Some Thoughts on Pacers

AJW's TaproomAs the sport of ultrarunning has grown over the past decade, one topic that has been discussed frequently has been the use of pacers in 100-mile and longer events. Most of these discussions of which I have been part have centered around a couple of ideas. To begin, people wonder if races were to eliminate pacers could they expand their field sizes. These conversations have typically been in response to some of the high-profile, high-demand races like the Western States 100 and Hardrock 100 which have very limited fields. And, there are some who question the need for pacers at all. These folks often cite the fact that European races typically don’t allow pacers and everyone seems to manage just fine. Having been around the sport, at least here in the United States, for a while, I have reflected quite a bit on the pacer issue and have a few thoughts to share.

First, it is important to realize that the original purpose of pacers, first at Western States and then at many other 100-mile races across the country, was to keep runners safe. In those early years there was a concern, at many times justifiable, that having a companion, especially through the night, would help runners remain on the trail, awake, alert, and out of the trouble that might be lurking out there. In fact, to this day the organizers of the Old Dominion 100 Mile in Virginia refer to pacers as “safety runners” and only permit them on a small, 17-mile section of trail which they deem to be too risky to traverse alone.

Second, at the front of the pack in most races, pacers play an important tactical role. While there are some frontrunners who eschew pacers at all costs, most notably legendary Utah runner Karl Meltzer, most competitive ultrarunners use them to the extent that events allow them. In my experience in the competitive arena, I found that pacers provided me with motivation, important information, and sound strategic advice. For example, for two years in a row I ran the Vermont 100 Mile, the first year without a pacer and the second year with a pacer, my good friend and iRunFar Editor-in-Chief Bryon Powell. In my non-pacer year, my performance waned over the last several hours and I nearly lost my lead, while in my pacer year with Powell by my side, I expanded my lead over the last miles as Bryon kept me on my toes and pushing forward. My pacers have also given me information about runners who might be up ahead or behind, reminded me to eat and drink, and suggested I turn off my headlamp at strategic places on the course so that other runners would not know we were gaining on them.

Third and perhaps most importantly to me, pacers have always provided me with an opportunity to share with a friend or family member something that is typically a solitary endeavor. The people who have paced me I count as some of my best friends and a big reason why those bonds are so strong is that they were forged out on the trail with me doing something that is a part of the essence of who I am. If I was not able to have a pacer with me I would not have had those opportunities, and they are cherished memories for me to this day.

And so, while I understand the arguments against pacers, I am firmly in favor of them being a fundamental part of our sport. From providing people opportunities to experience race courses they would never see otherwise to bonding friends and families together in a shared endeavor that creates lifelong memories, the role of the pacer in the culture and lore of our sport is, in my estimation, essential.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

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Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When was the last time you used a pacer? How did they make your experience safer, more fun, and/or more successful?
  • If you don’t use pacers in races where they are allowed by the rules, can you explain why?

There are 50 comments

  1. Markus

    As AJW explains, pacers are part of the US ultratrail running since Western States 100 got invented. It might have made sense then to have pacers for security reasons. Today I think it’s more of an added risk to these races. Quite some pacers are not up to the task. Some of them can’t even keep up with their runners.

    I think that pacers shift the outcome of races. You see that on the international level where US runners are not as successful that they should be given the long history of trail running. I think there are mentally not tough enough to grind out a race on their own. They are just too dependent on a huge crew and pacers.

    I don’t see that pacers will go away but I wish they did.

    1. AJW

      Thanks for the comment Markus, I too, have wondered if the American men’s track record of poor performances at UTMB has to do with the pacer prohibition. I suppose there is no real way to know for sure but you have to imagine it is somewhat of a factor.

  2. Jasper Halekas

    I’ve run ultras with and without pacers (mostly without). For me, the races I ran on my own were that much more satisfying and fulfilling. How much better to have relied my own mental reserves to get through the tough patches, rather than depending on someone else to cajole me down the trail. There’s plenty of time to bond with other runners during training or at the finish line.

