There is no doubt about it: the rabbit is an animal, to be precise from the family Leporidae of the order Lagomorpha, whatever “lagomorph” means. However, you may have heard it conjured up in a running race.
In this specific case, it is obviously not the animal but a particular type of runner with a specific function: to set the tempo and “drag” the runners, leaving them free to focus only on the race without thinking about timing and pacing. Why? Because those are made by rabbits, precisely.
Rabbit is also called pacemaker (as the device that helps the heart maintain a constant rhythm of beats, i.e., it is “the one that gives the rhythm”). Curiosity about reference animals aside, the question might arise: why do rabbits participate but not to win? For two main reasons: because their purpose is to help the runners by giving them the pace and because they generally do not keep the pace for the whole race but only for segments (it also frequently happens that they run the whole race). And also because it is a matter of honor: their purpose is to give support, not to compete.
It is actually not entirely true that they do not ever win. For example, at the Los Angeles Marathon in 1994 happened that one of the designated rabbit was Paul Pilkington, a seasoned marathoner who set off at a very fast pace until he broke away from the leading group. The arrangements with the organization were that he would run until the 20km mark but such was the lead he built up that he decided to continue, coming out on top of Italian Luca Barzaghi by a full minute.
A relatively new figure
The use of rabbit in running races is quite recent. One of his earliest appearances was in 1954 at Oxford, when Englishmen Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway were Roger Bannister’s rabbits that enabled him to break the world record for the mile with a time of 3’59″4, ending up being the first man to run this distance in under 4 minutes.
In contrast, one of its most recent and articulate uses was in 2017: in an attempt to run under two hours over the marathon distance in Monza, the three marathon runners who had issued the challenge were preceded by a phalanx of as many as six rabbits whose purpose was not only to make the pace but also to penetrate the air and “relieve” the contenders of some of the aerodynamic weight they would otherwise have faced, creating a propitious wake. In that case, partly because of the breakneck pace that Eliud Kipchoge imposed on the race, the six pacers alternated with fresh teams at a steady pace. Kipchoge did not make it but then accomplished the feat two years later, in 2019 in Vienna, when he managed to go under the two-hour mark.
But why specifically rabbit?
Yeah: why is it called like this? One possible explanation is related to the fact that its function is somewhat reminiscent of that of the animal, for at least two reasons: 1. because it is “hunted” (i.e., chased) by those who participate in races 2. because its fate-except in special cases such as the one seen before Los Angeles-is never to win and thus always to be out of the group of those who can rejoice over a major achievement.
Like rabbits in running races: used to doing a very important job for which they will probably not be remembered. Except when they ask themselves, “Why not try to win this race?” And they win it.