Escorting Paula

by: Weldon Johnson
April 7, 2003

Much ado has been made by the decision of the Flora London Marathon to use male pacemakers in this year’s marathon to help England’s Paula Radcliffe try and break her own world record.  Since I escorted Paula for 25 miles of her world record run at the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon, I guess it’s time for me to share my story.

I had been to the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon on 3 other occasions (running 18 miles of it as a training run in preparation for my Marine Corps Marathon victory in 1998, running an Olympic qualifying marathon time (and my previous personal best) of 2:19:52 (3 weeks after suffering food poisoning at the world half-marathon championships) in 1999, and pacing the group that included American Rod Dehaven at a sub 5 minute a mile pace for 20 miles in 2001.).  The Chicago Marathon is a first class event in a first class city so I’m always looking for a reason to go back.  Each time I went, even back in 1998 when I barely belonged, the race organizers and volunteers treated me like I was a star.

And rabbiting, although a difficult job in some aspects, pays very well in the world of running.  Outside of appearance fees (which I definitely don’t get) it is the only guaranteed payday in the sport (assuming you do your job correctly).

So a couple months before the marathon, I emailed Glenn Lattimer, who is in charge of the rabbits at Chicago, and asked him about serving as a rabbit.  A few days later, I got a call from an excited Carey Pinkowski, the race director, about possibly using my services again in Chicago, but this time in the women’s race as an “escort” for the lead women (more on the difference between escorting and pacing in a minute).  From talking to Carey, I could tell he was expecting something special in the women’s race in Chicago.  Not only did he have Catherine Ndereba, the reigning world record holder who smashed the world record the year before in his race, but he also had Paula Radcliffe, the new superstar in track and field, who many expected to take women’s marathoning to another level after her stunning 2:18:55 debut marathon in London. We didn’t talk too much about the specifics, but I could tell Carey thought the world record would be smashed at his race.

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Paula Radcliffe, with 's Weldon Johnson, en route to marathon WR #1 of 2:17:18 in Chicago in 2002 Paula Radcliffe, with ‘s Weldon Johnson, en route to marathon WR #1 of 2:17:18 in Chicago in 2002

I was excited Carey wanted me to be an escort in the women’s race, and I never had any qualms about doing it. There are some out there who feel rabbiting or escorting represents the end of one’s competitive career.  Well, I had rabbited the men’s race the year before so I don’t fall in that category.  And from what I heard, I guess some guys believe it’s a blow to the ego to escort a women’s race. I don’t see why at all.  Sure men in general are faster than women, but what does that have to do with anything?  The women marathoners now are running incredibly fast and I was excited to be able to do my part to help them run faster. My brother had escorted Catherine Ndereba for much of her race the year before, until she blew him away over the final miles, and had thoroughly enjoyed it. So, I had heard from him how incredible she was.  I had met Paula Radcliffe in the spring last year and witnessed some of her training, when I was getting treatment from her physio Gerard Hartmann.  Let’s just say I have never been more impressed with an athlete in my life.  If she really was going to take women’s marathoning to a new level, I felt honored to be able to do my part.

So now I had to get ready for the event.  In a way I was a bit relieved to be escorting the women’s race instead of pacing the men, because I had been injured for the entire year, and was a bit worried about my fitness. The year before I had done 20 miles at sub 5 minute pace, and figured that would be a stretch for me this year, although often the rabbits’s contracts are set up for going half way with bonuses for going farther.  I figured that even if the women smashed the old world record and ran 5:15 pace (2:17:33) I could handle the pace since it was 15 seconds slower than the year before.

That’s not to say I took the responsibility lightly at all. My coach, John Kellogg, told me that I had to treat it like I was preparing for a marathon of my own.  He stressed that I couldn’t just go out there and expect to run that long, that fast without specifically preparing for it. So, we scheduled into the training 3 longer harder runs at “race” pace for 13, 15, and 17 miles.  These runs are never a lot of fun, and are the grunt work of the marathon, but I managed them reasonably well (although my pace on most of them was closer to 5:20 I believe (2:20 pace), but I was able to really drop the pace at the end of each run, so I figured I had a little something left over.)

