Pacing the Oxford Half Marathon – October 2021

Its been a busy autumn so far, with a lot of rearranged races ending up scheduled closely together over the past few weeks. I haven’t been marathon training this season, the international travel restrictions meaning I needed to roll over the Chicago and New York Marathons once again to October 2022. Instead, I’ve been busying myself with Half Marathons and enjoying a little pause from the super-long training runs associated with a proper marathon training cycle. I’ve attended the London Landmarks Half, Big Half and Hackney Half recently which all felt pleasingly ‘back to normal’ with bustling atmospheres and lots of supporters out on route. I managed to run 2hr05 at Hackney, although not my fastest time, I was quite satisfied with that result after a challenging summer of post-COVID struggles that had knocked me back for quite a while.

My final half-marathon of the season was due to be the Oxford Half, and something a little different this time, I would be running as a pacer! I have always loved having pacers to follow, especially in longer races I find them incredibly helpful in stopping me rushing off too fast, and also to keep me running strongly in the later stages when I start to tire. It had always been an ambition of mine to help other runners in the same way, so I jumped at the chance to apply to be a pacer after spotting an advert on Twitter.

I was down to be the 2hr20 pacer, which would mean running at a steady speed of 6:38 min/km (or 10:41min/mile). We were advised to pick a pace a good 15 mins or more slower than your race pace, in order to be confident of running at that speed comfortably and consistently for the whole race. Our little group of pacers all met up at the starting area and I picked up my flag backpack which I would be running with – thankfully nice and light although I would need to remember to look out for overhanging branches!

The race kicked off and it took a good few minutes to settle into my stride, checking my watch obsessively to begin with before eventually relaxing into a comfortable running pattern. It was great to be in amongst all the other runners and actually having enough breath to chat for once! Many people around me were running their first ever half and seemed to enjoy having someone to follow along. The many switch-backs on route meant I could also see other groups of runners going past following my pacer buddies (all the way up to the 1hr30 group – it’s mind boggling to me that a 1hr30 half could ever be a comfortable enough speed to pace at!).

A few miles in however, and I realised that my watch time wasn’t quite matching up to when we passed through the mile markers, but fortunately I was prepared for this to happen. I had come along wearing a PacePocket, basically a wristband with all the mile split times written down, ideal for situations like this (you could print off simple paper wristbands or even write down times on your arm with a marker pen too!). GPS watches are brilliant, but can’t be relied on for exact timing especially in city races where the buildings can interfere with reception. I was running slightly behind time so made sure to gently get back on track by the halfway point.

In the last few miles I started to sweep up runners who were starting to flag, and encouraged them to stick with me if they could. Although this was a comfortable speed for me, I definitely wasn’t finding it an easy run! If out for a long run by myself, I would naturally run faster at times, walk at other times, and stop for a rest or drink whenever I wanted. There was something quite relentless about keeping an unwavering speed for over two hours, and the backpack straps were starting to rub a little at my neck. We ran the final stretch past all the picturesque college buildings, and I was relieved to see that I was still right on pace. With the crowds cheering, my little group around me all ran for the finish line and I stopped my watch in….2hr19mins and 59 seconds! not bad for a first attempt at pacing!

I really enjoyed my first taste of pacing at a big event and would love to try it again sometime next season! I’ve definitely learnt a few things for next time, mainly some better padding around my neck, and to try to get my split times for each mile a bit tighter. I hope that our pacer team helped some people along the way around the Oxford Half, and I’d love to hear from you if you were running, or if you have been following pacers to get yourself a PB! Until the next time, happy running!

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