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.
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.