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.
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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?