I’m probably the slowest Pace Leader you’ve never met. I could also double for the Richard Simmons of running. (If Richard was taller, a woman, and hadn’t lost all that weight.) And each August, when the Chicago weather forces most normal humans indoors, I lace up my shoes and turn out for a race with a long history in our town. It’s the old Chicago Distance Classic (the new Rock and Roll Chicago), and my job is to set the pace for one of the final pace groups on the course – this year, the 15 minute per mile pace group.
I know what you’re thinking.
“Seriously? They need a pace group? What are they doing, walking backwards?”
Yes, we’re slow. But let me tell you this: I’ve finished a dozen half marathons. I’ve been running (albeit very slowly) for ten years. And there is nothing I look forward to more than pacing this group. Because these are my people. They don’t look like “normal” runners. They are charity runners, first-timers, weight loss success stories, and faster pace dropouts. But in my group, if you show up with a smile, and the tenacity to cover 13.1 miles, we’re going to have a good time. And we’re definitely going to finish.
The first year I paced, I was hopped up on adrenaline and the thrill of leading a big crowd of first-timers. We started as the sun came up, and as I held an eight-foot tall sign in the air, the walkers, run/walkers, and even runners, all crowded around, wanting to know whatever wisdom I had to dispense.
“The bathrooms are right over there!” I yelled, pointing to the Porta Potties. “Go NOW people!”
Er, right. Wisdom. I tried again. They had lots of questions.
“How often are the water stops?” “Will you wait for me?” “Are you going to carry that sign the whole race?” (Every mile. Yes, after water stops, but no, at bathrooms. And watch for the small flag. Or the big girl with ‘PACER’ written on the back of the shirt.)
Once we hit the course, the routine stays the same each year. I put on my best cheerleader impression, celebrating the completion of each mile, then each 5k, to take the sting out of what’s left. I shout out our pace. We smile for the family and friends on the route. And we deal with the jitters.
I’ve found that the nervousness is a constant, year after year. First-time runners, whether they are fast or slow, want to predict the future. But mostly, these runners just want to accomplish a goal they never thought possible: they want to finish a 13.1 mile race.
In 2006, as I looked out over the pre-race crowd, I spotted my neighbor Marcy, who had fallen down her stairs the night before. She didn’t know I was pacing; I didn’t know she was training. But I had the same steps in my unit, shaped like a triangle at the corners, and in my not-so-bright moments, I had done what she’d done. But I hadn’t raised $5,000 for Team in Training like she had. She had planned to finish the race at an 11 minute mile. Now, she looked at me, with tears in her eyes, (and a medical clearance in her hand), and said she just wanted to finish.
The next year, I met Stephanie, who was walking the course to raise money for Super Sibs, another charity. She had major hip surgery twelve weeks before the race. I had no idea if she’d make it, but I made sure she knew I was cheering her on. She laughed, and cried, and kept on going throughout the race.
The same year, I met another woman, who had promised her son, who was dying of Leukemia, that if he just ate a little bit more food while in treatment, that one day, she’d do a half marathon. I’ve never been so impressed with a mother (nor shed so many tears) as I was when we crossed the line.
Then there’s Pat and Jim, the husband and wife couple from the WiSH group, who show up each year, smiling, and excited to take on the course. They are committed to being fit, and to completing this race as a challenge to keep working hard at taking control of their health.
They all finish. Laughing, crying, celebrating – they all finish.
Yesterday, I laced up my shoes, and paced the 3:15 finish for the Inaugural Rock n’ Roll Chicago. It was like Old Home Week as Stephanie, and Pat, and Jim, and a few other folks who have been in my group the past few years came up to me before the race, to give me a hug, and to say “good luck.” As a pacer, it wasn’t my most precise day. I was run/walking faster than my “normal” pace, and I’ll admit I fell slightly off. But the amazing thing about this group is that they truly do enjoy the ride. They didn’t care that we were 20 seconds off on Mile 1, or 40 seconds off on Mile 6. They just kept watching my back, keeping pace, saying “thank you” and “I’m so glad to be here” and “I think I can make it”. I was hurting at Mile 6, and at Mile 9, but I just couldn’t leave them. I’m a sucker for a good story, and every time I thought I was done, another one would pop up on my shoulder to say thank you, or to tell me that this was their first race, or to talk to me about the charity they were running with. How could I not keep going?
The running community is very large, and, for the most part, very inclusive. We runners and walkers are all motivated by a sense of purpose. But these folks, at the very last part of the race, battle some doubt that faster runners don’t. We run races with the specter of “end of race” police cars, chomping to push us to sidewalks. And SAG wagons that operate on a schedule that is sometimes faster than intended. Sometimes, we don’t have water, or mile markers, or food at the finish, or even medals. Yesterday, we had everything we needed. We had fuel, and water, and gorgeous weather, and I was surrounded by people who were pushing their limits, but knew that if they could just keep going, they’d finish – and be proud of themselves, of the money they raised, the lives they were enriching – or saving. I watched them cross the finish line, and I didn’t have to guess that to some, this was the most improbable thing they’d ever done.
It may sound incredibly trite, but these runners do something for me that I could never have anticipated. They give me purpose. They let me in on their personal journeys, and they take everything a half marathon course has to throw at them. And they finish. They always, always, finish.
So thank you, to all of the folks in the 3:15 pace group, Corral 20, for the Rock n’ Roll Chicago race this year. You are the reason I’m proud to be a runner. And the reason that I’ll be back next year, lacing up my shoes again to pace the Final Finishers.
A special note of thanks, to Reggie and Alice, who made sure we finished together, to Mike, who had the perfect words at the right time, to Lisa, who cheered my crew through Mile 4, and to Jenny and John, for the opportunity and your constant encouragement. You were my Pacers yesterday, and I couldn’t have done it without you.