Michael Harper glanced toward the man holding the cluster of yellow balloons. They spent 3½ hours together Sunday morning running the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. They hooked up before the race, stayed within shouting distance of each other for 26.2 miles and finished within seconds of each other. Still, Harper knew the man only as Bobby. "I don't know his last name,” he admitted, "but I couldn't have done it without him.” Bobby Howe was among the dozen or so pace runners Sunday in the marathon. Outfitted with green tops and yellow balloons, these men and women had a job that is as simple as it sounds and yet more complicated than you can imagine. No task during a marathon is more necessary and yet more thankless. Each pacer was assigned a finishing time. The lowest was 3 hours, 20 minutes, the highest 5 hours, and the pacers were spaced out in 10-minute increments. Howe was the 3:30 pacer. Like every pacer, he had a simple charge — finish the race in the allotted time, keeping a steady pace for the runners who follow and encouraging them throughout the race. Oh, wait. That's not simple at all. Nothing ever is when you're running 26.2 miles. Pacers aren't superhuman. They get blisters and cramps and aches and pains along the way, too. Sometimes, they stumble, and sometimes, they just have to stop when nature calls. But no matter what, they have to keep going. Other runners are depending on them. "It's not your race any more,” said Raton Parmain, who paced 3:50 along with Mary Minielly on Sunday. "You're part of the race support, really.” In a sport that is all about looking out for your own well being, the pacers take care of everyone else. "You're coaching, you're encouraging, you're doing whatever you can do to get those folks across the finish line,” said Kathryn White, who coordinates the pacers for Tulsa-based sponsor Fleet Feet. "About half of it's the actual pacing. The other half, really, is the encouragement.” White is a veteran pacer. She ran dozens of marathons before a friend asked her to be a pacer several years ago in Houston. She agreed because she ran with a pacer the first time she qualified for the Boston Marathon. White knew the power of the pacer. Sunday, she was the 4-hour pacer. Her time: 3:59:51. In addition to being ridiculously close to the 4-hour mark, White also finished the 89th marathon of her career. In addition to the pacing and the timing and the cheerleading, the pacers are actually running a marathon. What is a lifetime accomplishment for many is just part of the gig for a pacer. Crazy. Pace runners become like wallpaper at a marathon. Runners know that they're there. So do spectators. But you really don't take time to stop and take note of them. Unless, of course, they are your lifeline. That's what Bobby Howe was for Michael Harper. "How many people want to go to Boston?” Howe asked the runners gathered around him before the start of the race. Harper raised his hand. The Tulsa man had tried to qualify for the Boston Marathon a couple times before, but he'd missed the mark and failed to reach the granddaddy of them all. "I'll get you there,” Howe promised Harper. Howe worked to keep his group from thinking too much about the conditions, which included rain, cold and a stiff wind. He reminded them to stay hydrated. He warned them to watch their pace. He asked them trivia questions. Yep, trivia. A sample: What was the loudest movie ever made? Howe picked up a few trivia questions Saturday night when he went to see a movie, and the Tulsa native, who now lives in McKinney, Texas, used them throughout the race. Better for his runner to be thinking about the answer than how steep a hill was or how much their legs hurt. Who knows if trying to come up with the answer — "Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — might have kept a runner from worrying about aches and pains? Harper knows that everything Howe did helped him. "Never got out of my sight,” Harper said. "I was right behind him.” That is until the final stretch down Broadway when Harper sprinted ahead. "I came in under 3:30,” he said. His voice wavered. His eyes welled. Harper made his Boston Marathon qualifying mark by a full 30 seconds, and when Howe came in right on time at 3:30:02, Harper was waiting for him just beyond the finish line. "I couldn't have done it without you,” Harper said, putting his arm around the shoulders of the man holding the yellow balloons.
Pacesetter Bobby Howe finishes the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon on Sunday. Howe not only runs the marathon, he also serves as a motivator, helping runners achieve personal goals. BY BRYAN TERRY THE OKLAHOMAN