Pacemakers may be used to avoid the tactics of deception that are possible in competition by those who, for example, race away from the start line (and are likely to subsequently slow down), giving the other runners the impression that they are far behind.

If they are allowed to continue beyond the point where they had to drop off, they are going aginst the above logic.

How does it help prevent tactics of deception if they race away during the start and then, also allowed to finish it/win it?

An example:

Kenya’s Virginia Nyamburu caused possibly the biggest upset of the night as she started the women’s 3000m steeplechase as a pacemaker but, after leading the field through to the agreed 2000m point, carried on going to win in 9:21.51.

Why are pace-setters allowed to go ahead with the race?

4 Answers 4


The main reason to hire pacemakers is to get a very good winning time. Preferably, a world record. In races without pacemakers, such as Olympic Games or world championships, athletes tend to race tactical, since they only care about being the first to cross the finish, regardless of the time. The pacemakers make sure that the pace in the leading group remains high.

I am certainly not an expert in this, my knowledge is based on watching several marathons live on television. From this, I am pretty sure it is not allowed to have a pacemaker enter a marathon halfway in order to take over the job of a tired pacemaker. I suspect that according to IAAF rules (I have not checked this) pacemakers must be treated more or less as regular participants.

The main reasons marathon pacemakers sometimes carry on after the contractual agreed pacemaking distance is because they feel good and think they can achieve a PR, Olympic nomination or whatever goal.

Personally, I do not see any problem when in the end a pacemaker turns out to finish the race and win. After all, why would you prevent the best athlete in the race from winning? Besides that the very basic aim of a sports competition should be to see who is the best, by going on and winning the pacemaker achieves the organization's goal to hire him: to get an as sharp as possible winning time.

  • I quoted some Wikipedia text. Whats your say on that? How does it help prevent those tactics of deception?
    – Del Pate
    May 21, 2015 at 14:25
  • Pacemakers will generally do what they're supposed to do: keep up the speed in the first part of the race. This is what they get paid for and if they don't do their job well, there will be no next pacemaking paycheck for them. I think that, before the race, a pacemaker and his trainer sometimes plan to let him complete the full race on the condition that he is feeling well after his job as pacemaker. So, the pacemaker first completes his job, only then making the final decision as of to finish the complete race or not. However, most of them will not even consider finishing the race. May 21, 2015 at 14:53

For optimum performance on a long distance run in a flat terrain, each runner needs to follow their own optimum pace as opposed to a fluctuating pace. Randomly fluctuating pace consumes more energy for the same finish time. Keeping awareness of the current pace at any given point consumes mental energy which could be spent elsewhere. The relatively easiest method of sticking to a known pace is to follow a runner who is known or expected to concentrate on a specific pace known in advance. It certainly helps if that runner (pacemaker) is incentivized by race organizers to serve other runners predictably; otherwise it is just a competitor, or worse, a potential conspirator of a competitor.

Furthermore, leading a fast group is slightly disadvantageous aerodynamically. Whoever can sustain being a steady front-runner for 25 km with a pack of closely following competitors and then go on outpacing them in the rest of a marathon track, has already helped the group tremendously basically regardless of what their exact pace for the first 25 km was.

This answer assumes that the pacemaker is at least barely professional in keeping their contract with the race organizers and that the contractual pace was chosen wisely.

For more reading, this article predicts that

Whoever finally runs a sub-two-hour marathon will have to start with the belief that it’s possible, that he’s the one to do it, and that he won’t get there alone.

This isn't specifically about pacemakers, but about groups competing against each other, similar to cycling teams. The article has some good insights about the psychological aspects of running in a group.


There are two (in)famous cases of pacesetters continuing the race and going on to win: Paul Pilkington at the 1994 Los Angeles marathon, and Tom Byers at the 1981 Bislett Games.

Byers built a ten-second lead when "the rest of the field refused to follow his pace" and Pilkington similarly was well away from the rest of the pack at the point he was supposed to step off.

Other answers have correctly noted that some events make their rabbits sign contracts to drop out, and IAAF rules require that any pacemakers start the race with everyone else (otherwise the pacemakers constitute unfair assistance for some runners).

For events where dropping out is not a part of the contract, though, consider this: what motivation do the other runners have to follow the pace set by a rabbit when they know the rabbit will drop out? Put another way, what's the point of having a pacemaker run 3/4 of a race out in front and then drop out while still in the lead?

Perfect pacemaking requires the rabbit to hit exactly the requested splits at the designated milestones, but also requires the actual competitors to be close in with the pacemakers. Allowing the pacemakers to finish the race motivates the rest of the runners to at least keep them in sight, to avoid piracy. I've had a few things to say on this subject elsewhere.

If a pacemaker reaches their designated drop-out point but is still leading and (important point) still feels capable of holding the lead, they can actually continue to be useful by staying in the race. Some races pay pacemakers more the longer they can continue leading at the agreed-upon pace. In these cases the rabbit would drop once they found themselves falling off the pace (or, on the track, if the rest of the field begins passing them).


Mainly, for two reasons:

  1. The pacemaker is required to hold a certain pace for a certain distance, but there are no obligations afterwards. Things are done this way because people who hire pacemakers operate on the assumption that pacemakers will not be able to keep up with the stars in the last part of the race.

  2. There is a provision in the contract to the effect that the pacemaker has to drop out of the race after a certain point, and the pacemaker simply chooses to break the contract. As a consequence, the pacemaker does not get paid for his/her pacemaking services, but if he/she ends up winning the race, the prize money is likely substantially higher than the regular pacemaking fee.

  • I doubt whether organizations force pacemakers by contract to forfait the race after a certain distance. Do you have a reference for this? May 19, 2015 at 9:52
  • 1
    nytimes.com/2006/11/06/sports/sportsspecial/… "the New York City Marathon makes its pacesetters sign contracts requiring them to leave the race at the 25K mark"
    – Koldito
    May 19, 2015 at 9:59
  • I quoted some Wikipedia text. Whats your say on that? How does it help prevent those tactics of deception?
    – Del Pate
    May 21, 2015 at 14:26
  • N.B. while that NYT article was accurate at the time, the New York City Marathon no longer employs pacemakers.
    – pjmorse
    Feb 11, 2016 at 18:47

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