Race Pacers Opt Out of Running in NYC Marathon


NYC Marathon 1998. Photo: Associated Press

Runners flood the Verrazano Bridge during the 1998 NYC Marathon. Photo: Associated Press

Rain or shine, sleet or snow, Katie Foster and Mike Atkins of the City Sports run club lead a dozen runners on a 3 to 5 mile quest on the dark roads of New York City, once a week, in preparation for next year’s marathon, even though neither of them is going to run.

They are pacers, who set the tone of the race for runners who are among the 100,000 people who compete for the 40,000 slots. They train runners to be able to pull through each mile at a faster pace and to get through a marathon’s most grueling checkpoints.

City Sports, located at Rockefeller Center on 64 West 48th Street, is one of 19 metropolitan locations on the East Coast and has been serving the running community for almost 30 years.  The run club evolved when company owners noticed the influx in sales around marathon season, including running sneakers, apparel, and equipment.  “During last year’s marathon we nearly doubled what we normally make,” said Foster.  An average daily sales goal for the store is estimated at $16,000.  On the weekend, Foster said the store’s sales reach close to $19,000 a day.

Foster has been regional leader of the City Sports run club for a year and a half.  “I started running with the club and then I became a pacer,” she said.

Mike Atkins is also a pacer for the club.  “It’s easy for me to be a pacer because I run long distances,” said Atkins who runs an average of 30 miles per week.  “New York City is runner friendly so that makes my job much easier.”

Atkins moved to New York from Atlanta three years ago with his wife, and joined the run club because City Sports needed an athletic employee  who was an experienced runner. “Run clubs are great because you get to chat with people while running,” he said.   “A good pace is being able to have a conversation with another runner without struggling.”  Though he serves as a front-runner and never gets a chance to engage in light banter with others, he said he uses this time to focus on his breathing.

In the past two years Atkins has run a marathon personal best, a time of 3 hours and 11 minutes, which would be good enough to qualify him for the NYC Marathon; however, Atkins said he has no interest in running one.  “I don’t plan to ever run the NYC Marathon.  I like small races and I like to help others get ready,” he said. Atkins believes that the qualifying standards for the NYC Marathon have become unreasonable.  “If you work hard, you should have a spot in the race,” he said.  Instead, runners must compete in a series of qualifying races, with more than twice the amount of race-day competitors, to claim a spot in the 40,000 plus line up.

Running the qualifying time does not guarantee a secure place in competition.  Athletes who have cancelled running in previous marathons, because of injury or other valid reasons, are granted automatic entry.  If an athlete has finished 15 previous marathons, he or she is also allowed to compete without having to meet qualifying standards.  Runners can qualify for a full marathon by running a half marathon, or by being members of the New York Road Runners (NYRR) 9+1 club.

The NYRR 9+1 club is a program that allows runners to participate in long-distance races throughout the year.  In order to be an eligible member for the NYC Marathon, a runner must have competed in at least nine NYRR races, and volunteered to work at an NYRR race.

Foster said, “I haven’t run the NYC marathon YET!”  But she plans to be able to qualify after she completes the NYRR 9+1 program.  She said, “Only a few members of our run club have qualified for the NYC Marathon this year and even more are trying to qualify for next year’s run [by] doing the 9+1 with NYRR.”