Confession of a Pacer

For me, Penang Bridge International Marathon (PBIM) 2011 started off with an immaculate prelude providing the stage for finally meeting new friends and old alike. It was something that sports like this blesses us with: Friendship. Concurrently, I was to take up the role of a pacer this time to make the matter more interesting.

The idea was conceived after being blessed with a pacer who led me to my first sub 4 in 2009. I had always thought it would be meaningful to one day have that opportunity to bless and help others in return. That day came when I volunteered myself as a pacer for 3:30. I had initially offered myself for 4:00 pacing but after months of oblivion, the organizers finally sent an email to me just 10 days before the race as way of acknowledgement of my acceptance. Then, I found out that there were already 2 others who signed up for 4 hours pacing. Therefore, I thought it would be better to offer myself for 3:30. After all, I could do with the practice.

To update the uninformed, PBIM has a peculiarity about it. It should really be called Penang Bridge Night Marathon. I say so because the full marathon starts off at 2 a.m.

It defies logic for a runner though I could understand the issues of logistics for a starting time like that. It also goes against the physiological make up of our body by disrupting the circadian rhythm. Most of us are not nocturnal. Therefore to expect optimal physiological performance in this kind of condition is simply asking too much. But of course, no one is forcing you to participate at gun point. You either put up or shut up.

Having said that, nevertheless I had been quite excited about the prospect of pacing. So much so that the nap that I had planned before race was interrupted by nostalgic flashes of me crossing the finish line with gratuitous runners who had their dreams realized. It would be nice. I ran through the race strategy in my mind to mentally prepare myself for the challenge. But in the heat of this mind storm, I had not been able to sleep at all. Forcing myself to sleep did no good either.

It was a marathon of sleep/wake cycles until the alarm finally went off. I didn't feel refresh.But no time to lament. It's time to head off to Queens Bay Mall (starting point). I had a couple of friends from Seremban who stayed over at my place this time. They were Teng and TC Lau. These were my old running buddies back in Seremban days since 2009. It was great to catch up.

When we arrived at QBM, there was already a long queue of vehicles leading to the car park. After we finally found a parking space, there was only about an hour left before the race. I had to head off to look for the rest of the pacers for briefing and photo sessions.

Eventually the pacers were gathered and paraded at the Start line. Immediately, I felt a little overwhelmed and uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the public eye. Too self-conscious. But how not to be when the balloon triple the size of a watermelon was dangling six feet in the air above you? To add to that, mine read 3.5hour. Feeling the pressure for the first time. Felt rather distracted too.

At flag off, My strategy was to keep a constant pace of 4:50 to 5:00min/km through out the race. The initial 10km was very comfortable with the pace set at 4:45-4:50min/km. I was clapping and cheering the runners as I made the loop back towards the bridge. Retrospectively, I realized that I was letting the enthusiasm and excitement get the better of me. I should have focused more on the pacing job rather than cheer leading. OK. Lesson learned.

At this point, Andrew Loh was the only one following me. Subsequently a couple of other runners was tagging along as we came to the Bridge. One particular runner was Evan from Holland. He's worked in Penang for 3 months and is now on a 3 month break. He plans to travel around in the SEA before returning to Amsterdam. His last race got him a PB of 3:20. We were running comfortably alongside each other. At that moment, I was thinking to myself, "Hey, if this is what pacing is all about, I could definitely do this again!"

But the honeymoon did not last. All was well but as we made our way back towards Penang Island, I began to find it hard to sustain my pace after descending from the Bridge elevation at mid point. (23-24km) Andrew let loose, left the pack and pressed forward. It was now just me and Evan. Eventually he fell behind and I suddenly found myself struggling with a pace of 5:30min/km. I didn't realize that I was already hitting the wall. And there was yet another 12km to go. I knew I was not going to make 3:30.... 

It was a strange sensation. It seemed as though I had suddenly lost the will to run. I tried to muster up the strength to press on. But the body simply refused to acknowledge the mind. I wanted to throw in the towel. But I knew I had a job to do. I need to salvage whatever I can.

The way to the turning point at 34thkm was excruciatingly painful. I saw some runners making their way back. They looked tired but determined. I was just tired. Period. At this point, I was getting impatient and angry with myself that my pace could actually drop down to 6:00min/km. I have never ever run so slowly since I broke sub 4 in 2009. My heart sank to the abyss of despair. It's a cruel joke to pick a day like this to be a 3:30 pacer. On any other day, I would just disappear into the crowd and leave quietly. But today, for God's sake, I was carrying a "3.5hour" Balloon!