The week before the race I had a bit of a scare. I had travelled to Dallas for a high school reunion (had a really bad workout that didn’t help my confidence at all), and then screwed up my IT band on the plane ride home. When I went running the first day back, my knee felt bruised. I didn’t think much of it, figuring I had hit it on something.  Then, the next day when it hurt just as bad, I knew something was wrong.  I immediately got some massage work on it, and started stretching my IT band more (which was puling on the knee causing the pain).  The question now was whether to call the race and tell them of my problem. If I was racing myself, I for sure wouldn’t have called, but in this situation it was a bit different, as I could be jeopardizing someone’s chance for a world record and they could find a last second replacement. I decided to wait another day and see how it felt. It felt better the next day, and I was confident by race day and the taper I was going to do, I would be ready to go.

Heading into the race, there was a bit of uncertainty on my part as to what actual pace I would be running.  But I think that will always be the case in Chicago with the men serving as “escorts” for the women, not as rabbits.  The main difference is that as an escort, one is off to the side of the lead women, while as a rabbit you are right in front of them, trying to hit a designated pace.  An escort no doubt helps the runner with the pace by helping set a rhythm, but is in more of a supplementary role as in some ways you are just reacting to the pace set by the women.  As Glenn Lattimer had emailed me some preliminary instruction about 6 weeks before the marathon, “We want you to run at the side (off camera) more as an escort to set a rhythm, and to warn men runners that the convoy is coming through. We want to stress  the ESCORT nature rather than the pacing. Don’t hand the lead women water or start running alongside, coaching and encouraging.” Glenn indicated he expected the race could be around maybe 2:17:30 (he was only 12 seconds off) or faster.

When I got to Chicago, I was still a bit apprehensive about exactly what pace I was to be running.  I saw Gary Lough, Paula’s husband, and he too was wondering about the exact pace.  But gradually, I began to really understand that as an escort my role was slightly different than the year before as a pacer, and I was more responding to the pace set by the women.  Two runners from the Hanson’s Running Team, Brian Sell and Richie Brinker, were going to help out with the women’s escorting for 15 miles, and we had a pre-race meeting with Glenn. He reiterated that our role was to serve as escorts for the women, largely being off camera, trying to keep any male runners from getting in the way of the women.  He told us, we were in a way in charge of the women’s race, and could decide during the race if we wanted to all stay with the women’s leader or if we wanted to drop someone back to run with say a 2nd women’s group off the back.  One wrinkle was thrown into the plans as the forecast called for 20 mph headwinds the next day and obviously the goal was a new women’s world record.  Glenn said that if the wind was really bad we could get in front of the women to help break the wind a bit, but the decision was ours.

On race day, all the professional runners go to the basement of an enclosed building about 200 meters from the start line to rest and base their warm ups out of.  It’s an amazing collection of talent in one little room.  My main concern was the weather.  It didn’t seem as bad as everyone had predicted as it wasn’t too cold, but there definitely was a strong wind.   The wind was out of the North and should be in our faces for the first 7 miles and the last 4.  Before I knew it we were all on the starting line.  Instead of hearing people cheering for Khalid Khannouchi, Paula Radcliffe or Catherine Ndereba, all I could hear were the 2 loudest voices in the crowd yelling, “, yeah”.  I couldn’t help but laugh.

The race itself was a lot of fun once we got going.  When pacing or escorting, I’m always a little bit worried about the how the pace will feel and how fast we’ll go the first mile.  But the pace itself felt very relaxed and we did the first mile in 5:21 which is a bit over 2:20 pace, but the first mile is often the slowest in the marathon.

We soon started running quicker, and I was a bit surprised at how many men and women were around. Paula Radcliffe was in front of the women’s race the entire way, but Catherine Ndereba and Yoku Shibui of Japan were in the back of the pack that surrounded Paula. Often times at Chicago, there are very few runners running between 2:10 and 2:20, but this year there were at least 10-20 guys in the pack with Paula, Catherine and Yoku. No doubt some of them just wanted their brief moment in the spotlight, but with the strong wind the first few miles, I was relieved that there was a group of men racing around the women because they were helping break the wind.