    I’d also argue that it’s a more pure and fair competition when each runner has to depend on their own motivation. I don’t particularly have a problem with non-competitive runners having pacers if they feel they need them for safety, but I personally don’t think competitive runners who are trying to place in the race should be allowed to have pacers.

    -J

  3. Jason

    I’ve done 100s with and without and felt much more satisfied finishing without crew or pacers…but I’ve enjoyed the company those times that I’ve had them. And I definitely think having a pacer improved my performance for many of the reasons mentioned.

    I think it’s fine, and in some cases good for mid and back of the pack runners to have pacers, but I would like to see them NOT allowed for those racing for podium spots. We don’t allow muling, and I don’t think we shouldn’t allow pacers for those who are competing for prize money or podiums, just my opinion.

    1. AJW

      Jason and Jasper, thanks for the comments and I have heard that argument about front of the packers but consider this scenario: You enter a race and have a pacer lined up and you have an awesome day. And, not only do you have an awesome day but you have it on a day with brutal conditions, say, like Western States in 2006 or Bighorn in 2017. And, as a result of those conditions there is tremendous carnage at the front of the pack and low and behold, around mile 85, you find yourself in the top-10 and in contention for the podium. In that case, since you’ve been running with a pacer from Mile 62, should you be declared ineligible for your position? DQ’d? Or, should you just fire your pacer?

      I know that in most races these days most people know from the start if they are podium contenders but there are still stories like the one above and I think it’s worth considering. The sport is filled with surprise performances and I would hope people wouldn’t be punished for them just because they overachieved on a given day. Furthermore, having separate rules for different levels of competitors just doesn’t feel quite right to me.

      1. Jason

        I get that…but doesn’t David Horton apply this rule at Hellgate 100k? Pacers are allowed, but if you want to be on the podium (top 10 for men/top 5 for women) you cannot have a pacer. At a race with a small field I can see the scenario you describe playing out, so I guess if you have any inclination that you might sneak in the top 10 you just don’t use a pacer? The rules are clear ahead of time, so runners should plan accordingly if they think they have even a remote chance of making the podium.

        I don’t have strong feelings about it though, but I definitely think a solo effort is more difficult than one with a pacer.

    2. CLF

      I’m with Jason and Jasper on this – runners chasing podiums 1) shouldn’t need pacers to begin with 2) pacers potentially can/do skew competitive results.

      Another similar consideration, especially for races with tight caps due to permit restrictions, could be to eliminate pacers for “sponsored” athletes. Ergo, elimination of some otherwise expected pacers *might* open up additional participant slots?

      1. speedgoat

        just remember, I”m not “against pacers”. I just feel NOT having pacers, levels the playing field for all. I also think it’s funny that in most 100s, if you hang out and watch runners pick up their “pacer”. Seems the pacer pack is “usually” alot bigger than the race runner’s pack….Just sayin’ Saw it a ton at Wasatch a few weeks ago

        1. Frederic

          Nailed it Karl!
          I’ve seen the muling (and will see it again!) and that is something the race director will never be able to enforce while at night in a remote trail where nobody else sees it. On top of it, one could argue that muling could be justified in some cases to “keep the runner safe as he/she desperately needs some sugar or fluid!!”

        2. Andrew

          I agree Karl. I was running Wasatch this year without a crew or pacers, and I was shocked at the amount of times I saw people taking items from pacers during the run and being essentially “crewed” by pacers at aid stations where crews weren’t allowed.

        3. AJW

          Thanks for the comment Karl, and it’s not only Wasatch. I’ve observed, over the past five or so years, that the size of runner entourages has grown exponentially to the point where, on some occasions I’ve seen folks with four different pacers and up to 6-7 additional crew members. I swear to God, the population of Michigan Bluff on Western States race day seems to swell to at least 5000! I think it’s emblematic of how many people want to share in the experience.