I inched forward with the stubbornness of a mule. No higher function required. I just wanted to go home. And bury myself in despair. Evan passed me at some point. But I overtook him again with 3 more km to go. We both acknowledged this PBIM was not our day. No mood to engage in any conversation except the exchange of grunts and nods to communicate. We knew.

I will save you the agony of reading further about my "exploits". Suffice to say it is more honourable to suffer privately without the need to announce it to the world. Well, I finished eventually. The time: 3:48! 18 minutes behind schedule. With the weight of the pacer's balloon hung heavily upon me, I have let myself and everyone else down. It was my worst finish to date. I felt utterly drained and disgusted with myself. I quickly got to the "left-baggage" booth to have them cut off the balloon from me. Don't worry, I didn't cry. I was beyond that. Too dehydrated to shed any tears.

That was PBIM for me. My very first pacing job. And quite likely my very last.

Having time to think and analyse the reason I hit the wall, I realized I had pick the wrong race to be a pacer. And the wrong pace group as well. I should have listened to Choi and picked the 4 hour pacer group. At least I would come back a "hero". Never like this...

Being analytical, I will now summarize the reasons for my poor performance. It is meant for personal consideration and future improvement. Not justification for what went wrong. I fully acknowledge and accept responsibility for my blunder.

1. It was 2 a.m. It was physiologically a deep REM sleep time for my body. Vigourous exercise can be totally disruptive to the circadian rhythm. Hence difficult to perform optimally. However, despite that some people do well. They adapt very well and still managed to churn out PBs. But I am clearly not this group of runners. The same thing actually happened last year. I hadn't recognized it. If I had, I would have learned my lesson.This is the primary reason.

2. I wasn't able to rest adequately pre-race. Even a few hours of shut-eye could do wonders. I had 8 hours of sleep before my Osaka Marathon. I realize sleep is crucial for me to perform my best. As I looked back, a good sleep pre-race has consistently been pre-requisite to all my PBs. i.e. Beijing, SCKLM....

3.I had not fully recovered from previous races. My last race was Powerman Sprint event just a week ago. I think that drained me more than I knew or have anticipated. And my last full marathon was 3 weeks ago in Osaka. Recovery is not something that I could simply assume just because I have done less long runs in the preceding weeks. I have to relook all my races in future. I.e. Less full marathon per year...seriously this time.

These were the three main issues that led to my blunder. Yes, I was embarrassed by it. But any runner with a respect for the distance of 42km will know that we all have our off days. No point beating ourselves up over it. It's a hard lesson. But probably more valuable and real than any of my previous experiences combined. I knew I had to come down from cloud 9 some how. But never had I anticipated crash landing like this. Reality is harsh. Marathon is a harsh and unforgiving race. Never EVER underestimate it. I learned it well this time. Painfully well.

I am shaking off the dust. Mud of disgrace, grime of despair and disgust. It is time to move on. I am still alive, am I not? I will live to run another day.


  1. Is ok francis, pacer job is always not easy. Hope to see u again next year. ;)

  2. Thanks Fabio. Nice meeting you there! How was your run?

  3. Great job nonetheless and what I wouldn't give for a fraction of your pace.

    Happy Feet

  4. Nick, It's a tough job. No matter what stage we are at, it never gets easier. I have developed a deepening respect for the distance every time I race.

  5. Nice to meeting you at the finish line.
    You would have done a great job by completed just the distances, but you decided to push this event one step further to be the pacer of 3:30. Totally understand the frustration and disappointment you having now. But the choice of pacing is on noble motive and you shouldn't give up so ease.
    Keep it up!
    Recover soon and come back stronger ;)

  6. Thanks Neoh! Sorry I was distracted when we met at the finish. Was feeling quite lousy then. But am ok now. Will make up for it the next time. When's ur next race?

  7. No problem! Singapore Marathon is next on my list. Don't think will come across your schedule soon as you will be busy with HK/Tokyo/Boston next year :D
    All the best, enjoy!

  8. Hi Francis, i stumbled upon your blog by coincidence and through a mutual friend - Lisa Yong. Please keep up the write ups, very informative for a beginner runner like me. And, for me - it's a courage to be a pacer in the first place...there is always a first time for everything, don't rub it too hard on yourself. Keep the running spirit alive! Cheers, ShuhChien.

  9. Thank u Shuh Chien. We all learn from our mistakes. The blog serves more as a personal log for me as an amateur runner. I still hv a lot to learn. But am glad that it is helping some discover more about running.


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