “Seasoned”

I am not 100% certain of the exact date when I started running. I do remember why. I was getting fat and far from fit. I was about 39, just coming up on 40. Since my birthday is in early January, I know I turned 40 in January 1985. I know the first modest steps were taken before that. I had been fairly athletic in my younger days, through into my second year of university, including playing soccer for one of the University of BC teams. I had a pretty bad injury to my knee near the end of the season. School was getting busy and I’d kind of reached the end of my abilities to be ‘good’, even with a sound knee. The injury wound up ending my playing days. The injury healed (sort of) and I went on about my business. I could run quickly if I had to, could walk forever, too. However, it turned out that I could not run at any kind of jogging pace (an honourable term back then).

I knew I should be doing something for health and fitness, but every time I tried this thing called jogging, I would get just over a mile and my knee would fire excruciating pain signals to my brain. It was pain of the ‘stop now or I will really make you sorry’ kind. This continued for years. Finally, after my awakening at the ‘dawn’ of my 40s, I decided that if I could go a mile, I would go a mile and maybe every day. I did that for some time and feeling no hurt, added a bit and a bit more until I could run 10K, and three years later, ran my first marathon. I still don’t know exactly how that happened, but it did. I figure I’m somewhere over 30,000 km of one kind or another of running. My Athlinks Profile (which has none of my old stats -only goes back to about 1998 and doesn’t include all events) says I’ve raced something close to 4,000km.

I can ‘hear’ you now as you wonder why he’s talking about all this old stuff, when the title says he did something NEW. I’m getting there. The point is that I’ve run well over 32 years, well over 30,000 km (in something like 23 countries) and raced way over 4,000 km (in 5 countries). Add to that five years of running clinic experience in the SportMed BC Sun Run InTraining program and something approaching ten years leading full and half marathon clinics with Forerunners (coincidentally, a sponsor of the Fall Classic). All that said, I realized what I had not…………….. never, ever …………….. done as a Seasoned Athlete.

I had never PACED in a race. I have used pacers to help my own cause from time to time and greatly admire them. I admire how steady they are and that if they are pacing, they really aren’t racing. They may be IN a race, but they aren’t doing their own personal best effort. You really must be well within yourself if you want to hold to a given pace without wavering. That is the ‘contract’ you make with the event and all the eager expectant runners that line up behind you, and your little sign that shows the goal time you will be achieving.

2:30 Pace Group - Fall Classic Half Marathon

2:30 Pace Group – Fall Classic Half Marathon

Recently, I was afforded an opportunity to take on the challenge. The Fall Classic, a Vancouver running fixture, was looking for pacers in all three events: 5K, 10K and Half Marathon. I suddenly realized all of the stuff written above and decided it was high time I took a turn with the stick and sign. I offered myself up to pace the half marathon for a 2:30 finish. That is a bit slower than the pace group I lead for the Forerunners clinic, so it seemed a good fit.

It was right about the time that I got confirmation they wanted me, that panic set in. Well more accurately, that happened right after I went out for a short practice run ‘at pace’. Just to avoid the reader needing to get out a calculator, that is a fraction of a second over 7:06/km. Fired up the old Garmin and off I went. As much as I was trying to hold the target pace, it was too easy to just (from time to time) slide into an easy, natural, not out to prove anything pace. When I got home after about 7K on one of my regular routes, my average pace was more than 12 sec/km too fast. Well, 12 seconds isn’t really that much, now is it?  Yes. Yes it is. If you take 12 seconds times 21.1 km, you find yourself more than FOUR minutes too fast. The idea is that the pacer hits the goal time very close to right on.

That was when the panic set in and the humbling began.

