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The Underdogs of the Marathon Circuit

Major marathons tend to attract semi-elite runners, the ones near the top of results lists, but rarely on press releases.

The 2018 Bank of America Chicago Marathon is just a few weeks away and nearly 45,000 runners are getting ready to toe the line once again for the 41st annual race through the streets of The Windy City. The announcements from professionals like Galen Rupp of Nike Oregon Project and Amy Cragg of Bowerman Track Club have come and gone, and the elite field start list has been released.

But major marathons also tend to bring in quite a few semi-elite runners. The ones you may have noticed near the top of a results list, putting up impressive times, but rarely making it into press releases. On a stellar day, they’re the dark horses who land themselves professional contracts after stepping up at a major race.

Take Allie Kieffer, who took 5th at the New York Marathon last year. After throwing down a blazing time of 2:29:39, she quickly signed with Oiselle and has been on the distance running radar ever since. They are putting in the mileage of a professional athlete, but without the contract money, sponsors and endless athletic apparel. They work full time to support their dreams, which means 5 a.m. wake up calls or late-night treks through their cities.

Photo Courtesy of Alan Peterson

Runners like Alan Peterson, an Upper Michigan native and 2:18:47 marathoner, puts in 115-120 miles a week while working full time as an assistant coach for Loyola University Chicago. Peterson says he has to work around his coaching schedule to get his miles logged, “I typically get up around 5:45 a.m. and get my longer session of the day out of the way before I head into the office around 9 a.m.,” says Peterson. “We have practice in the afternoons so if I have to double, sometimes I get to run then. If it’s a workout day for the team, I wait until after practice to get that session in. Once I’m done with practice I still have recruiting calls, emails, texts, etc. to get done. There are some long days especially during marathon training, but I really love what I do.”

Getting the most out of every day is essential for working runners. Kristen Heckert, a high school math teacher and member of New Balance Chicago, starts her day with early morning runs before heading into the classroom. After school ends, she coaches the Plainfield South cross country team where she logs more mileage. Heckert, a Chicago area native and 2:38:54 marathoner, is returning to race the marathon once again this October.

Demanding work schedules and 120+ mile weeks force the semi-elite community to make sacrifices in every area of their lives in hopes of becoming a full-time professional athlete. Social lives are put on the back burner and relocating to cities with a strong running community may even be necessary too. Jonas Hampton, a highway design engineer from the University of Hartford in Connecticut, moved to Boston last year where he joined the Boston Athletic Association. “The diversity of the city’s culture, historic significance and the multitude of bike paths and runners was a big change that I happily embraced,” says Hampton.

Photo Courtesy of Jonas Hampton

A 2:15:46 marathoner, with no sponsor and plenty of solo miles under his belt, trains while working as a highway design engineer. The B.A.A. supplies him with some Adidas gear, but all running-related income is from race winnings. “I don’t have an official sponsor like most others at this level. I’ve been working full time while also running full time since graduating college and even during training for the Olympic Trials back in 2016,” says Hampton. “I also don’t have a coach and have been making my own training/workout schedule since graduating back in 2011. Most of the workouts I do have been from trial and error over the years and doing my own research of other coaches and athletes.”

When it comes to careers that are conducive to high-mileage training, coaching is one of the best ways to earn a living when trying to go pro. Being surrounded by other runners who hold him accountable plays a huge role in Andrew Epperson’s Chicago Marathon build up.

Photo Courtesy of Andrew Epperson

“Working as a coach is really the dream scenario when training for a marathon and working with the staff and student athletes at Colorado State has been no different,” the Colorado State Cross Country Assistant Coach and 2:16:54 marathoner says. “It’s easy to get in doubles and long runs when the team is meeting up on a daily basis and even though some of my long runs have been over 20 miles, it’s been great to have the company. In my previous marathon buildup [Chicago 2016], I was balancing part-time engineering, coaching, as well as training; with it just being coaching and training for this build up, it’s been much more manageable.”

Peterson’s advice to other runners hoping to go pro or go to head-to-head with elites on race day, “surround yourself with a great support system and really find that purpose. It’s hard to get yourself out the door if you’re not sure why you’re doing it.”

Watch these athletes and other amateurs hoping to go professional race through the streets of Chicago on October 7. They may just surprise you and pull off another Sarah Sellers with a podium finish. After all, everybody loves an underdog.