Since switching racing for pacing in 2013, top rabbit Bram Som, 37, has been the driving force in the world's finest 800m races. SPIKES catches up with the most punctual man on the athletics circuit.
At what stage in your career did you make the decision to move from racing to pacing?
It was not a decision like that, it was more a… I didn’t qualify in 2012 for the Olympics, so that year was pretty serious for me. The target for 2012 was ‘I will go for a medal at the Olympics and I have to go sub-1:43’ – that’s what we were aiming for. And then I pulled my hamstring and I was struggling. I took two attempts to qualify for the Olympics, didn’t make it, and then there was the last attempt and then I went home and it was over.
I woke up the next morning and the first thing I did was get my running shoes and just go for an easy walk. And I thought ‘OK, probably there is more than just running’, but I also realised that I really love running.
Next to that, of course, the financial pressure was there. I had a family, I had a young boy, and I couldn’t handle it anymore. I didn’t want to be constantly balancing on the edge of getting injured, so I decided to do a little bit less, step down. I think it was with Ellen [van Langen] at Global [Sports Communication] where I said ‘maybe I can do some pacing work, I still feel fit for that’. So that’s how it went.
Do you still remember your first pacing job?
Oh that’s a good question. No I don’t think I remember. It must be 2013, but I don’t know. Do you?
We can find out [it was the 800m B Race of the 2013 Doha Diamond League]. Do you feel any pressure when pacing?
Yes I do feel pressure, but it’s different. For most athletes there’s pressure like ‘can I reach top three?’ or ‘will I die?’ or ‘when will I die?’.
The pressure for me is not that. If they ask for a 51 flat or for 49.5, I want to be able to do that and do it balanced and reach as far as possible, 560-570m. You want to take them around with you and you have to do the right time.
Som's PB 1:43.45 – the Dutch national record – was set in 2006, the same year he became European champion
So do you feel you’re more in control of races?
Well, it’s the combination of you wanting to reach your time and taking them with you. You can run 50 seconds for 400 in ten different ways.
I remember when I was racing, there were races were maybe [Yuriy] Borzakovskiy asked for a 49.5 and you always knew, he won’t follow, he just wants to have a fast race. I would always think ‘ok what kind of race is it going to be?’ and I guess my advantage of knowing a lot of the athletes can help during the race.
What do you think is the hardest part about being a pacer?
Ehm… is there a hard part? [laughs]
No, I think the hard part is that you want them to follow you. So they have to trust you. They have to trust you will do a good job. If you start out in 22, they will leave a gap.
You have to give them the right pace and you have to leave them at a really high pace, so if you slow down, you also slow them down. You have to go out at the right time. If you analyse a lot of races, the fastest races are always the ones where there’s good speed from 400 to 600.
You mentioned that the field has to trust you. What’s your approach going into a pacing job? Do you try to get to know the runners you’re pacing before a meet?
I did that a couple of times when I was in a call room, where I’d say ‘guys I’m your pace maker, I will go through at 49.5 and I will push through to six [hundred]’. But most of them know me and I always try to have a small chat with everybody just before the race, before the warm-up or in the hotel. Or I speak to some managers to get a good understanding of how the race could pan out.
What kind of satisfaction do you get out of pacing given you don’t see the direct results for yourself anymore?
I remember when I was pacing – I think it was Brussels – I was pacing Mohammed Aman and he ran his personal best and finished in like 1:42.3 [1:42.37 – only world record holder David Rudisha has run faster since that race] and he was really happy. I was standing there at 600m like this [arms aloft, cheering].
So yes of course it’s special. Last year I helped pace a world record 1k indoors. It’s a grateful job, helping others achieve their goals. That’s how it feels for me. Definitely.
Have you thought about your time after pacing yet?
If somebody can do it better than me, then I’m done. My point of view is that there must be the best pace maker for these guys, so as long as they ask me to do it, I will go on.
And on the other side, I still have to enjoy training at the level of these guys. It’s not the only thing I do – I coach a lot of people, so I have to find the balance between training myself and doing the other jobs.
I really like to help people, both elite athletes like Faith [Kipyegon] or Robert Biwott, but also what I like to do is every year I coach a group of 40 people, regular runners, to the New York Marathon. I really like that, so I think this might increase a little bit in the next year.
You’ve experienced three different roles in athletics: athlete, pacer and coach. Which one do you enjoy the most?
If you’re an athlete yourself and you’re top level and you’re fit and healthy and getting good results, that’s what you enjoy the most.