An Interview with Dr. Smith of the Pasadena Pacers

Thousands of runners in Southern California have run with or been cheered on by the Pasadena Pacers, easy-to-spot in their bright red t-shirts. Recently Leanne from Stride sat down with Pacers co-founder Dr. Steven Smith to talk about the origins of this free running group. Want to get involved? Visit the Pasadena Pacers website or visit Dr. Smith for all your running needs and injuries.

How did the Pasadena Pacers start?

It was 1996 and we (wife Robin and I) started the Pacers because I was trying to get people to exercise. And I couldn't get them to do it, they just wouldn't do it. So, I spent about 6 months inviting people to come down to the Rose Bowl and run with me personally. I told them they'd only have to run 1 minute and, if they could just run one minute, we would get them through the next minute. We did it one minute at a time. We spent 10 weeks getting up to the point where they could run 10 minutes, and walk 1 minute.

What was behind you starting the Pasadena Pacers?

We had a lot of people who were too sedentary. I had a young family and the father had been promising me to get on an exercise program and he dropped dead of a heart attack on the golf course and left behind a 2-year-old child and a very sad wife. I finally thought, 'OK, I need to do something about this.' So, we typed up a letter and sent it out to all our patients. I sent it out to my patient list and I invited everybody to come down. Then, everybody I talked to for several months I invited. I'd say, "Hey, come down to the Rose Bowl to run with me.”

I sat knee-to-knee with people in my practice and I'd say, 'Hey, Fred - I wanted to talk to you. You need to get on an exercise program. I see you're gaining weight, your energy level is low, you're not getting enough movement, you're sitting a lot. And I'd like to help you.' I'd say, 'If you can just peel the sheets off your face and put some shoes on - that will be the hardest thing to do. If you can do those two things for me, I'll do the rest. Just meet me down there. We'll go run together for a minute and I promise you, within a few weeks, you'll start getting better and getting in shape. In a few months, you'll be in fantastic condition.'

It was June 6 of 1996 when Robin and I had planned to meet everyone we had invited down at the Rose Bowl. It was about 5 minutes until 7am and there were only two people there - my wife Robin, and I. We thought, 'OK, well...that didn't work. At least we tried.' Then at 7 o'clock, cars came from every direction. We went from, 'Oh well, that was a big failure' to 'Oh wow! What are we going to do with all these people?!'

I didn't tell them that it was a marathon training program. I thought that was too much - people wouldn't do that. They couldn't confront that. But that first year, we had 11 or 12 runners in the 1997 LA Marathon and every one of those runners cried when they got down to the mile 20 cheer station. When they crossed the finish line, it was a sobbing mess. It was really cool. Up until that point, it was a fitness program. After that point, it was more a program of the human spirit.

The Pacers have a wonderful volunteer program that runs the organization. How did you start your volunteer program?

It has always been a volunteer-led organization and the coaches were all volunteers. I think diverse leadership is really important. It's like having diverse genes - it makes healthier organizations. We found out very quickly that there's untapped potential that lives within every person and that if left to its own devices, it will grow into something far greater than if you had never put it to the test. We found out that we could build better community leaders by letting them lead. We had a lot of people that had the potential that never had the opportunity to stand in the light and give direction and use their talents and exert themselves. And they became better people! They just became better. The wins that have come from the leadership development have been just as great as the wins that have come from the community development and the athletic development.

One place where thousands of people in LA have seen the Pacers is at their huge 20-mile cheer station during the LA Marathon. Tell us about that.

The thing about the 20-mile cheer station [at the LA Marathon] - that's probably the biggest and most important volunteer thing. We've been doing it since the very start and we cheer for our runners as they go by. The runners know that we're going to be there at Mile 20 so they look forward to it. We have flag runners that meet them on the course with a little flag and they run them into that station with them. They get cheered for and cared for and their feet are rubbed and they get whatever they need.

The thing that's probably the biggest win is when the people who do the cheering and support imbue that runner with some enthusiasm and admiration, what happens to the runner is quite visible to the people who support them. It renews the knowledge that you can have a profound effect on others through admiration and praise and support. If you can do it to a single runner on a single day, you can do that to the people you're with all the time. I think it creates little points of power within the community that is a really valuable thing. I think it changes the spirit of the community. It raises people up. To me, that's probably one of the most powerful things about having an organization like the Pacers, or any other place where you lend people your support. They don't have to do that. And if they've never done it before, they don't know that's going to happen to that.

It's awesome to stand at the cheer station and see the lights go on as they go, 'you know, I have quite an effect on people.' That's probably the most valuable thing about the volunteer program and that's why they keep coming back.

Photo courtesy of the Pasadena Pacers facebook profile

Photo courtesy of the Pasadena Pacers facebook profile

You've now known thousands of runners intimately since you started the Pacers. What are some of the most common things you hear from people when they start?

One of the most common things I hear is, "I'm not a runner." I hear that all the time. I tell them that they come from a genetic lineage of 5 million years of runners and they're the descendant of that and that they were born a runner and that just needs to be rehabilitated. And that we can fix that.

What do you think keeps people coming back?

This is just my own philosophy of the running neurology that takes place in your head, but there was once a primitive thing where we had to go on the hunt together. But there was also a connection that had to exist between you and your fellow hunters. When you ran together, you had to be able to decode the human emotion that was taking place in the person next to you, so that if they were in great shape or bad shape, that had a lot to do with your own survival. You had to be able to look at the person next to you and decode their condition in order to know how much to depend on them. At the same time, you had to use your intellectual processes to look ahead and decide how to make your next move. For example, if you're chasing an antelope and had to go up into a dead-end canyon, that took a little computational power to figure out how to do that. Then, you had a tracker who would make sure if he went into the herd, you could get the same one out, since you wanted the one that was tired. All of that caused primordial connections within the brain to fire back and forth, thinking, automatic muscle function, the seat of human emotion, the fusiform gyrus which helps us decode facial expressions - all that stuff gets switched on and starts snapping and popping with electrical impulses flying back and forth. That stuff goes dormant. But the minute you put people in a group and have them run together, that ability comes back - all that switches back on again. And they connect with the people next to them in a way that's a big surprise. That's the most common thing that's sort of not spoken about - maybe not even intellectualized - but, I see it all the time. It's there if you look, you can see it happening.

And of course, the wins at the end of the first marathon or first half marathon. If you put fleas in a jar and they jump up and down they'll keep hitting their little flea heads on the lid. But after a while, you can take the lid off and they'll jump no higher - they'll never get out. Finishing a marathon shatters failure and it allows people to reinspect their lives and go, "Where else did I think I was inhibited and couldn't win? let's rethink this. What could I do now that I thought I couldn't do before?" I think they reorder their ability levels and they go on to make great breakthroughs after they finish that first race.

What about taking the Pacers beyond Pasadena?
Well, we've got 3 organizations that are really solid now - I have a book on how to start your own Pacers group. I have a whole kit for how to get connected on the website, The website is ready to host them all - where it says Find a Chapter. Once that is up and running, we're going to start gaining momentum. I want to see hundreds of these clubs all over the country and all over the world. I'd like to see it happen where we can raise the health and spirit of the communities - not because I have a big ego and I want to say 'i did that' It's because I want to see the effect it can cause on human kind. I really believe that we can raise people up, make them healthier, make them happier and give them something else to do besides read the news and be in despair. I think we can cause peace to break out. We really could if we would just all work towards getting people out together and switching on that primitive thing that makes people better people. I know that's pretty damn lofty and maybe a little bit Pollyanna for some people but Robin and I know that can be done and we're going to do it.