CHICAGO — On September 25, 1977, 4,200 runners gathered at the foot of the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza for the Chicago’s first modern marathon. That was the starting line for the race itself, but the origins of the city’s first marathon took many twists and turns through the side alleys of Chicago politics, business interests, and competitive concerns before the fist runners ever laced up their shoes.
“It’s a uniquely Chicago story of how the marathon got started,” Tim Bradley, the interim executive director of The Chicago Area Runners Association said.
It began with a tense meeting nearly a year before the race, when five key players were said to have met at the metropolitan YMCA on La Salle Street. They discussed starting a race that would rival New York’s marathon, which had been established seven years earlier.
Randy Burt is one of only three men to have competed in all 43 Chicago Marathons.
“Before 1977, there were a group of runners who were trying to put together a marathon here in the city of Chicago,” he said. “Mayor (Richard J.) Daley was behind it. He said, ‘Yes that would be great,’ because New York had a marathon already he wanted to do that.”
Daley had wanted a new attraction to bring attention to the city and envisioned the event having a similar impact as the 1959 Pan-Am games which were staged in Chicago. But Chicago Parks superintendent Ed Kelly reportedly told that round table at the YMCA that there would be a marathon in Chicago, “over my dead body.”
“He envisioned thousands of runners trampling all through his beautiful park system – and we do have beautiful parks – so he didn’t want it,” Burt said. “So, there’s this conflict between Mayor Daley and Ed Kelly.”
Back in the ‘70s, running hadn’t yet become a mainstream sport and was mainly seen as a weird, almost counter-culture kind of activity.
“In that era, running was not well known,” said Bill Leach, a running coach, who worked on the early Marathon committees.
“In the early years, many of the key players didn’t understand running. They certainly didn’t appreciate it,” he said.
But Daley had the final word.
“Mayor Daley, if he wanted to have a marathon in the city, he was going to have one,” Bradley said.
Enter Lee Flaherty, a confident, brash businessman who championed the Marathon and provided the financial backing. He went to Daley with a blunt request, according to the bestselling author and legendary runner Hal Higdon.
“He pretty much went to the city and said, will you give us the streets? And the mayor agreed,” Higdon said.
It was Flaherty’s idea to run 26.2 through downtown and through the neighborhoods, instead of a straight line from start to finish. He told WGN he had been inspired by his experience running the Boston marathon in 1976.
“I got involved in that marathon, accepting that as a challenge to find out if I could do it,” he said.
Flaherty – through his company Flair Communications — was the main financial sponsor of the first two marathons.
“He shepherded the first few years of the event and gave it life, and support and funding, and really launched the marathon in Chicago,” said Carey Pinkowski, the longtime executive director of Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
Flaherty died at the age of 90, on March 23 of 2022, about a month after he was diagnosed with cancer.
But shortly after Daley gave his blessing to Flaherty to ‘take the streets’ for the race , the long-time mayor suffered a heart attack and died in December of 1976.
Daley’s successor Michael Bilandic was a recreational runner and convinced Kelly to support the marathon, which was named in Daley’s honor.
According to a report in the New York Times, Daley’s wife Elanor ‘Sis’ Daley was asked to fire a ceremonial cannon to start the race, but when she pulled the string, there was no sound. The runners started anyway. Five minutes later, it was reported, the cannon fired leaving three people with minor injuries.
“It had a misfire and it actually hit some of the spectators, and those spectators were related to the dignitaries who were putting on the race,” Burt, who was at the starting line for the race in 1977, said.
With 4,200 runners, the first race was the largest marathon in U.S. history up to that point. In the field was a runner dressed as Abe Lincoln, an 8-year-old boy and a 25-year-old theology student named Dan Cloeter, who had run cross country at Concordia university.
By mile 12 he had pulled ahead of the field and was the first to cross the finish line at Chicago’s first marathon taking home the champion’s plaque with a time of 2:17:52. (Cloeter also won the third running of the marathon in 1979 with a time of 2:23:20).
“I was pretty confident coming into the race,” Cloeter said in a 1977 interview on a film produced by Flair Communications. “I had trained pretty hard, and I had run a couple good races in the last few weeks, so I knew I was ready.”
Today he’s a retired pastor living in Nebraska and still has his plaque.
“Being a runner and going out in the country, and running through cities, you know running brought you a lot of peace,” he said. “To achieve success in running you have to be extremely disciplined, and it teaches you to be even-keeled you need to go out and be steady, somewhat block out tur emotions.”
In 1978, the Mayor Daley Marathon was back – but with more controversy. The ’77 event had lost thousands of dollars, so organizers doubled the entry fee from $5 to $10 dollars and pushed back the start time hoping for more media exposure.
The changes ruffled the runners.
“The following year there were a lot of political problems, because Flaherty lost about $35,000,” Higdon said. “He had a successful marketing corporation, but probably couldn’t survive those losses, so he raised the entry fee.”
Between 500 and one thousand runners raced with black arm bands to protest what they saw as an event that prioritized business interests ahead athletes’ needs.
“The race aficionados who really know about running wanted the race to stay early in the morning when the temperature is cooler because heat is the worst thing for marathon runners,” Burt said,
Out of that protest, the Chicago Area Runners Association was born.
“It kind of started as a protest to say, ‘Hey let’s go to the race, wear a black armband and say the race is starting too late and it’s too much money,’” Bradley said. “It was a real issue for women to have any voice or to participate. These were male dominated events for a certain population and the idea was to get running to a broader base of individuals.”
The next year, the race was re-titled “America’s Marathon-Chicago.” By the mid-1980s, it had become a marquee event in the sports world, attracting the fastest runners on the planet, but tension between CARA and the Marathon organizers persisted.
“It wasn’t until Carey Pinkowski joined the race organization (was promoted to director of marathon, because quite honestly nobody wanted the job). He turned it around and the first thing he did as race director was making peace with the local running group and brought them into the race rather than excluding them,” Higdon said.
“I think the essence of what the marathon is it brings people together,” Pinkowski said. “It creates an amazing community.”
Today, there are more than 40,000 runners – ten times the original field. The event attracts 1.7 million spectators, who line the streets on race day cheering for the athletes. The marathon, sponsored by Bank of America, has a $428 million annual impact on the city’s economy, and raises tens of millions more for charity.
“In the ‘70s the thought of marathon running is nowhere as it is now.” Pinkowski said. “It has ascended to really a social phenomenon. The Bank of America Chicago Marathon — really what it is — it’s block-by-block, one of the great tours of the city of Chicago.”