Chicago Marathon runners are determined to complete 26.2 miles — even if this year’s race is virtual: ‘Chicago is a bunch of doers.’

Gloria Rojas had been looking forward to the 2020 Chicago Marathon after missing last year’s race while recovering from being hit by a taxi as she crossed the street downtown after work.

When this year’s marathon was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns, she was disappointed but determined.

“I think I was with everyone: I was hoping the marathon was going to happen,” Rojas said. “But Chicago is a bunch of doers. We’re doing to do, whether it’s (in a group) or trying to prove it to yourself.”

Rojas, 26, is one of hundreds of runners competing in the Chicago Marathon virtually this year.

Registered runners could defer to next year’s race or were offered a chance to sign up to receive a medallion and T-shirt by competing as part of an online community this weekend in self-designed courses throughout Chicago. The virtual marathon was designed to help replace what would have been the 43rd running of the annual event that takes over the city’s streets and brings more than 40,000 participants from around the globe.

Running groups such as Chicago Area Runners Association and Black Chicago Runners will space hydration stations along the Lakefront Trail. CARA will also provide stations in five suburban locations.

CARA, which usually has about 2,000 runners in the marathon, will have about 700 members participating in the virtual event.

Some groups will hand out oranges, vaseline, running gel — and perhaps most important — support.

“A lot of our runners have been excited for the opportunity to accomplish this goal,” said Greg Hipp, CARA executive director. “A lot of them are taking pride running 26.2 (miles): ‘No matter what, we’ve found a way to accomplish this goal.’ ”

While runners head to the lake, forest preserves or neighborhood streets this weekend to fulfill their missions, they still will be longing for the sights and sounds along the traditional Chicago Marathon course.

The colorful parties in Lakeview East. The lively dancing dragons in Chinatown. The bridges crossing the Chicago River.

“I’m going to miss downtown, running over that red carpet on Wacker Drive,” said Mel Handy, 67, who has run the last 21 Chicago Marathons and is registered to run virtually. “I’m going to miss going through the neighborhoods with different good food being handed out. Someone always has a banana or orange slices.”

Cheering spectators who line the sidewalks, often with hilarious encouraging homemade signs, will be missed by some runners when they toil alone this weekend. Being one of thousands with the same goal was a meaningful experience to others.

“There’s nothing like the experience of being in Grant Park with 45,000 other runners,” said Gabriela Perez, who ran the Chicago Marathon 24 times and will run on Sunday. “It’s one of the most profound experiences, one of the reasons that brought me back every year. It’s that camaraderie.”

Rojas will miss the emotional component of the marathon, especially running through Pilsen.

“My favorite is Mile 18,” said Rojas, who has Selena songs on her playlist. “It’s bittersweet for me. I’m a first generation Mexican American. I want my parents to come watch (the Chicago Marathon in previous years). It can be a lot to ask. But the music is so loud, it reminds me of the music I listen to with my family. It feels like they’re next to me. Mile 18 is where you’re hitting that wall. You’re looking for anything to give you support.”

Downtown will look starkly different this weekend. Absent are the spectators jumping on the “L” to encourage friends along the course. Restaurants will be void of carb-loading runners on marathon eve. Hotels won’t reach capacity because of out-of-towners pouring into the city.

“We will miss the business that the marathon brings to Chicago tremendously,” said Liz Lombardo Stark, director of marketing and public relations for the Gibsons Restaurant Group. “Historically, the marathon brings in thousands and thousands of people to downtown Chicago. Runners and their families would come to Quartino the Saturday before the marathon to carb-load. Since we opened this has been Quartino’s single busiest night of the year.”

Last year, Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar served close to 2,000 pasta dinners and 360 pizzas on the night before the marathon, Stark said.

The group also offered a next-day “Marathon Monday brunch” every year at Luxbar. Doing so this year “doesn’t make sense for us,” Stark said, “but that had always been a huge success for us. Several out-of-town runners would stay at the Thompson and surrounding hotels, and visit for one last celebratory meal before heading home.”

This weekend, Quartino hopes to attract runners with its pasta offerings, pizzas for $5 from 10 p.m. to midnight nightly (dine-in only) and selected drinks that will be sold at 26.2% off on Sunday.

