5K win a record-setting salute
CHAMPAIGN — Julia Williams had an orange ribbon pinned just above her left collarbone.
The color didn't have anything to do with finishing Friday night's 5K race at Memorial Stadium's 50-yard line.
For the 29-year-old Urbana resident, the accessory to her running gear had a more personal meaning.
Williams, who was the first female to cross the finish line with a personal record of 18 minutes, 30 seconds, wore the ribbon to honor Joe Seeley, the late husband of race co-director Jan Seeley. It was the first marathon weekend Joe wasn't around for after he died last October from a lengthy battle with leukemia.
"I'm carrying them in my heart," Williams said. "I thought about that all week and just tried to use it as inspiration. My previous 5K PR was the day after he passed away, so that type of inspiration just carries me. They were an inspirational couple, and just what they've done for this community, I felt that this was the best way to honor them."
Williams did so on a cool and breezy night, but both she and male winner Michael Straza cited the weather conditions as nearly ideal for running.
"It was a perfect temperature," said Straza, who crossed the finish line first in a time of 15:55 for his second straight 5K win. "If you want to be real picky, the wind was a little bothersome, but with where we were going, you couldn't tell, and it was almost a tailwind we had going through it."
Williams started taking up distance running competitively three years ago. She qualified for the Boston Marathon two years ago at the Illinois Marathon and ran in the 2012 event.
"I ran two years of cross-country in high school," Williams said. "I was all right and finished in the top third of the pack, but three years ago was my first half marathon here. This weekend is everything to me, and it signifies everything about running to me."
Williams was not in Boston less than two weeks ago at the site of the marathon bombings, but was glad to see the large turnout for the 5K. More than 6,500 entrants signed up to compete in the race and were urged on by large crowds through the course, which started at Oak Street and wound through the Illinois campus.
"The greatest thing is that everyone just wants to support what happened," Williams said. "I'm so happy to see people out here that aren't afraid to run. They're not living in fear, and I think this is the best way to honor the victims. Running is such a community sport, so getting the community back together was what was most important. I definitely feel it here."
The lower level of Memorial Stadium had a decent crowd gathered on both sides, with people lined up well outside the stadium waiting to get in 10 minutes after Straza crossed the finish line. After the race, spectators were only allowed to enter through one gate while bags were checked by security.
"It was like we were running at the Olympics," Williams said. "It was so cool to have a crowd like that. You never see crowds like that at local races, so it was just incredible. I thought that the wind was going to be an issue, but it wasn't at all. I think when you have that much adrenaline from the crowds, nothing else matters."
Not only did Williams set a PR, but she established a new top time for female competitors in the 5K. Megan Boyd established the previous barometer with a time of 18:51 last year.
"I'm beyond excited about that time," Williams said. "I was hoping to break 19 again, and my coach kept telling me, 'I think you've got more in you.' I was supposed to not break a sweat, but I just let the crowd take me the whole way."
Williams will have a quick turnaround to today's final day of marathon festivities. She is set to run the half-marathon, but doesn't expect to push for the top spot like she did Friday night. Williams is running the race with her boyfriend, Izak Van Rensburg.
"I probably won't beat him, but I could," she said with a laugh. "It'll be a real treat to run with him, and I'm just pacing him so he can hopefully PR."
In the brief history of the 5K, Straza has paced nearly the rest of the field. He finished second in 2011's first event with a time of 16:20 and won last year's race with a time of 16:28. This time, he surpassed his previous best time in Champaign by 25 seconds.
"My workouts have been showing I could run faster than I did, but I just wanted to get under 16 this year," Straza said. "I had a friend of mine that paced me for the first mile. It's a good step towards where I want to be. I'd like to be more towards 15:20, so I've got a ways to go, but it's definitely a good step."
The 43-year-old won't take to the streets today. But he will watch while his wife takes part in the half marathon. Seeing the race weekend evolve into what it has become in the past five years is a welcome sight for the avid runner.
"It seemed this year there were even more people in the streets, so there was cheering all the way through it," Straza said. "You don't see that for a 5K usually, so it was really nice. I just like it because I know so many people that keep on running it every year. More people I know are running it. It just keeps on getting bigger, and it seems like it's going to be a neat tradition as it continues to grow and be here in Champaign."
Getting a police escort into Memorial Stadium has become a common sight for Straza. Not that he minds.
"That's always exciting with the energy, the sirens, the people cheering and the lights when you come in here towards the 50," he said. "All of that is great."
So is, in Straza's opinion, the bonding the running community has gone through since the Boston Marathon bombings.
"Runners that I know, it touches a lot of them because I knew a lot of people that ran at Boston this year and were in that area (of the bombs)," he said. "It just brings everything to real life. It's more than running. It's people's lives."
Lining up at start (First Street and St. Mary's Road): 6:30 a.m.
Wheelchair half marathon: 6:58 a.m.
Marathon, relays, half marathon: 7 a.m. (wave starts)
10K run, walk: 7:42 a.m.
27th-mile celebration (Kirby Avenue, between First and Fourth streets): 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Youth race (Memorial Stadium): 2:30 p.m.
Post-race concert (UI Research Park): 5:30 p.m.