Story #16 in a series of 25. Written to celebrate the CIM’s 25th Anniversary on December 2, 2007. By Cynci Calvin.

A Helping Hand
Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World Magazine developed the concept of pace teams in the mid-1990s, as a way to help runners qualify for the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996. The first Pace Team Leaders, courtesy of Runner’s World Magazine, appeared at the 1995 St. George Marathon.

Since then Pace Teams have become an integral part of many marathons. Some of today’s notable pace team programs include the Runner’s World Pace Team, Team Red Lizard of the Portland Marathon, New Balance Pace Team, and the Clif Pace Team. Leaders in Canada are referred to as “pace bunnies” (some actually wear rabbit ears), and in Italy they are called “pace makers.” If you are unfamiliar with the pace team concept, learn more by visiting the CIM’s Pace Team FAQs page.

The California International Marathon’s Board established the CIM’s Pace Team Program in 2001, recognizing it as an important “runner’s perk.” Although the team’s sponsor has been Clif for all seven years of its existence, the CIM has a unique arrangement with Clif. Normally Clif brings their own leaders from all over the country to pace at their sponsored events. In the case of the CIM, we provide the leaders selected from local runners and Clif provides the support and the ever-popular pace time wristbands. Read on to find out why the CIM is different.

The Sacramento area has become a Mecca for ultra distance running, thanks to its network of trails from the valley through the foothills and into the Sierra Nevada. Regional events include the “granddaddy of ultras,” the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, as well as the American River 50-Mile Run, and the scenic Way Too Cool 50K. Northern California also boasts the annual Pacific Association/USATF Ultra Grand Prix with 18 ultra running races and hundreds of participants vying for top standings. The CIM has long been a popular training run for these ultra runners: it occurs at a time when the ultra racing season has come to a close and it provides a comparatively easy workout as the holiday season approaches.

When the CIM’s Pace Team program was established, the first runners to sign up were a group of these amazing runners. Several have been leaders four, five and six times since, and they are returning in 2007. They include “Mr. Western States” Tim Twietmeyer and 100K record holder Rae Clark (six-time CIM Pace Team Leaders); WSER multiple time sub-24 hour finishers Mike Hernandez and Leadville 24-time finisher Bill Finkbeiner (five-time CIM Pace Team Leaders); Lisa Downey and Barbara Elia both with multiple WSER finishes (four-time CIM Pace Team Leaders). Most of them have run the CIM many times with Tim being a 24-time finisher and Rae a 16-time finisher. Another benefit of this group is the close network they have among their fellow ultra runners. If a spot needs filling because someone has moved or wants to race the CIM, they outreach to their comrades and voila! A seasoned ultra runner steps in. This network also helps the CIM to maintain a “Pace Group Leader Reserve List” in case we need a pacer to fill a position at the last minute. Check out the impressive credentials of this year’s leaders on the CIM Pace Team Leader bio page.

The CIM’s Pace Team debut in 2001 was a rough, or should I say, a “wet” one. The second worst storm in the CIM’s history swept through the valley and our heroic leaders did the best they could. Clif had provided bright red shirts with the cool Clif logo to all the leaders, but there was one problem – they were heavy cotton. Although not all the leaders wore the shirts for the marathon, post-race the experience launched a debate about the best way to be the most visible as a leader. This in turn resulted in some humorous attempts to solve this dilemma.

In 2002, the leaders wore their CIM technical fabric shirts with Clif logo stickers attached. At the start they lined up near large signs on 6 ft. PVC pipes that designated their goal finish time. Two of the leaders, Chuck Honeycutt and Tom Carpenter, set a precedent by carrying these large signs the entire marathon distance! Many other ideas to improve the visibility of the leaders were discussed, such as helium balloons on long strings tied to the leaders’ waists (too much drag), beanies with propellers (not tall enough), fluorescent safety vests (we tried this one – too dorky!), backpacks with signs attached (too unstable). Signs with the goal finish time were the top choice, but how to make these durable and lightweight became the next issue.

In 2003, bright red foam core signs imprinted with block white goal finish times were made and put on slender metal stakes. When they were presented to the leaders it became obvious that that the metal stakes could be a lethal weapon (wouldn’t want to fall on one of those), so they were covered in plastic tubing. Still not perfect; they were too slippery and too difficult to grip, although there was talk of using them as an effective prod to keep the group moving.

In 2004, wooden dowels replaced the metal stakes, and zip ties were used to anchor the signs to the dowels. This style of sign has been used ever since. And yes, the leaders carry them the whole way, occasionally allowing a lucky group member to carry it. The enhanced visibility of the teams due to these signs cause the crowds to cheer on the groups and the course photographers and media to recognize them for photo ops.

Over the years, the CIM Pace Team groups’ goal times have changed. The first years they were in 10-minute increments from 3-hours to 5:30 finish times. In 2005, they shifted to match the Boston Marathon qualifying standards, and in 2006, we added two leaders at each time goal extreme. A 2:47 leader helps to bring women in under the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifying Standard and a 6-hour leader helps bring in the CIM’s official finishers just ahead of the course closure time. The CIM now has 18 pace team leader positions. This year (2007) we are still seeking a leader for the 2:47 group and may opt to use a relay team to do the honors.

Other issues have surfaced over the years that make a Pace Team program a bit more complicated than it would seem on the surface. For example:

How does Chip timing affect the pace groups?
Chip timing means that the mile splits on the course usually do not reflect the Pace Team groups split times. The leaders work with their groups to make them aware of this.

What happens if a leader is injured?
If a CIM Pace Team Leader suffers an injury, they are instructed to announce to their group that they are unable to continue and try to find someone who will take on the leadership position.

What happens if a pace group member suffers a serious injury or becomes disoriented?
If one of the group’s runners is in serious physical distress, and the eader must assist the runner to the next aid station. As above, the leader will try to find someone who will take on the leadership position. Pace Teams provide goal-oriented runners with the opportunity to band together with a local runner familiar with the course and comfortable running the steady finish goal time pace. The leader can prevent runners from going out too fast or too slow, can help the group maintain a steady and efficient pace, and the synergy of the group can help its members hold the pace in the final miles. That said, these groups are only one piece in the marathon finish goal puzzle. Individuals must first set realistic goals, do the appropriate training, and most importantly take responsibility for their own race.