- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 11, 2004

For Easter Sunday, this column is dedicated to our sport’s most famous running rabbits — as well as a real bunny, one of my house rabbits, Wicked Pete, who died Good Friday.

Pacing goes back decades in the sport of track and field and road racing. It is as old as it is controversial.

Though many athletes and race promoters have used rabbits to lower finish times, probably one of the most successful uses of the pacer was 50 years ago, when Roger Bannister engaged pacemakers Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway through three laps of his famed sub-4 performance.

Big-time track meets almost always use pacesetters to push for faster times and more exciting races. And marathons have followed suit.

Two great marathon hare stories come to mind.

The first was perhaps the most famous rabbit story of our time. Ten years ago, officials at the Los Angeles Marathon hired Paul Pilkington to take the leaders through the halfway mark in 1:05.

Pilkington at the time was a 35-year-old, 2:11 marathoner who was getting paid as a pacer for two to three marathoners a year. He started with the 1992 New York City Marathon and had done such a nice job there, just two seconds off the halfway split, that he was in demand.

Now remember, he was only supposed to run 13 to 15 miles at Los Angeles. But after only seven miles, running precisely on pace and way out ahead of the leaders, he started thinking nobody was going to catch him. Through the midpoint and all alone, he decided around Mile 15 not to drop out. He won in 2:12:13.

Funny, the pack could not keep up. Even funnier is that runner-up Luca Barzaghi of Italy figured Pilkington had dropped out along the way and that the Italian was victorious at the finish. He was unhappy to hear that he had finished 39 seconds behind an out-of-view rabbit.

The rabbit won out again at the 2001 Chicago Marathon. Elite Kenyan Ben Kimondiu, 23, was hired to go 18 miles, drop out and receive $5,000 for his efforts. He was being paid to set up five-time world cross-country champion Paul Tergat to break Khalid Khannouchi’s world record of 2:05:42.

As it turned out, Kimondiu was feeling pretty good, decided to keep going and Tergat couldn’t catch him. Kimondiu won in 2:08:52, with Tergat second in 2:08:56.

“Talk about a rabbit running wild, $90,000 isn’t bad for a young man who wasn’t supposed to finish the race,” executive race director Carey Pinkowski said afterward.

The women have had their share of rabbit controversies, the most famous being the Tegla Loroupe world-record run in Rotterdam in 1998.

Shortly after breaking Ingrid Kristiansen’s 13-year-old mark by 19 seconds, the 24-year-old Loroupe was besieged by complaints that two Kenyan male runners might have assisted by pacing her during the world record attempt. The pacers reportedly took turns breaking the wind for Loroupe, urged her on when she slowed down and guided her over the shortest possible route.

Many record keepers in the sport did not count her effort as a world record. Many of these same scribes did not use any female world records set in mixed races, because the top women do run with the sub-elite men and could be assisted.

Who really cares who paces what? One year I played rabbit to an American record attempt in the Masters Mile at the Mobil One meet. I was 37, and that time, sub-40 was not considered masters.

The women in a few of the major marathons like London, New York and now Boston have separate starts, but as in New York, they still mix with the slower men over much of the race. Are the men pacing the women there?

Maybe not, according to the great American roadster Lynn Jennings, who once said: “What makes you think masters men aren’t pacing off of me?”

China bound — Local elite Naoko Ishibe was selected as the alternate on the U.S. women’s team for today’s Beijing International Women’s Ekiden. The 26.2-mile road relay with six legs will be contested on the streets of the Chinese capital and the 2008 Summer Games host city.

For those unfamiliar with the Ekiden format, the relay legs are 5K, 10K, 5K, 10K, 5K and 7.195K.

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