Marathon is a journey full of revelations of self, hope, despair, pain and eventually joy which is almost indescribable in words. Imagine someone who is a guiding light, a facilitator, a motivator or simply a fellow journeyman (woman). This is precisely who a pacer is from a qualitative sense. I love running together in a pack or with pacers around! Having been tantalizingly close to a sub 4 hour debut marathon in 2013 at Mumbai, I have always wished for pacers around faster times in big marathons.
I am in the middle of a strong training block for the Tokyo Marathon on March 3rd, 2024, and long runs are a feature of any weekend now. Further, I had decided to complete a Procam Slam in the current cycle which started from TCS 10K Bengaluru in May 2023. Choosing which bus to pace was not easy. Two slots which ran through my mind were – 3.30 hours and 3.20 hours! The latter was more interesting from a training perspective and the opportunity to push me to a bit of an edge in some ways. However the former made sense finally – A significant milestone for many marathoners, possibly higher numbers, more women who could join in and of course giving me enough cushion to avoid any chances of a failure. I believe pacing a full marathon is tricky given how the body can behave post 28 kilometers, and I think that at least 25-30 minutes of buffer is good to have between ones current fitness levels and what they are pacing for. Such buffer gives the pacer with enough energy to do everything else which is required to take the bus home on time.
Right from the date of announcement to the race day was roughly 10 days. The first two items on the list were to get an obligatory WhatsApp group going, and lay down the paces. For the latter, I relied on my own experience of running multiple marathons, how I felt in those and of course my own Mumbai experience in the six times previously. With a broad thought to do a positive split which translated into a ~1.43 hour and ~1.47 hour split, I chatted with my friend Aravind (www.geeksonfeet.com) to further detail this according to the route. With the pacing guide in hand I was now ready to engage in the WhatsApp group. My initial estimate was that the group would have roughly 60-70 members, and will get pruned down to single digits as the race day approaches. Once the WhatsApp group links were circulated, to my surprise we actually had around 650 people till the end. Many obviously were observers or undecided, but what struck me was that this was indeed a serious job to pace this bus. This was validated when I did a poll a day prior, around 125 in the group polled to say that they were targeting the bus!
Two small but important things helped the group early on –
Amongst these interactions, if I had to choose one tough thing, it was this – Guiding people on what time they should target or whether they can join my bus, especially when I had almost nothing to go by, like their run history, injuries, potential to deliver on race days, consistency and training. The idea was to politely give feedback without de-motivating them.
During the race week, I also tried to answer or think about multiple scenarios, I would have wanted to know as a runner from the pacer. The funniest but one of the most important questions that I posed and answered was – “What do I do, if the pacer fails to complete his race or pulls out?”
For me, the week was an usual one with the Sunday race/ run coming up on fatigued legs, with almost no taper.
Learnings and Interactions - I have to admit with some gratitude, that the entire WhatsAapp group was all attentive, and were eager to learn or explore new things with the intent of having a good race. This included arriving at the race well hydrated and recovered in most cases.
Holding area and Start – It was a delight to meet the team charged up and excited at the start point. Even though we were in the holding area A, I could imagine it was not easy for runners to keep within sight of the 3.30 flag as we proceeded to the start point in front of the CST station. The first two kilometers was slightly narrower and messier than I had anticipated, more for people who wanted to follow me, due to the narrow roads, and lack of light at a few places. However once we branched out into broader roads, it was all about getting into the rhythm of a 4.51~52 min/ km pace as we had decided.
Early Kilometers – Hardly anything ever happens in this section. For me, it was all about getting the bond formed with the runners, and getting them to trust me. I started interacting with a few, and from time to time checked on fellow runners to make sure they are not already into an exertion mode. While we did our first climb around the Babulnath Mandir into the Peddar road, I reminded the team to remember this section, which will help on the return section! The other thing I constantly reminded them was to start hydrating early and not miss on any energy gels they had planned.
Sea Link – This portion has always stayed in my mind for the wind and a bit of monotony. By the time we entered the sea link, I think we were a group of 25-30 people in the immediate vicinity. This is akin to the middle overs in a cricket match where you just need to stay afloat and let it pass. I immediately gave instructions to the group to tuck in and not spread out too much. The idea was to spend as little energy as possible while me and some of the other stronger runners brave the front shielding the group from the winds. The group did this marvelously well and I think many runners would have saved some energy for the tougher miles ahead. Some chatter around with the group too helped! The end of the sea link was slightly more winding than I had last run in 2019, and a bit more darker even though we could see the sunlight slicing through the sky.
The Peddar Road Climb – Based on my own experience, the climb itself is not the problem, but the portion after Siddhivinayak Temple through Worli and Haji Ali leading to Peddar was. These are treacherous miles of any marathon, where both the mind and body are tested immensely. During the course of the run, I also found that there were a few who were doing their debut and for them these miles were truly a new experience. Keeping the morale high was on my agenda during this part and making sure no one fell back or started walking in this stretch. Leading into the climb, I made it clear in no uncertain terms, that we will attack this together, and grouping into one single pack. This worked wonders, where our whole mind was taken off thinking about the climb itself, but more about working as a team. Before the group realized, we were over the top and already saw some patches of downhill! I asked the group what they thought of Peddar, and some of them laughed about the so called monstrosity of it. In my mind, I knew that the bodies were fatigued and some of them would have to fight tooth and nail to have a solid finish!
The final stretch – The beauty of the Marine drive stretch was not so much in sight due to all the construction work along with making the roads narrower. While we came down the Peddar road downhill, I asked runners who had enough reserves left to go ahead. I knew I had to help some of the runners who will struggle in the last 5 km. Some of the faster runners who were ahead of us and fell back, needed that encouragement to get back into rhythm ; while the runners who were falling behind, needed some last minute words of encouragement to get them to finish the task which they began many months ago! Memories of what I typically faced during the end of a marathon, and what I would want in those miles became my mantra for my runners. I also felt that compared to my 2019 run, the end being a little bit nearer from the start of Marine drive, helped runners push through the last stretch much better. I managed to give a few high fives to people who were finishing around the 3.30 mark.
Hydration – While there are always things which can be improved en-route, a lot of runners in my group benefited from the PET bottles of Fast& Up RELOAD being given. I had made it mandatory even before the run started, that the group would help each other and pass on both the water and Reload bottles. Apart from keeping everyone well hydrated, this helped in reducing waste as well as increased the team spirit!
The pacer flag and bag – During the course of the run, I realized that I had started chafing and bleeding on my back due to the friction between my bag and body. Post the 30 kilometer mark, I alternated between taking the flag out, holding it in my hand and having it in my bag. In future I may want to experiment holding the flag in hand and not carry the bag alongside too!
Having done the 1.30 hour pacing bus at the Vedanta Delhi Half Marathon 2023, I can surely say that the full marathon pacing was more satisfying, just because of the time the group spent together, the challenges we faced together, the interactions between us, and the magnitude of smiles I saw as we ended.
The only thing which gave me a bit of a bother before the race day, which I wanted to have a plan B for but eventually didn’t do – What to do if my watch malfunctioned during the run? 😊
Being generally consistent in my efforts and paces, has always helped me in pacing others informally, and in the last 6 months when I have turned into an official pacer. I know for sure I will be back as a pacer again, but for now that can wait! When people look at the scorecard of pacers, the timings reflect only a portion of the story, a bigger untold story remains with the pacer and his/her group for years to come! And herein lies the beauty of the Bus!
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.