Pacers Are Unethical: Why "Participation" Ruins The Sport
discussion arose on Facebook over the weekend.
Last week, I wrote
about the website MarathonInvestigation.com, which investigates allegations of
cheating in marathons and other races. Most of these instances involve stealing
race bibs, illegally duplicating race bibs, or running in races without paying
the registration fees. As you can see, a lot of this doesn't quite add up to
being what we'd traditionally call "cheating." It's certainly against
the rules to steal race swag, but that's more an example of theft than it is an
example of cheating at a race.
As it turns out,
MarathonInvestigation.com also runs a Facebook discussion group. In my
fascination with the world of middling runners who cut corners and steal race
bibs, I joined the group to gain more exposure to this world. One recent
discussion began when a member of the group posted an
article ostensibly about runners who pay professional athletes to serve as
their pacers or "rabbits." Despite the somewhat inflammatory title,
"Want to Run a Fast Marathon? Pay a Top Athlete to Run It With You,"
most of the article is about the rise of the coaching
industry, not about the prevalence of pacing.
Still, many of the coaches in the article freely admit to pacing runners during
their marathons, retrieving Gatorade and sports gel for the runners, and even
running in front of them on windy days so that the client can draft off them.
(Running behind another runner into a headwind, known as drafting, is a way to
avoid wind resistance and conserve a lot of energy on a windy day.)
From there, the
discussion in the Facebook group took off. To my great surprise, most of the
discussion participants didn't see a problem with using a pacer, so long as the
pacer himself/herself was a genuinely registered participant in the race. Some
brought up the fact that pacing is against the rules in USATF events, but most
quickly pointed out that if the race in question isn't USATF-sanctioned, pacing
is not expressly against the race rules, and the pacer is not
"banditing" the race, they didn't see a problem in using a pacer.
As you can imagine,
my opinion is quite a bit different. It seemed rather surprising to me to
discover that the prevalent attitude among a group of people who are interested
in preventing cheating in road races would take the tack that, so long as
something isn't expressly prohibited, it's not a problem. I am not personally
of the belief that all permitted things are ethical and that all prohibited
things are unethical. In my view, things that are permitted can sometimes be
morally wrong; and things that are prohibited can sometimes be morally
permissible, or even morally required.
Thus, when it comes
to using a pacer in a road race, my view is that it is unethical even if it is
permissible. To understand why, we should take the time to examine why using a
pacer was ever prohibited by organizations like USATF. If there's really no problem
with using a pacer, then why would they ever be made against the rules? I think
most people recognize that pacers confer an advantage on the athlete who uses
them. Among elite athletes, this advantage is believed to be unfair, that's why
it's against their rules. Isn't it hard to claim that an advantage that is
deemed unfair at the elite level would somehow be perfectly fine for middling
But why is using a
Well, one reason is
that physical space in a race is limited and therefore precious; occupying some
of that space with a teammate whose only goal is to help you run at a
particular pace, and has no plans on attempting to with the race
himself/herself inhibits the free competitive movement of other athletes.
Imagine an important moment in a race occurs during a tight corner turn. If the
person I'm trying to pass is running alone, I might have enough space to pass
them on the turn, unexpectedly, without wasting too much energy of my own. But
if that same competitor is running side-by-side with a pacer, then a race
non-participant is blocking my path for a strategic pass. That's not fair.
What's to stop such a runner from using twelve different pacers, all of whom
surround him and prevent anyone else from passing?
Another reason using
pacers is unfair is that it passes off a large part of the sport of running onto someone else. What I
mean is, part of the game during a race is monitoring one's own pace and making
running speed adjustments accordingly. Not everyone monitors their per-mile
pace. Doing so is a major strategic initiative that puts a runner at a distinct
competitive advantage. Working with a coach to develop a plan to hit certain
mile splits at certain paces is an even more refined version of this. All
that's required for this is a stopwatch and the mental ability to remember what
pace you're supposed to be running. If a runner can't manage this much, then
what has the sport of running become? Essentially, the athlete moves his or her
legs while the coach does the rest of the work. Maybe that's what running is to
some people, but that's never been what it is to me. The strategic dynamics of
a race are, in my view, as important as the physical dynamics. Pacers reduce
the mental expenditure required of the competing athlete and thus provide what
I consider to be an unfair advantage.
And here we are,
back on one of my favorite running-related hobby horses. People who are
attempting to win a road race would never even consider using a pacer. They
know it's cheating. Even people who are attempting to place well in their age
division - weekend warriors and people who are serious enough to compete even
if they aren't fast enough to win - do not use pacers. Those who consider
running an activity with the power to unleash human potential, who consider it
a vehicle for self-improvement and a refinement of their ability to focus
mentally through great adversity or great pain, are not inclined to use pacers.
So, who uses pacers?
Mostly, it's runners who emphasize the importance of merely finishing. It's the runners who say "anyone who
finishes the race is a winner." It's the runners who are willing to do
anything it takes to qualify for the Boston Marathon, even though they have no
hope of ever winning or placing in the Boston Marathon.
In other words,
people who use pacers are the people for whom running is a social signal.
They're not interested in competing in a
high-profile race, they're only interested in being able to say "I was
there!" They're interested in the finisher's medal and the finisher's
photo and in telling everyone that they qualified for the Boston Marathon and
that they ran in it. They're interested in earning the social signal, but
they're not interested in what the signal is supposed to mean. If you talk to
such people about running fast, they'll
downplay the importance of that, and emphasize participation.
"Hey, as long as you get out there and do your best, that's all that
matters!" But why, then, is it so important for them to advertise their
participation in an exclusive event like the Boston Marathon?
This kind of
sentiment, along with stealing race bibs and evading registration fees, is the
kind of thing that arises when we make the sport of running a thing about
"participation" instead of about competition and winning. When we
emphasize the competitive element, then the line between good runners and bad
ones becomes clear: those who are fast are good, and those who are not fast are
at least not as good as the fast ones. But if we draw the line at
"participation," then people find other, less-savory means to express
their superiority. They'll resort to using rabbits or stealing bibs in order to
be able to say to people that they ran the Boston Marathon. They still want the
exclusivity that comes from being a fast runner, but they don't want to have to
earn it the way fast runners do: by training hard and learning how to excel in
So, in the end, this
is one more reason why I wish the sport of running would return to its earlier