Just do it A high-school cross-country and track star back home in Hammond, Indiana, and a professional athlete (sponsored by Nike!) on the road-running circuit in the ’80s, Pinkowski first came to the Chicago Marathon in a consulting capacity. “I coordinated city services, police manpower, operations, the volunteer aspect,” he says. Pinkowski was offered the job of race director in 1990, and since then, the marathon has grown from around 3,600 participants to more than 45,000, making it one of the largest races in the world.
Training cycle Years of behind-the-scenes logistical planning can go into one race day, and it takes a full-time staff of 21 to pull it off. Pinkowski’s team is divided into different areas of responsibility: communications, operations, medical support, volunteers, etc. “It’s a continual process,” he says. “Just this morning, I got an e-mail asking about dates for the 2010 and 2011 races. We’re always working with the city, with hotels, with races in other cities to schedule and integrate all the elements.”
Need for speed “Our job is to transform 26.2 miles of traditional roadway into a marathon course,” Pinkowski says. When he first arrived on the job, the Chicago Marathon took place largely on Lake Shore Drive. But Pinkowski has rerouted the run to showcase the city’s neighborhoods in a way that sets our marathon apart from others around the world. “It’s a real tour of the city,” Pinkowski says. Other things that keep runners coming back? “It’s a fast, flat course, known for speed,” Pinkowski says. “Runners come here to make their mark and run good times. We’ve had four world records.” For amateur runners, the spectator-friendly aspect of the race is a draw. “It’s fan-friendly. Friends and family can hop on the El and easily get to eight locations on the course,” Pinkowski says. He cites the area on Franklin Street near the Merchandise Mart as one of his favorite spots on the route. “It’s the halfway point. There’s unbelievable energy, huge crowds, and you can hear this roar that echoes up the street.”
Race-day jitters When the big day finally arrives, Pinkowski is a bundle of nervous energy. “I’m usually out at about 2am. I’ll drive the first eight miles of the route and go to some different spots for last-minute checks,” he says. “At that point, all the planning and logistics are in place. So it’s just kind of letting the event take its course.” Even after keeping a constant eye on weather reports in the days leading up to the race, Pinkowski says there’s something symbolic about walking out of the hotel (the Chicago Hilton is the official race-headquarters hotel) and taking stock of conditions himself. Later in the morning, he heads to the forward command tent in Grant Park, the marathon’s start and finish point. “We’re in there communicating with city departments and getting updates about developments on the course, watching TVs and helicopter shots.” After the first hour and 50 minutes or so, Pinkowski heads to the finish line to watch the men’s and women’s winners come in.
The recruitment game Even with $450,000 in prize money to lure participants, Pinkowski travels the world to recruit runners to his race. “We like to have the established stars and athletes who have done well in the Olympics,” he says. As one of five major marathons in the world, Chicago sometimes finds itself competing against other cities for top runners. “Physically, they can only run two marathons per year,” Pinkowski explains. “They train for 25 weeks for one race. Then they rest for three weeks. Then the cycle begins again. So they might do spring in Boston or London, and fall in New York or Chicago.”
Memory lane Everyone remembers certain years for the weather (Pinkowski says the record heat in 2007 that led to water shortages, runner collapses and painfully slow times was a learning experience for the entire industry), but his most cherished moments are more about individual runners’ experiences. “In 1993, it was snowing,” he recalls. “It was tough, tough weather. I’d brought in a young man named Luiz Antonio Dos Santos, from Brazil, and it was his first time this far up in the Northern Hemisphere.” Around mile 22, Dos Santos broke away from the pack, and it was obvious he was going to win. “I looked at him, and he was running along sticking out his tongue, trying to catch snowflakes,” Pinkowski says. “I later asked him what he was doing, and he said that when he was a little boy, his mother told him snow was sugar. He was trying to taste it. I don’t think he’d ever seen snow before.”
Run, Chicago, run “Twenty years ago, I would never believe marathons would be as wildly popular as they are today,” Pinkowski says. “The individuality, the personal expression, the charity component—they’ve all become huge parts of the phenomenon. Where it used to be thought of as a pure athletic competition, now it’s something regular people want to challenge themselves to do.” And no matter how fast you get to the finish line, Pinkowski says, “When you tell someone you’re going to run the Chicago Marathon, that’s impressive.”