I stayed largely off to the side and a bit behind Paula,for most of the first few miles and let Richie and Brian do most of the work up front which at this point consisted mainly of reminding the male runners to give the women room and not knock them down. We tried to be as polite as possible, but the biggest disaster for the race would be if one of the women was tripped. So on a lot of the turns, we’d get next to the women to try and give them a buffer and we’d verbally remind the men to give them room.  I was a bit paranoid perhaps, but most of the men were just running their own races, doing their best to hang with the women (none of the men would make it the entire way).  Only a couple of occasions did we put our arm on anyone (we found out afterward one guy was German so perhaps he didn’t understand what we were saying), and try and move them away.

As time went on, gradually more and more men fell from the pack, but both Catherine Ndereba and Yoko Shibui hung close to Radcliffe, well under world record pace.  I’m not sure if Radcliffe ever knew they were there because not once the entire race did she ever look back, but both Catherine Ndereba and Yoku Shibui hung around at the back of the group of men in contact with Radcliffe.  They never got in front of Radcliffe or even right next to here, but were within a few seconds for much of the first half of the race.  Shibui was the first to fall back right before half-way, but Ndereba was only 4 seconds back of Radcliffe at halfway, with both on world-record pace (1:09:03 for Radcliffe).

Soon after half-way, Ndereba fell back a bit more and we had a little bit of a dilemma.  We were running into a slight headwind, yet Ndereba was all by herself while Radcliffe still had us and a few other men as company.  I talked to Richie and Brian and we decided it would be best and fairer for the race if one of us dropped back to run with Catherine.  So, Richie dropped back to Catherine.  At one point I would guess she was at least 10-15 seconds behind, but by mile 15 when Richie and Brian’s escorting duties were over for the day, she was right back on Paula’s heels. (I’d like to thank Richie and Brian for doing an excellent job in their escort duties)

From about mile 15 on, there were very few men with us, and after around mile 18 or 19 no one at all. At one point, I yelled at one of the remaining guys to give Paula a little more room since I didn’t see why he needed to be right next to her since there was no longer a big pack of people.  I’m not sure he understood what I was trying to get him to do, so I kept trying to talk to him, until Paula blurted out, “he’s fine”.  With that I never said another word to him.

Although we were already well under world record pace, Paula had been upping the tempo a bit since around the half-way mark (and we had largely a tailwind behind us from miles 6-22 although it was at our face at times), and slowly Catherine Ndereba began to drop behind starting on the 16th mile.  Starting at mile 13, I had the next 3 miles in 15:30, then 5:13.9, 5:09.5, 5:10.5,5:09.5, 5:13.3 up to mile 20.  Catherine was only 20 seconds back at 30k (18.6 miles) while the men’s winner of the race, Khalid Khannouchi was believe it or not 20 plus seconds back at mile 23.

However, the difference between the men’s and women’s race was that Paula Radcliffe was pouring it on during the final miles of the race.  She never once looked to see where Ndereba was during the race.  If the 2nd half of the marathon really begins at mile 20, then Paula was in great shape as she ran 5:09.8 and 5:11.6 for the 21st and 22nd miles.

I had originally only planned on going 20 miles with the leader, but I felt good at that point and wanted to make sure Paula got the world record, so I continued on with her.  All along I knew we were on world record pace, and figured we were well under it now as the pace had quickened considerably since the half way point when we were on pace to break the record by almost a minute. I didn’t know exactly what pace we were on, but was definitely looking forward to a nice bonus (that I got if someone broke the record).

However, I had forgotten one thing, the wind.  It had been mostly at our back since mile 7 and had picked up some throughout the day (but you can’t feel it when it’s behind your back and forget about it). At the start of the 23 mile we made a turn to head north for home, and the wind hit us straight in the face.  The running got considerably tougher now, and I’m not sure what I was thinking except how difficult it was.  I knew in the back of my head it would be perfectly legal under IAAF rules to get right in front of Paula and help her break the wind.  But the race had stressed to us our roles as escorts, and plus at this point, I knew Catherine Ndereba was all by herself, so I didn’t feel it would be fair to break the wind for Paula (although I guess rabbits generally only break the wind for the leaders to begin with).  As we approached the clock at mile 23, I guess I must have been perhaps just a teeny bit worried about the record now that we were running into this killer wind because I calculated in my head what time we would finish at.  We were around 2:00:30 for 23 miles and I figured if Paula slowed with the wind and ran 5:20 a mile all the way in (we had been doing 5:10 or better recently), she’d still run around 2:17:30 and smash the record.

