By Ben Joravsky

Ten years ago there was no marathon in Chicago. The race closed down for lack of sponsors.

It will be different this year. The October 19 race is backed by 94 sponsors and fueled by a $3 million budget; it expects to draw some 20,000 runners and generate as much as $30 million in commerce.

In some ways the race’s revival symbolizes the city’s current incarnation. It’s a boomtown and a boom race–the course even slices through many of Chicago’s hottest real estate markets. If the race doesn’t touch the poorer neighborhoods, communities that haven’t benefited much from the big real estate boom, at least the race promoters are trying.

“We want it to be Chicago’s race,” says Carey Pinkowski, the marathon’s director. “We want it to be the community’s race. We get closer to that goal every year.”

The major force behind the race is Pinkowski, one of northern Indiana’s greatest distance runners. In the 1970s he won two Indiana cross-country championships as a prep star at Hammond High School. Over a dozen universities begged him to attend, and he even received a recruiting call from the legendary Steve Prefontaine on behalf of the University of Oregon. Pinkowski wound up at Villanova, though a poster of Prefontaine, every runner’s idol, remains on his wall.

In 1980 Pinkowski qualified for the Olympic trials in the 5,000 meters but then was injured. Besides, that was the year the United States boycotted the summer games to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. After that he became something of a wandering runner. “I spent a few years running for Nike,” he says. “They paid me to run in road races. I lived in Oregon and trained in Boulder and ran all over the country.”

He still dreamed of winning an Olympic medal, but age and injuries slowed him. He ripped an Achilles tendon and damaged his knees. As the years wore on he spent more time recuperating and less time training. He qualified for the Olympic trials in 1988 but didn’t make the team. He soon retired from running and eventually went to work for Chicago’s marathon operators.

That marathon, in the meanwhile, was going through its own tumultuous changes. The race was conceived by advertising executive Lee Flaherty in 1977, at the height of the running craze. Mayor Michael Bilandic, a dedicated runner, had the Park District install jogging lanes all along the lakefront.

The first marathon drew 4,000 runners. By the mid-80s it had gained a major sponsor in Beatrice Foods and was drawing over 10,000 runners. In 1987 it collapsed. “What happened is that Beatrice pulled out as a sponsor,” says Pinkowski. “And there was no one to keep it going.”

In 1988 the race came back on a shoestring budget. In 1990 Old Style sponsored it; after the beer pulled out a consortium of promoters took over. “We didn’t have a strong link to Chicago,” says Pinkowski. “Even under Beatrice they called it the American Marathon. With Old Style we couldn’t appeal to the kids because of the liquor connections.”

By 1994 LaSalle Bank had bought the race and Pinkowski had been given almost complete authority over its operation. “The first thing I wanted to do was build a grassroots base among the local racing clubs,” he says. “There are dozens of clubs in the Chicago area, with hundreds of runners who are committed to the idea of making the marathon a premier event.

“Last year’s race drew over 3,500 volunteers. It’s a big thing for all of us, a chance to put our city on the map in terms of the running world. You have to fully understand the spirit of runners to understand why people from Arlington Heights or Lincoln Park come out here on their own at four in the morning to be in place to hand out water when the runners come by.”

He also pulled in corporate sponsors. It’s now a three-day event, with a sporting goods sales show at the Conrad Hilton, a prerace pasta dinner for runners, and a postrace party for runners and volunteers. The prerace festivities began last week, a month before the actual run, with a cocktail reception honoring six particularly helpful city employees.

The marathon organizers work closely with city officials, particularly James “Skinny” Sheehan, the southwest-side political operative named by Mayor Daley to head the Department of Special Events. All it takes is one call from Pinkowski to Sheehan to get a city crew to smooth over a pothole.

“So far it looks pretty good,” says Leon Dorne, the Chicago Department of Transportation engineer who helps oversee the racecourse. “One year two sewers collapsed on a block on Thursday. We had to work overnight to get it fixed in time for the race. The fresh asphalt was still steaming when the race started.”

Last week Pinkowski drove the course one more time, examining it for potholes and other problems. The basic route hasn’t changed much over the years, he explained. As in the past it begins at Buckingham Fountain and heads north past the Art Museum on Columbus Drive, then west on Grand Avenue under the Michigan Avenue overpass–usually jammed with onlookers–to LaSalle, where it heads back north.

The four-mile mark comes at the Lincoln Park Zoo. North on Sheridan and west on Belmont, the racecourse then follows Broadway and Clark back south through some of the busiest, most congested neighborhoods on the route. If there are complaints on race day this is where they’ll come from, as the upscale crowd that lives along here is unused to inconvenience. “We saturate the area with flyers reminding people of the race,” says Pinkowski. “Still there are complaints. It shuts down all traffic for a few hours. We’ll have 100,000 people along the racecourse and a few people get upset. What can you do?”

The course follows Sedgwick through the heart of Old Town, once a working-class mix of blacks, whites, and Latinos. Now it’s among the city’s most exclusive communities, with tiny town houses fetching half a million dollars and suburban-style strip malls popping up everywhere.

At Division the race passes Cabrini-Green and a baseball park called Carson Field, which was opened in 1981 by Jay McMullen, Mayor Jane Byrne’s husband. McMullen died a few years ago and Cabrini’s being demolished, its tenants run off by rampant gentrification. Carson Field will soon be paved over and turned into another strip mall. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether Park District officials will keep their promise to replace it.

Once past Cabrini, the racecourse moves through River North and into the Loop before swinging west beyond Greektown. There’s a zoning battle going on around here, as manufacturers press the city to adopt zoning restrictions against residential development, which raises rents and forces many industries to move. Judging from all the converted factories advertising lofts for rent or sale, it seems to be a battle the manufacturers are losing. “One day there will be 6,000 people living here who don’t live here now,” says Pinkowski. “It will change the area, but I don’t think it will change the race. Just more people to watch it.”

The route crosses the Eisenhower at Halsted, swings west along Taylor Street to Ashland and then south to 18th, passing new town houses, condos, and renovated apartment buildings bearing big signs that promise “upscale” or “luxury” living.

In Pilsen the signs have a different theme. “Pilsen is not for sale,” read the cards in various windows along 18th Street. They refer to a movement by Latino activists to maintain affordable housing and hold onto an area undergoing slow but steady gentrification. If what happened in the other neighborhoods along the racecourse is any indicator, the activists have no hopes.

From Pilsen the race wanders south to 37th, then east to Lake Shore Drive, ending in Grant Park north of Roosevelt Road. In almost all of these neighborhoods church groups and booster clubs will be waving the runners on. But it is in Pilsen that the race has its strongest neighborhood connection. The runners will find mariachi bands playing and volunteers from Benito Juarez High School passing out water.

Juarez is one of the city’s few public schools with a strong distance running program. Public school sports officials can’t remember the last time the Public League had a distance runner who ranked among the best in the state–though eight city high schools were represented in last year’s boys’ and girls’ state meets. As with gymnastics, Chicago’s distance talent rarely gets properly developed, even as its marathon emerges as one of the world’s most prestigious road races.

“We have a great base among area high schools, but I’d like to make it better in Chicago,” says Pinkowski. “I would like to use the marathon to build a running community in the schools. We’re doing well but I want to do better.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Carey Pinkowski photo by Randy Tunnell.