In the world of long-distance running, there are a few dividing issues, and pacers—those individuals who run alongside registered runners in a race with the intention of helping them finish—is a big one. Pacers are a common part of ultra running, and many races have specific rules regarding how much of the race pacers can participate in and what they are and are not allowed to do as far as aiding their runner. Many runners utilize pacers, others simply accept their presence, and others still feel they provide an unfair advantage and should not be allowed.
They are most commonly used in very long distance races, or ultramarathons, of 50 miles and up. Most ultras will state directly in the race rules whether or not pacers are allowed. If they are, there are usually rules about how many of the miles they can accompany a runner (they usually join in toward the middle of the distance and can remain with the runner through the finish line) and what sort of assistance they can actually offer the runner. For example, pacers will frequently carry additional or back-up food, hydration, clothes, lights, or medical supplies for a runner. The primary job of a pacer, however, is always to simply encourage the runner to keep moving forward; to be a voice of reason and support when exhaustion and delirium set up. Although we have no intention of declaring a ‘correct’ side to this debate, we thought it deserved a closer look.
Bring on the pacers!
They aren’t hurting anything, so what’s the problem? Pacers traditionally join the runner later in the race when runners are pretty spread out anyway, so there is rarely an issue of pacers getting in another runner’s way. What else could they possibly do ‘wrong’—accidentally offer someone they aren’t officially pacing some encouragement or an extra gel packet?
Pacers are merely offering support, like a spectator who takes the extra step—or, miles in this case. They are a friend, a personal cheerleader, and a voice of reason when a runner may find themselves stuck in the tunnel vision of negativity or self-doubt that long distance running can sometimes bring on. At the end of the race, it is still the runner him or herself who covered every step of the distance.
‘No go’ on the pacers:
Running is an individual sport by nature. Isn’t the point to see how far you can go on your own volition and gumption? Therefore, if someone else is carrying part of your load—physical and emotional—isn’t that…cheating? Some purists consider an assigned helping hand through the fog of exhaustion and various emotional lows that most runners experience in ultra distances as an unfair advantage.
Sure, some races don’t let pacers do anything for the runner beyond run next to them; the pacers aren’t even allowed to touch them, let alone provide them with any food, water, or other supplies. However, any runner out there can attest to the difference that having a warm body next to you, co-suffering, makes. Simply due to the nature of human beings, knowing someone is going through an experience with you, especially when that person is offering kind and encouraging words to keep your mindset on track, you are more likely to succeed. As with many debates, there isn’t a clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; both sides have valid points and will undoubtedly have faithful supporters.