Two months ago, in early December, several hundred women traveled from various parts of the country to the California International Marathon in Sacramento, CA. They had just one goal: to break 2:45 and qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials. They had no idea they were going to be escorted by a trio of improbable big-dude pacers.

Let’s consider what it takes to be a good marathon pacer. You should have lots of marathon experience, right? Because stuff happens in a marathon, and you better know how to cope. You should be capable of running 15 to 20 minutes faster than your goal marathon time. And you should, ideally, be pacing in a low-pressure, low-stakes marathon, both for your own sanity and for that of the runners following you.

The 2:45 pacers at CIM—three big guys named Chris Stehula, Menso de Jong, and Ken Rakestraw—met none of these standards. Stehula, a stud swimmer-triathlete, had run just one marathon—a 2:55. His co-conspirators had never run a road marathon. And pacing for an OTQ? How does that qualify as low pressure?

Anna Li took a “Before” photo with the guys at Saturday’s tech meeting. She hoped to pair it with a beaming and successful “After” photo the next day. Photo courtesy Anna Li.

The Day Before

The trio first met the Trials hopefuls the afternoon before the marathon. That’s when Stehula was introduced at the CIM technical meeting. He couldn’t offer much proof about his and his buddies’ marathon qualifications, because they had none. At 6’3” to 6’5” and 175 to 195 pounds, the Three Big Guys didn’t even look the part.

Still, Stehula assured the anxious audience that the trio were all professional swimmers, cyclists, or triathletes with long competitive careers. They had trained for months to get ready. And they were committed to running “the 6:17 red line” from marathon start to finish.

Stehula later admitted that he wasn’t fully prepared for the pent-up tension in the room. “Kenny, Menso, and me were pretty pumped up before the meeting,” he recalls, “but this was the first time it fully hit us that, ‘Whoa, this is a really big deal for a lot of these women.’ I got chills talking to them.”

Apparently, his presentation was well-received. San Francisco marathoner, Anna Li, 31, felt optimistic. She needed that. Li was on a mission to cut 3:30 from her marathon PR, 2:48:25, which she had run seven weeks earlier at Chicago. “The pacers gave me such a positive feeling,” she says. “And I figured if they’re professional athletes, they must have marathon times in the 2:10s or 2:20s.” Li took a “Before” picture with the three towering pacers. She hoped it would pair well with a beaming “After” photo at the finish line.

Ann Mazur was so nervous at the tech meeting that she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She couldn’t take her eyes off Stehula’s “Boost Swimming” t-shirt. (He’s a head coach at the swim instruction company.) Mazur, 34, a Ph.D. English student known for her own business, is also a big swimming fan. She chatted briefly with Stehula, and decided she would use this swimming link to stick with him the next day. “This may sound goofy, but there could not have been a better omen for me,” she says. “I do a ton of my marathon training in the pool.” Mazur, from Charlottesville, VA, had a marathon best of 2:48:31 from the 2018 CIM.

At one point in his presentation, Stehula called out, “Who’s going for their OTQ tomorrow?” Katie Layman found her hand shooting instinctively upward. Way back in 2008, Layman had missed the OTQ by 46 seconds. Shortly after, she decided to “give up on my Olympic Trials dream” to concentrate on her teaching, getting married, and starting a family. She took eight years off from hard running, then did a few half-marathons, and had entered CIM “on a whim.”

Layman was 36 now, living in nearby Folsom, CA, with two daughters, 8 and 6. “There was so much energy in that room,” she remembers. “I felt it, and it got me fired up to hang on as long as possible the next day.”

Menso de Jong models the race shirt, with 2:45xx split times on back. Photo courtesy CIM.

The Early Miles

The next morning, as if their height weren’t enough to help them stand out in the early-morning dimness, the Three Big Guys wore strands of sparkly pink lights. Underneath, they sported black race shirts with every 5K split emblazoned in pink on the back. Confidence? Maybe. Hubris? To be determined.

The early miles proved unsettling for all. On the crowded roads, everyone had to keep their eyes down and straight ahead to avoid a disastrous trip and fall. De Jong felt self-conscious. “My stride was about 50% longer than those around me,” he recalls. “I was worried I was going to stomp on someone and end their race.”

Rakestraw fretted about the pace. There was only so much you could do in the tight confines, and it made no sense to waste energy weaving to and fro. “I was distracted by having to keep track of our times,” he says. “I was also checking to see how all the women around us were doing.”

Somehow, the Big Guys succeeded on all counts. From the very beginning, they maintained a steady pace that never waivered more than a couple of seconds from the 6:17 goal. A huge number of women ran with them. On a corner at the 10K mark, Stehula looked just ahead to a group clustered around de Jong, and also behind at the group running with him and Rakestraw. He estimated both packs at 100 strong.

Menso de Jong keeps a big group on pace. Photo courtesy CIM.

The Middle Miles

In the marathon, the going gets tough at some point. Period. You can only hope to push off the ugliness for so long. Ann Mazur got there too soon. At 10 miles, she knew things weren’t going great. This wasn’t one of those special days—not even close. “I definitely wasn’t having one of those marathons where you’re just floating along,” she remembers.

She developed quad tightness and began feeling “kind of blah.” To OTQ, she needed to run more than three minutes faster than her PR, and she had 16 miles to go. “I figured I had maybe a 50/50 chance of hitting my 2:45 goal,” she recalls.

