Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
The Chicago Marathon, which will be run again Sunday, began in 1977. I was 23, and writing for a new weekly Tribune section devoted to recreational sports. Americans in those days were starting to realize that sports did not have to be consumed from a couch—that it was, in fact, legal for adults to participate in them. And the Tribune was realizing it could cash in on this trend, since the new crowd of amateur jocks needed running shoes, bicycles, racquetball rackets, and other advertisable gear. Thus, the "Venture" section was born in 1976, and it gave me my first job out of college.
Late that year, Chicago runners formed a committee and began campaigning for a September marathon. The nation's cities were sick with marathon fever then, and our city was merely catching the ailment. There'd been nearly 200 marathons in the U.S. in 1976, triple the number in 1972, and the fields had grown considerably.
Chicago had hosted marathons with very small fields before this. In 1959, the Pan-American marathon had been held on one lane of Lake Shore Drive. The president of the Chicago Motor Club warned that the closing of the lane would cause "serious hazards" on the Drive. But no calamity ensued, perhaps because there were only 14 runners. The 1977 organizers were hoping to draw 2,000.
In the Venture section, I reported on the planning for the marathon, and after the race got city approval, I decided to write a preview of the course from a participant's point of view. The race had been christened the Mayor Daley Marathon in honor of Richard J., who'd died of a heart attack the previous December. It was set to begin near the Daley Center Plaza at 8 AM Sunday, September 25. At 8 AM on Sunday, September 4, I set off from the base of the Picasso, jogged down Washington Street to Michigan Avenue, then headed north.
I had no intention of running 26 miles, 385 yards. After all, I needed to take notes at some point. (Tape recorders hadn't yet been invented.) I'd completed a ten-mile lakefront race earlier in the year, and that had been challenging enough. I planned to run ten miles and walk the rest of the way.
I'm tempted to claim that adrenaline got the best of me, and I ended up running the full distance. In two hours 50-something. But I cannot tell a Paul Ryan.
The day was sunny, and the temperatures eventually reached the 70s. The course took me past the Gold Coast, the Lincoln Park Zoo, and Diversey Harbor. Before Belmont, I ran through an underpass, and most of the rest of the route was east of LSD. Montrose was the northern turnaround. From there I headed back south, through Grant Park, past the Field Museum and Soldier Field, to Promontory Point at 55th Street. Then it was back north to Buckingham Fountain.
Though the course was flat, with a little effort one could conjure up a version of the Boston Marathon's Heartbreak Hill.
Marathoners tend to deplete their glycogen reserve around 18 to 20 miles into the run; it's called "hitting the wall." In Boston, runners hit the wall at the same point they reach a rise that lasts for nearly a half mile. Heartbreak Hill's incline is slight, but enough to put many runners out of the race, and out of their misery. At 47th Street on the Chicago course—the 18-mile mark—I noted a subtle rise for about a block. "Beware of the 47th Street Bump" I'd warn runners in my Tribune story.
I showed unusual discipline and stuck to my plan, running ten miles and walking 16. My left knee berated me the final dozen miles.
I limped across the imaginary finish line at Buckingham Fountain to a thunderous ovation from my wife, who'd kept me company the last half of the way, bicycling slowly beside me. I'd made it in six hours and 30 minutes, a course record.
Three weeks later, Dan Cloeter, a 25-year-old theology student from Fort Wayne, Indiana, narrowly broke my record by four hours and 12 minutes.
The inaugural Chicago marathon drew 4,200 runners—then the world's largest marathon field ever. The New York City Marathon bested that a month later with 5,000.
Now our marathon annually draws around 35,000. That's an astonishing figure, a mark of today's prevalence of grit and psychosis. The runners are cheered on by tens of thousands lining the route. The modern-day challenge for marathoners is the overcrowdedness of the long-distance runner.
But in Chicago it began with a lone run-walker and his one loyal fan.