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Becoming a Pacer: What Does it Take?

BY Hal Higdon

Many marathons and half marathons have pacers to help runner hit goal time. Hal Higdon answers one runner’s question about what experience and skills are necessary to become a pacer.

Have a question about running? You’re in the right place. Every Tuesday, world-renowned coach, author and athlete Hal Higdon posts and answers athlete questions here. You can submit your question by joining the discussions on Hal Higdon’s Virtual Training Bulletin Boards.


After reviewing my achievements from 2015, I came up with a different challenge for 2016. Although adding a fourth marathon next fall would burnish my resume, becoming a pacer for a different half marathon might be more fun. I know the basic purpose for a pacer is to serve as both cheerleader and psychiatrist, however, I have never paced before. I feel I have the experience, but wanted to know what was the next step. Can I train to become a pacer, or is it something that comes from doing it?


I claim some credit for establishing the first pacing team. I wrote an article for Runner’s World naming the ten fastest marathons for the benefit of runners hoping to qualify for the 1996 Boston Marathon, its 100th running. First on my list was the St. George Marathon in Utah, a downhill course. RW’s Executive Editor Amby Burfoot took the next step by organizing pacing teams led by staff members at that race. That got the ball running. Now, many distance races offer pacing teams for the benefit of runners.

For the next several years, I served as pace team leader at Chicago, Honolulu and Disney, and, yes, it is fun. But it also is hard work and requires a very experienced runner running at a pace slower than his or her normal racing pace. In other words, if you plan to lead a 4:00 pacing team in a marathon, you probably need to possess sub-3:30 credentials. Most important, you need to be able to crank out the same pace mile after mile after mile while keeping up a steady patter encouraging your minions. It is not as easy as it looks.

Four marathons may or may not provide enough experience for you to succeed as a pacer. More important is an almost innate ability to hit perfect pace. I learned pace as a track athlete running repeat quarters. The coach would throw a number at me for almost any distance, and I would nail it, often within tenths of a second. But not everybody comes to the sport with this background.

To become a good pacer, you will need to train often, measuring yourself with a watch, and seeing how close you can come to exact pace. Try a couple of test races, running them at slower than your normal pace to teach yourself how to run under control. Yes, it is fun. Good luck becoming a pace team leader.

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About Hal Higdon

Hal Higdon is a Contributing Editor for ‘Runner’s World‘ and author of 34 books, including the best-selling ‘Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide’. He ran eight times in the Olympic Trials and won four world masters championships. Higdon estimates that over a quarter of a million runners have finished marathons using his training programs, and he also offers additional interactive programs at all distances through TrainingPeaks. Hal uses TrainingPeaks to power his interactive marathon and half marathon training plans — check out more of Hal Higdon’s training plans on his website.