By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
On April 19, Tegla Loroupe ran the Rotterdam Marathon in 2 hours, 20 minutes and 47 seconds, breaking the oldest world record in distance running. For 13 years, the record belonged to Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway, who ran the 1985 London Marathon in 2:21:06.
Standing 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighing 85 pounds, the 24-year-old Kenyan became the first African woman to hold a world record in an Olympic distance running event. However, even before she crossed the finish line, Loroupe created controversy over possible illegal pacing by male runners.
Observers from Rotterdam reported that two male runners might have assisted Loroupe by pacing her during the world record attempt. The pacers allegedly took turns breaking the wind for Loroupe, urged her on when she slowed down, and guided her over the shortest possible route.
These allegations, if proved, constitute a violation under USATF rules, but are common practice in many countries.
So what's pacing?
Pacing is defined as providing unfair assistance to fellow runners by helping them maintain a desired pace. Pacing can be pre-arranged or spontaneous. In the former case, runners agree on a strategy to assist each other in a race. Runners who train together often race together, taking turns setting the pace or watching the scenery.
Spontaneous pacing is very common among middle-of-the-pack runners.
During a long race, such as a marathon, runners tend to cluster by target finishing time. Usually, it does not take long for someone in the pack to turn into a pacer, confidently leading the group.
Near the back of the pack, we commonly see fast runners, who have already finished, return to pace slower friends over the last portion of a race. At any speed and distance, runners see pacing as an act of solidarity in a battle against gravity and fatigue, in an effort to better oneself.
Other forms of assistance that USATF frowns at include breaking the wind, sharing water bottles or sponges, passing water cups, tying or untying shoe laces, or simply carrying a runner across the finish line.
The practice of hiring a designated rabbit provides an interesting loophole around the rules. It is perfectly legitimate for a race director to pay a runner to set a specific pace for a determined distance, allowing the lead pack to follow, and improving the likelihood of reaching a target time. The role of such a designated rabbit becomes one of setting a pace, rather than pacing a runner.
In designating a rabbit, a race director selects a runner who has a realistic capability of setting the desired pace. A half-miler may be hired to set the early pace for a mile race, and a 10-miler may set the early pace for a marathon. Usually, the designated rabbit drops out or jogs on once his work is complete.
An interesting complication occurs when the designated rabbit chooses to maintain the pace past the designated distance, and runs on to win the race. While uncommon, this scenario has occurred several times recently, creating more than a little embarrassment.
Male runners help
Pacing allegations are most prevalent in a mixed race, where the lead woman runs in the company of many men. Far behind the leaders, yet far ahead of the commoners, these men share in the pain and the joy of the lead woman, and are often drawn to assist morally, if not physically.
If two men indeed broke the wind for Tegla Loroupe in her successful world record marathon, their actions would have in essence transformed the loop course into a wind-aided point-to-point course. However, Loroupe still had to do the running, and covered the marathon distance faster than any woman in history. At the very least, her run qualifies as a world best, taking into consideration the difference between marathon courses, including course layout, topology and weather.
Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at email@example.com.