The Rock Star Life of a Marathon Pacer

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The rock star and his groupies about to begin their 26.2-mile party through the streets of New York City.  Photo courtesy of Kenneth Tom.

Back in November 2013, I was hanging out with my friend Michael Ring about an hour before the start of the NYC Marathon.  We were both about to begin our gig as official marathon pacers, something we both had never done before and were anxiously waiting for the big moment.  It was there that Michael told me how being a pacer was basically the same thing as being a rock star.  In my mind I was thinking, “Is he delusional?!  Real rock stars get it on in their trailers with a bunch of groupies.  How the hell can he equate being a marathon pacer with that?!”

Two years later, It took me two more marathons and about a half dozen more gigs as a half marathon pacer to fully understand what Michael meant by that phrase.  Each time that I waited in the corral before the race start wearing my pacer shirt with pacer stick in hand, I noticed the same pattern; runners were congregating around me with a look of reverence and awe.  It was as if they were thinking, “This guy knows his shit; he will be running at a very specific pace and he is here to help me.  He is my hero!”. 

Yes it’s all true; I have had many hot women and cool dudes follow me in these races as my officially unofficial entourage and most stick with me throughout.  My pacer shirt is my rock and roll wardrobe and my pacer stick is my guitar.  But I’m not strumming it; I’m using it to lead the way so my running groupies can follow me as I “perform” for them using my pacer skills.  And throughout the whole Josh Pesin Experience is our drug of choice: pure adrenaline.  Yes, that’s how we get our runner’s high as we get through the race.

For the New York Road Runners Club, there are about 70 of us pacers, each and every one of us a rock star to the throngs of our adoring runner fans.  The guy who handles us is Steve Mura.  He’s our roadie and manages all of our events.  In preparation for an upcoming event, he checks our availability, then books us for a “show”.

Once booked for an upcoming NYC Marathon, us rock stars have to show up at the Jacob Javits Center to volunteer our time at the Marathon Expo.  It’s the place that all the registered marathoners come to pick up their race bib, check out all the new running products and visit the pacer booth.  That’s where they first get to meet us pacers up close as we share with them our award-winning pacing strategies.

On marathon morning, we check into the pacer tent at the staging area of the NYC Marathon.  It’s a place that treats us like the rock stars that we are.  A heated tent, bottled water, hot coffee, bagels and fresh fruit are just some of the amenities that are offered to us.  This is also a place for us to unwind, chill and keep us a safe distance from the masses of admiring fans that will eventually have a chance to gawk at and interact with us up close once we enter the corrals before the race starts.

As each wave is called for the runners to enter the corrals, about a dozen pacers leave the confines of the pacer tent to present themselves to the multitudes of admiring runners waiting in the wings.  It’s showtime!  As we enter our prospective corrals, we carry two signs with us.  One is a huge wooden sign with our pace goal on it, the other is a small paper sign with the same pace goal, but stapled to a lightweight wooden stick.    Once the pacer is positioned in the prescribed corral, the wooden sign serves as a beacon to all the runners both near and far.  It invites them to come close to the pacer if the stated pace is their goal.  Once the corral is closed and packed with runners, the pacer dumps the large wooden sign to the side and pops up the light-weight paper sign on a wooden stick.

Runners who come from far-away places and from every corner of the world are now standing next to me all wide-eyed and excited.  They want me to pace them to marathon glory.  They spent a lot of money to get here and ran a lot of miles for this moment.  It is now up to me to serve and deliver.  A potent combination of butterflies and electricity brew inside my belly.  But this nervousness quickly dissipates as I pledge to myself that above all, I will have fun with this race.  And I’ll provide my groupies with the necessary entertainment and motivation along the way to get them through an experience that is both life-changing and harrowing.

After the marathon starts and we’re all chugging along together through the dozens of neighborhoods that make New York the greatest city on earth, a camaraderie between the runners and the pacer develops.  They know that the pacer will bring them home and cross the finish line keeping their pace goal in mind all along.  This is the challenge of the pacer; to run an even, consistent race throughout while finishing within 30-60 seconds of their pace goal.  This is no easy feat.  Sometimes we even mess up as what happened to me here.

Pacer Fun

Philippe, Lisa and Jurgen getting ready for the 26.2-mile party.

If you shed away their rock star image, pacers are actually a fun, talented and caring bunch of individuals.  They like to give back to others by sacrificing their own chances for a personal record in favor of keeping to a prescribed pace goal to help those who need it.  They come from near and far; one even takes a plane ride from Canada every year just so she could help pace others in the NYC Marathon.  By profession, pacers are doctors, lawyers, a horse trainer, teachers and physical therapists, just to name a few.  And as you can imagine, pacers are people who love to run.  Many “normal” people will run the marathon once, then check it off of their bucket list thinking, “Been there, done that!”.  Many pacers are so addicted to running that they just can’t wait until they run their next marathon.  They’ve run many marathons and even ultra marathons.  One pacer in our group, Julie Khvasechko Garling, has run at least 155 marathons and shows no sign of letting up.

This blog goes out to Jo, Dave, Jurgen, Philippe, Elaine, Julie, Lisa, Vince, Sarah and the dozens of other rock star pacers who run these marathons not just for their own enjoyment, but for the people that they’re here to serve: the runners.

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Group photo taken right before the start of the 2015 NYC Marathon.

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