How to Pace a Marathon
${ mainCategoryTag }

How to Pace a Marathon

After AfterShokz CMO Kim Fassetta conquered her first-ever marathon in December 2018, she was eager to pay it forward to other aspiring runners. During her training, Kim had inspired Customer Happiness Director, Kristen Szustakowski, to start her own running journey. This year, Kristen will be tackling her first marathon in November, and Kim is training to pace Kristen the whole way, in what’s only her second marathon.

On why she decided to take on this project, Kim said, “Kristen is a special AfterShokz team leader and friend, who overachieves anything she sets her mind to. I’ve been inspired to push myself further as I’ve watched her mind and body progress through her training. And it will be an honour to be by her side as we cross the finish line of 42.1—and cross something off her bucket list! ❤️”

BibRave Co-Founder Jessica Murphy has run 22 Marathons and paced five of them—three as an official pacer for the Chicago Marathon, and two as an unofficial pacer for friends. In this interview, Kim taps Jessica for advice on how to be a good pacer. Read on for Jessica’s tips and insights.


What makes a good race-pacing strategy for a first-time pacer leading a first-time marathoner?

The most important thing is to align on the runner’s goals before the runner and pacer commit to running the race. It’s important for the pacer to know and understand the runner’s goals for finishing—is there a specific time goal, is the goal to finish feeling strong, or is the goal to finish...period! Once those are outlined, it’s up to the pacer to do some internal soul-searching and confirm that he or she has the ability to train and run for the runner’s goal. 

When it comes to actual pacing strategy, the best goal is to pace as evenly as possible. If the pacer paces smartly at the beginning, the runner will have saved enough energy at the end to maintain pace.


Should we practice together beforehand? If so, how much practice is enough? 

It’s ideal, if they’re able to get a few runs in before race day so the pacer can adapt to the runner’s style and preferences. If not, there are a few things to discuss in advance. Does the runner want the pacer to run in front of or beside him or her? In some cases a runner may want a pacer behind him or her, but that’s more common in trail running, when a runner wants to see more of the terrain ahead. 

It’s also important to discuss whether the runner wants tough love or positive encouragement, or how much a runner wants to talk or be distracted during the race. Set up a plan before race day to avoid having to make too many game-time decisions. On race day, the runner should only have to focus on putting one foot in front of another. 


Should we have a plan for any/all of the things that could happen, or just take the day as it comes?

Planning is key, regardless of whether one is Type A (like me!) or not. A bajillion—yes, a bajillion—things can go wrong on race day. The pacer and runner should stay in touch during training so the runner can share details and stories of what went well and what went poorly during training. 

For example, consider fueling choices. Did the runner try multiple types of fuel and one didn’t sit well? It’s important for the pacer to know in case they need to suggest different types of fuel options mid-race (hint: don’t suggest something that won’t sit well!).

A pacer should also be familiar with any pain the runner experienced during training. Where was the pain? Did it go away during runs, and if so, what helped? Did the runner push through it, and if so, for how long?

There are many times during a marathon when a runner will experience pain or discomfort, and it’s important for the pacer to be able to assess what might pass and what needs to be observed. 

Another important factor a pacer should understand about his or runner is any mental struggles the runner experienced during training. For example, were there workouts when the runner thought he or she could not move another step but still ran another five kilometres? This will likely happen again on race day, and knowing what tricks the runner used to push through will help the pacer tap into those strategies through those dark kilometres.


How do I know how fast or slow to run for my runner (especially when I barely know how to manage that sort of decision for myself)? 

Most of this will come from talking about the runner’s training pace and any half-marathons he or she has done during training. Using this information, the pacer and runner should discuss a pacing strategy for the race—well ahead of race day—to determine a pacing plan. 

When it comes to race day, it’s the pacer’s job to make sure an eager first-time marathoner does not run too fast in those first few kilometres! Adrenaline and fresh legs cause many marathoners to start too fast, so the pacer should make sure the pace is kept manageable and within the pacing strategy.  

In the second half of the race, the pacer should pay attention to the runner’s effort level. If maintaining pace is becoming too laboured (based on effort, form, or breathing) the pacer can suggest slowing down or another previously discussed strategy. In Kim and Kristen’s case, Kristen will be following a run-walk strategy for the entire race. If Kristen is struggling, Kim could suggest a shorter run or longer walk interval.


What are the best mile-marker landmarks to look forward to and celebrate? 

The halfway point is a key milestone, and so is kilometre 32. For most marathoners, a 32-kilometre run is the longest they’ll tackle during training. So for a first-time marathoner, every step after kilometre 32 is the longest that person has ever run—every mile is a landmark at that point! 

A good mental trick is how to count kilometres in the first and second half of the race. Up until kilometre 21, a runner should say, “That’s one kilometre down. Three kilometres down.” Then after kilometre 21, start saying, “Only 21 kilometres to go. Only 19 kilometres to go.” 


What if my runner gets hurt and can’t go on? Do I continue running?

There are many different ways to approach this situation, so the key is determining a plan before the race. (Do you sense a planning theme?) 

If the runner is injured or severely dehydrated, and not near a medical or aid station, the pacer should ensure the runner is in a place where he or she can get assistance from race officials.  

Once the runner is in a place to get aid and/or potentially get transported to the race finish, there are two options to consider. The pacer could go with the runner or the pacer could finish the race. If the runner may need additional aid once reaching the finish line the pacer might consider going with them. If the runner does not need additional aid, and the pacer has done the training to finish, he or she may want to consider finishing. They did put in the kilometres (and potentially travelled) after all! 

Again, the most important thing is to agree on what to do in this situation beforehand so no one has to make an emotional decision in the moment or “feel badly.” 


7) What’s the best thing I can do for my runner? And the worst?

The best thing one can do is be there on race day! Not many people will put in the weeks and months of kilometres and training only to run someone else’s race. It’s crucial that the pacer follows his or her training plan so they feel strong on race day. The last thing one wants is to worry about their own ability to finish the race or pace appropriately. 

As for the worst thing one can do? Probably telling the runner, “You’re almost there.” (Unless the finish line is only a few feet away, maybe!)

When it sucks, acknowledge it sucks, and keep the runner moving forward to the finish.

It should be noted, that anyone pacing in a non “official” capacity with a race should always register for the race. Running without an official entry is against most race policies and can be unsafe, as many events are only permitted for a set amount of participants, and if any medical issues arise on course it’s critical for the event to have the participants information and emergency contact information on file.

There is nothing more fulfilling than pacing a runner for a marathon. Running 42.1 kilometres is always a proud moment, and when a friend can be there to witness someone else finishing a lifetime accomplishment it is a special thing! 

Have you ever paced or been paced? What are your tips and tricks? Tell us on  Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter!