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pace cadets

Thousands of people ran down Bay Street at the start of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on September 28, 2008.Jennifer Roberts/For The Globe and Mail

Duff McLaren is comfortable running marathons in bunny ears. It's not like they slow him down. "They're fairly aerodynamic," Mr. McLaren says.

But it is the sign he carries displaying his finish time that he most prizes, as no doubt so do all the runners trailing close behind him. "I sort of use it as a beacon of hope that if I get ahead of anybody, at least they can see the sign," says Mr. McLaren, who has been a pacer at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon for the past four years.

Most runners who have entered a marathon or half-marathon are probably familiar with the sight of pace bunnies, runners who will complete the race in a set time, guiding others with the same goal across the finish line.

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Once used only by elite competitors, pacers are now extremely popular among recreational runners, whether they want to nail their target or ensure they make their qualifying time for the Boston Marathon.

"Just like people would expect water on the course, people would expect to see pacers in major marathons and half-marathons," says Alan Brookes, director of the Canada Running Series.

At this year's Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, 32 pace bunnies will guide runners in the marathon and half-marathon to a wide range of times in 10-to-15 minute increments (it's much shorter for elites), some running continuously, others mixing running and walking. The bunny ears they wear help to identify them as the people to follow, although at several marathons, including the Scotiabank, pacers such as Mr. McLaren will carry signs displaying the time they are pacing.

Pacers can be a huge help for runners, says Michael Brennan, who co-ordinates the Scotiabank marathon's pacer program. Knowing that there is someone there to guide them to the finish line in their goal time is one less thing to worry about for many recreational runners.

"A lot of people are unsure about their own ability," he says.

As well, pacers help to solve a common problem among runners, especially those relatively new to races, says Neil Wakelin, who organizes the pace-bunny program for the BMO Vancouver Marathon and the BMO Okanagan Marathon. Too often, runners get caught up in the excitement of race day and rush out at the start much faster than they should, leaving little gas in the tank for the approach to the finish line.

"That's quite often the case with many beginner runners in the marathon," he says. "It's really important that they understand the importance of pacing in order for them to finish."

Angela Longley-Zavediuk has been a pace bunny and has used pacers in all six of the BMO Vancouver Marathons she has run. "Pacing is everything when it comes to marathon running," she says. "People don't necessarily realize it, but it's very strategic."

An experienced runner who will be doing her 20th marathon later this year, Ms. Longley-Zavediuk says a pace bunny often provides much-needed moral support. Going for a finishing time of 3:45 alone is much different, for example, than going for the same time with all the other runners following that bunny.

"When you have a group to run with, you can really take that energy from the group and it really helps bolster your spirit to keep pushing," she says.

Most pacers will shout out encouragement to the runners in their group as an added way of boosting that energy.

While most pacers are able to cross the finish line within a minute or two of their set time, and can do so at a steady pace, horror stories do exist.

Mr. Brennan recalls hearing of a pacer who went out really hard and then slowed way down near the end of the marathon to meet his pace time. "He was the pacer and he was killing people," he says. "He was supposed to being doing like a 4:30 pace and he went out at a 3:45 pace."

Mr. Wakelin once had a pacer drop out of a marathon midway through the race, leaving everyone in his group to fend for himself. That is one reason why he now tries to have two or three pacers for each finishing time.

Ideally, bunnies will do an entire race at a continuous pace. So, for example, if they are pacing four hours, they will cross the halfway point in two.

But don't simply take it for granted that they will, says Dan Sambolec, who has been a pacer at the last three BMO Vancouver Marathons. Instead, it's best to approach the pace bunny as you are waiting in your starting corral or in the first two or three kilometres of the race and pepper him with a few key questions.

"A runner should really ask, 'What's your game plan?' 'How are you planning on going out?' 'Are you going to go slow?' 'How are you going to do it?' " he says. "And if the pace bunny doesn't stick to the game plan, seriously think about breaking away."

It's all strategy, after all.

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