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Chicago Marathon goes virtual amid pandemic

Runners were urged to run where they were. “No spectators cheering you on, no water [and] aid stations, and you still gotta dodge pedestrians and cars like any other weekend jog,” said Emily Hou, whose San Francisco route spelled “Vote 2020.”

Hydration station set up by the Chicago Area Runners Association for local runners participating in the virtual Chicago Marathon on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020.
The Chicago Area Runners Association set up a “hydration stations” for runners participating in the virtual Chicago Marathon on Sunday.
Greg Hipp/Twitter

There was no clamoring at the start line Sunday morning for 43rd annual Chicago Marathon.

It had been canceled in June in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Instead, the storied race that typically starts downtown and snakes through some of Chicago’s neighborhoods was relegated to the digital realm. While some runners still took to the streets, many others tackled the 26.2-mile challenge elsewhere and shared their experiences on social media.

“I am sad that we cannot be together in person, but I am inspired by your determination to cross your own finish line, and I am grateful that we can stay together virtually,” Carey Pinkowski, executive director of the marathon, said in a tweeted statement on Sunday.

Despite the official race being nixed, participants could still purchase packages that included medallions and personalized bibs. What’s more, a makeshift “start line” was set up near Monroe Street and Columbus Drive. And the Chicago Area Runners Association also designated four spots along the lakefront trail to offer participants support and fluids as they trotted past.

“You have put in the miles and training,” the runners association tweeted on Sunday, “now it’s time to enjoy the moment and get after your goals.”

Folks in Chicago and beyond tried to do just that.

Emily Hou, of San Francisco, used her marathon route to bring attention to the November election, spelling out “VOTE 2020” as she hustled through the northern California city. Hou told the Sun-Times she felt her unconventional path served as a “new and creative way” to get people to the polls.

Though Hou’s plans to run her first Chicago Marathon were upended, she eventually wants to check the race off her list as she attempts to complete all the major marathons across the world. But this year, Hou said her experience just wasn’t the same as previous marathons she’s completed in San Francisco and Boston.

“Definitely not as exciting as running one during a race! No spectators cheering you on, no water [and] aid stations, and you still gotta dodge pedestrians and cars like any other weekend jog,” said Hou.

Chicago is also missing out on the economic windfall created by the marathon, which generated a record $378 million for the Chicago economy in 2018, according to a study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Regional Economics Applications Laboratory. Totals from last year haven’t been made public, though the marathon announced that over $27 million in charitable donations were raised.

Brenda Martinez, manager of the Giordano’s at 130 E. Randolph, said the pizza spot was “definitely less crowded” this year. However, another employee acknowledged the restaurant already was reeling after COVID-19 hit.

The distanced event also created other issues. Though Chicago saw clear skies and temperatures in the 60s, one runner from South Africa reported his route there was stymied by rainfall.

“The marathon has to be aborted. I can’t run in the rain,” Billy Sigudla tweeted. “I will get sick.”

“[A]t least I covered half a marathon,” he added.

Other international runners were able to finish the route, though. Tom Blake completed the marathon in the Falklands, off the coast of Argentina, which a friend noted is “thousands of miles south of where he had originally planned to run it.”

“Small population but big heart here in the Falklands!” the friend wrote on Twitter alongside photos of supporters.

Chicago’s streets weren’t teeming with the usual hordes of cowbell-clanging supporters, but some still offered encouragement to the runners.

“If it wasn’t canceled, I would be in Pilsen cheering everyone on,” a Chicago Public Schools teacher wrote on Twitter.