Edison students honor coach who didn't get to finish Boston Marathon
CHAMPAIGN — She wasn't able to finish the Boston Marathon this year, but students and staff members at Edison Middle School made sure Champaign runner Julie Mills had a finish line to run through this spring.
On a bright, breezy Thursday afternoon, Mills led a pack of Edison runners into school's playground and through a finish-line ribbon as friends, neighbors and Edison parents cheered.
Mills has been training Edison runners for today's Presence Covenant Medical Center Illinois 5K, and Thursday was their last training run. The runners, along with Edison teacher Conan Jurkowski, stopped when they were six-tenths of a mile from Edison.
Mills was that close to the finish line at the Boston Marathon on April 15 when she had to stop because of the bombings there.
Jurkowski then thanked Mills for sharing her passion for running with Edison's students, and for mentoring him. The group then ran for Edison, and surprised Mills with the finish line.
"I had no idea until I saw people clapping," Mills said. "This is incredibly sweet and totally crazy."
Mills called students who run cross country at Edison "the best bunch of kids in the world."
"I enjoy every minute I spend with them," she said. She plans to cheer on her runners by volunteering at the 5K. She's also volunteering during the marathon.
Mills coaches Edison's cross-country team, and Jurkowski coached with her for five years.
Jurkowski said he came up with the idea to honor Mills' 0.6 mile from Edison in the days following the explosions at the Boston Marathon
The day of the marathon, he and some students were tracking Mills' race online, as each runner had a computer chip that tracked his or her progress.
They saw Mills' progress up to the 40 kilometer checkpoint, but they didn't know why she hadn't finished. They thought maybe it was a computer error, until Associate Principal Julie Wallace told Jurkowski after school about the explosions.
"I did some quick math in my mind," he said. "My heart sank, because I knew she should be right around the finish at the time that the explosion occurred."
Students who know Mills also heard about the explosions and were worried, and parents were calling Jurkowski. They were also worried about Mills' husband, Pat, who finished the marathon before the bombs went off.
"We were worried that he'd been somewhere around the finish line," Jurkowski said, and trying to call Mills wasn't working, because of cellphone outages in Boston.
Later that evening, checking in on Google Person Finder, they learned the Millses were both safe and had been in touch with family members.
In the days following, he said, he started thinking about Mills and how much she means to him personally, as well as the students at Edison.
"We thought it would be nice to support her," he said, and her passion for running has transferred to students she's worked with and to Jurkowski as a coach. The school has a large cross-country team, Jurkowski said, with 60 to 70 runners.
"We just want to show our appreciation for her," Jurkowski said, adding that she puts in countless hours at Edison. "She's meant a lot to us."
Wallace said Mills starts working with Edison cross-country runners in the summer and continues working with them daily through October, and is known for building relationships with the students.
"It doesn't matter if you're the fastest runner or the slowest, she makes you feel special," Wallace said.
Wallace said knowing Mills and her husband were at the Boston Marathon at the time of the explosions made the tragedy seem more real.
"We were very, very worried," she said.
Edison has also asked Mills to be the keynote speaker at its promotion ceremony, Wallace said, and Mills accepted.