Considering that Bess Ritter had never run a marathon before Saturday, her goals were understandably modest.
“To have fun; to make sure I walked away from the finish line happy to run another one,” she said.
The Chicago resident accomplished that and much more, winning the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon women’s division in her first attempt at a 26.2-mile race.
In fact, Ritter placed first with plenty of room to spare. Her time of 3 hours, 9.48 seconds was more than 3 1/2 minutes faster than runner-up Olivia Klaus.
“I was quite surprised that there weren’t a lot of ladies breathing down my neck because I had to stop and stretch out a lot because I have a hamstring issue,” Ritter said.
Marathons might be new to the 26-year-old, but distance running is not. A native of Quaker Hill, Conn., Ritter ran for her high school team and later for Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. She’d also made the leap to half marathons and experienced success. In February, she finished second in the Hyannis (Mass.) Half-Marathon women’s race, setting a personal record (1:23:41) in the process.
But a full marathon?
“I was a little hesitant to do one early out of college because it’s a very long distance,” Ritter said. “I’ve had some trouble with injuries, and I knew building up the mileage to be a good marathoner was going to take a little while, so I kind of put it off a little bit.”
About a year ago, Ritter’s reluctance began to change. She joined the Fleet Feet Sports runners club in Chicago and proved to be good enough that she became a member of its sponsored team of about 20 runners.
Ritter’s plan to run in the 2013 Chicago Marathon was derailed by several stress fractures. But when her club mates began serious training for the 2014 Boston Marathon, Ritter was right there with them.
“I think I really benefited from doing a lot of my long runs with them,” she said.
Several of her teammates ran in last year’s Illinois Marathon and returned with positive reviews. For Ritter, that planted the idea of making her marathon debut in Champaign-Urbana.
“It’s a great course,” she said. “They have a great race organization, so I figured it was a good first try.”
For Ritter, the race appeared to be just the right size to cut her marathon-racing teeth.
“Rather than run a really big major marathon, I wanted to run a race where I could kind of set my own pace and not worry about crowds (of runners),” she said. “(Saturday) that worked a little too well. I was sort of alone for pretty much 18 (miles) on out, although the (lead) biker was very helpful. He was cheering for me.”
All in all, a memorable day for a marathon rookie.
“I’ve always thought I really would like the marathon distance,” Ritter said. “I think this (victory) is a good sign. I’d like to come back next year.”