The annual marathon in Chicago is one of the biggest and most competitive marathons in the world, but in its early years, the event was a far cry from the glamorous and star-studded race it is today. Held on Sept. 25, 1977, Chicago’s first modern-day race was originally named the Mayor Daley Marathon. It drew some 4,200 participants who paid $5 to run in the inaugural event—which got off to a rocky start when a ceremonial cannon misfired, injuring two spectators.
Meanwhile, the race’s top marathoners struggled to get around slower runners on the out-and-back course. These days, race officials and lead vehicles clear the way for the fastest runners, but that wasn’t the case four decades ago. “I came to a complete standstill a couple of times and also had to do a lot of zigzagging,” men’s winner Dan Cloeter recalled in a 2002 Chicago Tribune article.
Cloeter, a seminary student, was the first male runner, finishing in 2:17:52. Dorothy Doolittle, one of the few competitive women marathoners in the U.S. at the time, was the top female runner, crossing the finish line in 2:50:47. For their big victories, they received plaques; prize money for winners was still years away. Of the 4,200 people who registered for Chicago’s inaugural marathon, only about 2,100 actually finished.
In 1978, organizers changed the start time from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and doubled the entry fee to $10, prompting uproar from runners. To protest the changes, many wore black armbands on race day. Concern about the later start and warm temperatures rang true when scores of runners wound up being treated for heat-related illnesses. The next year, organizers moved the marathon to October when the weather is typically cooler. But race day turned out to be hot and humid, and Cloeter, the 1977 champion, collapsed from dehydration after winning the race a second time.
The race gained prominence in 1982 when organizers began awarding prize money to the men’s and women’s champions, who each took home $12,000 that year. One of the most exciting performances in the event’s history came in 1985 from American Joan Benoit Samuelson. Not only did the 1984 Olympic marathon gold medalist win and beat the marathon world record-holder at the time, she also set an American and course record in The Windy City.
But the marathon would soon face hard times. In 1987, after losing its title sponsor, Beatrice Foods, the event was changed to a half marathon. The marathon returned the next year with Old Style, a beer brewing company, as its new financial supporter, but that relationship would fizzle out by 1990. The event lost its key sponsor, but gained a new race director. At 33, Carey Pinkowski took the helm of the struggling race in 1990, making him the youngest marathon director in the U.S. at the time. Pinkowski, 61, has been the race director ever since.
“It was my vision that we would become an event that would rival London, Boston [and] New York in numbers and elite athletes,” says Pinkowski, who started with revamping the race course to make it faster and more spectator-friendly. In 1994, LaSalle Bank began what would turn into a 14-year sponsorship of the event. With strong financial support and the leadership of Pinkowski, the marathon grew from 7,200 finishers in 1994 to 31,000 in 2002.
The race also attracted the world’s best marathoners, including Khalid Khannouchi, who would win the race four times with record-breaking performances between 1997 and 2002. Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe would also deliver a stellar performance that year, running 2:17:18 to smash the women’s world marathon record and win the race.
American women have had memorable races there, too. In 2005, Deena Kastor, a bronze medalist in the marathon at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, took the women’s title, running an impressive 2:21:25, one of the fastest marathon times ever for an American woman. But not every year has been uplifting for runners, and Chicago’s marathon has been shaped by negative moments as much as the positive ones.
In 2007, an unseasonably hot and humid race day proved to be a disaster. As the temperature soared to 88 degrees with stifling humidity, hundreds of runners suffered from heat-related ailments as they slogged along the course, where some aid stations ran out of water and sports drinks. More than three hours after the start of the marathon, organizers decided to pull the plug on the race, angering and confusing runners who were still on the course. Afterwards, Pinkowski and other officials were sharply criticized for mishandling the response to the weather and not communicating well with runners.
That day was “very difficult for us, but what we learned really made us better—not only in Chicago, but collectively, the industry got better,” Pinkowski told The Chicago Tribune in 2014. As a result, the next year Chicago organizers introduced the Event Alert System, which uses different color flags, among other things, to communicate course and weather conditions to runners.
2008 also marked another title change to the event. When Bank of America bought LaSalle Bank, the marathon was renamed the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. For the first time, race organizers created special starts for the men’s and women’s elite runners so they could start ahead of the rest of the field. More than 31,000 competitors crossed the finish line on another warm race day.
Like many endurance events in recent years, Chicago’s 26.2-mile race has had its share of doping controversies. In 2014, Rita Jeptoo of Kenya tested positive for blood doping just weeks after winning Chicago for a second time. She was stripped of her titles.
The following year, Russian runner Liliya Shobukhova, the top women’s finisher from 2009 to 2011, had her wins wiped from results after being suspended by the World Anti-Doping Agency. But the mood at the marathon that year was celebratory as Deena Kastor, 42, set a new U.S. women’s masters record. It was also the tenth anniversary of her first-place finish at the event.
In 2017, the marathon marked its 40th anniversary with 44,341 finishers, the largest number ever. American Jordan Hasay ran a blistering 2:20:57 to finish third, recording the second-fastest marathon ever for a U.S. woman. Three-time Olympian Galen Rupp won the men’s race, becoming the first American champion since 2002. In a dramatic photo finish, Tatyana McFadden won the wheelchair competition for her seventh straight title in Chicago.
Through all the event’s highs and lows, Pinkowski has remained the face and leader of Chicago’s prestigious 26.2 mile race. This year will mark his 28th year as the executive director, an exhausting yet exhilirating role he still enjoys. “At the core of the event, there’s an inherent emotion of the human spirit,” he says. “That’s what has attracted me to the event initially and continues to attract me. I love to connect with individuals from all walks of life, of all sizes, shapes and abilities, who come together to create this community.”