Some Thoughts on Pacers

AJW writes about why he likes pacers in trail ultrarunning.

By on October 4, 2019 | Comments

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

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Diamond Bear Brewing Company in Little Rock, Arkansas. One of the mid-south’s oldest craft breweries, Diamond Bear specializes in smooth, easy-drinking brews and one of the best ones is their English Style Pale Ale. Labeled as “the one that started it all,” this Pale Ale is earthy, hearty, and just slightly bitter. Reminiscent of old-school Pale Ales from the West Coast, Diamond Bear’s flagship brew is first rate.

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?
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Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.