A Few Steps to the Frontier

Pacemakers Make Their Mark

More than 60 years ago, almost to the day, a record-setting day made way for pacemakers to make their name in athletics. On May 6, 1954, a chilly wind blew across the railway tracks of Paddington station in London. To the visibly nervous man waiting to board a train to Oxford, it seemed all too fitting. His competitors had said he couldn’t do it. Experts and even doctors had claimed they knew it wasn’t humanly possible. And now even the weather seemed to mock him. 

The First Major Pacemakers

Those who were there remember that by 6pm the wind had suddenly calmed. Nature, it seemed, had agreed to witness history.  A run of 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds later, three men – Christopher Chataway, Chris Brasher and Roger Bannister embraced, cheered on by the thousands of spectators who had just watched Bannister accomplish a feat unheard of: running the mile in under four minutes.


It was Austrian-born Franz Stampfl, Bannister’s coach, who had suggested using two pacemakers to accomplish the feat, so Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher put their dreams on hold to help Bannister achieve his.



“I urged Chris to go faster because I felt so full of running. But he held his pace. It was key to achieving success that day,” Bannister said later.


And on that chilly spring evening the running world changed the way it viewed pacemaking.


The Selflessness of the Pacemaker

Lemawork Ketema, the Wings for Life World Run Global Champion of 2014 and 2015, will slip into an unusual role for this year’s race on May 8 – he’ll run as pacemaker for any runner who wants to go 18km before the Catcher Car passes them. He will start alongside 15,000 runners registered for the event in Vienna, Austria, and run to Vienna’s famous big wheel, the  Riesenrad.


The young running star, who hopes to race for Austria in the upcoming 2016 Olympic marathon race in Rio de Janeiro, unselfishly decided to pass on the gift of running rather than chase a third title in the world’s only truly global running event.


“Pacemaking is an artform and Lemawork loves to run. Combine both and you have him pacemaking for his own team, Lemawork Riesenrad. Everybody who runs in the Wings for Life World Run is invited to join us,” says coach Harald Fritz.

Time to Go Slow

To Lemawork, who has dedicated his life so far to becoming faster, going slower might pose the biggest but most entertaining challenge of his Wings for Life World Run career so far.


Instead of bolting along at just under four minutes a kilometre (his average speed at the 2015 Wings for Life World Run was 3:50 minutes) the Ethiopian-born runner will try to restrain himself to a pace of 5:36 minutes. If the group can keep its pace, the Catchers Car should overtake them right in front of the Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna’s iconic ferris wheel.

Human Stopwatches

What is new to the two-time Global Champion is second nature to others. Generations of young African runners have made their way on to the world-wide running circuit as pacemakers.  What sets them apart from the rest of us mere mortals is the precise pace they are able to run at.


“At a training camp in Kenya, we asked one of the young guys to pace for one of our runners. He paced her for more than 10 kilometres and when we clocked them he was one second off the given time. And no he wasn’t wearing a watch,” recalls Fritz.

But pacemakers not only serve as human stopwatches. Their job includes taking the headwind away, checking road conditions and making sure their group stays together.

Successful Pacemakers

Some pacemakers have gone on to huge success, too – sometimes in dramatic fashion. American runner Tom Byers was supposed to set the pace at the 1991 Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway. Instead of dropping back after the next-to-last lap, Byers kept his speed high and designated favourite Steve Ovett could only watch on as Byers went on to win the race.



And there was Paul Pilkington, who entered the 1994 Los Angeles marathon as a “rabbit” who was supposed to drop out after 24km. But Pilkington hung on and won the race in front of a roaring crowd – and triggered one of the more entertaining stories of recent running history: Italian Luca Barzaghi was so sure the pacemaker had dropped out that he slowed down before the finish line, expecting flashlights and cameras.


He got a silver medal.

Where are they now … ?

But what about the trio that started it all? Chris Basher went on to win a gold medal at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. Christopher Chataway became a successful businessman and politician and set a 5,000 metres world record before retiring.


Decades later, a man slowly made his way through a stadium in Oxford. His hair had greyed and he had swapped his white running jersey for a shirt, a tie and a red pullover. His strides had become a little shorter, his long sleek figure a little bowed. But he carried the Olympic torch for the 2012 London Olympic Games with the same dedication that had carried him over a mile.



You can still be a part of the Wings for Life World Run on May 8. Sign up now for a location near you or download the Wings for Life World Run app and say you'll be a Selfie Runner and join the world running together for those who can't.


(Photo Credits: Norman Potter/Central Press/Getty Images, Al Bello/ALLSPORT/Getty Images, LOCOG/Getty Images)

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