Becoming a parkrun pacer and how should I tackle those ups & downs in the valley? – Gareth Bell

Becoming a parkrun pacer and how should I tackle those ups & downs in the valley? – Gareth Bell

One of my targets for 2017 is to reach the 50th parkrun milestone however I am worried about becoming too focussed on myself and losing my passion for volunteering at parkrun and spending time with Sophie amongst friends. I am currently on 15 runs and am very proud of my 46 stints as a volunteer which have all been at Cuerden Valley. I love volunteering and feeling like I am giving something back to the local community, it has really allowed me to grow a sense of belonging within the parkrun family and I especially love the fact that Sophie has been part of this over the last 18 months or so and that she is aiming to reach her 50th volunteer stint soon. With this is mind I have been putting some serious thought into offering my services as a pacer on a regular basis, I feel this would strike a great balance between me running to tick off the 35 runs needed whilst also allowing me to help others achieve their own targets.

It seems very easy to think that pacing would be an easy job, perhaps just slow down a little compared to my usual runs and just let people chase me around the course but from my experiences of running with a pacer and pacing/supporting at a few races last year, there is a lot more to it than that. I have been doing a little reading and thinking and before I talk about the maths it is definitely worth considering a few other things.

“Let them go”

I came across this being discussed on another blog and it is something I hadn’t really thought about. If I set a time for example, 26 minutes Cuerden Valley parkrun then that is what I am pacing at. It could be very easy to get drawn into running alongside someone chasing a 25:30 PB thinking I am doing them a favour to the neglect of others who are trying to hang on as they were after their own PB at the 26 minutes mark. Likewise, it would also be easy to hand back and slow down a little for someone in the group who is just struggling to hang on at the end and end up coming in around 26:30 – 27 mins, again this might be to the detriment of other runners who back off with me inadvertently.

“Be prepared”

I guess I can’t just turn up and see what happens, I will need to think in advance about the course profile, my own fitness levels and of course the dreaded maths (more on that later). It might be worth advertising in advance that I am pacing and what time I shall be running etc. Perhaps having a little chat with runners who want to tag along with me before hand to work out if their targets are realistic etc. I will also definitely want to make sure I’ve done a good warm up, if people are relying on me for pacing then I need to be ready to run from the off and it’s no good thinking I’ll just warm myself up over the first mile.

“Know the course”

This is where I will definitely need to scrub up. Although I know the route direction and what to expect and where the undulations are, one thing that can help with timing is the use of the racing line, avoidance of obstacles and tricky sections and cutting corners where possible. I suspect I will be paying the valley some closer attention over the next few weeks. I also need to think more about the profile (more on this along with the maths later).

“Be encouraging – this is about them not you”

I guess this might seem obvious but is possibly one of the most important. The whole reason why I am thinking about offering my services as a pacer is so I can help others achieve something. Whilst

overall this gives me a sense of satisfaction and purpose it is about enjoying being part of their achievements. This is why I think it is important for me to pace at a target time I can run comfortably, this will mean I can do the talking and thinking whilst others push themselves hard. This links back to some of the other aspects above, it will be important to know the course and where people might struggle more i.e. the uphill’s so I can be encouraging and supportive, but also help guide people, maybe offer little bits of advice and tips to help them along the way. I can’t expect much in the way of conversation back as someone chasing a PB shouldn’t really be able to talk with me. What I need to do though is be supportive and keep their mind focused on the task in hand.

“Do your maths and keep one eye on the watch”

This is probably going to be the trickiest part of being a pacer, especially as I intend to do this at Cuerden Valley. As we all know the valley prides itself for being #lancashiretough and I would say one of the biggest challenges of the course is how to approach the pacing itself. Although a 5k, I always approach runs in miles so to me this is a 3 mile run, this helps me when thinking on my feet about times and distance remaining. One thing I find I am good at is calculating times/paces etc in the middle of runs. If I was running a reasonably flat 5k then I would either attempt to run a steady consistent pace over all 3 miles or perhaps try a negative split which is often the desired approach to racing (yes, I know parkrun isn’t a race). I have some recent examples of running 5ks all in different approaches. The usual approach and one that I suspect happens to all runners at some point is going off too quickly in the first mile and then struggling to maintain pace and gradually slowing down over the last 2 miles and end up being overtaken which is really demoralising. This is exactly what happened at Southport the other week running splits of 7:04, 7:25 and then a slow 7:40 (I had to back off in that last mile as I was struggling which was definitely made worse by being overtaken but easier to blame a ‘bad’ leg). Later that day I ran at Ormskirk and purposefully tried to run a more consistent first 2 miles at 7:12 and 7:09 and was then able to pick up the pace and overtake people during the last mile finishing with a 6:49 pace. My run today at York consisted of quite an even paced 6:48, 6:52 and 6:41 with me holding myself back on the first 2 miles to ensure I could maintain this pace into the last mile and as desired actually pick it up slightly.

“Those tricky undulations”

The 3 recent parkruns discussed above were all run on relatively flat courses. Southport isn’t very quick as it has lots of twists and turns, sharp bends and pinch points. Ormskirk was hard as I’d just done Southport and it was cold and uncomfortable in my sweat soaked gear. York was just flat and had long straight stretches with it running around the race course so definitely a fast, easy course. The problem with Cuerden Valley is the undulations and knowing how to approach the course. I have had a look at the overall course profile for Cuerden Valley and am working on the following, mile 1 is actually downhill, mile 2 is flat and mile 3 is uphill. Now straight away people will think ‘yes’ but what about that big first climb up to the woods that’s in the first mile. Well yes, it is, but overall the elevation gain/loss per mile means the first mile is downhill. With this is mind I decided that the first mile should be the quickest, the flatter 2nd mile should be slightly slower and the last mile would naturally be slower as its uphill.

“Practice pacing”

My last run in the valley I loosely offered my services as a pacer but didn’t make a big deal about it. I mentioned it to a few people but no one seemed interested so I took advantage of this to practice some of what I had been thinking. I set myself a target pace between 24:00 – 24:30 planning to run

the first mile at 7:30, 2nd at 8:00 and last at 8:30. This was based on observations from my previous runs in the valley and this understanding of the overall course profile. I ended up running a 24:09 with the first mile at 7:11 pace and then an 8:34 and 8:33 for miles 2 and 3 respectively. I think I got slightly carried away on the first climb in that “downhill” mile meaning I had overdone it a little by the time I hit the flatter mile 2 and was already struggling to maintain my pace. I think the biggest thing I learnt on this practice run is to start further back in the pack and thinking back to my earlier thoughts just let the front lads go and not get drawn into charging downhill at the start and just holding some back on that first climb as it’s a serious leg killer. I also must remember that the finish climb is longer then it looks and ramps up at the end, this is my strongest section of the course but not everyone will enjoy this bit as much as I do.

So, there you have it, my thoughts so far on things I need to think about and do as I start to think about becoming a regular pacer in the valley. I have decided a good starting point would be a 25 minute pace, with an approach of 7:45, 8:25 and then an 8:50 to finish. If anyone fancies a bash at attempting a 25 minute PB then give me a shout and I’ll try my best to help you out but please don’t be too mad if it all goes horribly wrong and we end up running a 24!

I would also welcome anyone else’s thoughts on how they approach pacing their runs in the valley and any hints and tips on being a pacer.

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