Illinois Marathon: Aging gracefully
CHAMPAIGN — It’s nine days before the first official event of the fifth annual Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon — the Health and Fitness Expo — and Jan Seeley is sitting in her downtown Champaign office with fellow race co-director Mike Lindemann for an interview.
Quickly, it’s apparent that Seeley is powerless to resist a series of soft yawns, betraying the sleep deficit that already has taken hold on one of the two busiest people in Champaign-Urbana these days.
Seeley and Lindemann will tell you this is a year-round undertaking, but clearly the time demands and activity ratchet up considerably as more than 20,000 entrants prepare to descend on the Twin Cities later this week.
“We’ve created this behemoth,” Seeley says at one point.
Of course, Seeley and Lindemann went into this with their eyes wide open when they — along with four other individuals (three of them also locals) and Urbana-based Christie Clinic — purchased the Illinois Marathon from founder Mark Knutson following the 2010 race. The current co-directors had been hands-on from the beginning when the event took its tentative first steps in 2009, accompanied by just under 10,000 runners.
When Knutson put the Illinois Marathon up for sale, Seeley and Lindemann learned that Dallas-based US Road Sports & Entertainment Group was interested, raising the very real possibility that the local input and connections that Knutson encouraged would be lost. The worst-case scenario, Lindemann says, was that US Road Sports eventually would move the marathon. As the owner of about a dozen marathons all located in large cities, the location of the Illinois Marathon didn’t fit the company’s profile.
Lindemann and Seeley couldn’t let that happen.
“We feel like we are the guardians of this amazing thing,” said Seeley, whose passion for distance running long ago manifested itself in her other full-time job as publisher and co-owner of Marathon & Beyond magazine. “It’s such a privilege and honor to be in charge of it.”
That thought sustains Seeley and Lindemann in these busiest days before the Illinois Marathon — when their cellphones seemingly never stop ringing, the emails and texts pile up in rapid-fire succession, and sleep is a luxury that can’t be afforded for too many hours.
Not that they don’t have help. An undertaking of this magnitude — to borrow a phrase popularized by Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was first lady — takes a village.
There is a race committee of 65 with a variety of duties. There are 57 sponsors, providing much-needed financial backing and services.
For the 2012 Illinois Marathons, about 70 law enforcement staff from six different area agencies worked the event along with 30 public works and 50 medical personnel.
Then there are the volunteers — about 3,000 strong — without which the Illinois Marathon would not be possible.
“To me, it’s just the involvement of the community,” Lindemann said. “Each year, people have stepped up.”
People like Mary Anderson and Kim Nystrom and Brandon Wilk.
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Anderson has served as coordinator of volunteers since the Illinois Marathon’s inception. In that role, she oversees the various categories of gratis help — from those stationed at each intersection of the course during the race, to those who assist inside Memorial Stadium (site of the finish line), to those who help with the Expo, to the early risers who answer the 4 a.m. call on marathon day to set up barriers, cones and signage along the course.
Being married to a runner, Anderson says, was the impetus to get immediately involved when the Illinois Marathon was created.
“Every time I went to one of his races, I always felt I would enjoy the behind-the-scenes part of it,” the University of Illinois graduate said.
Anderson not only volunteered for the 2009 event but was appointed to organize 2,000 of her like-minded brethren that year.
It didn’t always go smoothly. Thirty minutes before the inaugural Expo, Anderson was on her own in getting the volunteers situated in their various tasks, and one impatient person was not pleased with the pace of Anderson’s organizing efforts.
“Who’s in charge?” she loudly asked. “Whoever’s coordinating this, I could do a better job.”
Anderson admits the incident shook her and remains an indelible memory. It did not, however, deter her from coming back in the same high-responsibility role every year since.
“That was a rare occurrence,” Anderson said, “and it amazes me every year the thousands of people that come with a positive attitude and are so flexible, and just come with a smile on their face ready to support the runners and make it an event for the runners.”
There’s another reason for Anderson’s strong attachment to the Illinois Marathon.
Childless when she first volunteered, Anderson and husband Andy Roberts now have two daughters — Rosalie and Eloise — each born about nine months after the local race. Mom proudly refers to them as her “marathon babies.”
“The first definitely was,” Anderson said.
