I signed up to pace the Maine Marathon for personal, selfish reasons (as most decisions in the wonderful world of endurance are made). There's no doubt that the choice to take on these endeavors consequently takes away from time with friends and loved ones (if you are lucky enough to have someone just as crazy as you by your side doing these silly things; you are lucky enough...) Why we do what we do is still a bit beyond me but that is not what this is about...
I took on the 3h 55m pace group and to be honest, running a marathon at that pace was not much of a challenge for me. I was using this race as a training run for the Ghost Train 100 Mile Run coming up in a few weeks. A supported long run with aid stations where you don't have to plan gas station stops or break in to local port-a-pottys is always a plus. Like i said, pretty selfishly, I thought I was just going to show up, run really slow, and then go home.
I quickly realized that this was not about me though and things began to change for me mentally just as soon as the cannon fired. I held my orange 3:55 sign high in my corral and people began to nervously gather around the goofy looking, bearded, bandanna guy with an Orange Mud double quiver back pack. The 3:55 group was sure to bring a wide variety of people my way.
It definitely did just that. The first few miles of a marathon are always interesting as everyone is feeling good, it was a perfect day, and the pre-race jitters haven't really shaken out yet. Everyone made typical running small talk as the group got to know each other. I made a pretty solid point to be on the receiving end of all conversation. I normally don't talk a ton about what I am up to (these self-centered race sermons aside) but I made it even more of a point to get to know everyone in my group. From the woman also training for an ultra in a few months, to another gal running her 98th marathon, we had a couple first timers, two younger friends running together, people who had just quit smoking, and people of all different shapes, sizes, and ages.
Admittedly my favorite of the crew was a guy who I would not actually see until the very finish. He was a heavy breathing man running directly behind me who would occasionally kick my foot or flatten my shoe under my heal. He never apologized or even spoke a word for that matter. He didn't laugh or offer any small talk.
No one else in the group really paid him any mind and he didn't care either. This guy was on a mission. From the very beginning I could tell that this man was digging into the depths of his soul to keep pace with the laminated sign I was holding high. I never found out what his motivation was but I guess I didn't need to either. I had been in his shoes and know exactly what kind of suffering he is willingly putting himself through to keep pace. I guess this was everyone's' ultimate goal but this guy wanted it more and it was probably just on the threshold of his ability.
The whole group kept it together pretty well and we laughed and joked about pretty much anything along the way but about every 9minutes things would get ridiculously serious and the intention of the race would refocus as all the watches would ring off the mile semi-simultaneously. It was this check-in that kept me super motivated throughout the race. This is when everyone made it clear that they were counting on me to get them in on time. I don't quite know how to put in to words how important everyone made me feel that they were on pace. This damn paper sign just kept getting heavier. One woman even said to me around mile 5 as I shifted to the middle of the road, "You can't move too much like that because I will get too nervous if I am far away from you." Everyone here had been training for months and it was really amazing the amount of trust they placed in me, a complete stranger with a stupid smile on his face and corny running jokes holding a dumb sign, to make (or break) their race.
https://www.strava.com/activities/406258593 The miles clicked off and for the first 10 and, according to my watch we were right at 8:55 pace. A 3:55 marathon is 8:57/mile but I had told the group that I was planning on "banking" some time until I could figure out if the course was running long or short or whatever. Everyone else was wearing a watch which made it difficult to argue with when a couple grumblings of "We are at an 8:50 pace why are we going so fast" - But I had assured them to "trust me" and that "this is what I get paid the big bucks for"... (listen to me bullshit... they had no reason to trust me and even more so that this was my first time pacing any sort of a race... but I kept that part to myself... "ActAsIF is the name of the blog after all, right?).
There was a race clock at the half way point and I started to get really nervous as we approached it. Though I thought we were banking time, I was also running the turns pretty wide and weaving a bit for optimal placement so I actually was running on pace but running the course longer than it was so as the clock ticked 1:57:24 as we crossed 13.1 I told the group we were right on pace and exactly where we needed to be.
The miles got longer and longer but the crew was still doing well. I think a few dropped off but I tried to offer some encouragement through the doldrums of miles 16-21. The talking and chitter-chatter turned to grumblings and eventually to silence... After about mile 21 is when the silence turns to swears as I pass people unwillingly slowing down. They looked at the stupid numbers on my sign and said, "Shit! Not you!" "Ahhhh WTF are you doing here?" and the classic all encompassing... "Goddamnit" said softly. I knew they were not talking to me personally but I tried more shots at humor in response, "C'mon I am not that ugly am I?"... "We barely even know eachother!" However, all humor is out the window at this point of a marathon for people in this place and I knew that. The efforts to pick people up and motivate them along the way to "Just keep up with me for 4 more miles! I'll get you there" ...and most tried but the last 4 miles of the marathon is where you need that internal motivation... nothing can really snap you out of it but you.
I still had a skeleton crew with me but more and more I felt the pain of these people as I passed. I felt so bad that I actually thought to slow down and run with them as if me carrying the 3:55 sign was going to be the actual time we finished no matter what the official clock read. I was the impersonation of some hellish suffering people not only willingly were putting themselves through but paid money to do so.
We got closer and closer and I was nailing the time. It was cool in the final 100 feet or so as everyone yelled "Great pacing!" and "Well done pacer!" to me because they could see the 3:54:30 tick off the clock as I approached at a constant pace. I smiled but I want to yell at them infuriated, "Well done pacer? - screw that... DO YOU NOT SEE THE GROUP BEHIND ME THAT JUST BURIED THEMSELVES TO GET ACROSS THE FINISH LINE?!?!?"
I chatted with a bunch of people in my group afterwards and this was so awesome and motivating. The man who was outwardly busting his hump ended up falling off my train in the last few miles however he did nail is ultimate goal of a sub-4hr marathon. They kept thanking me but they truly don't know how much I appreciated every step with them. I was all smiles the whole way home. Doing this really warmed my heart.