• Helen Phillips

The Insiders Guide to Pacing a Marathon to Perfection


We’re on the final count down to Dublin Marathon and there’s a big group of us chomping at the bit, nervous about carbs, niggles and whether Ryanair will get us to the race on time this week.

A few weeks ago I met up with Simon Martin, one of the Runner’s World VLM pacers to find out about his running journey. Simon has run countless marathons, paced the 3:45 group to the finish line for four VLM marathons and taken on some of the most inhospitable ultra challenges, finishing 5th in this years Fire and Ice Ultra in Iceland.

Here’s an insight into why he loves to pace marathons and his tactics for getting us to the finish line on time!

I’ve had conversations with a lot of runners in the past about pacers, they cant understand why you’d anyone would want to pace a race rather than go for it and get a good time for yourself. So why do you pace races?

I’ve got a lot from running over the years. Pretty early on I was the race director for the Old Deer Park parkrun in Richmond. 5k isn’t my distance, so I enjoyed being the race director to help others achieve their running goals. Regrettably, after a few years I had less free time at weekends, I had to give that up. I still wanted to give back, to help others achieve their goals, so pacing is the way I can do that.

I like to give something back and to help people achieve their goals. I get a huge buzz from the experience, from people shouting encouragement along the route.

Cheesecake Runner: Good for you!

How did you get into pacing?

I decided in 2014 that I wanted to get into pacing, so contacted Runners World about joining their team. They get about 1 application every day to join, so there are loads of runners who want to do this! They wanted to know my race times as well as injury status and accepted me to be a pacer for London.

I’ve been pacing for them, including being a VLM 3:45 pacer since 2014. I also pace for Xempo for half marathons, pacing between 1:40 and 2 hours usually.

How do you motivate the runners you’re pacing?

Before the race, runners are always nervous, especially if they’re looking to run their first marathon or to get a PB that day.

Before we set off, I gather the group in the pen. I explain to them I’m an experienced marathoner and ultra runner, I ask what their times are to put them at ease. I give them the heads up on my role, the do’s and don’ts of running with me and, if it’s London, explain that if they have done the training and have the fitness I will get them in between 3:44:30 and 3:44:35. I have a 5 second target window and always aim to get them to come in a little bit under (30 seconds) their 3:45 target time.

Cheesecake Runner: Bloody Nora … You’re accurate to 5 seconds, that’s impressive!

As we go through every mile I ask how everyone is feeling, we run like a team. I’m the pied piper and they’re the rats!

Some runners drop off and others push on. I talk to those who need conversation and motivation, I ask them how they’re doing and encourage people to talk with me if I see they’re struggling.

How do you actually pace the race?

I find pacing comes naturally. I run by feel, but also rely on a watch (I use a Garmin 235 for my marathons). A 3:45 marathon pace is a pretty uncomfortable pace for me, I’d naturally want to run slower (ultra pace) or faster (my marathon pace), so I know I have to keep the feel of the run in that uncomfortable zone. I’ve also got my mile splits on some laminated paper so I can check where we are against time whilst we’re running.

I aim for even splits between the first and second halves of the race. There will always be faster and slower miles, due to congestion, slight undulations, roads narrowing so I subtly adjust the pace to ensure we’re on target.

At every mile I tell the group what the previous mile split time was and how far ahead or behind schedule we are.

At the aid stations I slow down a little but don’t stop. If I need water I put my order in and one of the group will usually get me a bottle. Sometimes they’re all competing to be “teachers pet” and I end up with tons of bottles!

Cheesecake Runner: HAHAHA! Bet you love that Simon!

Towards the end I slow up so the group can all sprint for the finish ahead of me. It’s not about my time but about theirs.

Thank you Simon! That's a brilliant insight to pacing.

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