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Jessica Kato, accompanied by Bailey Carlson, 12, cheers on runners approaching the finish of the Missoula Marathon and half marathon on the Higgins Avenue bridge Sunday morning.

KURT WILSON, Missoulian

When there are more than 4,000 runners in the Missoula Marathon events, it’s hard to stand out. Some folks wear fluorescent t-shirts. Others run in neon socks, tutus or costumes.

Margie Mendendez doesn’t wear anything over the top -- as she sports the yellow volunteer pacer shirt during the race -- but she does bring her gold pom-pon along for the ride.

“She's the ultimate cheerleader to help people get to the finish line,” said Trisha Drobeck, a fellow runner with Run Wild Missoula and four-time Missoula Marathon champion. “She just encourages people. I think people see her and they're like, 'Wow she's really enjoying herself, maybe I should enjoy myself like that. Maybe I should get into it.’ It takes a special person to spend their time doing that.”

Why the pom-pon?

Margie, 54, was a cheerleader during her high school days -- even winning the spirit award trophy one year -- and has shared her positive energy with others all her life.

That positivity shines through during the five hours she’s running the Missoula Marathon course.

As a pacer, Margie is responsible for helping runners -- many first-timers and those simply trying to finish -- get from the starting point to the finish line in five hours.

“The important thing about pacing is to be consistent,” Margie said. “The strategy of going really fast at first so you can run slower later never works. Likewise, running slow at first, which then puts you in a position where you have to really pick it up at the end when you’re really tired doesn’t work either. The best is just to figure out what your goal is and then figure out what your pace should be.”

Margie said she uses a pacing band during the race to know how fast she’s going per mile. As every mile goes by, she checks it to make sure she’s going the right speed and adjusts accordingly.

When they get to the 13-mile mark, that's when Margie said she really starts to cheer loud and encourage those running alongside her, as ironically there’s a hill on Big Flat Road that tires many runners out.

“That’s where I really have to dig deep and shake the pom-pon to get people up the hill,” Margie said.

Even though 2017 will be her fourth year pacing the five-hour marathon runners, she’s participated in some form of the Missoula Marathon weekend every year of its existence.

The first Missoula Marathon -- back in 2007 -- was Margie’s first marathon ever.

“I had been a jogger and I always thought I wanted to try a marathon,” Margie said. “When they announced they were going to have a marathon, I thought ‘Oh. This is it. I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna sign up.’ As soon as the signup opened, I signed up.”

Back then, the numbers were assigned based upon the order of registration, rather than having the low numbers reserved for the elite runners. She was the seventh to register.

On that scalding hot 100-degree day, Margie showed up to the race’s start donning the No. 7 bib. As she crossed the Orange Street bridge -- the only time the finish was not across the Higgins Street bridge -- she finished with a time of 5:45:28.

“Every time I drive across the Orange Street bridge, I think of finishing that marathon,” Margie said. “It always brings back such good memories.”

The 2017 Missoula Marathon will be her 20th marathon, as she’s since participated in marathons around the country -- Washington, D.C., New York City, Big Sur, California, San Francisco, Chicago, among others -- in the 10 years since her first.

Even though she’s run many marathons, she says she’s not a competitive runner. She just likes to do it for fun.

***

Margie’s marathon weekend schedule isn’t like anyone else’s, because after she works out for five hours running 26.2 miles, she hosts a barbecue at her house for marathon participants and their families and friends.

“The biggest event of the weekend is the barbecue at my house,” Margie laughed. “This is the weekend of the year to me. It’s bigger than Christmas.”

She doesn’t do everything all at once, though, and she doesn’t do it completely by herself.

She buys most of the groceries in the week leading up to the marathon. On Friday, she finishes work as an oncologist at St. Patrick Hospital around 4 p.m. After that, she goes home and rests. On Saturday, the pacers have a meeting in the morning that she goes to. After that, she spends time at home doing stuff around the house -- primarily her kitchen -- and goes to bed around 8 p.m. On Sunday -- marathon day -- she wakes up at 2 a.m. to prepare the meat by putting it into slow cookers before she leaves at 4:15 to catch the bus to the starting line.

Margie says her three sons help her out, as well as some friends and coworkers.

What’s for dinner? Margie’s originally from Georgia, so she likes cooking homemade southern cuisine. On the menu is coleslaw, black-eyed peas, collard greens, pimento cheese and pulled pork. Margie’s big finale is huckleberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream from Big Dipper.

“She defies physics with when she cooks things,” Drobeck said. “She makes all the food from scratch at her house.”

The motivation behind the low-key barbecue is Margie’s love to make people happy paired with getting together with everyone afterward to talk about the day.

“The whole weekend is a celebration of Missoula running,” Margie said. “The running community is really important to me. It’s really changed my life. The friendships and those bonds we’ve made are so meaningful to me.”

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