        4. scott

          The muling is the thing that bugs me most. I get that as a pacer alone in the woods you’re probably not gonna tell one of your best friends “tough luck, I can’t give you my bandaids” but it’s still not fair.

  4. John Vanderpot

    I’ve never used one and doubt I ever will, but I have no problem with people who do…my one issue is when we at the back of the pack get to those late in the day aid stations and the cupboards are bare — basically we paid for someone else’s lunch, we go hungry, and they never even say thank you…

  5. Pete

    I’ve never run with a pacer, or a crew. I don’t doubt I could have saved myself a few dnf’s if I had a crew or a pacer waiting for me on the trail – I’d hate to let them down if they’d given up their time to get me through a race. But then would I have learned to manage myself, and the adversity that arises in these situations? Further, I find that those runners with a pacer are less likely to join forces with others in the event to carry each other along – a situation which I have enjoyed on many long races.

    I do think pacers have been required for some races due to the remote nature of the course, but this has probably been reduced since the advent of sat tracking, and the spread of mobile signal. I’m sure there are still many places where they are still required for these reasons, probably more so in the US than Europe though.

    The knock-on effect that I have seen is a general increase in runners having huge crews for races that really don’t require them – 50 mile and even 50k races where runners have a crew of three or four following them around the course, hugely increasing the environmental impact of the event, and cluttering up the approach to aid stations and even filling race briefings to the point where the runners can’t get in, or even hear the briefing if they do get in.

    But I’m moving away from the point a little there – if it’s in the rules, then it’s all fair.

  6. Frederic

    I can see the reasons to explain the presence of pacers (sharing the experience, not having to think of getting lost, not having to fight a cougar by myself :-)…..) but i think it’s like taste and colors, everyone will have a different preference.
    The only real thing bothering me about pacers is seeing pacers “muling” their runners. And then we have a giant controversy because XThevenard took 1 sip of water and 2 icecubes at the bear creek TH…..

    As for me, I have never really seen the need of it. I have run all my races and 100s without it and i didn’t miss it. I also have run all my long training runs without pacers or anyone so i wouldnt think i need one at the race ?
    Being european, I have never expected or wanted to have pacers and yes, could that be one of the many obscure reasons for US runners not doing so well at UTMB ? Who knows…

    What I find odd though is that, pacers is a US concept but at the same time i find it paradoxal because US races have a tough time in general in getting permits and are mostly limited to the number of runners.
    As an example, if pacers were not allowed at races like WS or HR, then they could accept more runner ?

  7. Deserae

    Personally I think it would be interesting to see some races without pacers or even crews. I agree with all the points, but in regards to point 2 doesn’t that in some ways give an advantage to some runners over others? Not everyone has equal access to a team with the means and desire to support them in the race, so saying no pacers and crews levels the playing field so to speak.

    1. Frederic

      Very true ! I definitely agree, not everyone has access to crew and it would level the fields. On top of that it would reduce the crowd/cars/traffic for certain races where access is already tricky.

      1. Jeff

        I really can’t understand the ‘level the field’ argument. Should there also be a limit on the amount runners can spend on shoes because not everyone can afford $140 dollar top of the line Salomon or Hoka shoes?

        Ultrarunning, especially in the US is a community sport with deep traditions, and pacers and crew are a part of that tradition.

        1. Frederic

          You understand the ‘level the field’ argument ? Ok, let’s take a quick very basic example then:
          You arrive at the aid station and you need to refill both of your water bottles. let’s say the volunteers are already busy and there is a line at the cooler jug. You refill your bottles yourself. No big deal.
          A runner arrives after you and just switches his/her bottles to new ones that his/her crew hands to him/her after getting the old ones. He/she’s gone before you and arrived after you.