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Nystrom got involved in Year 2 after reading an email from Seeley seeking volunteer help. Nystrom was agreeable, with the caveat that it would involve “using my head.”
No problem. She was appointed to co-organize the Pasta Feed that is held the evening before the marathon. Although she did yet know it, Nystrom wasn’t done volunteering that weekend.
While reporting to the race committee after the Pasta Feed on how things had gone, she was told her services sure would be helpful the next day, too.
“It’s one of those situations where there’s so much going on race week, and if you’re hanging around, you get pulled in,” Nystrom said. “There’s plenty to do.”
Early the next morning, she was back on campus, helping check in volunteers at Memorial Stadium. Then Nystrom pitched in some more by helping to haul “more bananas than I’d ever seen” into the Great West Hall for runners to munch on after the race. It didn’t escape her attention that only a few boxes of bananas had not been consumed by day’s end.
“I knew the event was well planned,” Nystrom said, “but I recall thinking, ‘If you can plan a race for this many people down to five boxes of bananas, I want more.’ ”
So Nystrom now is an annual volunteer. For the past two Illinois Marathons, Nystrom worked in the stadium press box — site of the Race Operations Center — as the course intersection team coordinator.
She’ll do so again this year but retains fond memories of her time working in the marathon’s Banana Republic.
“I itch to come back down to the first floor and help,” Nystrom said.
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Wilk is the ultimate volunteer multitasker. He has unloaded vendors’ goods for the Expo. Helped distribute race bibs — a numbered attachment with a computer timing chip — to the entrants. Transported reserve volunteers to course intersections when race officials learn they’re unstaffed. Been behind the wheel to pick up any runners who decide not to complete the race or to offer assistance to course volunteers.
Wilk even helps with course setup, arriving well before sunrise on race day, “and I don’t stop until 7 or 8 p.m. that night.”
All this, and he doesn’t even live here anymore, having moved from Urbana to suburban Chicago following the second Illinois Marathon. What prompts Wilk to make the drive each year from Elgin?
“I helped with the first marathon, and it was such a success that I want to help continue that success for as long as the marathon will be around,” he said. “I have also built awesome relationships with race organizers and made a point to help them in any way possible.”
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Nancy McCarty admits she’s biased when it comes to the Illinois Marathon. A townie who graduated from Champaign Central High School and the University of Illinois, she ran her first marathon in 1994. When it was announced that her hometown would be hosting such a race, “I was really excited,” McCarty said.
McCarty ran in the first Illinois Marathon and hasn’t missed one since. She was particularly curious about how the event might be greeted. Embraced? Ignored?
Resented for the congestion and traffic disruption it might cause?
“On race day, (I was) just really surprised and proud of how people came together,” McCarty said. “Just really enjoyed the fact that when I was running you could see people outside their homes cheering on runners, thanking runners for coming to town. So it was just a proud moment to see the community come together for it.”
In the years since, McCarty has seen not only a growth in entries but increased spectator attention paid to the race.
“They’re making a party of it,” she said. “They have their neighbors (over); they’ve got their lawn chairs; they’ve got food. You see more of that now than you did those first couple years.”
McCarty, who typically runs three to four marathons a year, gives the Illinois Marathon high marks for being organized and responsive to complaints and suggestions. But don’t take her word for it, she says. On her travels to other marathons, McCarty sometimes will wear an Illinois Marathon shirt to the packet pickup or to the runners’ expo.
Almost invariably, someone will notice.
“And they’ll make a comment, “Oh, I did that marathon. I did that half-marathon. That was a good event,’ ” McCarty said.
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The Illinois Marathon can’t afford to stand still, Lindemann and Seeley say. Distance running is a growth industry, and their race faces plenty of competition.
“I always said, we don’t have oceans, or mountains to run through, or big skylines to run through, so we have to do something to make it more attractive for (runners),”
Lindemann said. “We have to do something to make this race better each year. We don’t rest on our laurels. You just raise the bar experiencewise.”
One of the major changes occurred in 2011, when a 10-kilometer race was added to a menu that included the marathon, half-marathon, marathon relay and 5K. The 10K attracted 1,999 entrants in its first year and grew to more than 2,500 in 2012.
