Pacers in Ultramarathons: Helpful or Cheating?


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.