Pacers Are Unethical: Why "Participation" Ruins The Sport

An interesting 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 runners?

But why is using a pacer unfair?

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 the sport.

So, in the end, this is one more reason why I wish the sport of running would return to its earlier spirit.


  1. I agree that what these people are doing is nonsensical, but isn't it somewhat arbitrary to decide which assistive devices (watches, GPS) are allowed? Why not argue that part of the challenge of running a race is sticking to a pace without the aid of electronics?

    1. Some electronic pacing devices *are* against the rules, although I don't know which ones specifically because they were invented "after my time."

      I don't think the difference between a human pacer and a wristwatch is arbitrary. There are enough differences between these two things to make them fairly obviously non-arbitrary. One thing that I mentioned in the post was the physical space a human being occupies, which is non-trivial. During track races, official timers call out times as you complete each lap, and there is often an electric sign displaying the race time positioned so that the racers can see it. A wristwatch is a natural extension of something already present on the field. Not so with human pacers. Also, watches don't cheer you on in any kind of gratifying way or discuss your strategy with you in real time. Watches don't run ahead of you and get your Gatorade for you.

      So, IMO, there are many differences here, none of them arbitrary.