This column by Simon Gear first appeared in Runners World SA in May 2010
One of the massive disadvantages of being a good deal slower than I would have expected to be at this age, is that I am now running in among the pacing buses. Now I like a good sing along and a natter with my mates as much as the next guy, but there is something about the organised groups with the flags and the song sheets that set my teeth on edge.
The first and obvious point is that there are no pacers at the sharp end of the field. Anywhere under about 5:15 a kay is fast enough to cause some serious discomfort to anyone carrying a flag and shouting the odds. So catching (or worse, getting caught by) a pace bus is a clear as day indication that you are not as fast as your kids think you are.
But it isn’t just the personal damping of my heroic ambitions that bothers me. I enjoy running in a group and love the way that the miles flow by when the chat gets going. Cheerful banter is as essential to running as Coke and Vaseline and I wouldn’t want to run out my days in stoic silence, but flippin’ hell, can’t a guy be alone with his thoughts for at least a few metres? There is nothing that gets me going faster than the sound of an approaching bus.
First there is the self-appointed leader, generally a cheerfully garrulous sort whose main aim in life seems to be to remind all those around him of how incredibly easy this pace is for him. It’s a forced bon homie more reminiscent of an advertising rep or a youth group leader. I feel like at any moment he might whip out the timeshare brochures and offer me a deal of a lifetime. And the advice is inane at best. “This is a hill,” I’m gleefully informed. “let’s go nice and slow.” Buddy, if I wasn’t already so slow, I’d be out of reach of your wretched band and sinking a few cold ones in the beer tent by now.
Then there’s his mate. He doesn’t have the same gift of the gab that makes the flag bearer Man-of-The-Year, but what he does have is a vuvuzela, and he’s not going to let you forget it. I’m not so cold hearted as to vote for the banning of the merry plastic horn, but I would support jail time for the folk who feel obliged to blow the thing at me after 32km in the sun.
There’s also the small point of what a pacing bus should actually do. While I assume the opportunity it affords to blow your own horn comes under optional extras, surely the wretched things should actually be paced to optimise your chances of hitting your goal time? Because every single bus I’ve seen works on the principle of building up enough of a buffer that they can walk/jog home comfortably. This is fine for picking up people who have blown and helping them back onto pace but for the poor folk who start out with a bus, aiming for a PB, they are destined to get blown away in the first half of the race.
So how should we approach these things? I suppose they do have a place in the great technicolour yawn of life, right next to Barmy Army cheerleaders and shooters with rude names. But like a Sex on the Beach, their use should come with a warning. If you are aiming for a 4 hour marathon, starting with the bus is going to put you too far ahead of pace and you are going to blow. Aim to run your own, careful race and if you time things well, you should stride confidently past the vuvuzelas when you catch them with 3 kays to go.
And for everyone else? Smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave. I may not choose to run in a big bus, but the world would be poorer and quieter without them.