Pacing a sub-4:00 marathon

I love Brighton, it’s a beautiful city and feels a bit like home with the seagulls flying a squawking overhead. I’d decided a long time ago that I’d like to run the marathon there, and had signed up almost as soon as entries opened for the 2018 edition. For months and months I would skim-read the countdown emails sent every few weeks until one article caught my eye. ‘Join the 2XU pacer team!’ it read, and I quickly sent off an email highlighting that although I had never paced before, I thought I could do a pretty good job at pacing a sub-4:00 marathon.

So that’s how I came to be at the start-line of the Brighton Marathon, attached to a very large red balloon with ‘4:00’ stamped on the side. I had woken up with a scratchy throat and the beginnings of a cold, but today I just had to ignore everything that was going on because I had a job to do. Rain, hail or shine, in sickness or in health, I would be running 3:59:XX. This race was not about me, but about helping a lot of other people achieve their goal.

There were 24 of us pacers who all gathered very early in the morning to chat strategy and don our kit. We had all been given fluoro yellow tshirts which said ‘Brighton Marathon Pace Team’ on them, although that got covered up when we then wore the backpacks which our balloons were tied to. There were three pacers per team, and I was joined for 4:00 by ‘Ginger Dave’ and Dan. Seeing as sub-4:00 is a major goal for a lot of people, we decided to spread ourselves out amongst the runners rather than run together, so that we could each take a group of people around.

The official race starter for the marathon was Paul Sinton Hewitt, founder of parkrun, and prior to the race we all had a chance to meet him. He went around shaking everyone’s hands but when he came to me I asked for a hug – and got it! No matter how under-the-weather I had felt that morning, after that everything was going to be great!

15min until race start and we headed into the pens. I was hoping to be immediately met with people who wanted to run sub-4, but everyone was fairly quiet and focussed. I got to chatting with a few and then saw my COO from my last job in London who was running his first marathon! What a small world. By the time I got to the start line I was feeling pumped and ready to get the show on the road. Paul waved his starter flag, I pressed the start button on my Garmin, and we were off!

The plan for the marathon was simple: run as evenly as possible the whole time. The Brighton course is hilly in the first half, so this would mean going slightly slower on the uphills and then speeding a little on the downs, to match the natural rhythm of the people likely to be running with me. I wanted to cross halfway in ~1:59:30 and the finish line in 3:59:30, leaving a bit of time to slow in the finish funnel and encourage runners to sprint-finish to pass me and achieve their goal.

42.2 in 4:00 = 5:41/km or 9:09/mi

One of the other pacers had kindly given me a 4:00 Pace Pocket, which breaks down the race into mile splits. I work in kilometres on my watch, but I was then able to check the Pace Pocket against my running time each time we crossed a mile marker. So long as my watch then showed ~5:40 pace for the rest of the time, we would be solid.

From the start of the race I had a lady called Claire running directly beside me, who was determined to stick with me to the end. We picked up a few other people who were slightly behind me (& therefore I couldn’t chat with them much), and it was one of those who called out “you’ve lost your balloon”. We were less than 2mi into the race! It was a bit devastating, because although the balloon had been annoying from the string hitting the back of my head, it made me very visible to the other runners.

Still though we had a solid group running together, including another lady called Karen who was running up the front with Claire. I would call out at the mile markers to ensure everyone we were on pace, or to notify people that there were water stations coming up ahead and to move to the left if they wanted a drink. I had a water bladder in my pack so that I could avoid the crowds at aid stations, but did occasionally duck in for a gel or a cup of electrolyte drink as we went along.

Our group stuck together to conquer the hills of the first half. At the worst one I had to slow to ~6:00/km pace but I had left enough seconds in hand in the lead-up that it didn’t impact goal-time too much. It’s quite a powerful feeling to be so in control of time, and yet it was also somewhat stressful. As a pacer you have to have such confidence in your ability to maintain speed no matter what the course throws at you.

Unfortunately, that includes when people start to drop off. The course loops back to Brighton Pier with 12mi run, after which have two out-and-back sections to run before coming back to the Pier again for the finish. There was amazing crowd support here, but within two miles I had lost everyone I was running with. Claire in particular I could see was flagging, but as much as I wanted to slow down and try and help her to catch up again, that wasn’t my role today. I had to be a rabbit, consistently running my pace, even if that meant leaving people behind. I just wish I hadn’t lost my balloon – it would have helped the people behind a lot to have a marker to try and catch up with.

The hardest section of my race was from Mile 14-18 after my initial team dropped off. This is the first of two out-and-backs and I think I was just feeling a bit lonely. Normally I run with my name on the front of my shirt, and without that I wasn’t getting any cheers from the crowd! It was also quite humid and the warmest part of the day during this stretch. I had seen someone with orange slices on the ‘out’ section, and on the way back was hawk-eyed for a slice but they were nowhere to be seen – just the discarded rims of people before me. Eventually I found one and it was heaven 🙏

Around Mile 18 a guy called Ian ran up next to me. He said he’d been chasing for the last few miles and had finally caught me, and now was planning on staying until the end. Welcome, friend! Turns out he’d suffered in the heat the year before and had spent 45mins on the side of the road before eventually finishing… ouch. Today was going to be much better for him. Together we ran through the bleak industrial area from Mile 19-23, chatting a little here and there but mostly just making sure to keep each other in eyesight. I’d been warned that this part would be bad in terms of support, but I have to applaud the few people who we did see on this section. It’s not pretty nor close to anything in the city, so thank you for making the effort.

The last few miles follow the seafront again, in front of the iconic beach huts. By now my motivational talk was mostly revolving around all the treats we would get to enjoy after the race: pizza, beer, burgers, ice cream… I find it helps me for that last push! At Mile 25 I then yelled at all the people around me “If you have anything left, now is the time to start thinking about picking it up. 1.2 miles, if you’ve got it to give – give it!”. Ian shot off into the distance with a few others in tow. I later found him in the finish and he was absolutely over the moon with a 3:57 😀

One last stretch of road and now it was time to up the motivation dial. You see a lot of people walking in this section, but more out of a ‘I’ve been running for so long already’ mental state which can be improved by some well-placed words of encouragement. By the time I got to the 26mi marker I saw I had a minute in hand, which meant I could really slow down and tell people to sprint. I was running backwards pointing at my pacer bib and shouting ‘come on, this is what you can beat!’ until a security guard told me I had to run forwards (what?!). Jogged it in for 3:59:33 – about as spot-on as I could have hoped for!

Like Manchester, I’m very proud of my splits. It took a little while to settle at the start (particularly because the first mile has a big hill in it…), but for most of the run I was within 2-3 seconds of my 5:41/km target. By 5km I had 30seconds in hand, which increased over the next few kilometres but then got used on the Brighton hills. Crossed halfway at 1:59:32 and then picked up a second or two every kilometre so that I could slow down at the finish. I honestly don’t think it could have gone any better!

Pacing is a tough job, because you’re sacrificing your race for the benefit of others. There were times when I wanted to slow down and others to speed up, but I didn’t have that luxury. And that’s OK – it was totally worth it for the moments at the finish line where people hug you to say thanks for helping them get their goal.

2nd marathon in 2 weeks complete and still on track for my 4in4sub4 challenge!

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