It started, for me, in the London Marathon. I was well-prepared, trained, and confident of my first sub-four marathon. But then the sun came out and my race plan went down the pan. I remember vividly, at mile 21, being passed by a chap with a lollipop. It said "Runners' World 3:56 pacer", and I thought, Game On! Stick with him, and the sub-four is still on. It wasn't to be and after finishing the wrong side of four hours I walked up to the lollipop man and said, (only a little jokingly) "When you passed me, my world fell apart". A spasm of pain crossed his otherwise tranquil features, and he said "oh please don't say that! I hate it when people tell me that!".
I was intrigued. Being a pacer looked interesting; a dream fulfiller, a dream destroyer. Still, it couldn't be difficult. Just punch the buttons on the Garmin for the average pace, and watch the needle. Piece of Cake. Who needs a pacer? Anyone with a stopwatch can do the job themselves, surely ...
The Durham parkrun, at 5km, is not the London Marathon, and my first attempt at being the 30 minute pacer was pretty relaxed. I didn't have the resources of Runners' World behind me, but I did have a bit of bamboo, some duck tape, and a laminator. I had my lollipop! This wasn't complicated. A 30 minute, 5km run, is 6 minutes a kilometre. Keep the average pace at 6 minutes a kilometre, and the job's done. Easy Peasy, Lemon Squeezy. I ran round the track a few times to get a feel for what the pace felt like and got the rhythm in my head. No problem. And I had the Garmin. No problem. We assembled at the start, and away we parkrunned.
Garmin clearly didn't road-test their watches on Durham City Riverbanks where the tree cover soon puts the satellites in their geostationary place. This wasn't as easy as it looked. In the weeks (and months) that followed, in what psychiatrists will one day no doubt recognise as some new form of OCD, I gradually refined the timings and tweaked the paces until I think I've finally got it about right. So if you fancy 30 minute pacing at the Durham Parkrun, here are my tips.
It's all about trust. You have to run the parkrun as the people you are pacing will run it. You will, sadly, spend most of the race overtaking people who have dashed away from the start with their pants on fire only to burn out before they've run got beyond their first kilometre.
Start slow, be steady, and don't worry about the pace too much to begin with. In fact, don't worry about it at all. Don't jump about, don't make any sudden moves, and only overtake if there is room for you, and anyone else who is follow you, do do so. Run from the back and run with the pack. When you hit Horsley Corner (03:30) look at the watch. It should be saying something between 3 or 4 minutes. If you're below 3 minutes you're going too fast.
The next stretch along the riverbanks to Noisy Bridge (06:30) is usually very congested, so don't fight it. Don't waste the energy of the runners you are pacing by trying to squeeze through the crowds. Even if you are more than 30 seconds down at this point don't try and claw it back over a few hundred metres. There's plenty of time to adjust the pace.
You should reach Noisy Bridge between 6 or 7 minutes. This is about 1km. In theory, based on an average pace of 6 minutes a kilometre, you should hit it on 6 minutes. But this is too fast too soon. The key is consistency of pace. You need to build up the trust of the people you are pacing. Speed changes should be smooth and "make sense". There are several places where your speed might change naturally as you turn into or out of a headwind, or change from running on grass to running on path. Try and avoid suddenly changing pace where it makes no sense, such as half-way along a long stretch of playing field.
Once across Noisy Bridge things open up and you can start getting into a steady efficient light rhythm. You should also run try as close to the correct measured parkrun route as possible; i.e. don't cut the corners, and keep about a metre or two from the outside of the playing fields.
As you jingle your bells around the playing fields (09:30) you will steadily pass runners. Don't expect to be popular. If it's windy then the long southern leg down the east-side of the fields will be heavy going and many runners will be weary from a too-fast start and lose heart. There's not much you can do about that except keep your pace steady and resist the temptation to get time in the bank. The Durham Parkrun should be run as a very slight negative split; run the first half about 30 seconds to a minute slower than the second half. Keep people hanging on and hopeful for as long as possible. When you turn around the bottom corner next to the rugby pitches (13:30) there is often a speed change as the wind turns behind or against you. This is the time to start thinking about making small speed adjustments either way. Try to avoid mysterious pace changes on stretches where they are likely to be unexpected and unhelpful.
When you join the main riverside path (15:30) the terrain gets a lot easier and the speed will increase. Take a close note of the time and use the next kilometre or so to gradually make any adjustments necessary. This is the time to tighten up on the target times as the terrain is good, overtaking is usually smooth, and people can tuck in behind you and follow your line. When you hit the 3 km mark (18:30) you will be 30 seconds down on the theoretical time based on an average of 6 minutes a kilometre. That's fine. Keep your pace steady and don't get over-excited when you get to the Kingfisher Bridge (21:00) and try to squeeze in front of anybody.
After the Kingfisher Bridge there's a tricky bit. A hill. You might be able to run up it without losing pace but that's not the point of pacing. Allow your pace to drop slightly and naturally on the climb and to pick up on the descent. You will probably lose people here. It can't be helped, and once you get to the boathouse (25:00) runners will be able to see the finish and still have you on their radar.
Keep yourself catchable and keep your nerve. With the finish so close it's tempting to speed up so that there's no risk of being slower than 30 minutes. But this risks losing people who might otherwise hit a sub-30. The last few minutes are often the most interesting of the run as runners who are struggling but hanging on see the finish and a sub-30 tantalisingly close. You have less margin of error now as you hit the north side of Baths Bridge (27:15), adjust the pace slightly for the hill over to the south side, (27:30) then you should be pretty much dead on when you hit the roundabout (28:15). If your timing is out, don't panic. You have a long stretch to the line to make the adjustment. Just keep it smooth.
Your final checkpoint is the lifebouy (29:00) about halfway between the roundabout and the finish. You have a small margin of error here (about 10 seconds) and can afford to ease up a little, but you have to be very careful. If someone is chasing you down you might like to live dangerously and slow down to give them more incentive to catch you. Just make sure you hit that finish line before the clock strikes 30 minutes.
|30 Minute Timings|
|03:30||Horsley Corner – Handbrake Turn – 180|
|09:30||Hedge corner – right turn|
|13:30||Rugby Corner - right turn|
|15:30||Join Path - riverbanks|
|18:30||3km (near Noisy Bridge)|
|27:15||Baths Bridge north|
|27:30||Baths Bridge south|
View Durham Parkrun in a larger map