Run, rabbit, run: SPIKES meets one of the world’s best pacers

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King of the rabbits Matt Scherer (far left) trains as hard today as he did when he was competing. He tells SPIKES about his amazing 2012, and what it’s like to help David Rudisha break a record.

Why and how did you end up pacemaking?

I was based in Eugene and I couldn’t get into the Prefontaine [meeting]. Since I was local they asked me to do the pace. At the end of 2009 I was faced with a decision. I hadn’t run any PB’s in two years and I wasn’t making a lot of money. I had to either retire and get a real job, or try pacing. I did the pacing a couple of times and did quite well. It went from there…

Are you surprised at how well it has gone?

Yes, I am surprised. I didn’t know what to expect that first year. I thought if I did well in one race, it would allow me to do well at the next race. Last year was amazing. I got a lot of jobs because it was an Olympic year, and so many athletes were chasing times.

What are the qualities of a good rabbit?

You need a good sense of pace and also an awareness of what is going on around you. Most of the time I’ll aim to run within a quarter of a second of the time I’m asked to run. I usually know how the race is going to go down. So if I’m pacing for, say, [Abubaker] Kaki I’ll speak to either Kaki or his coach and manager to know what his plan is, and make the adjustment. My job is not only about setting the pace but to eliminate the variables.

Can you talk more about the different demands of the various athletes?

Kaki would talk me through what pace he wanted to go through the first 200m: low 24s, and then the second 200m: maybe 25 flat. Other athletes might want a more even pace. Last year I paced David Rudisha in New York, and he talked me through the fact he likes to sit three or four metres behind the pacemaker.

Pacing the 1500m and mile is a whole different challenge. For me the most important thing for any 1500m athlete is to not go off too fast, so I might wait 100m or 120m before I hit the front. Sometimes when you see a poorly paced race, a gap of maybe five metres develops between the pacemaking and the rest of the field. At this point many athletes’ mindset switches to: what sort of pace am I running, and should I go with the rabbit?

As a 1:46 800m runner, how does your training regime differ as a pacemaker compared to a competitive athlete?

The workouts I do are pretty much the same as when I was competing. The difference is I don’t have a phase system, so I’m not peaking one or two times during the year. I need to be able to comfortably run 50 seconds flat for 400m, from February to September. I also lead out almost every interval I run which makes sense as a pacemaker. 

Do you still have any personal athletics ambitions outside of pacemaking?

I don’t have any urge to finish the race anymore. When I made the decision to compete as a pacer, one of the big factors in that was being satisfied with what I’d accomplished. I don’t have any regrets.

Do you have a favourite pacing memory?

I have a favourite combination of races. Last year in New York I paced Rudisha to a North American all-comers record. Then I flew out to Vancouver the following day to pace Duane Solomon [Olympic fourth placer]. That was a cool memory for me.

The man in lane eight: Watch Scherer lead Rudisha through 500m to a WL 1:41.74.

Do you look up to any pacemakers?

David Krummenacker [2003 world indoor 800m champion turned pacemaker]. I watch his videos on YouTube. In my opinion he is the best ever. I can’t recall watching one video where he was more than two or three-tenths off the correct pace. I don’t remember him doing anything other than a perfect pacing job.

Would you recommend being a pacemaker to other athletes?

I would be a little cautious to recommend it. I think everyone’s primary goal should be to compete. Yet if an athlete can get into a situation where they are completely satisfied with everything they’ve done, it is a great way to extend your career for several more years.

For me personally, I never got over the hump to do much internationally outside of the US system. Now I travel the world and make a living out of it.

How much money do you make as a pacemaker?

I’d say the average race I earn close to $1500 [£962]. Last year I paced 23 races.

Some people see pacemakers as a bad thing for the sport. How would you counter that?

It is a little tricky. I don’t see anything wrong with pacers. They help athletes achieve times and set records, but I do see a place for races without pacemakers too.

You can see the rabbit in action in the men’s 800m at the British Athletics Grand Prix in Birmingham on Saturday, live on BBC One.