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Chicago Marathon, 2012: ‘People have discovered running’

Larry MoBib #127- Lakefront running 1978 Chicago Marathon

Larry Moon Bib #127- Lakefront, running in the 1978 Chicago Marathon

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TOday: Wheelchair start at 7:20 | First wave of runners starts at 7:30, second wave at 8. | Info: chicagomarathon.com

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Updated: November 8, 2012 11:58AM



Back in 1977, when Chicago’s 26.2-mile race was known as the Mayor Daley Marathon, a few of its original runners said they didn’t quite know what they were doing. And people didn’t quite know what to make of them.

That was a time before couch-to-marathon training guides. When Ron Williams of Downers Grove said he probably ran three marathons in the same pair of shoes and saw others racing in blue jeans — “it was crazy,” he said.

That’s also the year when Randy Burt’s pre-race meal was pizza and wine. It’s probably not the kind of meal he’d have today, now that he said he’s qualified for the Boston Marathon many times in the last 25 years. He and Williams have also run the Chicago Marathon every year and will do it again Sunday. Looking back, Burt said, he and his fellow runners were ahead of the curve in 1977.

Even if their non-runner friends didn’t get it.

“Back then,” Burt said, “we were looked at as oddballs.”

Now everything’s changed. Sunday’s Bank of America Chicago Marathon has drawn 45,000 registered runners from all 50 states and 115 countries. It’s estimated that last year’s marathon pumped about $220 million into the Chicago economy.

Four world records have been set here, and it’s one of the five World Marathon Majors along with Berlin, Boston, London and New York City. Registration for the race closed in six days this year, 25 days ahead of the last record set in 2011. It took 35 weeks for the race to fill up as recently as 2003.

“People have discovered running,” said race director Carey Pinkowski.

Talk of a marathon in Chicago began in November 1976, but it wasn’t until May 1977 that Dr. Noel Nequin of Swedish Covenant Hospital organized Chicago’s first “mega race” — the Ravenswood Bank Lakefront 10-Mile Run. More than 1,000 runners participated, and Mayor Michael Bilandic and his wife Heather handed out awards to the winners.

The support from Bilandic, an avid runner himself, gave the marathon’s founders inspiration to see if a marathon could succeed here. The original race on Sept. 25, 1977, had a $5 entry fee and 4,200 registered participants. The men’s winner was Dan Cloeter of Indiana with a time of 2:17:52, and the women’s winner was Dorothy Doolittle of Texas with a time of 2:50:47.

The course records are now held by Moses Mosop of Kenya for the men with a time of 2:05:37 in 2011, Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain with 2:17:18 in 2002 for the women, Heinz Frei of Switzerland with 1:26:56 for the men’s wheelchair race in 2010 and Ann Walters of Champaign, Ill., with 1:44:29 for the women’s wheelchair race in 1992.

Since 1977, the race has seen a handful of sponsors, though a half-marathon had to be held in 1987 because of a loss in sponsorship. Old Style signed on from 1988-1990. LaSalle Bank took over from 1994-2007, and the race became the Bank of America Chicago Marathon in 2008.

The race’s largest growth year was 1997, when it jumped to 16,372 registered participants from 10,925 in 1996.

Runners and organizers also have been forced to deal with extreme conditions. There was snow in 1993. And in 2007, they endured a record-setting, dangerous high temperature of 89 degrees that forced organizers to cancel the race while it was in progress. One runner died and hundreds sought medical attention.

The next year, marathon organizers instituted a new warning system including flags, signs and a public-address system to alert runners if weather conditions were becoming dangerous. 

Pinkowski, who became race director in 1990, said the marathon was still seen as more of an “extreme” sport when he arrived. He said the marathon was filled with former runners, people who ran in high school or college.

“It was really more of a competition,” Pinkowski said.

But he and others have seen the obvious rise in the popularity of running, especially around Chicago. Meg Sullivan, the training program manager for the Chicago Area Runners Association, believes the country is in the midst of another running boom similar to that of the 1970s. And she’s seen particular interest in the Chicago Marathon.

She said more people have shown up for CARA’s marathon training program this year than any other in the last five or six years. That training program celebrated its 24th anniversary this year, she said.

And like in the early days of the Chicago Marathon, she said the runners who started it didn’t have “all the Gatorade.” Sullivan — who said Randy Burt’s pre-race meal of pizza and wine back in 1977 doesn’t sound all that bad — said it was just a small group of friends who wanted to get a beer after their run.

“That’s basically how it started,” Sullivan said.



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