My experience as a Pace Group Leader at the Steamtown Marathon

By | October 15, 2017

by Erin Swiatocha

Last weekend, on an unseasonably warm, humid day in Scranton, PA, I ran my eight marathon. In contrast to my seven previous marathons, which all had been serious race attempts with the goal to PR, to which I achieved a greater degree of success at some than others, on this one I took a different approach. This time around, I had signed up to serve as a pace group leader at the Steamtown Marathon.

I chose Steamtown since I had run it the previous year and really enjoyed the quirky race. A beloved community event in the town of Scranton, held on a fast downhill course on a usually chilly October day, it is a race many people return to year after year. With my marathon PR of 3:08:01 run in Steamtown 2016, I figured I could hold a 3:45 fairly easily, and so that became my pace group.

Training for the marathon was fun and decidedly low-pressure compared to other marathon training cycles. I was running 50-60 mile weeks throughout the spring and summer anyway, doing workouts with NOVA and long runs with Greg and Robbie, and although I had less time to build marathon-length long runs than I prefer (since I only decided to sign on as a pace leader in July, I shorted my marathon training cycle to 12 weeks), I still managed to fit in one 20 miler, and a bunch of other decent long runs. I felt ready enough.

It’s a lot of responsibility though, and that made me anxious. Pacing a marathon means a lot of people are depending on you. You’ve got to be calm, confident, extremely reliable, consistent in your pace, and able to respond quickly to challenges or unexpected events during the race.  You have to carry a 3 foot sign with your goal time printed on it for 26 miles! Above all, being in top fitness is a necessity, so that the running part comes easy, and you can focus on all the other stuff.

Unfortunately, the late fall heat wave that gripped the East Coast last week did not spare Scranton. A week in advance, the pre-race race emails from the race director were dire. The usual crisp and chilly race morning weather was instead predicted to be a humid slog, 71 degrees and 75% humidity at the start. Three days before the race, on the decision of the pace group director, my goal pace time had been dropped  from 3:45 to 3:50, along with all the pacers who had been dropped back 5 to 10 minutes.

I wasn’t worried, but I was nervous about making my goal time exactly on target. Pace group leaders must hit a goal time 30 seconds under their pace group, plus or minus 30 seconds. That’s a lot of precision for a 26 mile race!

Race day dawned. The weather was unfortunate, to say the least. Pouring rain in the early morning turned into dense humidity and a warm, heavy air. Oh, the nerves!

I started out with a smaller group, only about 12 folks or so. I imagine this is because 3:50 is not a target goal for many people. Four hours, yes, 3:35 (BQ for many women) yes, but 3:50? Not a major flashy or memorable marathon goal. Still, the early race crowds were thick and a lot of company kept the time moving along.

After spending the first few miles getting to know my group, including Amanda from DC hoping to improve upon her PR of 3:58, Dao from Rockville, and Nicole from Long Island hoping to stick with me and PR at 3:50, we settled into the race.

Most early mile splits were slightly ahead of my target 8:47 pace, due to the downhills, and while I tried to hold back, it was very difficult. I did not like carrying the sign. That was perhaps the most challenging aspect of the entire race for me.

By the time we hit a small uphill at mile 8, many of my group (including Amanda) had begun to splinter off. Dao was very helpful and offered to carry the sign from miles 13-14 (the only one of my group to actually take the sign from me for any length of time). By the time we had hit the half marathon in 1:52:48, about two minutes ahead of pace, my original group was mostly gone. While we had been advised that a little bit of cushion was ok, I didn’t want to go crazy. If I could keep that two minutes in the bank and not speed up any more, allowing for a slowdown on the hills at the end if necessary, I thought that would be ok.

Dao, Nicole and I kept up the comfortable, consistent pace for the next few miles. Both ladies seemed confident and positive throughout miles 13-20. Dao in fact picked up the pace, and ran on ahead of us around mile 15. I lost sight of her for a while. Nicole and I picked up a few stragglers who had been running faster but were slowing down pretty drastically after mile 20. Mostly, when they saw us, the general statement spoken by these folks was “I was afraid it was you.” Running “as slow as” 3:50 wasn’t something they planned to do that day.

While some tried to stay with us, as we kept up a solid pace of around 8:35-8:45 pace through mile 22, most of the others continued to drop back. The fact was, most people had decided to significantly scale back their marathon goals that day, given the conditions. Many people who planned to go for 3:30, 3:40, 3:45, now just tried to run to finish. Many people ended up in the medical tent, the sagging wagon, or the hospital. Steamtown had more medical emergencies this year than in the previous five years combined!

By mile 22, Nicole said she was struggling a bit, but her pace didn’t falter. Even on the uphills on mile 23-25, she stayed mostly on target, only losing 30 seconds on the hill at mile 24. Dao had rejoined us by that time. Nicole was stuck to my side like glue, and any pace I went, she would follow. Inexperience, youth, and a series of difficult marathons before this one meant she didn’t have the confidence to go at it alone.

My goal at that point was to get the two ladies to the finish line as fast as they could go. I knew I was ahead of pace, but since they were able to stay up with me, I didn’t want to slow down just to gain time and hit my goal 3:50 while finishing alone. wanted to run with them to get them to PRs. If I had been running with a pace group leader, I would have wanted the same thing.

In the end, that’s exactly what we did. Nicole and Dao both finished in 3:46; PRs for both and a Boston Qualifier time for Dao. I watched them run ahead of me as we crested the final hill towards the finish, crowds cheering, my silly sign flapping in the breeze. I was glad I had come here for this.

Pacing a marathon isn’t for everyone, and it’s not something I would do every time. I’m still a competitor at heart, and I still have PRs left in me (I hope). But it’s the least I can do for a couple ladies that deserve to PR and just need a little confidence and support along the way to do it.

Erin with runner Nicole after the Steamtown Marathon

Race aftermath, by the numbers:

Average Steamtown finish times for all runners by year.
2010 4:02
2011 4:11
2012 4:07
2013 4:11
2014 4:09
2015 4:11
2016 4:07
Average 2010-2016: 4:08
Average finish time 2017: 4:27. A 19 minute difference!

Since 2010, the slowest time that the winning female ran this race was 2:50….. Until last Sunday when the winning female time was 3:09. Last year, I ran 3:08 and finished 13th overall. I should have gone out to race this year!

My Split Report (Goal 3:50, avg mile 8:47) (Actual Time: 3:47:08, avg mile 8:38)

1 – 8:24
2 – 8:26
3 – 8:45
4 – 8:47
5 – 8:28
6 – 8:27
7 – 8:42
8 – 8:31
9 – 8:42
10 – 8:36
11 – 8:36
12 – 8:35
13 – 8:46
14 – 8:45
15 – 8:35
16 – 8:54
17 – 8:33
18 – 8:45
19 – 8:33
20 – 8:35
21 – 8:36
22 – 8:48
23 – 8:51
24 – 9:16
25 – 8:23
26 – 8:51
.3 – 8:05 pace (1:45)