In running, pacing is both an art and a science. While my journey in road racing spans over a decade, I recently embraced a new challenge — officially pacing the coveted 1:30 hour bus at the Vedanta Delhi Half Marathon 2023 (VDHM). It was a departure from chasing my personal records, yet this experience enriched my understanding of the sport in unexpected ways. Here is the deep dive into my reflections on guiding runners through this pivotal milestone, navigating the race’s unique challenges, and the camaraderie that made this memorable.
I have always loved the concept of pacing, and have used it to my advantage both in my training runs as well as races. It has been around 11 years since I started road racing, but have never been an official pacer. Unofficially though, I have steered friends and small groups in 3 hour marathons as well as sub 1.30 hour half marathons. Being in the best of fitness, and with some good times coming off this season, I was looking forward to breaking my PR at the VDHM 2023. However that was not to be and I signed up as a pacer. In hindsight, a very thankful experience!
I have always been fascinated by the 3 hour bus whenever I have participated in marathons abroad and felt it is immensely helpful for amateur runners who try to break the 3 hour barrier. Similarly the 90 mins barrier is a “happy zone” benchmark when it comes to the half marathons. Lot of runners, who are around the lower 1.30s, need that extra push or nudge to break the 90 minutes barrier. However, at least in India, we do not have the faster buses for two reasons.
In any case, given that I was signing up for being a pacer, I was quite sure that I would love to do it for the 1.30 bus. Incidentally this is the first time the event had a 1.30 hour bus for the half marathon, since it started in 2005.
Guiding a 90 minute bus is challenging and for me to take it up was guided by 3 factors.
As a pacer, I think one should play to your strengths, especially if it’s your first one. Delhi being a flat course, with very less unpredictability, my idea was to go for an even pace. In my experience, a lot of runners including me typically have a moderate positive split while achieving such goals (i.e. the first half being slightly faster than the second half). The reasoning according to me is simple – we would like to keep a few seconds in the bank, to account for any fatigue or uncertainties like 10 K runners in the second half. However, being a pacer, since I could not be subjective as to how many seconds it can be, I planned for an even pacing of 4.15 min per km which would give a time of 1.29.45 hours to finish.
I always feel apart from intangible aspects like motivation etc, a pacer acts as a benchmark to give an idea to fellow runners where they stand through the race. In our discussions to the run up to the event, I maintained the same and encouraged runners to treat the pacer flag as a benchmark. This would mean runners who are a few seconds faster in the initial phase know that they can possibly slow down so as not to burn out in the race, and people who are a few seconds slower have the hope that they are in the reckoning as long as they have sight of the 1.30 bus flag. One more aspect, I had to re-emphasise, was to not get too worried about their own watch paces and trust the pacer, especially when they feel we are going too slow😊
While the course is a fantastic one, I feel more people would have a better race if the weather was close to say 15-16 degrees instead of around 23 degrees centigrade. Having a race start at 5.20 am helped in some ways though. The humidity too was a concern for the day, I actively encouraged people to get to the start line well hydrated and electrolyte balanced.
Inputs from experienced pacers
One of the first things I did was to reach out to some of the experienced runners in the circuit to get their views on pacing. A few insights I got for the race were as follows –
I reached section A at around 4.55 am, and had time to interact with a few runners who aspired to finish around the time. A lot of them were familiar through the WhatsApp group we had created. Last minute questions on the pace and strategy were answered. In my mind, I knew that helping as many runners in the first 10 km or so gives them the highest chance of success. The first 5-10 km was pretty much as expected, with a good number of runners in high spirits and sticking as much together. The second half saw more dropouts, but saw a few new runners joining in. The last 5 km was possibly more about shouting to get the 10K runners out of the way and motivating the runners around and in sight to not to give up and finish strong. When I was close to the finish line, the watch showed around 1.29.35 or so, while the clock on the finish was around 1.30.17, which made some doubts into my mind! I finished in 1.29.38 and was more or less as per my own expectation. Many thanks followed the finish and I was happy to see some satisfied faces!
ps – A word of thanks to Procam International, the organizers of the race for inviting me to be a pacer and numerous fellow pacers/ runners for their active encouragement and inputs
Vijayaraghavan Venugopal, has been running for over a decade and is a sub 3 hours marathon runner. He has qualified for the Boston Marathon in 2017 and participated in world marathon majors at NewYork City, Chicago and Berlin. Vijay is the CEO of Fast&Up India.