“We worried about (runners) overstepping what they could do and doing that half-(marathon) when they shouldn’t,” Seeley said. “And now we’ve given them that middle step.”
The real boom area, though, has taken place in the Illinois Marathon’s shortest race (youth run aside, of course). In the inaugural year, 2,215 runners entered the 5K, which is held on a Friday. Last year, 5,721 ran in that race, and Seeley indicated that entries for the 2013 5K were about 1,000 ahead of that figure.
“That’s where (fledgling runners) are going to come in,” Seeley said. “They’re going to come in at the entry level. We like to think of our races as a nice ladder that helps people progress.”
Seeley might be proudest of the introduction of the I-Challenge in 2011, although she readily acknowledges that local organizers “stole a page from Disney.” She was referring to the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend, which offers a two-day pairing of a short race with a long-distance event. Last year, 2,301 Illinois Marathon entrants took the I-Challenge — running the 5K and then either the 10K, half-marathon or marathon a day later.
“We’re catering to the current mentality of runners, which is more better, more bling,” Seeley said. “Three medals? I’ll do that.”
Another significant change was the introduction of the wave start in 2012. To lessen course congestion, entrants for the Saturday races are grouped according to their estimated finishing times. The fastest runners leave in the first group, followed in staggered succession by seven other groups with increasingly longer estimated times.
Lindemann says the system relies on entrants being candid about their expected finish times and isn’t foolproof, but it has lessened the congestion experienced in past races, particularly in Urbana’s Meadowbrook Park.
“The feedback we got was good,” he said.
Sometimes, change comes after overlooking a small but important detail. McCarty recalls the year the doors to a line of port-a-potties near the starting line faced in the direction of the starting area. The lines of runners waiting to use the port-a-potties before the race were long enough to overlap the starting area, where other runners were preparing to take off.
On the event’s website the following year, McCarty says, organizers made a point of announcing “And yes, the port-a-potties at the start area will be turned the right way.”
And sometimes change is thrust upon the race organizers. With work currently taking place on installation of a massive videoboard in the horseshoe area of Memorial Stadium, the direction of the 5K race was flipped this year and instead will finish at the north side of the stadium.
But most changes come from brainstorming and runner feedback. It’s imperative, organizers say, that such feedback be taken seriously. Given the widespread competition in marathon racing and the growing power of social media to spread complaints, Lindemann says, they can’t afford not to be responsive.
“That’s really the bottom line,” he said. “One bad experience, and they’re telling 10 or 15 other people.”
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What’s in the future for the Illinois Marathon? Continued tweaking and the likelihood of more runner-friendly offerings, such as this year’s addition of a postrace concert in the UI Research Park.
But don’t look for continued expansion of the race itself. The course is close to maxed out on the number of runners it can accommodate. The finite amount of lodging options available to visitors is also a consideration, so the event has just about hit its ceiling on entries, at least for Saturday’s races.
Nor are there any current plans to offer the kind of prize money and airfare it would take to attract elite runners that headline the fields in the biggest marathons.
“At this point we haven’t gone there yet, and I don’t know if we will go there,” Lindemann said.
Instead, it’s enough that the Illinois Marathon is solidly entrenched in its niche of the marathon world. In Year 5, it’s an event that routinely draws entrants from throughout the United States and beyond. An event that is acquiring a growing reputation for being runner-friendly. An event in which thousands of locals are willing to pitch in without compensation.
“There’s just not a single event (like this) in this community where everybody’s pulling the same oar,” Seeley said. “Our job is to make sure it all knits together.”
And remains on solid footing.
SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
4-9 p.m. — Packet pickup at UI Activities and Recreation Center
4-9 p.m. — Health and Fitness Expo at UI Activities and Recreation Center
NOTE: The Health and Fitness Expo is sold out
9 a.m.-7 p.m. — Packet pickup at UI Activities and Recreation Center
9 a.m.-7 p.m. — Health and Fitness Expo at UI Activities and Recreation Center
7:30 p.m. — 5K
6:58 a.m. — Wheelchair half-marathon
7 a.m. — Marathon, half-marathon, marathon relay
7:40 a.m. — 10K
2:30 p.m. — Youth run
5:30 p.m. — Postrace party and concert (Ryan Ideus & Feudin Hillbillys) at UI Research Park