A pace setter can be a newbie runner's BFF, helping them to feel more at ease, but one famous marathon is nixing them for the most serious of competitors

By Markham Heid
August 31, 2015
Corbis Images

Here's big news for runners: The Chicago Marathon's organizers have announced they're not going to have pace setters who precede top competitors-AKA "rabbits"-at this year's event, which is just a few weeks away. Pace setters marking time for the majority of the race's 45,000 runners, though, are still permitted.

Not familiar with pace setters? They're just what they sound like: runners who stick to a specific pace-3:00, 3:05, or 3:10, for example-so that runners can judge their own time by how well they're keeping up. "If you have a goal in mind, all you have to do is stick with that corresponding pace setter," says Jeff Horowitz, author of Smart Marathon Training and Quick Strength for Runners.

Horowitz has run 175 marathons and has been a pace setter himself as a member of Clif Bar's pace team. He says pace setters are usually assigned a speed that's 20 or 30 minutes slower than their fastest times. "It should be a pace the runner can do comfortably and reliably," he says. "The goal is to hit the pace time within one minute, and to have a consistent pace throughout the event."

While pace setters like Horowitz are helpful, race-enhancing additions for most runners, the "rabbits" that pace the serious competitors are more controversial. "For the top runners, the pace setters remove a lot of the psychological burden and strategy and jockeying that would come into play if the elite runners were setting the pace against one another," he explains. (Did you know that not finishing a race is one of The Top 10 Fears Marathoners Experience?)

That's just what Chicago's race director, Carey Pinkowski, told The Chicago Tribune in a recent article: "Without the rabbits, the leaders need a much greater level of concentration. That will allow us to see more tactics, strategy, and competition throughout the race."

Boston and New York don't use rabbits. And Horowitz says most people in the sport consider pace setters useful only if an event wants to break records-not encourage competition.

"In most sports, you wonder who will win, not who will set a record," Horowitz says. He adds that some see the removal of pace setters almost as a sort of purification-like taking away a crutch. By making the top runners set their own pace against one another, rather than simply chase the rabbit for most of the race. a whole new element is brought into the event. "The details of how to be the fastest over so many miles gets very complex," Horowitz says. "With pace setters, you lose a lot of that."

But for the rest of us, Horowitz says pace setters "just make everything more fun and comfortable." He adds, "I've never heard of anyone proposing banning them completely."

So rest assured-unless you're a truly elite marathoner, your friendly rabbit will be there to guide you during your next race. (Train to get faster these 7 Running Tricks to Help You Speed Up in Hot Weather.)

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