URBANA — Melissa Filbey Pillari was in a running clothes store in November when she overheard a guy talking about a flat course in Illinois that runners could use to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
"Being nosy, I asked where," said Pillari, 61, of Bay Village, Ohio, near Cleveland.
When the Urbana native looked up the Illinois Marathon online and discovered the route went past the home where she grew up, she began training in earnest.
"I've only run two marathons in my life. One was 20 years ago, and I said, 'That was fun, but who has the time for all that training?' Then, eight years ago, I had two sons running in Phoenix, and I thought, 'What a kick to run with my sons.'
"The last six miles, I promised myself I would never do that again. Then, kind of like childbirth it had been long enough to have forgotten how bad it was I heard about this," said the mother of four children and four grandchildren with another on the way soon.
It wasn't merely her family home being on the route that snared her. The Urbana portion of the marathon is peppered with memories that made this her "sentimental journey."
Besides her family home at 305 W. Pennsylvania Ave., the route went past her grandparents' former home at 706 W. Pennsylvania. It skirted Lincoln Square, where she met her husband, Tom, while working at Carson, Pirie, Scott, and past First Presbyterian Church of Urbana at 602 W. Green St., where they married in 1972.
It also went past Clark-Lindsey Village at 101 W. Windsor Road in south Urbana, where her late parents, Nate and Mary Lou Filbey, spent the last years of their lives.
It was her father, a certified public accountant, who sparked Pillari's interest in running, so she dedicated the run to him. He died 10 years ago.
As she crossed the marathon finish line in Memorial Stadium about noon Saturday, Pillari's eyes became wet with emotion.
"I couldn't help but think of all the times my dad sat in those stands cheering on his beloved Illini and that I went to school here," she said. "I felt like he was here cheering me on."
A lifelong educator who now works with dyslexic students, Pillari got her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the UI.
"We're entrenched in the UI," she said of her family. Her grandfather helped start the accounting program at the UI, and her mother, Mary Lou Filbey, was an assistant dean of woman who founded the UI Mother's Association.
Her father was one of the founding partners of the accounting firm of Filbey, Summers, Abolt, Good & Kiddoo in Champaign. He began running in the early 1960s, before it was common for common folks to run.
"People would stop him as he ran down Pennsylvania and say, 'Hey Nate, do you need a ride?' He started running when he was in his early 40s. He ran until shortly before his death. He stopped in his late 70s, and shortly after that, he started having health problems," she said.
"He said, 'I knew my body would go downhill after I stopped running. I just didn't know it would be that quickly.' He's the example that has caused me to run," Pillari said.
Pillari also dedicated the run to her brother, who can't run. Ned Filbey, 58, has cerebral palsy and lives in a group home in St. Joseph. She gets to Illinois to see him about twice a year.
The course being rich with fond memories for her, Pillari persuaded her husband and five friends to run it as well. She even wrote a landmarks guide for them, heavier on Urbana references than Champaign.
Tom Pillari, a 63-year-old lawyer, had never run a marathon.
"Running through Urbana was like deja vu. We ran past the church where we were married, past 305 W. Pennsylvania where we had our first kiss. The emotion is pretty strong," he said, adding he's not planning a repeat performance.
"No. I did this for my wife. It was important to her, and she's very special to me," said the obviously proud husband, who finished about 40 minutes ahead of her in spite of taking a spill a few miles before his finish.
Recently, Tom Pillari surprised his wife with orange and blue T-shirts he had made for their group's trip to Urbana that said: "I'm with Melissa." His wife's said, "I'm Melissa" and on the sleeve "NVF 2001," the initials of her dad and the year he died.
Compared to her other marathons, Pillari said the temperature was better and the flat course more forgiving, but the wind was a bit of a challenge.
Her daughter had downloaded music for her to listen to along the way. The first song to come up — randomly — was "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge.
"It was fabulous. It was a real sentimental journey. I felt dad was with me," she said.
"Am I sorry I did it? No. Will I do it again? No."