          Like Xavier T said in this interview, no, runners will never be “equal” at an ultra (https://www.trails-endurance.com/coureurs-trail-running/xavier-thevenard-un-ultra-ne-sera-jamais-equitable) but there is some room, or at least I feel like there is

  8. Mathias Eichler

    I’m curious how race directors feel about this. That runners see personal benefit from having friends share the tough moment of a race is without question. But do race directors weigh the effects of pacers on their operation? And this could go either way: Allowing pacers might give RDs more peace of mind for runners in challenging remote locations, but what effect do pacers have on the overall permit and entry fee structure?
    Also: Not just Euro races don’t allow pacers. Gary Robbins doesn’t allow pacers for his races in Canada.

    1. John Vanderpot

      Here in SoCal, where the permit process seems to be more complicated/difficult than maybe some other places (I could be mistaken on this?) and crowds/fees are sometimes an issue, the RD’s at say the bigger lotto 100’s (SD and AC, for instance) have instituted the Solo/Unsupported Division, where preference is given to runners who work alone, and I’ve quietly suggested a few times something like a Pacer Tax to address my concerns mentioned above…

      1. Mathias Eichler

        I would guess that most races on public lands see their permit fee structured based on the amount of entrants in the race. I’m curious how RDs calculate and account for pacers.
        No pacers would allow for more entrants and possibly lower entry fees? But I am only guessing.

  9. Brian

    There are clearly performance benefits by having a pacer and crew. As someone else roughly stated, maybe the sport isn’t necessarily designed to have everyone be equal.

    That being said, if you want to have a true comparison of the athletes performance on race day, you wouldn’t allow crews and pacers. There’s no way to include crews and pacers (that I can think of) and have the results solely determined by the individual athlete’s performance.

  10. Billy from the Hills

    I have paced racers that could have run faster without me. I have also sat in an aid station, patiently explaining to my boys (“crew”) why we do what we do, and why we cheer for everyone. It seems to me that sharing the powerful experience of ambitious persistence multiplies the joy and meaning. Isn’t that really why we do this?

    1. B

      +1
      Having intentionally tried both solo and paced this last summer, I agree that the shared experiences were better. And sometimes that shared experience could come from running with another racer, but often that’s not possible.

  11. Nick

    If it’s in line with the rules, do what makes you happy…

    I’ve done long events without pacers as I wanted the mental challenge of having to manage everything by myself.

    I’ve done a relatively easy flat 100k race with pacers for the last 30k because it was near home and meant I could have (and share) the experience of running with a couple of great friends… randomly ended in the situation that AJW mentioned (finished second as a result of smallish field and really good day for me) but would happily have been excluded from the podium to have the memory of running the last 5k being paced by my 8yr old son

  12. Paul

    Regarding field size – at Western States eliminating pacers would have no impact because the field size is limited by the wilderness area in the first 50 miles where pacers are not allowed.

    Regarding level playing field – As long as the rules are the same for everyone the field is level. One runner having a better crew or pacer than another doesn’t make the field not level. This reminds me of folks who say the big downhill marathons offer an unfair BQ opportunity. Not so, anyone can do those races.

    1. speedgoat

      IMHO….the playing field is level when it’s just the one person running, they cannot take advantage of a good “crew” or “pacer”. I do understand your comment, saying “everyone can have pacer/crew help making it level, but it’s still “muling” as far as I’m concerned. Just my two cents, worth a penny or less.

    2. Mike McLean

      It’s not _really_ level is it … In the very hypothetic and imaginary scenario where I were to run Western States, locals would have an advantage over me because they have a pool of people close by that they trust and know. As a far north Canadian, flying over my pool of people I trust and know is prohibitive at best.

  13. Shaun Higgins

    I’m never going to win a competitive race, so maybe my comment won’t be taken seriously…but, I can say I don’t have pacers for myself. I a husband and father of 2 young kiddos. While ultras are generally safe if you’re ready and prepared I take pacers so that my wife doesn’t have to worry about me nearly as much.

