Unseen heroes of long races: The role of Pacemakers

Often the ones who start marathons and other races ahead of everyone fall off during the race. These people are known as pacemakers and this article will take a look at their role.

Long-distance races, such as marathons and ultramarathons, are gruelling tests of endurance and mental fortitude. Athletes who participate in these races push their bodies to the limits, striving to achieve their personal bests or even break records. While the spotlight often shines on the elite runners and their remarkable feats, there is a crucial yet often overlooked element that plays a significant role in the success of these races: pacemakers. In this 4000-word article, we will explore what a pacemaker is in long races, the vital role it plays, how athletes become pacemakers and other essential details about these unsung heroes of endurance sports.

What is a Pacemaker in Long Races?

Before diving into the intricacies of pacemaking in long races, it’s important to understand what a pacemaker is in this context. A pacemaker, in the realm of long-distance running, is an athlete whose primary purpose is to set and maintain a consistent pace for a specific portion of a race, typically in the early to middle stages. They are akin to human metronomes, helping the lead runners maintain a steady rhythm and conserve energy for the latter part of the race.


The Role of Pacemakers in Long Races

The role of pacemakers in long races is multifaceted and plays a critical part in the overall dynamics of the race. Here are some of the key aspects of their role:

Setting the Pace: The primary responsibility of a pacemaker is to establish and maintain a predetermined pace. This pace is often based on the race strategy of the lead runners, taking into consideration factors such as course difficulty, weather conditions and the athletes’ fitness levels. By doing so, pacemakers prevent the race from starting too fast, which can lead to early burnout.

Blocking the Wind: In long-distance races, wind resistance can be a significant factor, especially in events like marathons. Pacemakers often position themselves in front of the lead runners, creating a shield against the wind. This allows the lead runners to conserve energy and stay in their slipstream, reducing the effort required to maintain the pace.

Mental Support: Running a long race can be a lonely and mentally taxing experience. Pacemakers provide emotional and psychological support to the lead runners. Their presence can boost the morale of the lead pack, assuring them that they are on the right track and helping them stay focused on their goals.

Navigating the Course: Some long-distance races have complex or unfamiliar courses. Pacemakers, who are often experienced in these races, help the lead runners navigate the course efficiently. They know where the challenging sections are, when to conserve energy and when to push the pace.

Maintaining Consistency: Consistency is key in long races. Pacemakers are skilled at maintaining a constant pace throughout their designated portion of the race. This helps the lead runners avoid sudden surges or slowdowns that can be detrimental to their overall performance.

Timing and Communication: Pacemakers are responsible for ensuring that the lead runners reach specific checkpoints or splits according to the race strategy. They communicate with the lead runners, providing updates on their progress and any necessary adjustments to the pace.

How Do Athletes Become Pacemakers in Long Races?

Becoming a pacemaker in long races is not a role that just anyone can take on. It requires a unique combination of talent, experience and strategic thinking. Here’s how athletes can transition into the role of a pacemaker:

Elite Running Background: Pacemakers are typically elite or highly accomplished runners themselves. They have often competed at a high level in the same or similar events, such as marathons or half-marathons. Their running credentials are essential, as they need to be able to comfortably maintain the desired pace.

Experience on the Course: Familiarity with the racecourse is crucial. Many pacemakers have previously participated in the same race or have extensive experience running on similar courses. This knowledge allows them to make informed decisions about when to speed up, slow down, or maintain the pace.

Training and Preparation: Athletes aspiring to become pacemakers undergo specialized training and preparation. This includes fine-tuning their pacing skills, working on their endurance and understanding the nuances of pacemaking strategies. They often collaborate with coaches and race organizers to develop a race plan.

Selection by Race Organizers: In most cases, it is the race organizers who select and invite pacemakers. They choose athletes based on their credentials, their ability to meet the required pace and their willingness to fulfil the role. Pacemakers are typically compensated for their services, which can include appearance fees and bonuses for successfully achieving the pacing objectives.

Communication with Lead Runners: Before the race, pacemakers meet with the lead runners and their coaches to discuss the race strategy and pacing goals. Clear communication is essential to ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding the race plan.

The Impact of Pacemakers on Long Races

Pacemakers have a profound impact on the outcomes of long-distance races. Their contributions extend beyond the role of setting the pace. Here are some ways in which pacemakers influence race dynamics and results:

Record Breaking: Pacemakers often play a pivotal role in record-breaking attempts. When elite athletes aim to set new records, pacemakers are instrumental in creating the ideal conditions for achieving those goals. They ensure that the race starts at the right tempo and that the lead runners have the necessary support to sustain that pace.

