Matt Centrowitz, Mo Farah, and Galen Rupp are all poised to become household names this summer during the Olympics—at least in the homes of runners. All have achieved mind-blowing feats of speed, and have well-earned their revered status with Olympic medals in 2012. But each has, at some point in their running careers, reached a milestone thanks in part to a pacesetter.
Better known as rabbits, pacesetters are paid to lead others to a certain time goal through a certain distance of a race, usually dropping out at a designated point. Common in distances ranging from the 800 on up to the marathon, rabbits are sometimes the unsung heroes of the sport. They are also the subject of debate in some circles.
In an Olympic year, the frequency of rabbits inevitably goes up as athletes strive to reach all important qualifying standards. Watch any track and field event between now and early July’s U.S. Olympic Trials and you’ll likely spot a rabbit. “In non-Olympic years, you’ll see rabbits more toward the end of the season to help runners achieve their fastest times,” says Matt Scherer, an American middle-distance runner who extended his career by being a rabbit before retiring at the end of 2014. “But in Olympic years, their role becomes even more important and you’ll see much more of them.”
Scherer is widely considered one of the most consistent rabbits of all time, and for four years specialized in helping runners at the 800m on up to a mile. His pacing resume reads like a who’s who of the sport and includes the likes of Farah, Nick Symmonds, Bernard Lagat and many others.
What goes into the making of a rabbit? Scherer says that in his case, it was a matter of survival. He had impressive personal bests of 45.19 in the 400 and 1:46.11 in the 800, but that put him just off the cusp of the best runners in the U.S. in each event.
“I placed 12th at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials and knew that I was nearing the end of my career,” he explains. “Becoming a rabbit was one way to stay on the track doing what I loved and get paid for doing it.”
Erik Sowinski, an 800-meter specialist, is one of the athletes who has benefited from Scherer’s talents. Coming off a stellar indoor season, Sowinski is hoping to make the U.S. team next month in Eugene. He says that right now, about 90 percent of the races he runs feature rabbits. “It’s definitely beneficial,” he says. “It helps keep the stress off and makes for an honest race.”
Sowinski has experienced both good and bad pacers in his career. “You know who the solid ones are and can count on them,” he says. “Sometimes you might get one with less experience and then you tend to do your own thing. More often than not, though, it’s a positive for our sport.”
Rabbits come to meets either at the invite of the meet director, or sometimes at the request of runners. Often, they work out with the runners they might eventually pace.
“Once I decided to do this full time, I worked at it, often pacing 800-meter runners through their workouts,” says Scherer. “That gave me confidence heading into the meets.”
Every once in a while, a rabbit has been known to lead a race from start to finish. But most race directors discourage that and sometimes prohibit it in contractual language.
Rabbits Who Go the Distance
While rabbits on the track are de rigueur, they are somewhat controversial at the marathon distance. Of the six marathon majors, only London, Tokyo, and Berlin still use them. New York City dropped rabbits back in 2007, and Chicago followed suit in 2015. Boston has never allowed them.
Attitudes vary across the board on whether or not elites should be paced at the distance. For non-U.S. marathoners, however, rabbits can be vital in an Olympic year, one of the reasons Berlin uses them, says race director Mark Milde. “We had several runners who wanted to use our race to achieve Olympic qualifying times this year,” he says. “Ultimately, more than a dozen hit their needed standards. Rabbits allowed the runners to leave the driving to someone else.”
In a typical marathon, rabbits are paid to run as far as the 30K mark. In Berlin, the rabbits could also earn an incentive for every 5K they held pace beyond 25K. “Our typical pacers are fast half marathoners learning to transition to the marathon,” says Milde, “which makes it a win-win scenario. We also use elite marathoners who are at the end of their career and can run maybe a 2:08 to 2:14 for the full.”
The Chicago Marathon had its first event without pacers this past fall. Race director Cary Pinkowski says that he discontinued the practice in an effort to bring competition back to the athletes. “With the rabbits, we got away from the strategy and tactics that go with racing,” he says. “We felt we were getting away from the essence of what is Chicago.”
Pinkowski says he doesn’t worry that abandoning pacers will deter world-class athletes from continuing to pursue personal bests at Chicago. “The goal this year became winning the event, not setting a world record,” he says. “When you chase performance, you also get great competition.”
No matter how you slice it, rabbits are likely to be part of the sport’s makeup for a long time to come. For Scherer, whose running has now taken a back seat, the life of a rabbit was a good one. “It’s very satisfying to help someone achieve a personal best or take them to their desired times for the Olympics,” he says. “For me, it was a chance to travel and experience the sport as I would have liked to as a competitive runner.”