Race Review: The Illinois Marathon

image1April showers meant soggy runners. But the amazing crowd support, fast course and post-race goodies more than made up for it.

By Henry Howard

When I counted down the days to my March marathon in Raleigh, N.C., I regularly checked the weather forecast. Up until two or three days before the race, it looked like rain would be factor.

Thankfully, my race started and finished under dry skies.

That would not be the case for the April 30 Illinois Marathon in Champaign-Urbana. And when I mean it rained, I mean it rained. Literally from the time I woke up, throughout the entire race to when I returned to the hotel.

Race review: Illinois Marathon

Incredible Organization
This is the second time I raced the Illinois Marathon. In 2014, it became my fourth marathon finish. Much has changed over the past two years for me as a runner, thanks to Marathon Training Academy coach Angie Spencer.

Not only did I PR this year’s race with a 3:36:16 — did I mention it rained the whole time? — but that time was exactly 23 minutes faster than my 2014 finish on the same course.

I chose to return to this race because of how well organized it was when I did it the first time. But this time the organization was even more incredible, due to the weather. Illinois Marathon race organizers are accustomed to challenging weather. In 2015, rain also greeted the runners but lightning sent them for cover and cancelled the race after roughly 3 hours.

Lightning also was a concern this year, according to the initial weather forecasts. Fortunately, the lightning never showed up. Still, race organizers had shelter areas identified and signs pointing their way in case the shelters were needed again this year.

Mostly easy-to-navigate expo

I learned about the shelters during the expo. It should be no surprise that the race day weather was the hot topic among other runners, vendors and — of course — race staffers and volunteers are the expo.

Once I was able to find parking for the expo, it was easy to get around. (While the race website offered a map for travelers, it was difficult to use to locate parking spaces amid the road closures. Signs directing travelers to expo and race-day parking would have been welcomed.)

Inside the expo, volunteers were helpful and the layout offered a seamless way to receive the bib, T-shirt and other swag among the vendor tables and booths. The vendors were fairly typical — a nearby running store, other races and local businesses specializing in organic or natural food.

The expo closed about the time the weekend 5K was being held. The weather was fine for those participating in the 5K but those doing the next morning’s marathon, half marathon or 10K would find a different story.

The guy in the blue poncho

It was already raining when I woke up about two hours before the start. First up on the agenda was chowing down a bagel with peanut butter and starting a chocolate Ucan. From there, I would tape my ankle and head out on a roughly 1+ mile drive to park near the start-finish line.

As is my custom, I got there in plenty of time. Time to visit the port-a-potties if need be, drop off my gear bag and get loosened up for the race. Given the race conditions, I had brought along a disposable blue poncho that I could wear as long as need be.

I really had no plan as to when I would throw away the poncho. At the start? A couple of miles in? When/if the rain would let up? With my weather app showing 100 percent chance of rain every hour throughout the morning, I was skeptical that I would drop the poncho for that reason.

The rain was a steady drizzle at the beginning so I kept the poncho on, making sure to raise it above my bib as I crossed the start line so make sure that the timing chip would work. The rain continued on, as did I.

Crowd Support
To my surprise, the fan support kept up as well. Not just at the start line, but throughout the race as we trekked through campus as well as residential areas of both Urbana and Champaign. There were very few spots without crowd support. It was so inspiring to see such support in the rain and 50-degree weather.

As I trudged on, I saw buildings, art sculptures and other things I remembered from the previous race and a campus visit we made with my oldest son last year. The combination of seeing new things and familiar settings kept my mind active throughout the early and middle miles of the marathon.

It also kept my mind off the blue poncho, except for the times when the 20-mph wind whipped it around my neck. I was able to keep a steady pace, close to my goal even with the flowing poncho. Finally, around the halfway point, I needed to let it go.

I was surprised that I kept the poncho for so long even though it had kept me mostly dry. But it was time to drop it at an aid station, knowing I would get wet but also cool down a bit without the extra layer. After shedding the poncho, I kept my pace fairly consistent until about mile 23.

Pacing Group
That’s when the 3:35 pace group caught up to me. My “A” goal had been a 3:30 but I had given up that goal when the rain would not let up. Now that the 3:35s were with me, I tried to keep up with them. I chatted with the pace group leader for a bit and he was extremely friendly, and even waited to greet me at the finish line when I finished a minute or so later after his group.

He was not the only volunteer/pacer who went above and beyond during the race. Somewhere in the last 5 or 6 miles, I went to grab a cup of water at an aid station. The volunteer and I missed the handoff, and I continued on. However, I heard, “Hey, I got you, man. I got you.” As I turned my head to look back, he had grabbed another cup and ran up beside me for a successful handoff.

Many thanks to 3:35 pacer guy and aid station guy for their efforts. They were solid examples of the great volunteers throughout the race.

Blankets, medals and food options

After crossing the finish line, runners were greeted with a space blanket, water and/or Gatorade, and a medal. Additionally, volunteers handed out wrapped-up keepsake fleece blankets. That was a nice bonus, one which I don’t recall receiving at previous races.

The finishing line is the 50-yard line of the University of Illinois football stadium, which is a pretty cool place to finish a race. However, that also means that after you receive your swag, you must walk up the stadium steps to the food court. To me, this was not a big deal, especially considering that the concession area has a roof over it.

The food offerings included the usual — bananas, water, cookies, pretzels and pizza — and also gluten-free pasta, which was a welcome addition. Outside the stadium, in the post-race party area, there was live music, a beer tent (I passed on my freebie brew as I was starting to feel cold and really needed a warm shower) and chocolate milk.

You should run this race if you . . .

  • Are seeking a well-organized, fast spring race.
  • Want to check Illinois off your 50-state list but don’t like crowded races like the Chicago Marathon.
  • Love the feel of a large Midwestern campus and its nearby communities.

You should not run this race if you . . .

  • Really don’t like running in challenging weather. All I’m saying is that two years in a row, storms were a factor.
  • Seek races with lots of hills or challenging terrain.
  • Require lots of entertainment options post-race and later that night.

One last word

This was my 13th marathon, and I was ready for something unlucky to happen. Given all the possible outcomes from the weather, recovering from injury and the usual range of things that can occur during a long-distance race, I was pleased with the race. And not just pleased with my personal record but how race organizers kept runners apprised of conditions, how volunteers went above and beyond, how community members cheered us on.

I promise you, Illinois Marathon, I’ll be back at some point. Now, if you could promise me a dry day with moderate temperatures, we’ll be good.

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