A pacemaker or pace-setter (sometimes colloquially called a rabbit) is a runner who leads a middle- or long distance running event for the first section to ensure a fast time and avoid excessive tactical racing. Pacemakers are frequently employed by race organisers for world record attempts with specific instructions for lap times. Some athletes have become essentially professional pacemakers. A competitor who chooses the tactic of leading in order to win is called a front-runner rather than a pacemaker.
Pacemakers may be used to avoid the tactics of deception that are possible in competition by those who, for example, race away from the start line (and are likely to subsequently slow down), giving the other runners the impression that they are far behind. A trusted team of pacemakers who are paid to keep the runner at a speed that they can manage for the rest of the race become useful in such a situation. Pacemakers are also used on world record attempts in order to make sure that the runner knows where their invisible 'opponent' predecessor is at that stage of the race. Pacemakers serve the role of conveying tangible information about pacing on the track during a race.
Purists argue that employing pacemakers detracts from the competitive nature of racing. Original rules frowned on a competitor who was not actively trying to win, and pacemakers were required to finish a race for any record to count. This rule has now been dropped, though the pacemaker must still start with the other athletes in the race as a registered entrant. A lapped competitor may not act as a pacemaker.
The 1500 metres at the Bislett Games in 1981 became part of track folklore when star athletes including Steve Ovett chose not to follow pacemaker Tom Byers but race among themselves. Ovett's scintillating last lap was not quite enough to catch Byers, who held on to win by a few metres. A similar case occurred in the 1994 Los Angeles Marathon when veteran marathoner Paul Pilkington was paid to set a fast pace then drop out. When the elite athletes failed to follow his pace, he kept going, ultimately winning $27,000 and a new Mercedes to the surprise of the expected favorites. Also Brazilian Vanderlei De Lima, marathon's bronze medalist in Athens 2004 – famous worldwide for being attacked by a spectator while leading the men's Marathon – was originally a 'rabbit' at Reims Marathon 1994, the first marathon he ever raced and where he was supposed to be a rabbit up to the 21 km point, and won.
Pacemakers are also used in horse racing, where mediocre horses may be entered into major races specifically to set the pace for superior horses from the same stable. On a few occasions, pacemakers have finished ahead of the horses they were setting the pace for, such as when Summoner won the 2001 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, and At First Sight running second in the 2010 Epsom Derby ahead of his two more-favoured stablemates.
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