Running for His Life

On behalf of his fellow marathoners, Tony Cheong ’89 sets the pace.

Tony Cheong ’89

Tony Cheong ’89 did not set out to become a runner. He did not set his sights on the New York City Marathon or the Boston Marathon, and he certainly did not intend to become a pacer with the Nike+ Run Club. And yet that would be him, setting the pace for the marathoners at his heels.

Cheong’s path to pace-setting began on a bitter November morning in the late 1990s, when he was living in New York and working in market data for Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal. Wanting to stay active, he looked around his apartment and noticed a pair of running shoes he’d bought—for walking. He vowed to run for 15 minutes. He lasted for 10. “It sucked,” he says.

So he set a goal to run one mile, then to reach the Brooklyn Bridge—a mile and a quarter away—and then to cross the bridge. “I told myself if I ever run across the Brooklyn Bridge, that would mean I’d crossed a barrier,” he says. “That means full commitment.”

“The emotional impact of convincing someone who has never run more than a mile to run three miles, and to look at their face as they finish … that has a real significant value.”

The day he finally achieved that goal did not exactly fill Cheong’s head with illusions of marathon grandeur. Still, in 2006, on a lark, he put his name in the lottery for the New York Marathon. He figured there was no way he’d get picked. Of course, he got picked. Suddenly, the guy who hadn’t run more than six miles was staring down 26.2. While training, he ran his first real race, the New York City Half Marathon—an awful experience, he says. But he figured if he could survive 13.1 miles, he could survive another 13.1 miles. Turns out he was right. During the full marathon that November, at mile 15, Cheong cramped for the first time ever. He willed himself to keep moving and finished the race in about five hours.

It’s a runner’s dream to compete in the Boston Marathon, and soon it was Cheong’s dream, too. While training, Cheong entered races sponsored by the New York Road Runners and for the first time heard his running colleagues rooting him on along the course. “That was yet another indication for me how much I had become part of this community,” he says, “and how much it was becoming a family to me.”

Tony Cheong ’89

When a friend asked him to become a pacer, Cheong had no clue what a pacer did. No matter—he said yes anyway. (For the record, pacers lead a group of marathon runners at a steady gait so they can finish within their goal time.) Cheong has been an official Nike pacer, a part-time job, for six years now. “The most significant part of all of this running has been how you can affect lives as a pacer or just as someone people look to for inspiration, for advice,” he says. “The emotional impact of convincing someone who has never run more than a mile to run three miles, and to look at their face as they finish … that has a real significant value.”

Cheong qualified for the 2013 Boston Marathon—the year of the bombing—and has run it every year since. When he’s not running on his own—he ran 100 miles over the course of 26 hours this summer as part of The Great New York Running Exposition—or setting the pace for the Nike club, he’s also a certified running coach, completing his professional pivot from the corporate world. And yet it’s not the running or the pace-setting that really matters to Cheong. It’s the community he’s met along the way.