Leading the 3:25 pace group at the Modesto Marathon

Guest Blogger Albert Pham

The San Francisco Marathon will always hold a special place in my heart for it’s the first race that I have been an official pace leader for, and it’s where I discovered the thrill and reward of being an effective pacer. My debut pacing experience, however, proved to be somewhat unconventional.

On my way to the start of the 2010 San Francisco Marathon, I was informed by RunningAddicts who provided many pacers to SFM, of a last minute opening for pacer for the 2 hour pace group in the 2nd half marathon, and an urgent request to fill it. I was only preparing to run the first half and had my heart set on it. Thinking it would be a great opportunity and a fun experience, I quickly agreed to fill the open pacing position and to run both races without fully understanding the logistics and ramifications.

Coming into the finish at the Modesto Marathon with my co-pacer Vinh Ngo

As I finished up the first half marathon, we only had minutes before the start of the 2nd Half Marathon so I rushed over to meet fellow pacer, Linh of RunningAddicts so he could guide me to the start of the 2nd half in Golden Gate Park. I hastily threw on the pacer shirt, grabbed the sign, and sprinted off to my spot in the corral seconds before the gun went off. Racing between races was not part of the original plan!  At the 2nd Half Start, I was greeted by runners who were searching all over for me, or whoever was to lead the 2 hour pace group. Wasting no time, I chatted with the runners who gathered around me about my pacing strategy, and ensured them that we would run even splits, and that my goal was to finish within 30 seconds of 2 hours without going over.

As soon as the gun went off, I meticulously monitored my watch during the race and triple checked the pace at each mile marker calling out splits to the group.  The crowd support and entertainment out on the course was amazing in hyping up and energizing the runners in my group. After comparing my splits to a pace band, and doing some quick number crunching in my head after each mile, I knew we were on track to a near perfect finish.

I was overjoyed after having crossed the finish line just under 2 hours helping many runners break the elusive 2 hour barrier. After crossing the finish line, I hadn’t even realized that I technically ran an unplanned marathon that day (or an ultra if you count the distance through Golden Gate Park from the end of the 1st half to the start of the 2nd half, but I digress). I was fixated on seeing everyone’s hard work and months of training come to fruition, and continued to congratulate runners coming into the home stretch. Fellow SFM Ambassador and pacer Roni and I can both agree on how rewarding it is when runners come up and show their appreciation by thanking the pacers for their help out on the course. After that experience, I was hooked on pacing.

Since my somewhat chaotic first pacing experience, I have had the opportunity to build my experience by being a pacer for a few other races such as the Portland Marathon with Team Red Lizard in 2010 and 2011, winning their coveted Precision Pacer Award for being a part of a pace team finishing the marathon within 10 seconds of goal time without going over. Other pacing experiences include the NorCal Marathon, Morgan Hill Marathon, and Modesto Marathon.

Pace signs indicating goal finish time at Morgan Hill Marathon + Half

With each race that I pace, I learn something new. I have seen the ups and downs with leading a pace group from seeing runners reach a new PR and qualify for Boston for the first time, to runners who fall off the pace train, miss their goal, and crash into the wall.

As a runner, my hard work in training goes towards the hope of executing that perfect race on race day. As a pacer, I feel the responsibility to help other runners in their execution of their own perfect race, to empower them, give reassurance, lend a helping hand, and provide encouragement.  As Linh, a fellow RunningAddicts teammate often says “If you think racing is hard, pacing is even tougher!” as it takes a lot of discipline, and sometimes it’s harder to run slower because you’re often out there on the course a lot longer on your feet than when you race.

SFM Ambassador Daniela says that she appreciates the pacers out there because it gives her an idea of where she is in the race; even if she doesn’t run with them, it’s helpful to see them in the distance.

Teammates in the RunningAddicts Pace Team (also affectionately referred to as the RAP Team), who organizes and manages many pacing events for local Bay Area races including The San Francisco Marathon

Not every pacer’s strategy will work for everyone.  SFM Ambassador Monika once ran a race where a pacer did not stick with his goal time, and finished the race 8 minutes faster!

The pacing strategy that I find works the best is to run with even effort throughout the whole race, which means account for the hills along the course – take it a bit slower going up the hills, and a little faster going down the hills. Adjusting for the terrain is especially important in a race like SFM since there are rolling hills throughout the course.

When race day comes, trust your training, don’t start off too fast and conserve your energy in the early miles, and feel free to look for a pacer to help and use them as a guide and resource. Feed off the energy in the group and from the spectators out on the course.

I’m excited once again to be a part of the pace team for my third consecutive year pacing SFM. Look for me as one of the co-pacers leading the 3:40 pace group. Leave it to the San Francisco Marathon pace team (presented by INKnBurn) to help get you to the finish line on time.

Leading the 3:25 pace group at the Modesto Marathon

Coming into the finish at the Modesto Marathon with my co-pacer Vinh Ngo

Pace signs indicating goal finish time at Morgan Hill Marathon + Half

Teammates in the RunningAddicts Pace Team (also affectionately referred to as the RAP Team), who organizes and manages many pacing events for local Bay Area races including The San Francisco Marathon

Albert is a Bay Area transplant from Portland, OR and works as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. He is actively involved in the local running community and has been pace leader for numerous half and full marathons. Follow him on twitter @albert_pham