Pacing the Madison Half Marathon

Recently I was asked to pace the Madison Half Marathon. This means, for those unfamiliar with the running world, that in exchange for free entry to the race and a free singlet from the store that sponsored the pace groups, I was asked to run at a specific pace (2:30, or 11:27 minutes/mile) for the entire race. By running even splits, we both help people trying to run a specific goal time achieve that goal and serve as a moving time mark for other runners to gauge their times off of. I also heard spectators pointing to us as a way of figuring out where the runner they were waiting for might be.[1]

Many people asked me what my strategy was going into this, since my normal pace for a race like this would be something like 1:50–2:00 (8:24–9:10 min/mi).[2] It’s not a bad question—when you are used to running at a pace at least 30 min faster, it can feel very strange to slow down so much. In order to ensure that my legs were tired enough, I accidentally ran every day during the past week, culminating in 14.73 miles on Saturday. Then I accidentally stayed up until midnight, so I only got about five hours of sleep the night before the race.

I say “accidentally” because I’m aware that these behaviors are kind of risky in terms of injury; at this point in my running life, I almost always take Mondays and Fridays off. But this week there were things that came up—running with B, running with my fellow pacer—and I couldn’t skip out on them. I also wanted to get a hard weekend ahead of the KM 50K in two weeks. So now I’ve officially peaked, having run 63 miles this week and 28 in the last two days, and will do a little taper. I am actually really excited to taper. I’m tired.

So let’s see what I have some photos of. First off, here is my carb-packed dinner from the night before. Thanks to Costco, from which I purchased approximately five pounds of five-cheese ravioli. Unfortunately, they’re not super amazing—the texture is fine, but the flavor is not strong. Still, it was a pretty good dinner. I cooked the ravioli up with some mushrooms and onions and a white sauce with a little pesto in it. Next time, I will fry the ravioli in butter after boiling them,[3] and maybe throw some blue cheese in the white sauce rather than cream cheese. The salad was your standard Cesar with spinach instead of romaine. When Bryan came home from gaming, he brought me a piece of tiramisu, too.

Carb loading. I'm not a food photographer, sorry.
Carb loading. I’m not a food photographer, sorry.

The next morning, I struggled out of bed at 5:15, having had weird dreams all night about making hard-boiled eggs in tea. I don’t get it either. I got my stuff together (more of an achievement than it sounds like), told the dogs to go back to bed, and scrambled out of the house. I was supposed to meet the other pacers at a hotel on capital square at 6:20 to be ready to get in the corrals at 6:30, so I ran from where I parked (about half a mile away) to get there on time. Instead, this turned into hanging around the lobby waiting and asking each other, “Where is [whoever we noticed is missing]?” Around 6:40 we took a group photo and then dispersed to line up.

At this point, walking down the hill to where the back of the pack will be, things were starting to feel kind of intense. I got the feeling—and I don’t know if this is legitimately what was happening or not—that the runners on the sidewalks were watching us. When we got into the corrals, that would be their signal that it was time to line up. Such pressure.

Pre-race selfie.
Pre-race selfie. My hair is amazing.
Looking up the empty corral at the pacers.
Looking up the empty corral at the pacers.

At 7:00 precisely we took off. Prior to the gun, my pacing partner (also named Emily) and I sort of looked around to see if anyone was willing to declare they were sticking with us, but aside from one shy, noncommital wave, no one was. I don’t know if this means that a lot of people were unsure of what time they might finish in, if they were all planning to run with their iPods (I saw a lot of this), or if they were just shy. We tried hard to be happy and approachable, and as the miles ticked past a few people tried talking to us. One fellow, who I thought might be from India or Bangladesh, stuck with us the whole way; although he seemed to be working pretty hard, he was happy enough to chat when we talked to him:

Em: So, where are you from?
Him: [Something I didn’t really catch]
Em: Where is that?
Him: On the east side of the city.
Other Emily: Wait, did you say “Sun Prairie”?
Em: To be fair, I live near Middleton and never go over to the east side.

Did I look like an ass? I don’t know, maybe. I laughed, he laughed. We high-fived after the race, so I think there were no hard feelings.

Skipping around in time, after about a mile and a half, it started to rain, which was actually not terrible. The rain never got strong enough to really soak us, so my feet stayed dry, and it kept us cool and kept the heat down.

The corner by Camp Randall where the route turned onto Monroe Street was the first place we really started to encounter a bunch of people cheering for us. Some of the people the other Emily and I run with were out to spectate, so it was fun to hear the occasional “Go Emilys!,” but there were just a lot of people who would shout “Go 2:30 group!” Things got quieter as we turned into the Arb, and then as we went up the hill near Edgewood it got crazy again. I was starting to feel like a rock star. Probably the best part of this was when we came past the Berkeley orange stand (just past mile 12, I think); since Berkeley organized the pace groups, they gave us a real good cheer. And from there it was just a few blocks up Dayton (past my old haunt, Ofek Shalom Co-op), then up to State Street and the finish at the capital.

Running through the Arb with Other Emily.
Running through the Arb with Other Emily.

In the aftermath of all this running, I went home and brunched it up with B, then passed out for a solid two and a half hours. Now (writing this the day after), I feel pretty good—my right calf has been a bit sore, but no worse than one would expect from strenuous exercise. Why only the right one? Don’t know. Let’s not dwell on it too much.

So, to finish this thing up, what advice for future pacers? There is some law of nature that states that although your Garmin may work perfectly every time you step out the door, when you really need it to be accurate for a race, it will fail. My watch was off at almost every mile marker by up to 15 seconds or more. I hit the lap button as we passed the markers to try and compensate. Although I had it set up to give a current pace, an average pace, and a lap pace, the most useful way of telling where we were was the total time elapsed plus knowing that we were supposed to be running 11:27s (round to 11:30 for ease of math-doing). If you are running weird splits, like 6:52 or something, write your split times on your arm.

Finally, if you are a spectator and want to have a boombox playing some music to encourage the runners, let’s go with the Foo Fighters rather than Miley Cyrus. (I heard both yesterday, but I just want to make my preferences clear.)

The finish line taken by a professional photographer (credit to Focal Flame Photography
The finish line taken by a professional photographer. Credit to Focal Flame Photography.
A picture of me looking much more uncomfortable than I felt at the finish.
A picture of me looking much more uncomfortable than I felt at the finish. Credit to Focal Flame Photography

[1] In addition to pacing, or pace groups, being a thing that is provided at many major marathons, there’s another role for pacesetters—rabbiting. Rabbiting, often used for world record attempts, involves a fast runner who is typically paid to set a hard pace and act as a wind-break for the frontrunners and then drop out halfway through. There are, to my understanding, some pretty specific rules about what events can use rabbits and who can rabbit for what race (men can’t rabbit for women’s events, e.g.). This kind of pacing also has some ethical issues, because it moves the focus of a race to breaking a record rather than actually having an entertaining (competitive) race. On the other hand, rabbits do count as official entrants, and occasionally when the elite runners don’t follow them, they don’t drop and just go on to win. (Here’s an entertaining video of that from 1981.) But since the race was won in 1:13 for the men and 1:26 for the women, these questions don’t really apply to our 2:30 group.

[2] Since I did a 2:03 at the Ice Age half marathon two weeks ago, I think I could go sub-2 in a road half right now, except for all the various things I did to myself this week, as detailed above.

[3] Postscript: I tried frying the ravioli in a combination of avocado oil and butter. They were awesome.

Post-race.
Post-race, back at my car. My hair has calmed down due to rain.

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