Learning from Pacing Failures at the SCMM 2015

Hey! There’s a simple question for you at the end of this, don’t forget to scroll down and click on your choice!

Keeping track of pace, distance, time...

Keeping track of pace, distance, time…

After writing a few articles (1, 2, 3 and 4) on marathon race pacing prior to last month’s Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM 2015) I felt it made sense to follow up today with a short report on what transpired with pacers that race day. When I crossed the finish line as a 2-hour pacer for the half marathon and realized that I had done it 9 seconds faster than the band I had set myself (1:58:00-1:59:15) I was mortified. The solace I received was that absolutely no one seemed to complain about my being 9 seconds too early (1:57:51) and, instead, so many were grateful for my getting them across the finish line as promised.

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SCMM-2015 Pacer Performance

However, yesterday I started to examine the completion times of the other pacers at the event and was horrified. Of the 29 pacers in the half and full marathons, a whopping 13 failed to finish within time. A failure rate of over 30%! This specific event is now done and dusted, but what can we learn from this for a better future? And, what are the parallel improvements that we can make in other aspects of our lives outside of running – outside of health and fitness and sports? Read on and make the connections.

What do you do when shit hits your pacing flag?
There are broadly two types of failure that happen – sudden failure and gradual failure. (Can you think about this in the context of your daily life? Health, relationships, business, career?)

Sudden Failure
This is when, despite all your preparation that makes allowances for weather, terrain, distance, pace, race anxiety affected sleep, carrying a flag, shouting out motivational talk etc. you have an injury (twist an ankle or cramp suddenly) mid race. Or, your distance and pace tracking device decides to go kaput at some point during the race. When the latter happens, if you can make do with someone else’s on-the-fly, that’s great. (Some pacers run with 2 separate tracking devices just to be doubly sure.) When it’s actual physical failure (e.g. a debilitating cramp) you probably have 2 choices. The first choice is to pass your flag onto someone who is willing to take on the responsibility, who might well be another pacer for the same time target coming up behind you. (Ensure that your bus continues to run ahead of that pacer though.)

Excellent Team Work by the 4:00 Pacers

Excellent Team Work by the 4:00 Pacers

One of the not-widely-reported heroic occurrences of the full marathon event was that the only 4:00 hour pacer passed on her pacing flag to a runner on her bus who then finished bang on target. The lady pacer in question, Elizabeth Chapman, was bed-ridden on the Friday before the race with a stomach bug, but stayed bang on target right until the point when she suddenly fainted at the 32km mark.  The fact that she handed over the responsibility to someone else who was willing to give up his race (he was capable of running much faster than 4:00) speaks volumes of her ability to achieve success in teams she runs in her professional life. Congratulations to her and the gentleman who goes by the name “Subbu”.

Your second option is to put down your flag indicating you are no longer a pacer for that target time and wish the racers on your bus good luck to the finish line. In either case, keep the runners on your bus aware of what is happening, they are relying on you, they deserve to know.

Gradual Failure
This happens when you are either not keeping track of your own pace as a pacer, or are unable to keep up with the target pace.  If you missed your target by a couple of minutes you probably fall into the former category – better focus next time please! Those who became increasingly slower and slower than the target pace and did nothing about it and cruised to the finish line late, I don’t think pacing is for you. If you did not lower your flag and misled runners on the course then that’s doubly awful – you should definitely not pace again – at least not the same race and target time. I’m sorry, but that’s the simple truth. I suggest you think of some other fruitful way of engaging with the running community that taps into your skills in a more reliable way.

Progressive failure apparent for this 5-hour pacer

Progressive failure apparent for this 5-hour pacer

Race Organizers
I mentioned clearly in my first post on race pacing a list of dos and don’ts for race organizers when selecting pacers. I suspect these were not followed precisely or the SCMM 2015 would not have had such a performance by the pacers. Let’s look forward to a zero-error pacer performance at the SCMM 2016 – with better planning and execution. After all, failing to prepare is preparing to fail!

And now, I’d like your (anonymous) opinion please?

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

30 thoughts on “Learning from Pacing Failures at the SCMM 2015

  1. Ravi Malhan

    Man you are simply unbelievable !!
    You can bring tears even when you write so technically about a rare subject like marathon running.
    Deep inside you are a life coach. I feel you are Robin Sharma and Eckhart Tolle rolled into one.
    Your prose and statistics too have a soul of poetry.
    I can’t run in your bus but look forward to you pacing my life once in a while.

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  2. Prakash wani

    I usually look at the pacer instead I look at my running gadgets & can gain my time. When I decide my target I like to follow pacer of 10 to 15 minutes of my target. Like in scmm o was following Puru but at Marin Drive he went little ahead but I didn’t let him off sight & that is how I could finish my half marathon on 2:03:31 hrs at the age of 61 yrs complited on 15th Jan.

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  3. Prakash wani

    on the basis of PB one can’t become pacer for that one has to study the route & required to be absolutely calculate about his pace at diffrent level considering the runners following him. Many runners decide their target & depends on pacer hence pacer hrs to be skillful to lead their respective bus.

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  4. nemish

    Hi Puru .. i agree with you totally tht pacing is a huge responsibility and one shd not take it until one is 1000% sure of meetng the target time. If i am deas sure of myself completng the Half in 2h30m then its wise and safe to be a pacer for 2h45m.. so that you knw noway in the world you wd miss tht .. but at the same time shd be also aware of the fact tht the target is not over achieved say for eg on 2h35m or somethng like tht!