Paula asked me what the split for the 23rd mile and I looked at my watch and said, “5:23” thinking that was a perfectly reasonable amount to slow down running into a 15 or 20 mile an hour wind.  I was caught by surprise by Paula’s reaction.  “Whaaat”, she yelled, definitely upset.  I guess slowing down is not in the cards when you’re Paula Radcliffe.  She proceeded to put down her head and push the pace down faster, running 5:09 for the next mile with much of it into the same killer headwind. It was truly incredible (and painful if you ask me).

Little did I know, but on the 23rd mile when we slowed a bit, Paula was having some stomach problems (but I still contend the wind could have accounted for the 13 seconds we slowed). After the race she indicated she thought she might even have to stop and use the bathroom.  Thankfully, she didn’t tell any of this to me (and probably didn’t say 10 words to anyone the entire race), as I’m not sure what I would have done if Paula has just stopped on the side of the road, dropped her shorts and used the bathroom, all while under world record pace.  If I didn’t have a heart attack, I hope I would have had the decency to try and block the cameras from getting a good shot.

But now we were heading straight for the finish, and the world record was definitely going to be hers. Ever since mile 20, I had been wondering at what point I would quit escorting Paula. The end of the 25th mile is in an underground highway and right before we got there I decided that was it for me.  I had never planned on going the entire way and knew the race wouldn’t want me near her the final half mile (although I felt a twinge of remorse when I soon realized the next half mile was the only “uphill” part of the course).  I quickly told Paula that was it for me, and wished her luck, truly amazed with what she was doing.  Once we hit the 25 mile marker, I started jogging with a big smile on my face. My job was done, Paula would smash the record, and I could enjoy the final mile.

And I definitely enjoyed it. The marathon is a lot more enjoyable when you can jog it home. Once I started jogging, I began to wonder how slow I’d run it. For I figured if I had gone this far, I might as well get under the Olympic Trials “A” qualifying time of 2:20:00, but I wasn’t going to pick it up from my jog. The only good thing is after you’ve run 25 miles at 5:15 pace, a “jog” apparently is around 6 minute pace.  So I finished in 2:18:10 and got a marathon pr to boot.

As for my own “race”, or whatever you want to call it, it was definitely the highlight of my year for 2 reasons.  First, 2002 had been very frustrating for me in terms of my own running and I thought my comeback from injury was progressing very slowly. But I was surprised with how good I felt during the marathon, and ended up even setting a pr. It confirmed to me that I can run a lot faster in the marathon. Plus, I had been wondering what I was training for in the fall season, and after Chicago I felt like my season was complete and ended up taking some time off.

And secondly Chicago was a highlight of my year, because I got to do my little part to help make history.  Paula Radcliffe is simple an amazing athlete. It’s almost like she doesn’t even get tired during the marathon.  I don’t doubt for a second that she could have set the world record without any male escorts, that’s how good she is.  But nonetheless, after the race, her and her husband Gary must have thanked me a thousand times for doing what the race had paid me to do. That meant a lot to me.  I had met Paula and Gary at Gerard Hartmann’s office in Ireland and had seen first hand what an amazing athlete Paula is, but also her complete dedication, (and I mean total dedication that I honestly believe no other athlete in the world has) to the sport.  Plus, I had seen the team environment that surrounds her and how it is totally focussed on making Paula the best athlete she can be.  And now that means being the best athlete in the history of the sport.  It’s hard to believe but a year ago this week before Paula won the London marathon, she was regarded as a gallant loser by all of Britain.  But those around her, never once doubted in her abilities, for they had seen her day to day dedication and talent.  Gerard Hartmann’s office is really also an athletics museum of sorts. Its walls are covered with pictures and memorabilia from virtually every track and field star you can think of. However, when I was there, one athlete was conspicuously missing from the walls, Paula Radcliffe, the athlete Gerard works with more than anyone else.  I asked when he’d put her up on the walls. “When she wins a Gold Medal” was his reply indicating that’s how good she was.  If I was a small part of Paula’s team for a day, it means a lot to me.

