Meet the Runner Who Leads Every Pack, Then Drops Out

Erik Sowinski had one job earlier this month at the Millrose Games in New York: to run a half-mile, or about 800 meters, in 1 minute 53 seconds.

Before the race, Sowinski experienced his usual butterflies, an electric mix of nerves and excitement that signaled it was time to perform. Sure enough, Sowinski immediately bolted to the front of a 13-man field before an enthusiastic crowd at the Armory in Washington Heights.

As he circled the 200-meter track, Sowinski occasionally peered over his left shoulder. Behind him were Olympians and world-championship finalists who, in a twist, were depending on Sowinski to maintain his lead. And after a half-mile, his first-place split flashed on the video board: 1:52.99.

But Sowinski, who would later nitpick his effort as “a little quick,” did not win. In fact, he did not even finish. After running one more lap for good measure, he stepped off the track to cede the spotlight to the athletes behind him. They were running the mile.

Sowinski, 33, knows how strange it sounds, to be the best in the world at dropping out. But such is the life of a professional pacer, and no one, according to those most familiar with his handiwork, does it better.

“The faster the pace, the more there is that can go wrong,” said Yared Nuguse, a rising star who followed Sowinski at the Millrose Games before setting an American record for the indoor mile, finishing in 3:47.38. “You really need the right person for that job.”

Sowinski has spent recent weeks crisscrossing the globe to pace — or rabbit, in the vernacular of track and field — at high-profile indoor meets in Germany, Sweden and Spain. He paced two races on the same day in Boston. He then made a cameo in Boulder, Colo., where he lives (in theory), for a workout with the On Athletics Club before returning to the East Coast to rabbit in New York. Four days later, Sowinski was in France to pace a 1,500-meter race that Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the reigning Olympic champion, won.

“I think it’s a little more enjoyable for my mother,” Sowinski said. “When I used to race, she would show up to my meets and be too nervous to even watch. Now, she sort of knows what will happen.”

Sowinski, who grew up in Waukesha, Wis., and was a five-time all-American at the University of Iowa, still enjoys competing when possible. A three-time national champion, he finished third in the 800 meters at the world indoor championships in 2016. He has dipped under 1:48 — a sort of demarcation line for elite fitness — a total of 166 times, according to data collected by David Monti of Race Results Weekly.

Few middle-distance runners have ever been more consistent. The rare runner who has avoided serious injury, Sowinski cites a regimented before-bed routine that includes his use of a foam roller.

“I’ve never missed more than a couple days in a row from any type of injury,” he said.

And thanks to more than a decade of shuttling from airport to airport, he has over a million frequent-flier miles that he has never redeemed. (Someday, he said.)

He is missing one thing, however: a sponsor. Sowinski has been searching for a shoe deal since his contract with Brooks ended in 2020. Meet directors pay him — Sowinski declined to cite specific figures — but pacing is not a lucrative profession.

“I’d love to do this for another year or two, but I need to figure something out,” he said.

Oddly enough, few runners are more visible. Sowinski is guaranteed to lead the field for the first half of nearly every race that he enters, and many of them are televised.

The practice of pacing has its critics. On the sport’s biggest stages — at the Olympics and at the world championships, for example — there are no pacers, which means that competitors are responsible for the tempo themselves. It takes someone with guts to sprint to the front and set an honest pace for the rest of the field. In those races, tactics rather than flat-out speed plays a larger role in securing a win or a personal best.

To purists, rabbit-free racing is real racing. The author Pat Butcher makes that case in his book “The Perfect Distance,” which details the rivalry between the milers Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. Pacers, Butcher writes, are ruining athletics “because they are effectively being paid to lose.” A new phenomenon? Hardly. Butcher’s book was published in 2005.

In other words, pacers are not going anywhere — especially in the current era of super spikes and super tracks, twin pieces of technology that have helped milers run even faster. Athletes want to chase records. Fans want to watch them do the unthinkable. And meet directors are happy to oblige.

“It’s so much easier to run behind someone to take the edge off mentally and physically,” said Mark Coogan, an Olympic marathoner and the coach of Team New Balance Boston. “If you have a good pacer, you can try to relax for as long as possible before you have to take the race on yourself.”

Enter Sowinski, who never aspired to be a rabbit. (Once upon a time, he thought he was bound for medical school.) He did not make his first foray into the art of running fast for the benefit of other people until March 2019, when Nike, his sponsor at the time, asked him to pace a world-record attempt in the indoor mile at Boston University. Sowinski did well, covering the first half-mile in about 1:53 before he slowed to a stop so he could watch Yomif Kejelcha of Ethiopia break the record in 3:47.01.

It was a sign of things to come, though not right away.

After most of the 2020 schedule was wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, Sowinski returned in 2021. His mind-set then was the same as ever: to compete as an 800-meter runner. But after he raced in New York that May, an official for a top-tier meet in Gateshead, England, approached him about pacing the men’s 1,500 meters there — exactly two days later.

Sowinski boarded a trans-Atlantic flight and arrived hours before the meet. He proceeded to do “a good job,” he said — good enough that his pacing services were in demand later that week at another meet in Qatar. On the elite track and field circuit, word began to spread about Sowinski’s metronomic abilities. That summer, he paced about a dozen races in nearly as many countries.

As a full-time 800-meter runner, Sowinski never had to worry much about tempo or tactics since the event is basically an exaggerated sprint. He could turn his brain off.

“You’re just going out there and kind of dying,” he said.

The mile is different, more measured. Runners like Nuguse and Ingebrigtsen want even, consistent laps. And there is pressure on the pacer to get it right. Go out too hard, and an oxygen-deprived field could blow apart. Go out too slow, and the race could turn into a traffic jam.

“You want to be able to deliver for those guys,” said Olli Hoare, an elite miler who has dabbled with pacing for teammates at longer distances. “What Erik does is a gift.”

Sowinski hopes he has more opportunities ahead of him.

“It’s never felt like work,” he said, “and it still doesn’t.”

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