My Chicago Marathon story and why everyone should run for charity

My Chicago Marathon story and why everyone should run for charity

It’s Chicago Marathon weekend. Maybe a good time to share my Chicago Marathon story. New York City was my first, way back in 1997. Yet it’s the Chicago Marathon that is uniquely special to me. My Chicago Marathon story is one of hope and healing and ultimately survivorship and fulfillment.

I trained through the winter of 2014 for the New Jersey Marathon which was to be held that year on April 27. On March 19 with just 5 weeks left of training I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I did what anyone would do at that point. I signed up for the Chicago Marathon. I figured if I wasn’t able to run New Jersey, surely I would be back on my feet for Chicago in October. The 2014 Bank of America Chicago Marathon gave me hope.

I did get to run New Jersey that year. I ran sub-4, a personal best that still stands today. I had my surgery 10 days later and decided to defer my Chicago spot to 2015 so I could focus on my treatment. That wound up being a more important decision than I realized.

The Monday before the 2014 Chicago Marathon, October 6, my husband died – by suicide. His funeral was on Friday, the day I would have been on a flight to Chicago for marathon weekend.

In the year that followed, I used marathon training to help me heal. I decided to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Typically, because I’m a professional fundraiser, I always chose a charity to make the whole marathon experience more meaningful and help provide inspiration during difficult training cycles. Usually I raised money for the organization for whom I worked. This was different. It took me until a month before the marathon to start fundraising. Finding the right words; finding the strength to tell my story took time. I raised $6000. The 2015 Bank of America Chicago Marathon providing healing.

Determined to create a new life for my daughter and me, once she finished high school in 2018, we moved to Chicago. She had been accepted into a college here and I had re-connected with an old work friend who had relocated to Chicago 25 years ago. I also knew the CEO of Gilda’s Club since I had been her counterpart at the NJ Affiliate a decade earlier. By the summer of 2019, I was coaching a small group of cancer survivors to run a 5k as a volunteer with Gilda’s Club, and was training for the marathon and raising funds as a member of Team Gilda. The 2019 Bank of American Chicago Marathon made me feel like a survivor.

Although, that was the last time I ran Chicago, my story of course doesn’t end there.

My search for a permanent full-time position in Chicago brought me to Mercy Home for Boys and Girls. They were looking for someone to manage their Heroes Endurance Fundraising Team. I would be working with a team of 300 runners for the marathon. Ultimately, the Bank of America Chicago Marathon provided fulfillment.

Now, Chicago Marathon week is an 80-hour work week and I love every minute, even though I don’t get to run. The work to recruit for next year’s team starts the week after the current year’s marathon and last through the spring. Summer is spent helping our runners navigate the training plan and reaching their fundraising goals – all for the ultimate purpose of giving Chicago’s children in crisis the tools they need to recover from trauma, catch up academically, and plan for a brighter future.

While I would love everyone to run the Chicago Marathon as a Mercy Home Hero, my advice to would-be charity runners is choose a charity that is personally meaningful to you.

A lot of runners run for charity as a means to secure a bib in a sold out or hard to get into race. I think everyone should run for charity, even if they don’t need to – it certainly makes the miles more meaningful and may even provide hope and healing for not just the beneficiaries of your fundraising, but for you too.

Grant Park, Chicago. October 2015
My 25th Anniversary New York City Marathon

My 25th Anniversary New York City Marathon

It’s been three weeks, so here’s my overdue reflection on the 2022 New York City Marathon.

November 2, 1997. That was the day I crossed my first marathon finish line. It was a cool and rainy day in New York City. My family – Chris, his mom, my parents, my boss, and my friend Kevin – out on First Avenue. On the west side of the street, just above 66th Street. Wet and cold, jockeying for position at the barricade in order to have a front row seat for the 30 seconds or so it would take me to pass by.

This year it was overcast, humid, and unseasonably warm. When there were a few rain drops, I longed for the heavy downpours we experienced in ‘97. Although I knew that would not be good – especially for spectators. In ‘97 my dad had worn a brand new red corduroy shirt and when he got back to his hotel room and took it off, his white undershirt was pink.

This year’s cheer squad consisted of my 22 year old daughter with friends at around mile 11 in Brooklyn and Kurt on First Avenue at 77th Street (mile 17) and again in Central Park (40k mark, close to the conclusion of mile 25).

So much has changed in 25 years besides the make-up of my crew…

  • Marathon Expo at Jacob Javitz rather than the Coliseum (now the location of “The Shops at Columbus Circle”)
  • Chip timing!
  • “The TCS New York City Marathon App”
  • Better clothing, GSP watch, and “fast” shoes
  • Fueling with Maurten’s gels rather than Chuckles
  • Running with a phone/camera…and not a disposable camera with actual film
  • Texting my family afterwards to regroup (how the heck did anyone find each other before texting?)
  • Following it all up with pictures, stories, and reels on social media and a blog post!

I’ve learned to have throwaway clothing I can discard when I get warm; rather than tying a jacket and a long sleeve cotton (cotton?!?) tee tied around my waist for miles. I’m also quite certain no one had a big Sony Walkman – complete with wired headphones – at this years marathon, and I’ve learned to run without music, taking in what the course has to offer.