“Most restaurants have their busiest day on Mother’s Day or New Year’s Eve,” said Quartino managing partner Bob Kanzler. “For Q, Marathon Eve has always been the busiest. Over the three-day weekend (last year) we did over 5,000 covers. Even more than the Restaurant Show weekend.”

Some are driven by a worthy cause.

Lisa Niehaus, 60, a nurse from Kentucky, will run several half-mile loops on a trail in Cincinnati as part of her virtual experience. She plans to carry a red bandana with names of people who have donated to the charity she is raising money for — the American Heart Association.

“There’s a long history of heart disease in my family,” she said. “It was never an option to not do it for the people who are not here because of (heart disease).”

Niehaus said her father died of a heart attack at 64. She hopes her 94-year-old mother, who has survived multiple heart attacks, will make it to see her finish.

“I’ll be carrying this bandana,” Niehaus said. “It’s emotional. It will be great. It’s for everyone.”

Rojas will participate with GumboFit’s running series Road Less Traveled, which also featured 5-kilometer, half-marathon and marathon races and is a fundraiser for generating $10,000 in grants to five Black running and fitness organizations in Chicago.

The Chicago Marathon joined with GumboFit to allow 50 runners to earn a second medal with them during the Road Less Traveled socially distanced group run at Sauk Trail in Chicago Heights.

“Mentally, it will be hard,” Rojas said. “It’s not going to be around city. It’s eight loops of the same thing. I’m looking at the positives. It will be really nice to have nutrition every 3.4 miles. I’ll see my friends in the same spot.”

Randy Burt, 72, is one of four who have finished every Chicago Marathon since 1977.

He ran his virtual race earlier this week, starting at his Antioch home at 2:15 a.m. and running a 2-mile loop a little more than 13 times. He left power gels and water bottles in his mailbox to refuel.

It was his second slowest marathon time, he said, but that didn’t matter much this year. He talked to Chicago Marathon director Carey Pinkowski over the phone when he finished, complimenting the executives for offering the virtual option.

“When they said there was not going to be a marathon, at first I thought, OK, I’ll let myself heal,” he said. “Then I said, ‘Nope, I’ve been running 43 years. I’m running the marathon.’ Eventually they came out with the virtual marathon and I said that’s perfect. You miss all the excitement, the other runners and the spectators. Was I disappointed a little? Yes. But we have to settle for what we’ve got.”

Burt planned to drink a glass of wine and sit on his deck to celebrate before an early bedtime.

For first-timers, the cancellation brought another type of disappointment.

Ryan Hieronymus, 44, helps run the Rogers Park Running Group. He already ran a virtual marathon for the Champaign race that was canceled in the spring, so he feels prepared to do it again for Chicago.

He has run for more than 300 consecutive days and is eager to keep his streak alive, running his virtual marathon in Skokie. He’ll be running to raise money for the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation.

“Chicago is so massive there are a lot of risks with that many people,” Hieronymus said. “I knew it was kind of a foregone conclusion. I think in my mind I already realized it. By the time Chicago was canceled, I had run one by myself already. I was going to do it whether it was a virtual event or just to keep up my training.”

Training for the virtual marathon during the pandemic has been a morale boost for many runners.

LaShaun Hobbs, 55, from Calumet City, has run several virtual races the last several months — from local 5Ks to the Boston Marathon. She’ll be running the Chicago Marathon virtually with a group of runners along the Lakefront Trail on Saturday.

In some ways, finishing a virtual race proves another type of mettle.

“It’s a different sense of accomplishment,” said Hobbs, who ran the Chicago Marathon in 2000 and 2018. “It’s a little bit harder. You really have to, toward the end, focus on your thoughts and really have to fight those negative thoughts of wanting to stop. You don’t have that support. You really are relying on your training and mental state of mind.

“It’s definitely been a great experience training during COVID and running different races. It definitely challenges your mental toughness.”

Hobbs plans to compete in the official running of the Chicago Marathon next year.

“I think I’ll be happy when everything goes back to normal,” she said, “and we can race in groups again.”

Tribune reporter Phil Vettel contributed.

posted Saturday October 10th
by Chicago Triibune