1:30 Pace Group led by Olympian (Marathon) Dylan Wykes

1:30 Pace Group led by Olympian (Marathon) Dylan Wykes

Fortunately, I had a bunch of other chances to get a bit more practice in and got the gap narrowed down to where on my last practice run I was around six seconds off, still too quick, but getting into a range I thought would be acceptable. That range? Probably 2:29 (7:04) to 2:31 (7:09) or anywhere between those two finish times. Of course, 7-10K does not a half marathon make, but I was still hoping that I could instill in myself a strong sense of a 7:06 average pace. If you want a taste of it, go out and set any pace you like, but whatever it is, make it significantly slower than your normal pace and hold it steady over a long distance. While you are at it, imagine a bunch of people relying on you maintaining that pace over a half marathon. You also have to remember that while you might quite reasonably go a bit faster on the easy bits, you can’t go a LOT faster. The people you pace may well be at or near their PB time. They may or may not be able to ramp up and down with ease.

Gratuitous photo of Evan Dunfee, Canadian Olympian - proving 'you must walk before you learn to run" (and WIN)

Gratuitous photo of Evan Dunfee, Canadian Olympian Race Walker – proving ‘you must walk before you learn to run” (and WIN)

Now, I should be clear. The Fall Classic route is not easy, but equally, it isn’t the hardest half marathon route I’ve ever seen either. But, it has it’s challenges and you have to do everything twice. My point is that I never intended to run exactly 7:06, K after K. At the start, I warned all those with me that we would run continuously and at what I felt was ‘constant effort’. In other words whatever 7:06 felt like on the flat, we would try to maintain that same feeling going up the hills or down. So, a bit faster going down and a bit slower going up. On average, this being a loop course starting and finishing in the same place with an overall balancing out of all the ups and downs, we would be aiming to run at 7:06/km.

Start of the Fall Classic Half Marathon 2016

Start of the Fall Classic Half Marathon 2016

That was the plan. I was still very nervous as I looked at the people lined up with me near the start. I couldn’t really tell how many were going to be running with me, so I decided to wait until we were out on the course and things had sorted out a bit, maybe somewhere around a kilometre into it. Near as I could tell at that point there was an obvious group of about 10 pacing with me. Might have been a few more that were not tagging right along close, but still watching my sign as it bobbed along above all those heads. Anyway, for my own purposes I’ve concluded we were about TEN as we headed out.

I knew it would be hard to be sure of our average pace until we had passed a few distance markers. The course has enough ups, downs and flats that the pace showing on your gps device varies if you use constant effort. I was feeling pretty good though as we passed specific distances and I could take the accumulated time and ‘do the math’ in my head. About 3-4km into it I felt more relaxed as we were pretty consistently on pace over longer stretches (see photo above).

Through the first ‘lap’ we were pretty bang-on for pace. Just 11 seconds over for 10K. This is good. Except for the rain and the wind and chilly temps, it was even kind of fun!

Real heroes of the day - VOLUNTEERS!

Real heroes of the day – VOLUNTEERS!

Somewhere after the trip past the finish……………………………… close, but…………………………..  Never mind, we all knew that when we signed up for this race. Still, under the circumstances, that finish line looked awfully inviting! Let’s just say it was a challenge to head out on the second loop. We passed through the Start/Finish area JUST before the start of the 10K event and the thought crossed my mind “If we were in the 10K we’d be done!”  Of course, the other way to look at it was they were just starting and we were half finished.

Somewhere past the end of the first loop I took ‘inventory’ and realized we must have left a few runners behind (the photo above was from the first ‘lap’). I don’t think any had run on ahead, so a few had apparently not been able to hold the prescribed average pace. Not for me to worry about as long as I was doing MY job (which I was at that point). I seemed to be down to four (and me). We carried on and as always we could count off the ‘milestones’ (buildings, large trees, roads) that we would not see again. It began to feel we were that much closer to the finish, because we were. The distance markers increased as we ran: 11K, 12, 13………… You eventually start doing the reverse math. Only 7km to go, 6, 5…………….. Somewhere around 15km or so, one of my group decided she could go a bit faster, for a finish under the advertised 2:30. Now there were just three. On we slogged. OK, the slogging was actually later. Upon checking my Garmin download, we actually held steady and on pace right to the 18km marker.