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  5. Jitu

    Hello Puru,

    Like Elizabeth Chapman, I saw yet another pacer giving away his flag, only when he was sure he couldn’t continue any more due to sudden cramps.

    He (Sandeep Desai) did fantastic job to keep us on track till he couldn’t continue any more.

    And as you rightly pointed out, lot of things affects one’s pacing plan, but by being better prepared for most of the race, we make sure that external factors play lesser role in overall marathon strategy, and same goes for LIFE as well 🙂

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  6. Andrea Siqueira

    Very interesting read Purnendu. I for one had complete faith you being my pacer, so much so that I didn’t even care to look at my Garmin as I usually do only until really necessary esp after I had lost you at the 14.5km mark, but I kept focused on keeping you in sight of me and still had a glimmer of hope I would do a sub-2, eventually having Ajit Singh come from behind and encouraging me to push towards the end thus helping me achieve my first sub-2.
    Taking on the role of a pacer is no easy task and I salute all runners who attempt to do so. Thanks for taking on this role so seriously and so meticulously.
    Wonder if this article can be published into “Runner’s World” magazine and other such running related publications. Thanks once again for being the best pacer ever!!

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  7. Philip Earis

    Guruji, I’m a bit confused. Unless I’m misreading your chart it looks like Subbu was consistently around 5 minutes ahead of Elizabeth, including when she stopped at 32km (this is no criticism at all of Elizabeth). So how could she hand over the flag at 32km to someone 5 minutes ahead? Did he start the race 5 whole minutes behind Elizabeth (seems unlikely)? Or did they have a pre-race pact for him to wait for her at 32k? Or something else?

    Regarding the 5-hour pacer, while it is unfortunate they missed their target time significantly, I think they deserve some credit for persevering and finishing the race. I have no idea of the circumstances – they may have experienced injuries etc – it would have been easy for them to quit. The boundary between sudden and gradual failure is not always so well-defined. Who knows, perhaps by continuing at a slower speed they helped some members of the bus complete the race who might otherwise have dropped out themselves.

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      Thanks for your comments Philip.
      That difference in pace between Lizzie/Subbu for the first 32km did puzzle me too. Conversations with them clarified that Subbu started later. However, if we add his time from 31.5-to-42.2 to her time up to 31.5 then we do get a time that is a few seconds more than 4:00. I suspect that during the intense seconds of her fainting and his taking her flag, there may not have been communication to specifically sync their race-clocks. He must then have run based on his own race-clock (without further information at that point, that was fair enough!)
      Regarding the 5-hour pacer… his job was to pace the 5:00 bus. When he realized he couldn’t, he should have put his 5:00 flag down (it’s awfully confusing to others especially when he finished in 5:29:05 like a 5:30 pacer!). He did not put his flag down (there are finish line photos showing that). He seemed to fail in the range that most inexperienced marathoners fail (in the last 10km). I wonder how much he could have motivated others when he was himself in need of motivation at that point…

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  8. Soham

    Hello, Usually I run on my own and so did this time and was targeting sub 2 which is doable for me in this course but a fever following 2 days reduced my speed. So at point 17-18 kms mark started following you and your pace seemed a bit more than required and it was bit confusing. Eventually I realised from the pasers which followed you that i was still on time for 2 hour mark and finished on 2 hour mark. Personally I feel you and other 2 hour pacers did a good job except from the part that confused me a bit.

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      Soham, you finished in 2:00:11 (great!) but you also started 2 minutes after I did (crossing of the starting mat). So, if you did run with me near the end, you were bound to finish about 2 minutes after me. Hope that explains the mystery (if there is any).

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  9. aashish chawla

    Hi Puru,
    As usual lovely write up,One thing I failed to understand is how come I finished in 2.33, when my pacer Bhavin gandhi did so in 2.29.39 because I almost completed the race with him. Infact I thought I would be completing the run in 2.40 but saw him and never let him out of my sight.Please enlighten where I must have gone wrong.

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      You started 3:22 after the gun whereas he started 6:45 after the gun. So, if you finished with him, you’d have finished 3:23 after him! I think you get my drift..
      (Read my first blog on Pacing Guide and the advice to runners)

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  10. Sreenath

    Thanks Puru for the nice article. One of the things that I would like to know is; Should a pacer aim for a negative split?

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  11. Neha

    Puru ! Whats up from a new-bee in the running community. You have missed out on assimilating data from agonized runners like me who didn’t get to run with their pacers because of the seeding !!! I feel left out in your voting process. 🙂

    Nevertheless, a wonderful read on Pacer failures. Thank you.

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  12. Charmi

    Interesting read, I was in Mumbai last week and I find the whole running culture very different to ours in London. I am only speaking from my little experience that I had, the runners I spoke to all seemed very competitive with their timing and were v interested in mine.
    No one mentioned about the joy of running, no one spoke about what it feels like to run and what it does for them. Timing was the one thing spoken very often about. I guess it’s different and whatever makes people run.

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  13. Pankaj L

    I followed all your blogs on pacing prior to SCMM-2015 and am so happy that you spend sometime looking at the pacer performance driving respective buses.
    Well, I had a first experience of pace-bus breaking down (I was riding 4:45 bus in SCMM-2015). The impact of the pacer breaking down without sufficient warning was aweful and left me totally dis-oriented for rest of the race. I gave up on the finish time target and just focused on getting self to finish line to avoid “DNF”. In the hind-sight, I had put too much of trust in my pacer and had no back-up plan in case the bus breaks-down.

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