Amateurs pay trainers to enter marathons with them; ‘like a little concierge service’
By Hilary Potkewitz for the Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2019
Diane Reynolds had been racing for a few months when she won her first amateur cycling event, the Farm to Fork Fondo near Upstate New York’s Finger Lakes in August. She left more than 500 riders in the dust, including all the men.
The win earned the 49-year-old novice a jersey decorated with polka-dot chickens, but it didn’t come cheap: She paid about $1,000 for former pro cyclist Hunter Allen to ride all 84 miles with her as a private coach.
Mr. Allen, 50, gave her real-time pointers on pacing, technical skills and race strategy. He also ran interference for her. “Early on, there were about 10 guys riding hard taking turns up front—I was one of them—and I knew we were going to break away from the peloton,” or main group of riders, he says. “I made sure Diane stayed with us, sheltered in the middle and conserved her energy as we widened the gap.”
Dr. Reynolds, an anesthesiologist in Knoxville, Tenn., ended up setting a record as the only female overall winner in 27 Farm to Fork Fondo events, according to organizers. “It wasn’t like I qualified for the Olympics, but I hit my personal goal and that was a great feeling,” she says.
While coaches have long attended amateur races to support their clients from the sidelines, more are joining them on the starting line as pacers-for-hire. Instead of competing outright, they agree to race alongside their client as an ally. That means registering, putting on a bib and finishing with an official time—often torpedoing their own race to help a client achieve a goal.
“I haven’t run a marathon for myself since 2010,” says New York-based running coach John Honerkamp, who is training for November’s New York City marathon.
This will be his ninth year of shepherding celebrity clients through the finish line. Not that he’s complaining: In 2017, he helped supermodel Karlie Kloss cross the tape in 4 hours, 41 minutes and 49 seconds. In 2014 he paced tennis pro Caroline Wozniacki to a sterling time of 3:26.33. The last time he marathoned alone he finished in 2:44.22.
When he’s working a race, he’ll carry his client’s energy gels and cell phone, zip ahead to grab water or Gatorade, and block the wind to let them run in his draft. “I’m like a little concierge service,” Mr. Honerkamp says.
His fee starts at $5,000 and increases on a sliding scale based on time and effort involved. For a sub-three-hour finish, he charges about $10,000.
“I have to put a lot of work in to break three hours. I can’t just wing it,” the 44-year-old says. As a rule of thumb, he says he needs to train at a pace about 20 minutes faster than his client’s target. “The key is to be as relaxed as possible during the race so the person I’m pacing is comforted,” he says. “If I’m gasping for air, I can’t do that as well.”
Not all endurance sports take the same view of this bespoke training. Some see it as an unfair advantage to a few highly competitive amateurs who can afford it. Others are more blunt. “It’s cheating,” says Melissa Mantak, a triathlon coach in Denver. She was at a recent Ironman event in Boulder, Colo., coaching one of her athletes—from the sidelines, she says, where a coach belongs—when a nearby runner started to flag. The young woman’s pacer kept her in the race. “I could see him physically pushing her forward,” Ms. Mantak says. “I wish I’d taken a picture.”
The young woman finished second in her age group, nabbing a coveted entry to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Ms. Mantak’s client finished third and missed the cut. “It was very upsetting,” Ms. Mantak says.
Ironman and internationally sanctioned triathlons forbid racing as a team, among other rules. “The race is meant to be as much of an individual effort as possible,” says Jimmy Riccitello, Ironman head referee.
The rules don’t address coach-client racing specifically, he says, and violations are hard to prove. If a racer competing for herself sees a client struggling mid-race and gives encouragement or helps with a flat bike tire, that’s probably okay, he says. But if someone’s sole purpose for racing is to help a client qualify for Kona? “That goes against the spirit of triathlon,” Mr. Riccitello says.
Cycling is often a team sport, and a coach-client pairing is just another team, says Farm to Fork Fondo director Tyler Wren. He says the rides often draw cycling clubs and people with coaches training for other events.
This year’s Finger Lakes course had several flat sections ideal for race training, says Mr. Allen, the coach. When crosswinds picked up, he organized their group of 10 riders into a diagonal line called an echelon, a strategy to conserve energy more common in elite cycling.
“Hunter was doing his coaching thing, telling everyone how to ride in the wind and showing how an echelon worked,” Ms. Reynolds says. “They were all pretty psyched.”
Most marathons, including New York, have official pacers who run designated finish times for racers wondering about their own pace. Hiring a private pacer is just an iteration of that, says Rich Harshbarger, CEO of Running USA.
Mr. Honerkamp is training harder than usual for this year’s New York Marathon because he’s pacing chef Daniel Humm, a longtime client on a mission to break three hours. The pair teamed up for the 2018 race, running most of the way with retired competitive marathon star and mutual friend Meb Keflezighi and finishing with a time of about 3:10. That disappointed Mr. Humm.
“I think we could have broken three hours last year, but we were having fun with Meb and joking around a bit,” says Mr. Humm, 43. “I told John, ‘That won’t happen this year.’