    As far as speedgoat’s comment about big packs and mulling. I can say when I pace I typically have a bigger pack for 2 reasons. 1. I don’t want to chew up room in my runner’s drop bag with my stuff. 2. Since my day will be easier than my athlete’s and they’re depending on me not to fuck up their race I make sure I’m over-prepared with anything I could possibly need.

    I can’t see speak for others but I haven’t ever had an athlete ask for something I’m carrying as that would violate the spirit of the day…not to mention the rules. I’ve also been bonked with 10 miles to go and without food and refused my pacer’s offer. I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to most of the people who choose to take on the challenge of a 100.

  14. Karl Kamm

    From the perspective of being a pacer: Where I live in Silverton, we are blessed to be the home of the Hardrock 100 which is a race that I will never get an entry into. However, I have paced it for 4 years and have had amazing experiences, running most of the course over those years. I’ve paced a wonderful Frenchman several times and also a faster runner, getting to share the course with some legends of the sport. Permitting pacers, allows many more people participate in an ultra and experience the magic of the event. I am certain that many people who started as pacers moved on to enter their own ultras and have enriched their lives because of it. Yes there are some competitive issues with pacers at high levels, but running should be about being inspired and sharing amazing experiences, and nothing helps that along like running with a pacer. Cheers!

    1. Rob

      Building on this, pacing can be an “ultra journeyman” role, letting those progressing to longer distances see what works well and learn from other’s mistakes. Pacing also gives the pacer an opportunity to see courses in case they ever get to run a race. I witnessed the “Cal Street Meatgrinder” firsthand as a pacer before the article was written. If I ever get into WS100, I know several things I won’t do before and during the race.

      Pacers, crew, and runners in ultras have always been great people willing to help anyone. I think having more people with the “ultra” and “trail” spirit involved is only a good thing. If there’s one knock on pacers, it would be in situations where a previous finisher is pacing a competitive first timer, enforcing tactics on course to gain an advantage. How much of an advantage is this versus buying a previous finisher a pitcher of beer before the race and taking course notes based on what they tell you?

    2. CLF

      Karl hit the nail on the head with me here – paced HR twice (including a wonderful Frenchman too!) before I ever even dared think I could do one myself. Absolutely awesome experiences that inspired me enough to go do a couple of my own (including HR). And now that I got those out of my system I continually return to pace it just because wow, it’s just so cool to be part of in any capacity. The best reward by far has been meeting and forging lasting friendships with awesome people from around the world I otherwise never would have met.

      1. CLF

        Lightning – I can’t speak for Karl here, but from my perspective:
        1) Can’t you just run the Hardrock course or portions of it on your own or with your friends? Sure, I do every year and I don’t even live there
        2) for the same experience? Not even close – as Karl says, there’s a certain magical quality about the event. You don’t get that on a general run

  15. Andrew Messina

    Of all of the 100m runs that I’ve done, I have never used a pacer. That being said, I can see some valid points with AJW’s reasoning.

    I really like the Angeles Crest 100m policy for solo runners, as they get preferred lottery weights in the lottery, which gives paced runners a moment of hesitation regarding their lottery entry.

  16. Rick

    American women seem to do very well at UTMB, not sure how this squares with all the above comments that seem to be focused on poor showing by American men??

  17. Jay Greenfield

    I feel like I shouldn’t even give my 2 cents but I cant help myself. Race directors make the rules. We follow them. If Pacers are allowed by all means have one. If you like to run alone then run alone. But if you pay the entrance fee and are given a spot then it is your spot and your race so run it the way that makes you happy. We have a saying in NJ about opinions…..

  18. Jeff

    I have never used a crew or a pacer myself, but that is mostly due to the fact that I have a busy job and family life and do not feel comfortable asking other people to support me when I’m often under trained and/or flying by the seat of my pants.

