Bonnie McElwee was running her second marathon, the now-defunct Freedom Marathon at Allerton Park.
She had no intention of finishing it. She was using it as a training run for another marathon, and she planned to stop when she got to 20 miles. McElwee had been running with a man who started giving her a hard time for stopping at 20 miles, suggesting she wasn’t tough enough to finish the race.
“I was newly divorced, and no man was going to tell me that!” McElwee said.
She finished the marathon in under 3 1/2 hours, not only beating that guy but also finishing as the first woman and qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
I’m pretty sure that guy was the only person who’s ever accused McElwee of not being tough.
“They broke the mold when they made her,” said Jan Seeley of Champaign, co-director of the Illinois Marathon and a longtime friend of McElwee. “She’s tough as nails. She’s 70 years old, and when she trains for a marathon, she’s doing speedwork, she’s doing repeat miles. She’s doing multiple 20-milers. She does not coddle herself in any way. She will go out and do 20 miles by herself, no problem. She has a tremendous work ethic.”
McElwee didn’t start running until she was 39. Her family has a history of heart disease, so she began walking a mile a day during her lunch hour at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Danville, where she was a nurse, but she soon grew bored and started running.
Since then, she’s run either 44 or 45 marathons -- she’s not sure of the exact number -- including six Boston marathons. In 2003, she placed third in her age group (60-69) at Boston.
She’s run the Pike’s Peak Ascent (a half-marathon up the mountain), and the full marathon, which is the round trip. She’s done several 50-kilometer and 50-mile races.
She’s done bike trips all over the country and in Europe. When she retired from nursing 10 years ago, she was paid for some unused vacation time and she bought two bicycles with the money. Her goal now is to bike across the United States.
McElwee ran her fastest marathon in her mid-40s -- a 3:21 at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. Running Grandma’s has become a tradition for her, to celebrate milestone birthdays.
“For years I said I hope I’m still running when I’m 60. I’m going to come back here and run on my 60th birthday,” McElwee said. She did so, along with 25 friends. And she ran it again for her 65th and 70th birthdays.
It’s one of four marathons she’ll do this year. She ran a marathon in Evansville, Ind., in April (clocking a 4:16); Grandma’s in June (4:18); Howl at the Moon, an eight-hour ultra run in Vermilion County in August (completing 36 miles); and she’ll run the Philadelphia Marathon on Sunday.
McElwee says she’s always been active and goal-oriented. She likes to challenge herself and see what she can accomplish. And, “I really like running marathons. There’s just something about them,” she said. “You have to know what you’re doing.”
Seeley calls her the “Energizer Bonnie.”
“She is definitively the matriarch of Champaign-Urbana running,” Seeley said.
“I think she’s uncomfortable seeing herself as anything special, but she’s really an inspiration to everyone,” she continued. “She’s performing at a very high level.”
Stan Shobe of Champaign first met McElwee while running in the UI Armory. He was a relatively new runner, and he asked McElwee and her running companions, “What are intervals?”
“She said, ‘Come on,’ and we’ve been running together ever since,” he said.
“She’s the only person I know who’s gone to Boston and actually placed. Yet you never hear her brag or anything. If you talk to her, you realize she’s a runner, but you don’t realize all her numerous accomplishments,” Shobe said. “She’ll do anything for anybody to keep them running or answer a question.”
Last year, Shobe volunteered with a program that paired Second Wind Running Club members with C-U Special Recreation to introduce athletes with disabilities to running.
“Because Bonnie had given so much back was one of the main reasons I decided to try that,” Shobe said. “I don’t think if I hadn’t known Bonnie I would have done that.”
Nancy McCarty, McElwee’s niece and a marathon runner as well, said her aunt helped her qualify for Boston so the two could run the 100th Boston together in 1996. The qualifying race was going well for McCarty until mile 22 or 23.
“I remember turning to Bonnie and going, ‘I can’t do this. I’m sorry I’m disappointing you, but I can’t do this.’ She said, ‘You can walk for two minutes,’” McCarty said. “It was her way of making sure I didn’t give up because we were almost there.
“There are kids that join the running program in their 20s that wish they could accomplish what she’s accomplishing in her 60s and now her 70s,” McCarty continued. “She plays the role of mentor within the club. She has her goals of what she wants to do, but she’s also very focused and committed to helping other people realize what a great sport running is, not only for the competition but for the camaraderie.”