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.

Bikram Yoga

Bikram Yoga Guy

I finally took advice that was given to me long ago while running cross-country track back during my Hunter College days.  I wanted to run my races faster and my coach at the time suggested that I take up yoga.  Well, 25 years later, I finally took his advice and began my very first yoga class just recently.  But this wasn’t any ordinary yoga; it was Bikram Yoga.  In Bikram Yoga, your body is subjected to 26 difficult postures for 90 minutes while in a room heated to 105 degrees.  The heat is intended to soften up all the muscles in the body to make it that much easier and quicker to assume all the postures without injury.

Being a runner for the past 29 years with a tight body and very little flexibility, I knew that my first yoga class would not be a walk in the park.  Regardless, since I’m a long-distance runner with four marathons under my belt and a high threshold for pain, I figured that I can go the distance and finish an entire 90-minute session, pain and all.

Just moments before class began, I looked around and noticed a sea of about 30 women in hot, sweaty form-fitting outfits all around me.  “Boy, I think I’m gonna like this class”, I thought to myself.  As the instructor began the session by telling everyone to assume the first posture and describing in detail exactly what to do, everyone like clockwork mimicked her every command.  I followed her first command with this cocky thought: this is no big deal.  After all, celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, Charles Barkley, Madonna and David Beckham all are practitioners of this kind of yoga.

Boy, was I wrong!  About 10 minutes into the 90-minute session, parts of me were being stretched, bent, and twisted in ways that seemed to defy the laws of nature, or so I thought.  The instructor, you see, while we were being stretched in very unnatural and painful ways taking on such poses as the Awkward Pose and the Twisted Spine pose, explained how going beyond what we thought was possible would make us stronger, more flexible, and healthier.  According to Wikipedia, Bikram Yoga “…stimulates and restores health to every muscle, joint, and organ of the body” by making the blood flood in a more efficient way to all areas of the body.  It’s a yoga that’s so thorough and deep-reaching inside the human body that it purports to even stretch the lungs for a greater oxygen capacity.

After about 15 minutes into our session, our yoga instructor excitedly uttered the phrase, “Okay, party time!”.  Contrary to what you may think, there was no party to be had from these words; this was just her perverted way of giving us just enough free time to take a swig of water from our water bottles, and nothing more.  If this was party time, then going back to hell was only moments away.

As time went on during the class and as I tried desperately to stretch my requested body parts in unfathomable ways by following the instructor’s sadistic requests, my mind at times became borderline delirious as the blood rushed through out.  My pain threshold was tested to its limits, but ultimately it weathered the storm and helped me get through the full 90-minute torture-fest.  During the ordeal, I sweated like a pig.  But it was a good sweat; a sweat that made me feel in no uncertain terms like a new man.  For a moment, as I looked at my stomach in the mirror, I even thought I saw a 6-pack emerge underneath all that belly fat.

In the last 15-20 minutes of class, the instructor told us to assume the Shavasana Pose on several occasions where we simply had to lie flat on our backs and do nothing at all except breathe.  This word comes from the ancient Sanskrit meaning “Dead Man’s Pose”.  At this point, I looked forward to playing a dead man as much as possible.

I felt like I almost died during my first Bikram class.  But since you are obviously reading this blog entry, I am still alive…. and well…. and feeling great.

After completing my first class, the old adage came to mind: whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.  This class made me feel stronger, more flexible, healthier and even more spiritual.  I am a new man because of Bikram Yoga.