We need to talk about pacing.
I know you don’t want to and I know you think it’s boring, and to be fair you’re probably right. It’s the running equivalent of doing your homework on the night you get it, or going for a night out and not getting a kebab on the way home. It’s like going for a meal and ordering a side salad instead of onion rings or choosing the single burger instead of the double-up mega cheese dooley whopper bonanza burger. It’s the boring option, but you know as well as I do that it’s the sensible option too.
Those of you that know me will probably realise that running steadily hasn’t always come naturally to me (and still doesn’t if I’m honest). Too often I’ve got carried away at the start of a run and set off like a whippet, or as close to a whippet as my sparrow legs will allow, only to realise that I’ve gone out way too fast and I’ll pay for it at the back end. And sure enough, after a few kilometres (ok, so two kilometres if that) I start to slow down and the sensible runners, those that have done their homework on the first night and opted for that single veggie burger, glide past me and leave me in their wake, not to be seen again until I cross the finish line red faced and out of breath while they stand around causally chatting.
This has been especially true for me at Cuerden Valley parkrun, where right from the start at the dog poo bin the temptation to sprint off down that first hill is so strong, but it’s a lesson quickly learnt with the immediate slap in the face of the nasty uphill slog to Heron Pond. Things don’t get any easier from there, with each of the many downhills seemingly followed by an uphill that’s twice as long and three times as steep! And let’s not even talk about that last hill up to the finish. If only there was a way that we could not only survive the ups and downs, but that we could do it in record time...
Ladies and gentlemen, may I please introduce you to pacing.
Being a pacer runner at Cuerden comes with a number of problems, not least how best to tackle the course. I’ve had so many conversations with people about the best way to run it and have had almost as many different answers. Some say to push hard up the hills and recover on the downhills. Others like to go easy up the hills and make up time on the downhills. However, whenever I’m in the pacer role I try to keep a steady pace, roughly the same going up as coming down. It seems to help whoever is running with me to not have to second guess whether they’re going to need to speed up or slow down.
The second issue with pacing at Cuerden is leaving enough in the tank for that last hill that we all know and tolerate. This usually means running a little faster than 5K target pace to allow for a little drop off in speed on that final stretch. There’s nothing more demoralising that being on for a PB at Cowbell Corner only to run out of steam halfway up. And speaking of morale, I think part of the role of a pacer is to try to keep a runner on track by not only setting the speed, but also by encouraging them. This can be difficult if you don’t actually know who (if anyone) is actually using you as a pacer... Please speak up at the start and let your pacer know you’re there so that they can help you along. Pacers are people too!
Which leaves us with one last delicate issue to consider. I’m almost too scared to say it... because there’s a slight chance that the issue is you! Now before you throw your computer (or laptop/tablet/phone/printout) through the window in a fit of run rage and come hunting me down let me explain, and please remember that it’s nothing personal and I know you’re actually a lovely person. I’m only saying this because I care about you (well, actually because I’ve been there myself). This issue comes when we overreach on the time we want pacing to. I’d love to be paced to a sub-18 minute parkrun, but the chances of that fall somewhere between fat chance and no chance. Yes I’d set off strongly and stay with the pacer for a good twenty metres, but I'd then fall off the pace, curl up in the foetal position at the side of the path and cry my way through yet another parkrun morning. It’s really important to set a challenging, but also ultimately achievable target time!
OK, so I think I’ve managed to make a very simple concept sound massively involved and overly complicated, when in actually fact it’s very straightforward. Perhaps I should summarise - Turn up to parkrun, say hello to your wonderful pacer person and run around with them, get a PB and of course don’t forget your barcode! Most importantly though, please remember that if for some reason you don’t PB you can officially blame it on your pacer. Or on me. Or both if you’re at Cuerden Valley this Saturday.