How I won and lost at the Chicago Marathon | Bleader

How I won and lost at the Chicago Marathon


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Sunday, September 27, 1981, was a bright day with stiff winds, even for the Windy City. Thousands of people decked out in running togs and numbers were packed into the streets around Daley Plaza before the 9:30 AM start of the fifth Chicago Marathon.

I was among them, a rookie Chicago News Bureau reporter assigned to cover the race, although the only thing I knew about marathons was that they could really screw up traffic.

City News, then located in grimy quarters on West Randolph and connected to its reporters by pay phone, wanted a color story, say an interview with a participant, and they wanted it PRONTO, which is how they always wanted everything. Somebody on the desk there threw me a bone: he mentioned that the lower numbers were given to the runners known to be fastest.

Buffeted by the throng, with time running out before the start, I scanned the digits on the chests around me and fixed on a serious, approachable-looking guy with a now-forgotten but relatively modest number. He was Phil Coppess, a 27-year-old factory worker from Clinton, Iowa, who’d run just two previous marathons and wasn’t on anybody‘s short list. A family man with a wife and three kids, he told me he that he ran on his own before and after work every day, and that he logged 100 miles a week.

That sounded like a textbook case of obsession to me, but I dutifully called it in—a random interview with a pleasant but obscure participant.

A couple hours later, standing near the finish line to report on the close, I was astounded to see Coppess come across it more than a minute ahead of the second- and third-place runners, the latter being Olympic champion Frank Shorter. I got the time from one of the officials and called in the news, giddy with the unlikelihood that out of thousands of possibilities, I had honed in on the dark horse and filed a prerace scoop of an interview.

Eureka! Should I be in Vegas? At the very least, it seemed like the gods were smiling on this nascent career.

I was still enjoying the buzz (my memory's a little vague as to the time lapse here; chalk it up to repression), when I encountered a veteran photographer from one of the dailies and he asked if I’d reported the City News story.

“Yep.” (Trying not to seem too pleased with myself.)

“You got the time wrong.”

He’d snapped a photo of the clock as Coppess crossed the line, and it read 2:16:13. Whatever I reported, and City News initially put out on the wire, didn’t match up.

So much for my moment in the sun.

Coppess, who still lives in Iowa and now works in an aluminum factory, went on to win other marathons. In 1985 he set a 2:10:05 record in Minneapolis that stands to this day. But he never won big money. Although this weekend’s Chicago marathon has a $100,000 purse for the first-place male, when Coppess won it there was no cash prize.

As for postevent festivities, when I caught up with him by phone this week, Coppess recalled: "After the race, the director took me and my son to a rib place."

He gave up racing and running 12 years ago; now he walks his dog four miles a day.

And I never covered another marathon.

Read more from Marathon Week, this week's Variations on a Theme:

"Losing at everything," by Julia Thiel
"How I won the marathon*," by Steve Bogira'
"Marathoners, avoid twisted ankles and firing cannons," by Kevin Warwick

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