Marathon Pacers (or Pacemakers)
In a 2004 Guardian article commenting on the 50th anniversary of Sir Roger Bannister's four-minute mile, Pat Butcher suggested his run was one of the worst things that ever happened to athletics. It was "cosy, conniving and dishonest, and its seminal contribution to sport has been to ruin middle distance running worldwide." (Marathon running too, as today's race in London demonstrates.)
The reason is that Roger Bannister, like some of today's top marathon runners, cannot be said to have done it all by himself. His performance was influenced by 'pacers' – other runners whose participation in the 'race' was intended to improve Bannister's time. But at least both Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway (the pacers) actually completed the event as bona fide competitors. Not so in today's marathons. The pacers have no intention of completing the course and are often paid to do what they do, which is to enable 'real' contestants to cheat the opposition.
Cheating with pacers (or pacemakers)
I've only ever run one marathon, so I can't say exactly how the effect of a pacer improves another runner's performance, nor even if it really does, but that is the clear intention, so it's cheating. A group of pacers is often used by a group of 'real' runners to 'pull' them along faster and more steadily than they would normally run, until the tired pacers peal away to leave the remaining runners going it alone after gaining an unfair advantage over unassisted competitors.
It's clear that marathon pacers are not in the race, even though they might have completed the entry paperwork. They have no intention of completing the course because they can't complete it at the fast speed they're running. They are there purely to assist other runners. But let's not blame the pacers. They've only been asked to do a job. The blame lies with the running establishment who've allowed this practice to develop as part and parcel of the sport, and with runners who attempt to improve their performance by this artificial means.
Using pacers is quite a different thing to tactics and gamesmanship that take place in a genuine race and which make running an exciting sport. But everyone in a running race between individuals must be a genuine participant with the intention of competing all the way to the finish, following the rules and not deliberately helping (or obstructing) another competitor. This is surely a fundamental sporting principle.
Pacemakers in the London Marathon
In today's 2008 Flora London Marathon the elite women ran a clean race with no pacemakers at all, but the leading group of elite men and another group behind ran at least half the race with two pacemakers, pulling them along (according to the BBC commentators) at a faster pace than normal. One elite runner had his very own pacemaker.
Referring to the elite women's race, the commentators mentioned the fact that pacemakers had been "dispensed with" and that "they will have to decide for themselves how they want to run." Competitors in running races deciding things for themselves is certainly something to be encouraged. Then "I quite prefer these races without pacemakers. These athletes are here for a competitive race rather than a timed race." But in the elite men's race (presumably a 'timed' rather than a 'competitive' race) they noted that the small leading group, with two pacemakers at the front, was "too fast, stretched at an early stage," and were "tempted to say, one wouldn't be disappointed to see the black shirts [of the pacemakers] disappear." Earlier though, they said the pacemakers were doing a "great job" of pushing the pace to the benefit of some of the runners in the race but not others.
That the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations), the world governing body over marathon running, has allowed the sport to degenerate into such a cynical sham can perhaps be explained, in part at least, by Sir Roger's dubious sporting milestone.
Wired for improved performance
Nowadays, using pacers isn't the only way that distance runners can artificially enhance their performance. Drugs are obviously out of the question but a variety of electronic devices are now available to help a runner stay 'on pace'. Being able to maintain an optimal running speed throughout the whole duration of a race is one of the key skills in the marathon, and any device that makes this easier is going to spoil the purity of the contest and distort the outcome.
Marathoners who compete for prize money are apparently prohibited from using anything more high-tech than a stopwatch during races but other competitors carry heart-rate monitors to track their pulses, and beeper devices that act like metronomes to help stay in step as fatigue sets in. Yet others use music players to influence their mood when the going gets tough, or phones to receive encouragement from friends.
The use of such electronic aids may be less damaging to the principles of sport than human pacers but it still pollutes the purest and simplest athletic contest ever invented.