Marathon mania runs through area

By Sara Garcia

Mary Stech said she thinks it would be hypocritical to work in health care and not stay in shape.

But going for a walk near her home in Mahomet or pedaling for 20 minutes on a stationary bike was not enough for the 44-year-old nurse practitioner.

She trudged up and down mile-high hills along the Pacific Coast with her daughter and second husband in April 2004 as part of her first marathon, the Big Sur International Marathon in California.

Stech is not fast. Nor is she skinny. She simply decided, soon after her husband’s 50th birthday, that she was going to finish 26.2 miles. And she did.

The running enthusiast trained for her second marathon, the 2005 LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon and finished in five hours and forty minutes. She is part of a growing number of Americans who do not fit the stereotypical profile for a marathoner – quick and thin – but are still training for and finishing marathons across the country.

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    In 1976, the number of U.S. marathon finishers was 25,000, according to the Road Runner Information Center. By 2004, the center reported that the number had grown more than 16 times to 423,000. Ryan Lamppa, a researcher with the center, estimated that there are 15,000 to 20,000 marathon finishers in Illinois, though statistics describing the rate of growth were not available.

    “The marathon is going mainstream, no doubt about it,” Lamppa said in a phone interview.

    It is clear an increasing number of Americans are becoming obese, but at the same time, many people are going in the opposite direction and seeking ways to increase their fitness levels. The new runners are rarely trying to beat a certain time and few hope to place among elites in marathons with as many as 40,000 participants. Most just want to say they did it.

    Lamppa said the number of marathon finishers has shot up twice since the 1960s. The first jump was when a growing number of runners flocked to the sport in the mid-1970s after hearing about famous runners like Bill Rogers, who won the Boston Marathon multiple times, and Frank Shorter, who won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympic Marathon in Munich, Germany.

    The number of finishers spiked again in the mid-1990s, as more people looked for ways to improve their health and fitness. Lamppa said the idea that an average person could run a marathon became feasible.

    Lamppa, who has run hundreds of road races including the 1988 Los Angeles Marathon, had a simple answer: training programs. He said women are more likely to follow them than men.

    Today, 40 percent of marathon finishers are women, up from 10.5 percent in 1980 according to the Road Running Information Center.

    Lamppa estimated that more than 1,000 training programs are in existence nationwide, many of them tied to a specific marathon. Most lay out daily running goals and offer nutritional advice, making it possible for someone who has never run before to train for as little as four months and complete a marathon.

    The growing number of inexperienced runners is leading to slower median times.

    According to the Road Runner Information Center, the median time for U.S. male finishers was three hours and 54 minutes in 1995 and four hours and 23 minutes in 2004. Females are no different. Their median time increased since 1995 by 40 minutes to four hours and 55 minutes in 2004.

    Katie Breen, senior in ALS, ran the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon for the second time on Oct. 9. Her best friend, senior at Illinois State University, Nancy Evans, joined her this time. Both finished the race in less than four and a half hours.

    “She (Evans) said I was her inspiration,” Breen said.

    Lamppa said he remembers earlier marathons with finish lines drawn in chalk. Marathons also have added attractions such as singers and bands along the route to entertain the number of mainstream Americans taking up the sport.

    Stech printed out her running assignments as part of Hal Higdon’s Marathon Training Guide and stuck it on her refrigerator so she can see it every day. She is out the door of her house by 6 a.m. every Saturday morning so she can do her “long run” with her daughter and stepdaughter.

    “I don’t think about it, I get up and go,” Stech said.

    The three women drive the route first, dropping off water at different spots along their path. Stech said they go early to avoid being forced to run in the hottest temperatures of the day.

    “I can’t imagine doing it without them,” Stech said.

    She is not alone in her training the rest of the week.

    Stech said she often brings her 1-year old black Labrador, Addison, along when she does two to three mile runs Monday mornings. She also gets up before work at Cardiac Surgery Associates in Urbana to run Wednesday mornings. The nurse practitioner also takes “boot camp” aerobics classes at the Refinery in Champaign Tuesday and Thursday mornings as part of her cross training.

    Stech said she would like to lose some weight, but a nutritionist told her to come back after the marathon for advice.

    “I’m fat and fit,” she said.

    Stech said she does not train with the local runners in town because she fears she is too slow. Despite her speed, no one can take away the title of marathon runner from her.

    “There’s never been a point when I didn’t want to do it,” she said.

    Kate Kostal, junior in Communications, also ran the Chicago Marathon, finishing in three hours and 23 minutes.

    “The first 13 miles were really easy and really fast,” Kostal said. “I didn’t hit a wall but I do think I got a bit of a runner’s high.”

    She also said the crowds were very supportive of the runners.

    Despite the growing number of finishers, many runners still train to compete.

    “I like to set a personal record each time,” said Kristy Powell, graduate student.

    The 27-year-old in nutritional science ran her first marathon in Chicago in 2003. She trained for Chicago again this year, her sixth marathon.