Concierge coaching, where coaches, instead of supporting clients from the sidelines, join them at the starting line as “pacers for hire,” are being seen at big sporting events like the New York City Marathon, Ironman triathlon qualifiers, and bicycle races like Farm to Fondo. The question becomes whether or not this bespoke training is cheating or not.
Triathlons and marathons in long distance bike races are supposed to be individual events, unless otherwise notes. Recently, a friend of attorney Doug Landau and former track team teammate sent him an article from the Wall Street Journal, which described various older, wealthier athletes who, for a large fee, receive coaching services before and during their big events. These well to do athletes pay many thousands of dollars to have coaches help them prepare for a big event, and then race alongside them, carrying their electrolytes, phone, water, energy bars, GUs and whatever else they may need. While big races, especially marathons and half marathons Landau has competed in have official “pacers” at speeds from six minutes per mile and up, they are simply there to set a pace, not to push or cater to any one athlete.
Landau thinks that coaches who meet up with trainees at various points on the course are probably within ethical guidelines, as would be a coach who yells instructions to their athletes every time they pass on a multi-loop course. Landau has been watching the Olympic rowing regattas, and there are coaches on bicycles peddling along the side of the rowing venues, shouting encouragement and yelling splits. But he believes that this is a far cry from actually signing up for an event and participating with the sole purpose of not competing, but of propelling the client to a qualifying time and/or podium spot.
Of course, policing big races, especially those with thousands and tens of thousands of participants, spread out over hundreds of miles, will be difficult. However, allowing athletes to hire coaches to pace them during the actual event or to break the wind so that they can draft, probably should not be allowed. To give those who can afford “concierge service” this huge advantage seems unfair. What makes sport so important is fair competition. After all, the expression “a level playing field” comes from the realm of athletics. Race directors should try to ensure that all athletes have a fair and even chance.