The last time I ran New York – 2005 – I was overwhelmed with sadness when I passed 66th Street on First Avenue and thought about my parents having been there for my first, and yet at the time they were still very much alive, although it was age that kept them home and I guess I sensed what was to come. But this year, long since my parents passed, I was filled with nothing but gratitude for lives well lived including my own. It’s also been more than 8 years since I sat in that church on First Avenue and 66th Street when I was early for an appointment at Memorial Sloan Kettering. And the Fred’s Team cheer zone on the course on that block, I took in as my own.

This marathon wasn’t my fastest, actually it was my slowest. Even slower than last year’s muddy marathon on the Delaware Canal Towpath, but there are a number of things for which I am very proud. My miles had meaning by doing a small fundraiser for Mercy Home, an organization with whom I am now employed after 25 years of trying to combine running and fundraising. I also gained my entry to this marathon with a qualifying time – a World Major at that! And in spite of the warm weather, my lack of consistent training, and advancing age, I still finished comfortably and got to both the start and finish healthy. Finally, and maybe what I am most proud of, is who I have become as a runner and marathoner in the past 25 years.

A first marathon is magical because for us non-elite athletes is about personal achievement, sticking with the training, perseverance, endurance, and victory in simply making it to the finish line. Your time doesn’t – or shouldn’t – matter. It’s about proving to yourself that you can cover the distance, and maybe setting a benchmark for the future.

Since ‘97 my mantras have change. “You got this.” “Keep moving.” “Trust your training.” “You are strong.” “You are fast.” To this year’s, “No one cares.”

Not that I believe for an instant that no one cares about what I am doing – judging from responses to my social media posts , greetings on the course, and donations to my fundraiser – clearly all the right people cared that I was running a marathon. What they didn’t care about truly was my time. They wanted my time to be whatever I wanted it to be. For marathon number 12 – a victory lap of sorts, in New York City, celebrating 25 years where it all began – I simply wanted my time to be fun.

And it was. I high-fived kids in Brooklyn, was shot by a confetti gun, read the funny signs, stopped for photos, saw a guy running while balancing a pineapple on his head, was overcome with emotion coming off the 59th Street Bridge into the roaring crowds on 1st Avenue, got some “ridiculous support” from my New Jersey running crew staffing a hydration station in Harlem, and ran, walked, jogged, and shuffled my way through a 26.2 mile party.

I don’t recall exactly when it was, but I remember telling Kurt that if it ever took me longer than 5 hours to complete a marathon I was done. That maybe that would signal my marathoning days we’re done. Of course there was also that time after my 2nd marathon which took me 2 minutes longer than my first that I thought I was done… and that time at the 2018 New Jersey Marathon when I called Kurt from mile 19 to say I was done right there and then!

When I crossed my latest marathon finish line in 5 hours, 42 minutes and 11 seconds, the furthest thing from my mind was that I was done. Although admittedly I need a break. I want to get rid of the Covid weight, get strong again, and recommit to training. But I’m not done. Next marathon: BQ in my next age group. After all, I get another 15 minutes!

The most important thing that I’ve learned in 25 years of marathoning is that the marathon is whatever YOU want it to be. While the definition of success varies for each individual, it also varies from one year, one race, to the next. Goals are personal. What remains the same is the distance. It’s 26.2 miles. There are no shortcuts.

Victory lap. Central Park, New York City. November 2022.
Podcast S1|E19: Jamie Hershfang, from “sympathy claps” to 2021 Top-Ranked 50 miler

Podcast S1|E19: Jamie Hershfang, from “sympathy claps” to 2021 Top-Ranked 50 miler

Jamie Hershfang ultra runner with DW Running discusses her running journey from 0 to 62, creating challenges to stay motivated during the pandemic including raising money for COVID Solidarity, her team, Fleet Feet Chicago, the Bank of America race series, and her personal cause: the National Eating Disorders Association.

DWRunning Racing Team:
Fleet Feet Chicago: (plus in person at the Lakeview location on Southport except Wed & Sat)
Instagram: @jamiehershfang

Podcast S1|E16: Valerie Jencks, running for Gilda’s Club Chicago

Podcast S1|E16: Valerie Jencks, running for Gilda’s Club Chicago

Valerie Jencks discusses coming back to running after cancer, battling “long-haul COVID”, training for her first marathon at 60, and why she’s running for Gilda’s Club Chicago.

Valerie’s Team Gilda Fundraising page:

Valerie’s Professional website:

Valerie’s Ted Talk Link: How to Rewrite History

Run for Gilda’s Club Chicago to ensure that anyone impacted by cancer is empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action, and sustained by community. For more information, please contact Rebecca Peters:

A look back on 2019

A little snow overnight put me on the treadmill this morning. It was a good day for that kind of monotony on my easy four-mile run. New Year’s Eve is a time for self-reflection and mediation and it’s very easy to get lost in thought when you don’t have to think about much else for 40 minutes.

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