Stepping up their game

Stepping up their game

A Saturday morning run through campus has become a pregame ritual for University of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman and some area runners and Illini fans this football season. Whitman leads a group of runners on a 4.5-mile loop through campus on home football game weekends.

He started the Game Day Running Club because “I knew I was going to be running every Saturday anyway.

“It’s kind of fun for people to come and reconnect with the university,” he said. “It’s just a fun thing for people to do.”

Blog PhotoThe runs have drawn from 15 to 35 runners. On the Fridays before a home game, Whitman tweets about the runs, which start at 7 a.m. at the southeast corner of Hessel Park. This past Saturday’s Homecoming Day run was the first that preceded a home game with an early start this season.

When Whitman was asked if the pace would be faster than the usual 8:45 per mile, he said, “Maybe it should.”

He kept to that pace, though, and led the runners past Memorial Stadium and the early tailgaters and through campus, circling the Alma Mater and the Quad. People along the route greeted Whitman and the other runners with “Good morning, Josh,” “ILL-” and “Go Illini.”

The group — clad mostly in orange and blue — was even greeted by a Minnesota fan. (He was friendly, but he did not say “Go Illini.”)

When the group reached Florida Avenue and was nearing the stadium, Whitman said, “This is my favorite stretch. These people are great.”

Many of the tailgaters spoke to Whitman as he ran by, and the former Illini tight end caught a pass from one fan who was throwing a football.

Blog PhotoWhitman has been a runner for 11 years, starting as a way to get some exercise after he stopped playing football. For the first six months after he started running, he ran only on a treadmill, wearing old turf shoes.

“I didn’t have any idea what I was doing,” he said.

He now runs 4 to 6 miles, occasionally increasing his run to 8 miles, several times a week.

“For me, it’s a stress release. I do some of my best thinking,” he said. “The simplicity of it is what’s appealing.”

He ran in Ann Arbor on Oct. 22, before the Illinois-Michigan game. When he runs on a home game weekend, a number of regulars have joined him for most or all of the game day runs.

John Weaver of Champaign found out about the runs because he follows Whitman on Twitter.

“I thought, ‘That sounds cool,’” Weaver said.

Weaver has done four of the five runs, missing the run before the Purdue game because he was out of town. Weaver is a UI alum (Class of 1980, education), and he loves spending time on campus.

“I like that intangible spirit of being part of the university. I love the university, and feeling a part of it,” he said.

Blog PhotoHe also likes that the run allows him and others who aren’t big donors to spend time with the head of UI athletics.

“This is something that (doesn’t require) writing a check,” Weaver said.

Saturday’s run was the first one Tyler Uden of Monticello joined. He and his family are usually tailgating early.

“The weather was beautiful and I wanted to get out here,” Uden said, adding he wanted to meet Whitman and chat about sports.

“I hope one of the draws is for people to interact and ask whatever they want to ask,” Whitman said.

The pregame runs even inspired North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham to invite fans to run with him. He tweeted about a run on campus shortly after being in Champaign-Urbana for the UI-North Carolina game in September.

Whitman provides water and doughnuts to the runners afterward, and he posts a picture of the group on Twitter afterward.

“It’s a great way to start a football Saturday,” Weaver said.

 

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line.

 Photos: After running around the Alma Mater (top) and through campus (middle), Josh Whitman and the Game Day Running Club fuel up with some post-run doughnuts. The group, led by the Illinois athletic director, meets at 7 a.m. before home football games for a 4.5-mile run. Photos by Jodi Heckel

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