Pace Bunnies Rule

Pace bunnies look funny wearing rabbit ears, but it’s serious business trying to run even splits for a whole marathon.

It’s not as easy as it looks

While it sounds like fun, pacing is not an easy task. The man behind the pacers at the Waterfront event, Michael Brennan, takes his job very seriously – to the point where he has become possibly the most organized head pace bunny in the country. Brennan’s pacers must all do at least one practice event before the marathon or half-marathon they’re pacing.

“The pacer program is about providing experienced runners in the Waterfront marathon and half to pace people through the races to specific finish times,” he says. “As an example, the four-hour pacer will evenly pace runners through every kilometre so that they finish in four hours, ideally a bit under, but give or take a minute, tops.”

Both Brennan and Stanton emphasize that a pacer or pace bunny should be running at what is a very comfortable pace. “We recommend that the pace time you opt for be 15 to 20 minutes slower than your most recent marathon or half-marathon time,” says Brennan. 

  Brennan’s meticulous planning and research led him to start a competition last year for the marathon’s best pace bunnies. The prize was a three-pound bag of carrots, which he packaged up and mailed to the winner, who crossed the line in exactly 4:15:00. 

“I find it a mental challenge as much as a physical one,” says Wigmore, who was just seven seconds off his goal time last year. “I’m running the marathon about an hour or so slower than normal, so for me the challenge is keeping a nice even pace while hopefully providing motivation for others. My goal is to be within a minute – hopefully 30 seconds – under the target time.”

Hitting the right pace can be a challenging and nerve-wracking responsibility. Pacer Fiona Savage of Toronto says she was pacing a large group of runners at a race last year when her watch died at 5K. “I did not want them to know the pace bunny didn’t have a working watch,” says Savage. “I asked people casually what time it was and used my 35 years of running experience to get through the race. I was 20 seconds under the four-hour target. I amazed even myself.”

Savage feels that her job as a pacer doesn’t just include running at the right pace. She also sees herself as a coach and motivator along the way. “It’s important to tell who you can push and who you can’t,” she says. “I’m a good judge of people and it’s important not to say the wrong thing, especially in the later stages of the race.”

Savage says she tries to get to know the people around her, and to tell them a bit about herself, to create a bond with the group. “I had a few return runners from my first year of pacing in 2006,” she says, “so I must’ve done something right.”

Toronto’s Duff McClaren says it’s hard to keep the group motivated and stay on pace in the final stages of the marathon. When runners have been with you for 30-35K, he says, “you want them to succeed.” It’s also tempting to surge to the finish in the last few kilometres, says McLaren, but the pacer’s job is to be consistent. 

Thanks for the effort

You can be sure that Zatopek didn’t track down Jim Peters in that ambulance to thank him for his early pacemaking efforts, but that’s not the case for most of today’s pacers. Runners go out of their way to find their pace bunnies to hug them – especially if they’ve managed to help with a personal best, or a Boston qualifying time.

“It is so rewarding to see people achieving their goals,” says Savage. “Both times I paced, I had first-time marathoners and Boston qualifiers, and they were hugging me at the finish line, saying ‘I couldn’t have done it without you.’ I’ve run 20 marathons and many, many road races but nothing was as rewarding as those words from fellow runners.”

Wigmore also says runners thank him for pacing. “In many ways it’s more satisfying than running a PB,” he says, “and I can walk down stairs the next day. Basically I get to experience the final stretch of the marathon with the runners who have followed me and get the thrill of crossing the finish line 20 to 30 times.”

Since the start of the Running Room’s pace bunny program, Stanton says they’ve received thousands of letters of thanks. “I salute each one of them,” says Stanton. “as there’s a lot of pressure to be right on time. You do not want to let the group down by being too fast or too slow. Bunnies rule.”

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