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Pacer Debate

A small controversy broke out on the MCRRC discussion list last month concerning the rightness or wrongness of "pacers"—runners who via their companionship on the course try to help another runner do better than s/he otherwise might do. There are good points to be made on both sides, pro and con, depending on circumstances. I pointed out a classic example of pacing from the Times (of London) obituary of Chris Brasher, the 1956 Olympic steeplechase champion and founder of the London Marathon:

An imperishable moment of British sporting glory followed two years later when, on May 6, 1954, with Chris Chataway, he helped to pace Roger Bannister to the first sub-four-minute mile, at the Iffley Road track in Oxford. At the gun, Brasher shot into the lead as the first pacemaker, reeling off a fast first lap to help keep Bannister's record bid on target. With Chataway taking up the running when Brasher tired, Bannister powered past with 200 yards to go, to come home in the historic time of 3min 59.4 secs.

Later in the discussion I was inspired to lay out the facts in mock-lawyerly style:

Counsel for the Prosecution obfuscates several points.

What difference in status (pacer v. non-pacer) can it possibly make if a self-admitted pacer starts and finishes a race? If a person is assigned to run in front of another runner to help that runner keep an optimal speed (e.g., for the first lap or two of a record-setting mile on a track) then that person is a pacer, someone who deliberately provides pace assistance—regardless of whether s/he eventually crosses the finish line or not. If a person starts a race deliberately slowly, (e.g. standing just past the starting line) so that s/he is almost lapped, then runs ahead of another runner to help that runner keep an optimal speed (e.g., for the third or fourth lap of a record-setting mile on a track)—and then jogs a final lap after the rest of the runners have all finished—does completing that fourth lap magically transform that person from pacer into non-pacer? The answer to both questions, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is obviously "No!"

A pacer can provide an unfair advantage to a runner trying to set a record, trying to win a race, or trying to place high among competitors. What harm does a pacer cause to others if the only result of pacing is to enable a runner to complete an event among the last few finishers? All those who have crossed the line ahead of the pacer-assisted runner are ranked in precisely the same place they would have occupied otherwise—but they have beaten one additional runner, and thus stand higher in percentile ranking than they would otherwise. The only runners who might be arguably hurt by a pacer-assisted runner are those few whom the pacer-assisted runner finishes ahead of. None of them have complained to this court. Plaintiff thus lacks standing in this case.
The key issue, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is simply one of fairness. Pacer assistance is unfair if pacers are allowed in support of some runners but not others. Pacer assistance is unfair if it changes the finishing order of runners in contention for a prize (and a "prize" can include the honor and glory of setting a record).

Pacer assistance that only enables a marginal runner to marginally finish a race thus does no significant damage to other runners, unless the egos of those other runners are so fragile that they suffer when one more person completes a distance. Races, particularly longer races, take place on vastly different courses and under vastly different environmental conditions. Pacer assistance is 'de minimis' compared to those other factors.

The defense rests (aggressively!) ...

I added to my comments:

P.S. close frame-by-frame analysis of the video of the first sub-4-minute mile reveals, in addition to blatant pacer assistance:
- Sir Roger was apparently wearing headphones and carrying a primitive personal music device.
- Tree roots on the track were apparently painted to mark them as hazards (the color of the paint cannot be determined since the film was black-and-white, but they are likely to have been orange).

Also, as a medical student Sir Roger had easy access to performance-enhancing substances, plus full knowledge of how to use them to greatest advantage. All blood test results from the first sub-4-minute-mile have conveniently been "lost". Coincidence?

Note for the humour-impaired: the above is not to be taken seriously! (^_^)

(cf. Don Quixote 55k Run 2007 (2007-11-22), At My Pace (2008-09-14), ...) - ^z - 2008-12-12