    I do want to comment on the larger pack for Pacers comment that Speedgoat made. I recently paced a friend during a mountain hundred miler and I carried a ton of gear and food because I did not want to use any drop bags and I also did not want to use any nutrition at the aid stations other than water and I brought a ton of water with me. I also brought lots of safety and first aid gear since we were running in the high mountains at night and I fully embraced my job as a safety runner — I wanted everything on hand to be able to make my runner or any other runner in distress safe. Yes my pack was much heavier but I felt prepared and everyone else had run 50 miles before I even started!

  19. Helen Scotch

    I would be very happy to see races not allow pacers. But as long as they are allowed, I have no issue. However, I feel very strongly about muling – regardless of whether it’s allowed or not, I’m hugely disappointed when I see front runners employ this strategy. Almost every photo I saw of the leaders at Leadville this year showed the runner carrying nothing while their pacer had a full pack. I don’t understand how these super talented runners can be satisfied winning the race after having their water and gear carried for them.

  20. Ondřej

    Based on my limited, two-time experience of ultra trail races, (both European and both sub 100mile), I’d say that a possibility to outsource the trail navigation is a stronger advantage than any kind of mulling service a pacer could possibly provide. Even on a well-marked trail. So I don’t fully understand the division, why some kind of help is allowed and some is strongly prohibited. If the race director/committee decides that a pacer-related service is needed for their race, why not let the pacers also mule the runners? Is it a tradition? Is it because navigation is too subtle to be reasonably prohibited, and mulling is not? Or is it just me, who is more often confused than hungry during running far?

  21. jack

    Ondrej nailed it – navigation help/second set of eyes as insurance against pulling a walmsley is the only reason i want a pacer when the rules permit…

  22. Derek

    I don’t mind pacing if it’s allowed under the race rules. However, it’s not a level playing field if that’s what we’re debating. I will say that there is a huge advantage from having a crew and pacer. I ran my first ultra (Wasatch) last month and was very busy at the aid stations. All told, I didn’t have time to sit and rest. At Big Mountain and Lambs I was frantically swapping clothes, refilling my pack and mitigating any foot issues. While this was happening, I was watching crews exchange their runners’ nutrition, shoes, socks…all while the runner rested–being hand-fed quesadilla by their friends. I enjoyed doing it on my own, and will continue to do so in the future. But, there is a clear advantage to the crewed runner. With that said, I’m definitely not casting stones for those that utilize pacers and a crew. For me, a pacer would’ve been nice to have at night just for the extra illumination!

  23. Trevor

    People seem pretty divided about pacers here; one thing I will say is I wish more people understood or desired the ‘solo’ aesthetic more and thereby just wanted to run without a pacer or crew. Its great sharing an experience but when you run all on your own you feel more of an accomplishment than someone who had their ‘entourage’ out in full force for just a 50 miler…

  24. Jakub

    I don’t think I saw this point raised before in this discussion: Given that pacers almost unambiguously present an advantage (better to have good pacers than not have good pacers), allowing pacers in a race curtails the possibility of a breakout performance by an unknown amateur (these should be more likely in ultras than in short races, as more variables apart from fitness play part). Pacers present an entry barrier into top 10. The reason I suggest this is that not everyone has access to 2-5 pacers (100mi) in good shape, with good experience, and who can allocate their otherwise family time, family budget, and vacation days to help someone race 100mi. It’s more likely that sponsored athletes with teams around them will be able to do this. And so finishing inside the top 10 might be harder than just being fit & ready & having a perfect race.

    I could be wrong, feel free to point out why. I’ll be glad if I am wrong!

  25. Ib Erik Söderblom

    Pacers is cheating !!!

    I like to see runners hunt other runners, and runners fighting to stay ahead.
    If it becomes a matter of the quality of pacers, then the race is a joke !

    I often pace with other runners, but then its a part of the race itself, fighting to obtain a better lead from people from behind or to get closer to the ones in front.
    But it is also a fight between me and the runner(s) I’m pacing with, since we are all part of the race.

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