The Secrets Of SA’s Top Pacesetters

They’re the unsung heroes of every major races: pacesetters. Here’s what it’s like to help others realise their dreams.


Mike Finch |

GAUTENG

Buks van Heerden, 48
Marathon Pacing: 4:50
Marathon PB: 2:31
Marathons run: 457

pacesetters
Image by Keith Linderoth

It takes much more to be a pacesetter – a leader who helps a group hit their goal time – than being fast. A pacer has to be entirely comfortable at their assigned average speed, run as evenly as possible, and assume all the stress of monitoring split times. They evaluate course congestion, elevation, and yep, even bathroom breaks to get their followers to the line on time without surging, all while doing complex mental maths. South Africa’s pacesetting leaders share what it’s like to run with dozens of people counting on them for guidance, inspiration, and steadiness.

WHEN PEOPLE WANT TO BECOME PACESETTERS, WE ASK THEM IF THEY REALLY WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. IT’S NOT ABOUT FAME. – Van Heerden

Pacesetting proves that we can work together as a nation. Everyone is the same when they put on their running clothes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, a lawyer, white or black, everyone has one goal… to reach the finish line.

My marathon PB is 2:31, but now I run the sub-5-hour buses for most of the big marathons. Sometimes running more slowly can be harder, but the rewards in helping people reach their goals outweigh any personal goals I have now. I’m aiming to run 500 marathons by 2020, and I’ve been a pacesetter in 291 races. Van Heerden told Runner’s World.

pacesetters
Image by Jetline Action Photography

How to be the perfect pacesetter

Pacesetters Buks van Heerden from Gauteng, Mondli Mdhluli of KZN and Cape Town’s Paul Murphy have paceset a combined total of over 500 races. Here’s some of their wisdom…

Go Flat

“Pacing a flat race is a lot easier than a hilly race. You can work in a more even split, and account for some fade at the end. Hilly races like the Two Oceans are tricky, because of the course. You need to work around your base pace.” – Murphy

Plan The Fade

“The experts will tell you that the best pacesetting strategy is to run a negative split. But it’s unrealistic for most, so you have to plan for fade in the second half – particularly in long races like marathons and beyond.” – Murphy

Get Experience

“I travel around to races all over South Africa, and always paceset when I run. It adds to your experience, and running in different provinces gives you exposure to different groups and cultures.” – Mdhluli

Use a Pace Chart

“Our pacesetters must always have three things: a flag, a watch for timing, and a pace chart. Some of them produce their own charts, but we also have someone who uses an algorithm to work out the perfect pace.” – Murphy

Personality counts

“You need to have the heart for pacesetting. It’s not about you, and you have to give up your race for others. Pacesetting should be fun… our guys dance and sing, and it adds a new dimension to the race. It takes people’s mind off the pain in their legs.” – Mdhluli

Keep Time Buses Together

“If we have two or three pacesetters per time goal in a big race, we make sure we run to the same strategy, so it doesn’t confuse the people following us.” – Van Heerden

WESTERN CAPE

Paul Murphy, 54
Pacing: 4:50
Marathons run: 200+

pacesetters
Image by Keith Linderoth

The Western Province Pacesetters have been going for a good 10 years now. We started off with 10 people, but now we have a group of about 50 who are very active. We paceset around 30 races a year, but only do races with over 1 000 participants. There’s a constant demand for us to be at races, and we get requests all the time.

It’s more emotional when you paceset at the longer races, like two oceans. People go through a journey to get to the finish line, and get overwhelmed when they finish.

Runners questioning our strategy has become less of an issue now. The growth of the pacesetters has made us much more visible, and people know they can trust us. But if people do question us, we show them our pace charts to reassure them we are on target.”

pacesetters
Image by Jetline Action Photography

KWAZULU-NATAL

Mondli Mdhluli, 34
Pacing: 4:50
Marathons run: 50+

pacesetters
Image by Jetline Action Photography

We only started the KZN Pacesetters in 2017, and I ran my first race as a pacesetter on my own. Then it grew, and we have 12 or so regular pacesetters at the moment. We try and focus on the big races in KZN, with the Maritzburg Marathon being one of our most popular events – we had 13 guys there this year.

The first time I ran a marathon in under five hours, I paceset it. I know it breaks all the rules in the pacesetting guide, but knowing I had the responsibility to help people reach their qualifying times for Comrades and Oceans was a serious motivation. I didn’t tell anyone until the 40km mark, because I think no one would have followed me! – Mdhluli told RW.

THE KIT

Flags
Lightweight dowel wood is used for flagpoles, with small flags that don’t get whipped around in the wind.

Pace Chart
The perfect chart takes into account the profile of the course, and a fade factor at the end.

The Watch
An easy-to-see display with splits is the key to ensuring you’re always on track.

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