Pace bunnies look funny wearing rabbit ears, but it’s serious business trying to run even splits for a whole marathon.
“Ze pace, is ze pace too fast?” Emil Zatopek kept asking. He was running behind the world record holder, England’s Jim Peters, at the 1952 Olympics, and since it was his first marathon, the Czechoslovak athlete decided to run behind and let the more experienced marathon runner set the pace.
Peters wasn’t exactly crazy about the situation. Four years earlier, while running the 10,000m at the London Games, Peters was still on his final lap of the race when Zatopek passed him while waving to the crowd on his victory lap. At the 1952 Games in Helsinki, Zatopek defended his title in the 10,000m and also won gold in the 5000m. With nothing to lose, the man considered the best distance runner in the world jumped into the marathon. After the embarrassment in London, Peters wasn’t welcoming the competition. It was at about the 15K point that Zatopek started pestering Peters about the pace.
Peters didn’t know it at the time, but he turned out to be one of the first – and most notorious – pace bunnies in marathon history. After Zatopek asked about the pace, Peters joked that it was too slow. When asked a second time, Peters confirmed that the pace was still to slow, and ran to the other side of the road. Figuring that Peters was serious about the pacing, Zatopek took off. Within a few kilometres, Peters collapsed and was taken to the finish line in an ambulance, where he watched Zatopek break his third Olympic record of the Games, this time by a whopping six minutes.
Zatopek’s cruel pacing technique might not have been popular with Peters, but his use of the British runner to pace him to victory has become a standard tactic among marathon runners. No fewer than five pacers were on hand to ensure Haile Gebrselassie was on pace to the 30K point of his world-record performance in Berlin last year.
“For elite marathon racing, providing pacers has become extremely important,” says Alan Brookes, the race director of the Canada Running Series and the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. “Over the last five or six years there’s been a lot of excitement about world records and faster times. For the longest time the marathon was stuck at 2:08. Now it’s 2:04:26.”
To emphasize how important pacing has become for world-best times, Brookes points out the difference in women’s world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe’s times based on whether or not she’s able to run with pacers. She set her 2:15:25 world record at the London Marathon, where she started with the men. Her best time in a women’s-only event is 2:18.