Your best friend for 26.2 miles: the marathon pacer

Twin Cities Marathon
Runners run pass a curve on the Minnehaha Parkway near Nicollet Avenue South in Minneapolis during the 2014 Twin Cities Marathon.
Yi-Chin Lee | MPR News 2014

Sharon McNary will be running in her 137th marathon this Sunday during the Twin Cities Marathon — yes, her 137th. And here's the thing: she's not really even doing it for herself. She's doing it for other runners.

Sharon McNary and Ann Scholl
Clif Bar Pace Team pacers Sharon McNary, right, and Ann Scholl at a recent marathon expo where they answer runner questions in the days before the race.
Courtesy of Sharon McNary

That's because McNary is a pacer with the Clif Bar Pace Team, a group of experienced long-distance runners who help set the pace for racers at marathons and half-marathons. They also try to help runners finish within their goal time.

Acting as part coach and part cheerleader, they offer everything from encouragement to advice during those sometimes seemingly endless hills and miles.

As she says when she gathers runners ahead of races, "You're about to meet your best friends for the next 26.2 miles."

McNary is a reporter at Southern California Public Radio (which shares the same parent company as Minnesota Public Radio). She'll be leading a pack of runners hoping to finish in about 5 hours, a pace of about 11 1/2 minutes per mile.

McNary hasn't always been a runner. She ran her first marathon in 1991 when she was in her 30s, less than a year after quitting a longstanding smoking habit.

Over time, she began running two to three marathons annually. She did eight one year after seeing a friend complete a marathon each month.

Today, she typically runs seven to eight marathons a year, five of which are pacing. She won't do a raced marathon more than two or three times a year because "that's too much stress on the body."

That's because pacers generally run slower than when they race. Her fastest marathon finish is 4 hours and 5 seconds, well ahead of the 5-hour finish she'll be aiming for on Sunday.

It may be a much slower time than what she's capable of, but that doesn't bother her.

"It's a fun volunteer gig that I do where people can actually achieve their marathon goal time by running together with a big friendly group of people all trying to do the same thing," she said.

McNary began pacing through her running club in California.

"We decided it was more difficult for people to run if they're running by themselves," she said, so the club starting grouping people by speed with leaders.

During the Los Angeles Marathon in 2002, she was leading her group toward a five-hour finish when they crossed paths with the Clif group. As it turned out, they were looking for more pacers so she joined its team in 2003.

Twin Cities Marathon
Marathoners run on the Franklin Bridge shortly after the 19 miles mark in Minneapolis during the 2014 Twin Cities Marathon.
Yi-Chin Lee | MPR News 2014

You'll be able to spot her and other pacers during the Twin Cities Marathon because they all carry sticks with balloons. (The 10-milers will have pacers as well, from the Twin Cities In Motion Pace Team).

On how she paces — and motivates — her group

At the slower times, they take walking breaks, they talk and tell stories.

She even calls cadences (she's a military veteran) and sometimes has her group of runners sing as they run up those hated hills.

"I've gotten people to finish the marathon who have only done 10 miles in training," she said. "The bond with the group to just hang in there to get to the end, and it's really satisfying for me to see that I can help other people have a good time in the sport that I find so satisfying."

On what she'll never say to runners

Trying to fix someone's form during the race is a big no for McNary.

"I might sometimes call out to the general crowd as we're going up a hill, 'Heads up, shoulders down, nice easy arm swing, nice little short steps,' but for the most part people are going to run how they run," she said.

"Changing what they're doing or making them conscious of what they're doing in the marathon is not going to enhance their confidence," she added. "And marathoning is such a mental sport, you want to do everything you can to build up that self-belief, that self-confidence."

On the mistakes that she's made as a pacer

Clif pacers focus on finishing less than two minutes under the goal time, but never over.

In her very first pacing run, she didn't know that in the last mile she could actually slow down or even walk right before the finish.

"I did come in a tiny bit too fast," she said. "But I've never done that again. ... You learn where to take the extra time to burn off the clock if you need to."

What she'll be carrying on her belt

Some painkillers, Chapstick, Pepto-Bismol tablets, an extra pace band, her hotel keycard and $10 for some post-race coffee.

Her horror story

Every pacer has a horror story. Here's hers:

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