And now I guess I have to say something about the “controversy” about this year’s Flora London Marathon having male pacemakers. For years, London protested that a women’s world record could be set with the aid of male pacemakers.  When Naoko Takahashi set her world record in Berlin in 2001 she had a group of male pacemakers that encircled her for most of the run. When Tegla Laroupe broke the world record in Berlin before that, she too had a group of male pacemakers. No problem, said the IAAF, male pacemakers are allowed.  So, now London which has a separate women’s starts, says fine, we’ll have male pacemakers too, and the IAAF objects saying they’re not allowed in a women’s only race.  This is ridiculous, hypocritical, and unfair on the behalf of the IAAF. Either women’s marathoners should be allowed male pacemakers or they shouldn’t.

Now it looks like the IAAF will ok it, on a matter of semantics since London is calling its women’s elite race, a small “mixed race”, saying the pacemakers will finish the race.  Yesterday, the IAAF gave it’s official ok to the male pacemakers, but saying it was sending a delegate to observe the race making “sure it is a proper mixed race”. As quoted in the Sunday Telegraph, the delegate will “be looking out to make sure that there is no theatrical pacing with four people running round one athlete – and we all know who – giving her drinks, shouting splits and then dropping out.

Excuse me if I’m wrong, but I believe Naoko Takahashi had 4 pacemakers around her for her record run in Berlin.  The IAAF needs to stop the grandstanding. This is not going to be a “proper mixed race” and everyone knows it. The men are there for one reason only, to pace the women.  No one cares whether they finish or not, and to be honest I don’t think many people care whether the IAAF ratifies the world record or not.

If Paula Radcliffe runs 2:15 with the help of male pacemakers, why should we care whether or not there are 15 skinny men ahead of her or not (which is what would happen if London just had one male and female race). She’s still running 2:15.  As long as the marathon itself is comfortable with having male pacemakers (it might make for bad television if they block the camera shots of Paula), I feel it is their decision to make.

And now that we’re talking about the time Paula can run, I guess I’m due for a prediction. Prior to Chicago, I heard rumors of Paula trying to run super fast there (looking back I can’t remember whether I thought 2:17:18 would be a suicidal pace or not. Probably so). I remember thinking, “This is the marathon. One has to start somewhat conservative so they don’t hit the wall.  It’s not a good idea to try and smash the world record”. Now I think a little bit differently. If anyone can smash the world record of 2:17:18, it is only Paula Radcliffe herself.  If it wasn’t windy in Chicago, she definitely would have run under 2:17. And from talking to her afterwards and seeing how she ran that 24th mile into the wind, I think she had a little something in reserve. In addition, she’ll have rabbits right in front of her instead of escorts off to the side which has to help some.  Plus, I get the impression that Paula wants to do something special at London this year (I can’t believe I’m acting like 2:17 isn’t special). She skipped world cross country this year to solely focus on the marathon, and this is her only marathon prior to the Olympics. So she might throw all caution into the wind and really go for it in London. What that mean’s I’m not sure. I had seen talk of 2:15:00 pace, yet even I thought this might be a little fast, as her fastest half in Chicago was ‘only’ 1:08:15 (2:16:30 pace – although the last 4 miles of that were into the wind). Now, however, I see press indications saying the pace will be around 2:16:00.  This sounds more reasonable to me, as in the back of my head I figured the weather could be a little better than Chicago (getting her under 2:17) and then Paula could find a way to knock another minute off her time. Maybe we’re all getting ahead of ourselves, as nearly exactly 5 years ago to the day of this year’s London Marathon, Tegla Laroupe ran 2:20:47 in Rotterdam for the new world record, and now we’re talking about Paula possibly running 5 minutes faster.  Amazing.

I for one will be staying up late next Saturday night to listen to the BBC’s online radio broadcast of the race. It definitely won’t be quite as good as being right off Paula’s left shoulder the entire way.  But I’m still excited about the race.

Weldon Johnson “Wejo” is one of the co-founders of He lives and trains full time in Flagstaff, Arizona. Click to here to email Weldon

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