We had made the final turn from the ‘out’ to the ‘back’ and into what I consider the most challenging part of this course. It is really just a fairly modest up-slope that would be nothing if it didn’t continue on for more than three unrelenting kilometres and wasn’t the second time to do it. That was when I lost #3. She announced she would walk from ‘here’. Now it was two and me. By that time I was realizing I had made a major mistake. I have been suffering a kind of exercise induced asthma in recent years, that seems to be sensitive to environmental conditions too. It comes and goes. Having been pretty good of late, I hadn’t been using the everyday meds and didn’t even bring my emergency puffer. By the time we were past 18K I wasn’t getting a good deep breath and the legs started feeling very heavy. Funny how muscles like oxygen to keep up the output.

I knew I was not going to keep the pace from that point so tried to shoo my two remaining charges off to their own finishes somewhere close to 2:30. Both informed me that their goal for the day was under-3:00 and one of them had said her PB was 2:45. Neither wanted to go any faster and both assured me they wouldn’t have done this well without the steady pacing. We were a team to the finish. On we slogged. Yes, by now it was slogging! Slow, cold, wet, determined slogging! [EDITOR’S NOTE: Last year’s Fall Classic weather was, well, CLASSIC!]

Long story short, less than 1K from the finish, one of my flock of two decided that yes, maybe she would like to pick it up just a bit, so off she went. The other runner stayed with me and we finished side by side, looking good (the last 2-300m is nicely downhill). We definitely picked it up down the final incline into the finish chute and across the line. I’m pretty sure we smiled for the camera, too!

Community Challlenge - Team CA5 (we didn't win but we were enthusiastic)

Community Challenge – Team CA5 (we didn’t win but we were enthusiastic)

My first experience as a Race Pacer was done. Even though I had lost most people because they couldn’t keep up with the proper pace I ran for the first 18km, I felt a bit like I had failed in bringing it home on the goal time. By mutual agreement, we had slowed a lot in the last three K or so and I was certainly NOT within my (personal) two minute window of acceptable time. At that point I did not know all the stuff about how well I had held pace for most of the way. That all came from post-race analysis. Even at the time, I did have the consolation of knowing that both the women who were with me to the end had more than achieved their goal for the day.

I did see a photo of Dylan Wykes (see pacer photo above), one of Canada’s best ever marathoners, just past the finish. There he was, just over the finish, soaked and with his 1:30 pacer sign sadly drooping down, all alone in the rain. Naturally, Dylan was pretty much dead on his time (16 seconds under to be precise) and with a half marathon PB of 1:02, well within himself. That is how it is supposed to be done – run the time, let the others do what they can do, faster OR slower. I guess part of my personal dissatisfaction there at the finish also had to do with another pacer I used twice at the California International Marathon. The first year (2008) she was 14 sec fast, the second (2009) she was 4 sec fast on her marathon goal time. Those are a couple of hard acts to follow! Maybe next time.

That is where, at least in part, the humbling aspect comes into the picture. I am so in awe of people who can be that steady and accurate, helping others make it through. I’d like to think on a different day and if I’d remembered to bring the puffer, I might have joined their ranks. But, it wasn’t (a different day) and I didn’t (remember the puffer) and I didn’t (join the ranks of the super pacers).

All done. Warm and dry and waiting for Awards

All done. Warm and dry and waiting for Awards

I did realize a great sense of satisfaction thanks to the few runners who kept up with me into the late stages of the race. They had a different perspective than I did. From my point of view, I only had one job and I did not do it. From their perspective though, I guess I gave them everything they needed/wanted. Frankly, I suppose that had I been able to keep my pace for that last 3 plus K, I might have found myself at the finish like Dylan, with a perfect time and all by myself. Yes. That was the goal/task I did not achieve, but looking back, it was more fun to finish it up with my two stalwart half marathoners who probably had a pretty darn GOOD day.

In closing I want to express my thanks to the Fall Classic for giving me this opportunity and my admiration for all those who take on pacing duties to help us all get where we are going and at the pace we have set for ourselves! If I never pace another race, I certainly have developed a new perspective on this thing called PACING.


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