So, marathon#18 in the bag, and my second time pace-bunnying a full. In fact my last two marathons have been as a pace-bunny for the 3:30 group.
Bunnying a marathon seems to have piqued many peoples' interest, so how is it really?
I think the trick is to pick your pace-group carefully. Some people have asked me "isn't it difficult to run at 5 minute per kilometer (5:00/km) pace?". I would answer, for myself, "no". If I were to go for a nice, relaxed run I tend to average out between 4:30 and 4:45/km, So running at 4:45 and 5:00 is really quite natural. Any slower and I'm constantly pulling away from the group. I'm not being an arsehole, I just find it very difficult to run that slowly. Conversely, for the faster paces it's running at 4:15 for three hours that is decidedly unnatural!
It is, of course, personal. La belle's likes to bunny the 4:00hr group or about 5:40/km. It's all about preference.
The second thing is a marathon is not a distance to be run with alacrity. You need to prepare to bunny a marathon in the same way that you would prepare to race one. I stopped cramming the miles in a couple of weeks ago and cut down from 100kms to 50km to 30kms during the taper. I still had the huge pasta dinner on Saturday night, I still went to bed early, got up early and my race-day ritual contained all the usual little personal tics it would have had for a "real" race.
Except this is a real race; I might not be racing for absolute performance but instead I'll be expected to lay down a time not too far removed from an all out effort (only 19% slower from my current best pace). Remember, a marathon isn't a race you can be guaranteed a finish; it's so long, too much can go wrong, or many things have to go right - some of them out of your control. I won't deny, I had butterflies in my stomach standing on the start.
One thing I noticed in Moncton and confirmed here was that bunnying a marathon feels just like running one for yourself only less-so. So I still felt that slight tightness in my hamstrings and ITB at 15 miles, those little niggles that remind you you've been running for a while and which may yet develop into a disabling attack of cramp. I still got that slight sense of ennui about the whole thing around 31 kms ("aren't we done yet, I've been running all day") and a slight sense of bonk-i-ness at about 34 kms, the "sod it I'm going to pack it all in and crawl under the nearest bush and sleep before I do myself some real harm" feeling. Except, like I said, less so. So the feelings tend to pass relatively quickly instead of sitting on your head and growing into a big black dog that's constantly dragging you down.
Some of that is to do with your group. As pace-bunny you are part pace-setter, part drill-sargeant, part agony-aunt and part cheer-leader. So you encourage, threaten and cajole your charges to the finish-line. This can be quite fun and it is certainly rewarding to get people to personal best times.
Interestingly, and perhaps intuitively, I ended up running with three distinct groups. Most people positive-split a marathon, that is run the first half faster than the second. Pace-bunnies are expected to run an even split; the same time for both halves. In Moncton and Halifax I ran an even(ish) split; 1hr 44 min for both halves. So, there's always a big group for the first half; if you're shooting for 3:30 then a 1:45 half is eminently do-able. I had a fluid group of at least five for both events, but as there are always people who don't want to run with you but just want to keep you in sight, I don't know how many people were keying off me in the first half.
After the half, the first group starts to melt away and is replaced by a second group of people who started just a tad fast, are starting to fade and are coming backwards to you. How long this group stays depends on how quickly they're fading. Yesterday, I had completely swapped my group between 21 and 25kms. At one point I felt like a mother duck with a loose line of nearly ten people stretched out behind me.
This group eventually implodes too as the distance mounts. At Moncton I ended up with one guy by about 21 miles and we came to an agreement; no walk-breaks, just 5:00/km and walk the aid-stations. Same here at Bluenose; I was all alone by about 31 kms, so I just kept to pace. At 35 kms I picked up a marathoner who was kinda walking and he said he wanted to try and run in with me. So we hooked up and I got him through a very tough 4 kms around the park. There was a touch of the blind leading the blind here however as I was having my own moments of self-doubt in the park and having to shepherd someone else through their own helped me to dwell less on my own inner demons. Coming out of the park I still had a couple of minutes in hand and at 40kms it was clear we were going to come in around 3hrs 25 minutes so instead of keeping the pace down I let it creep up a little and then we booted it for the last kilometer,
Here are my kilometer splits from Garmin. A fairly even pace throughout and even though I felt like I was slowing down, clearly I didn't.
Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy that graph.
Unfortunately, no HR data as the Polar I was wearing died half-way through. What are the odds; it performed yeomans' service all the way through training and the battery dies 1/3 through my first race of the year! Johnny Miles maybe.
After I finished I turned around and went back down the course to bunny in the people who had dropped off the pace. Big props to them all. That's Brett Glover below, a trackie and x-country guy from SMU. His Dad was running the half and Brett did a couple of training runs with him. Brett took this race on with one 20K long-run under his belt and did it in Vibram five-fingers. He ran through the first half with me, 1:44, bang on schedule. He even put the boots to me on Maple Street! He dropped off on Agricola and I didn't see him again until I picked him up again at Cogswell and Brunswick and ran the last three-hundred metres with him to see him home for a stonking 3:44 marathon debut.
A shout out goes to Jennie Orr, Michael Gaudet, Rachael House, Andrea Moritz, Cyrus John, Chad Smith and Steve Elliot, all people I spoke to and ran with en route. I know there were more, and I"m sorry if I can't remember your names.
Kudos one and all, it was a great experience to run with each and every one of you.