When Jackie Skrobot of Kankakee ran the Christie Clinic Illinois Half Marathon in 2017, she was mourning the death of her late husband a few months earlier and facing the prospect of raising their young son on her own. She had won a last-minute entry to the race through a Facebook contest.
"I’d been going through a lot in my life. I’d been staying active and running because I feel like running is great way of relieving stress and taking your mind off things. I felt like I needed running to get through some tough times in my life," Skrobot said.
And, she added, "this race means lot to me because (the University of Illinois) is my alma mater, and it’s where I met my husband."
About 25 minutes before she crossed the finish line, Keith Gercius of Burbank completed his 100th marathon, wearing bib No. 100. After finishing, Gercius waited in Memorial Stadium, watching for some friends to finish. It is quite possible he saw Skrobot cross the finish line, but the two didn’t know each other then.
This year, though, they’ll be running the Illinois Marathon together. The two began dating six months ago after a mutual friend encouraged them to meet.
"It will be very special for both of us," Gercius said of this year’s marathon on April 27.
"I think it will be a little emotional in the sense that after I ran Illinois last year, I was kind of toying with the idea of running another marathon but I wasn’t sold on the idea," Skrobot said. But after she met and began running with Gercius, he encouraged her to believe in her ability as a runner.
From their first conversation, they found they had much in common, including running.
"We really clicked," Skrobot said.
"I never wanted to run another marathon. The first one was so hard. It took several months to convince myself to try again," Gercius said.
Since then, he’s finished multiple marathons a year to get to his 100th last spring.
"I do this because it’s the only sort of fitness routine I ever follow through on. Completing a marathon, taking a little time to recover and then doing another one has kept me in shape and allowed me to see a little bit of the country," Gercius said.
He also hoped to meet someone special through running, but he hadn’t until he met Skrobot.
The two don’t see each other during week because they live about an hour apart. But they’ve done their weekend training runs together in preparation for the Illinois Marathon.
This year’s Illinois Marathon weekend will mark her seventh year of running one of the races (she’s done every race distance except the marathon relay), and it will be Gercius’ fourth Illinois Marathon. It will also be special because their birthdays are during race week. Gercius will turn 47 on April 24 and Skrobot will turn 41 on April 26.
Both of them enjoy the atmosphere around the marathon and the community support for it.
"I love how the city of Champaign-Urbana comes out and welcomes the running community," Skrobot said. "It feels like a big party. You see people out at the end of their driveways with card tables, and they’ve got cups of Gatorade or gummy bears or alcoholic beverages. Anything and everything to welcome the running community. They make it fun and enjoyable.
"Running has been kind of like a savior to me in the sense of stress relief and making new friends and meeting new people and building my confidence up again that yes, I can get through hard times in my life," she said. "Over the past year or so, I’ve changed my perspective on running in the sense that I’ve taken off the pressure and I’m appreciating that I can just go out there for a run."
Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. You can email her at email@example.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/.
Photos: Top: Jackie Skrobot and her son Lucas, then 5 years old, following the 2018 Illinois Marathon. Skrobot is ringing the PR bell. Middle: Keith Gercius at the finish line of the 2018 Illinois Marathon, his 100th marathon. Bottom: Jackie Skrobot and Keith Gercius kiss under the Eternal Flame on the University of Illinois Quad a few weeks ago when they were in Champaign-Urbana for a training run. Photos provided.