Chicago Marathon Has Come a Long Way Baby

In a city that loves its winners, but once did not want "hippies in shorts running through its streets," Chicago has embraced the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon, which has soared to Michael Jordan-like heights. A record field of 45,000 is expected for the event on October 12.

As a student at Villanova University, Carey Pinkowski--years before becoming head honcho of the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon--would trek from Philadelphia to Manhattan to watch the New York City Marathon. Pinkowski made marathon-viewing visits to the Boston Marathon as well.

Pinkowski's jaunts were not typical college kid "road trips" but seminal events in his life. Spectating was an introduction to big-time marathoning, Marathon 101, if you will--a sport in which Pinkowski has emerged since 1990 as a major player as executive race director of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.

"It was the Bill Rodgers' era at New York," Pinkowski said of Rodgers' winning (1976-1979) reign. "At the time I was not thinking I'd ever run a marathon. I was a casual observer. But I'd stand at the 59th Street Bridge watching and found the event to be fascinating."

Pinkowski, a scholarship runner at Villanova, had great appreciation for "Boston" Billy's ability to scorch near five-minute miles. But what fascinated Pinkowski most and remains with him as he directs and continually improves the Bank of America Chicago Marathon was "the thousands of people in the event who had no chance of winning."

"In fact, they had no chance of finishing within two or three hours of the winner. That amazed me," Pinkowski said.

Sunday, October 12 marks the 31st running of this 26.2-miler, which has produced world and national records as it weaves through Chicago's neighborhoods, past an estimated 1.2 million spectators and showcases the best of Chicago. A record field is expected for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon's start in Grant Park.

A Long Way Baby!

After college, Pinkowski watched the Chicago Marathon in 1981 and ran the race in 1983. He thought Chicago's marathon should be of the same caliber as marathons in New York City and Boston. But the pre-Pinkowski/Bank of America version of the Chicago Marathon lacked the stability of today's event, which is part of the World Marathon Majors.

Before Bank of America became race sponsor in 1993, sponsors had come and gone faster than one-time world's fastest marathoner Khalid Khannouchi could cover the distance.

The race had, however, enjoyed a big high in 1984, when Steve Jones (2:08:05) set a world record. But it also experienced its lows. As race directors overspent budgets, the local running community felt disengaged and the marathon was canceled in 1987 because of lack of sponsorship.

"When the race was starting, the mayor did not want a bunch of hippies in shorts running around the streets of Chicago," said John "The Penguin" Bingham, a Chicago native and noted author, who has run the race three times. "Many people did not think having a marathon in the city was a good idea."

But Pinkowski did, even though many questioned closing miles of city streets for a sport viewed in 1990 as "this extreme oddball activity."

"When I took over, people were asking me, 'Are you going to have a race this year,'" Pinkowski said. "What we needed to do was establish an event year in and year out, come hell or high water. What Fred (Lebow, then-New York City Marathon director) and the BAA (Boston Athletic Association) were doing was working very well and it was something we were striving for. They had a tradition. And since I started (as executive race director of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon), that's been our philosophy: create a tradition, create a race-day experience for the runners. And deliver on it. We want the runners to get the payoff for all their time and effort and sacrifice."

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