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When a Chicago Marathon Had Just 14 Runners

A surviving participant from the 1959 Pan-Am marathon reflects on how the event and the city have changed.

Participants in the 1959 Pan-American Games marathon had to share Lake Shore Drive with commuters.   Photo: 1960 United States Olympic Book / United States Olympic Association

Two miles from the finish line of the 1959 Pan-American Games marathon, Jimmy Green slowed to a walk. It was a hot September day, and Green was feeling weary. Looming ahead of him was Soldier Field, where the race would end.

Green was in second place, but he wasn’t worried about losing a medal — there were only 14 men in the race. The leader, John J. Kelley, was four minutes ahead; the third-place runner was five minutes behind. He wasn’t worried about embarrassing himself, either: There were no spectators, except for drivers of cars whizzing past the lane marked off for the runners on Outer Lake Shore Drive. After 50 yards, Green trotted off again, and finished in two hours, 32 minutes, and 17 seconds.

The course went north into Lincoln Park, to Lawrence Avenue, then south past Soldier Field, to 47th Street, then north again to the stadium. (As this mile-by-mile account in a typewritten newsletter called Long Distance Log noted, “Those who planned the course were perhaps unwise to bring the runners past the finish line at the two-thirds point, the point of greatest weakness in any race.”) Nor were the streets shut down for the race: The runners were confined to a single lane on Lake Shore Drive, separated from the cars by rubber cones. At one point, runners even cut through traffic at a sharp corner near the Chicago River bridge.

Ultimately, eight men finished in the late-summer heat. The winner, Kelley, was a Boston Marathon champion who represented the United States at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. But Green is the last surviving medalist from that 60-year-old event, a marathon run in Chicago at a time when, as he put it, “the marathon was viewed as being a race among eccentric athletes.”

“I don’t remember big crowds,” Green says. “I can’t remember exactly going by large numbers. I do remember a number of bikes from South American countries trailing us in the race. It really was the loneliness of the long-distance runner.”

The 1959 Pan-Am Games race wasn’t the city’s first marathon — the city did host a well-attended marathon in the early 20th century, riding a wave of public interest in the race after the 1896 Athens Olympics — but it was the first since the original Chicago Marathon died out in the 1920s. By the late 1950s, the only big-city marathons were in Green’s hometown of Boston and in Yonkers, New York. Back then, joggers in big cities would be largely regarded as oddities.

“People did not run for exercise,” Green recalls. Even in New England, the capital of long-distance running, “you could go through towns, and if you saw a person running in the street, that person had to be a marathon runner.”

Green cites Frank Shorter’s victory in the 1972 Olympic marathon and Bill Rodgers’s four Boston Marathon wins as turning points for the race. “[Marathons] began to excite the imagination. People began to think, ‘I wonder if I could run a marathon.’”

The 1959 Pan-American Games, an athletic competition among Western Hemisphere nations, was the closest Chicago has ever come to landing the Olympics. Mayor Richard J. Daley was so vested in the event’s success he personally draped medals around the athletes’ necks; for the marathon, he made sure the streets were swept clean and combed with a magnet to protect the soles of a barefoot athlete from British Guyana. On the citywide sporting scene, though, “Chicago was more interested in the White Sox” and their American League pennant run, reported Sports Illustrated: “At one point 14 marathoners wound their way through commuter traffic along Lake Shore Drive, but the impact upon the sporting fan of Chicago would probably have been greater had two newsboys decided to run a foot race across the Loop.”

The Pan-Am Games marathon was followed in 1962 by the Windy City Marathon. It was a slightly bigger race, with 15 starters. But marathoning didn’t really take off here until 1977, when Mayor Michael Bilandic, a running enthusiast, approved the first Mayor Daley Marathon, with 4,200 entrants. That race became America’s Marathon, and then the Chicago Marathon. The modern race is one of the World Marathon Majors, attracting Olympic champions who want a fast time on our flat streets and the coveted $100,000 first-place prize.

Green never again raced in an international competition, but at 86, he’s still running. Two years ago, he completed the Boston Marathon; afterwards, he fainted and had a stent installed in his heart. Now, he sticks to 5Ks near his home in Marlborough, Massachusetts, puttering along at an 11:15 minutes–a-mile pace.

This weekend, more than 45,000 runners will participate in the Chicago Marathon, a competition so popular that starting bibs are determined by lottery. More than half of them will be women, in stark contrast to that race 60 years ago. No longer do runners have the share the roads with traffic — the streets will be shut down for the race. Green is delighted that the oddball pursuit of his youth has become so popular.

“Running has become a great social agency. People have parties, get-togethers after the race,” he says.

If you’re lucky to have a starting number for this year’s race, remember the marathoners who ran up Lake Shore Drive when no one cared about marathons. And also feel lucky you don’t have to run through traffic to cross the bridge.

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