Mazur hadn’t even planned to run with the pacers. They just seemed to be always near her. And of course they were impossible to miss, sticking out above the crowd. She hit the half marathon mark in 1:22:24, which she found “a bit nerve-wracking.” On the one hand, there she was—right on the cusp. On the other hand, 13.1 miles to go, and not feeling good.

She decided to reintroduce herself to Stehula, saying, “I’m the swimmer.” He remembered, and responded quickly: “Get right behind me. I’ll break the wind for you.” That theme kept coming up in the pack. Soon many of the women were calling the pacers by a new name: Windwall.

The Three Big Guys didn’t run like a wall, side by side at the front, but more like sheepdogs herding a flock. Someone would be at the front, yes, but the other two would drop back as much as 10 to 15 seconds looking for stragglers who needed help—a few positive words, perhaps, or maybe just a tuck-in behind a big wind break.

Layman was always nearby. Although her best was a 2:47 from 2008, she hadn’t run a marathon since 2011 when, just to prove that she could still go the distance post-first-baby, she had clocked a 3:36:23. To reiterate: Layman’s last marathon was 8 years earlier and 50 minutes slower than what she was attempting on this day.

Scared? You better believe it. Determined? Ditto. A plan? Yup. “I never looked at my watch,” she says. “Even though I had only met the pacers the day before, I trusted them completely.”

Ken Rakestraw and Chris Stehula lead the 2:45 pace group. Photo courtesy CIM.

The Final Miles

You know what they say about the marathon: The race begins at 20 miles. That’s true enough for many recreational runners. But things are different for runners attempting an OTQ. For them, the first 20 is a relative breeze. The Wall moves back to 23 miles. And takes a crushing physical and emotional toll.

De Jong felt conflicted in the final miles. He knew he had built a nice buffer of 15 to 20 seconds under 2:45 for the women running with him. But they were now catching runners who had been slightly ahead for many miles, but couldn’t maintain.

“It was tough to pass women slipping off the pace,” he recalls. “They were so close, and hurting so bad. I shouted encouragement to so many that I got hoarse. I wish I could have personally paced each of them. But I couldn’t slow down because that would have put the women with me at risk.”

Rakestraw felt the same remorse as he meandered around a bit, looking for runners in need. “There was pain on a lot of faces,” he says. “You could see how much they were pouring into the effort.”

One of those in pain was at his side—Anna Li. At 22 miles, she felt her stride growing ragged, the pace effort escalating. Rakestraw noticed, and told her to keep repeating a mantra: “I got this, I got this.” At 23 miles, he said, “It’s only a Turkey Trot 5K from here.” At 24 miles: “Look at that mile marker. Isn’t it beautiful?”

Photo: Luke Webster

Li agreed. It was a sight for sore eyes and legs. Now she urged herself forward: “Just hold on for twelve more minutes.” She reached 25 miles, tarried for a sip of fluids, and couldn’t re-attach to the pace group. As she stared frantically at the runners pulling away, she noticed Rakestraw looking back. “I knew he was looking for me and wanted me to catch up, but I just couldn’t,” she says.

Li hit the finish in 2:45:24—a PR by more than three minutes, but 24 seconds short of her big goal. Just past the line, she joined the celebration, congratulating those who had squeaked in. Someone asked her time. When she told them, everyone groaned out loud.

Later she sent a thank you note to the Big Guys. “Even though I missed my goal, you had an incredible impact on me that day,” she wrote. “You were just amazing.”

Mazur hit a mental block at 18 miles. For some reason, she was expecting to see the 20-mile marker. When she didn’t, and realized she still had eight miles to go, she thought, “Oh, no, two more miles than I thought.”

She realized she needed a boost, and came up with a comfortable refrain: “Just like swimming.” She kept repeating it as she followed close behind Stehula. “The pacing was like magic,” she says. “What were the odds that this awesome cool swimmer dude would end up being my pacer? It made me feel like this was just meant to be.” Mazur finished in 2:44:45, seven seconds ahead of her swimmer-pacer Stehula.

Yoga and swimming devotee Ann Mazur runs nearly a 4-minute PR to finish in 2:44:45. Photo courtesy Ann Mazur.

Stehula himself barely made it. “I couldn’t talk the last 10K, and I was cramping the last three or four miles,” he says. “I couldn’t have run another second per mile faster. But the buck stopped with me, so I drilled down really deep, and kept going.”

Just beyond the finish, Stehula mixed with the women he had been pacing for 26.2, trying to recover from the exhaustion he felt. He didn’t expect an emotional toll as well. “It was overwhelming,” he says. “The women and their thank yous were just awesome. I had trouble holding it together. But it felt really radical to help a bunch of badass women achieve their goals.”

Layman edged ahead of the pacers after 20 miles. She was feeling, oh, so good. She also felt lifted by a spirit she had not experienced in her races a decade earlier. “It’s difficult to put into words,” she says, “but seeing the way women distance runners have surged in recent years, many of them moms like me, has given me the confidence to dream big at any stage of life.”

Layman finished in 2:44:04. She was among 34 women between 2:44:00 and 2:45:00. Another 15 finished in the 2:43s.

A few days after the marathon, Layman emailed the Three Big Guys. “It wasn’t just your pacing that was perfect,” she wrote. “It was your ability to encourage us, support us, and keep the energy light and fun. To think that you dedicated months of training for one hundred percent selfless reasons. Words cannot do justice, but I wanted to thank you not just for helping us run fast, but for being good people who act for and together with others.”