Race Strategy: The presence of pacemakers shapes the overall race strategy. Lead runners must decide whether to stick with the pacemakers, go ahead of them, or hold back. These decisions can have a significant impact on the outcome of the race.

Reducing Energy Expenditure: By blocking the wind and maintaining a steady pace, pacemakers allow lead runners to conserve energy. This conservation becomes crucial in the later stages of a race when fatigue sets in and every ounce of energy matters.

Personal Bests: For many athletes, pacemakers are instrumental in achieving personal best times. By providing a consistent and controlled pace, pacemakers enable lead runners to push their limits and surpass their previous performances.

Race Excitement: Pacemakers add an element of excitement to long races. Spectators and fans eagerly anticipate how the race will unfold, especially when pacemakers step aside and the lead runners take over. This transition often marks a critical point in the race.

Challenges and Risks Faced by Pacemakers

While pacemaking plays a vital role in long-distance races, it comes with its own set of challenges and risks:

Pressure to Perform: Pacemakers face immense pressure to execute the race plan flawlessly. Any mistakes in pacing can disrupt the lead runners’ strategies and potentially lead to disappointing results.

Physical and Mental Fatigue: Running at a consistent pace for an extended period can be physically and mentally demanding. Pacemakers must be in peak physical condition and mentally resilient to maintain their pace and focus.

Injuries: Pushing their bodies to maintain a demanding pace can increase the risk of injury for pacemakers. Overuse injuries, such as muscle strains or stress fractures, are not uncommon.

Adjusting to Race Conditions: Weather conditions and course terrain can vary significantly from race to race. Pacemakers must adapt their pacing strategies accordingly, which can be challenging.

Balancing Personal Goals: Some pacemakers may have their own competitive aspirations and balancing their own racing ambitions with their pacemaking duties can be a delicate act.

Famous Pacemakers in Long-Distance Running

Several athletes have gained recognition and fame for their roles as pacemakers in long-distance running. Here are a few notable examples:

Simon Biwott: A Kenyan distance runner, Biwott is renowned for his pacemaking abilities. He has helped set the pace in numerous marathons, including the Berlin Marathon, where he assisted in Eliud Kipchoge’s world record-breaking run.

Rababe Arafi: Arafi, a middle-distance runner from Morocco, transitioned into pacemaking for women’s elite races. She played a crucial role in pacing during the 2020 Valencia Marathon, which saw several women achieve fast times.

Erick Kibet: Kibet, a Kenyan athlete, has been a consistent pacemaker in major marathons like the Boston Marathon and the London Marathon. His disciplined pacing has been praised by many top marathoners.

Beverly Ramos: A Puerto Rican long-distance runner, Ramos has taken on pacemaking duties in both marathon and half-marathon events. Her experience and pacing skills have made her a sought-after pacemaker.

The Future of Pacemaking in Long Races

The role of pacemakers in long-distance races continues to evolve with advancements in training methods, technology and race strategies. Here are some insights into the future of pacemaking:

Data-Driven Pacing: Pacemakers are likely to incorporate more data-driven approaches into their pacing strategies. Wearable technology, such as GPS devices and heart rate monitors, can provide real-time data to optimize pacing.

Customized Pacemaking: As races become more specialized, we may see the emergence of customized pacemaking services. Athletes could hire pacemakers who tailor their strategies to the individual runner’s strengths and weaknesses.

Innovations in Wind Resistance: Researchers and engineers are continually working on innovations to reduce wind resistance for runners. Future pacemakers may use cutting-edge equipment to create even more efficient drafting opportunities for lead runners.

Hybrid Roles: Some athletes may take on hybrid roles, transitioning between pacemaking and competing in the same race. This could add an intriguing dynamic to long-distance events.

Equality in Women’s Racing: In recent years, there has been a push for equality in women’s racing, including equal pacing opportunities. We can expect to see more female pacemakers pacing women’s elite races, as well as efforts to close the gender gap in the sport.


Pacemakers are the unsung heroes of long-distance races, working diligently behind the scenes to ensure that elite athletes can achieve their best performances. Their role involves setting and maintaining a consistent pace, blocking wind resistance, providing mental support and navigating complex courses. Becoming a pacemaker is a process that requires an elite running background, extensive experience and rigorous training.

Pacemakers have a profound impact on the outcomes of long races, from facilitating record-breaking attempts to helping athletes achieve personal bests. However, their role is not without challenges, including the pressure to perform, physical and mental fatigue and the need to adapt to race conditions.

As the world of long-distance running continues to evolve, so too will the role of pacemakers. Innovations in pacing strategies, technology and race dynamics will shape the future of this crucial aspect of the sport. Regardless of the changes that lie ahead, one thing is certain: pacemakers will continue to be essential figures in the world of long-distance running, guiding elite athletes to new heights of achievement.

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