Recalling the Inaugural Chicago Marathon

The winners of the 1977 race are still running 40 years later

Just a few miles into what was then the Mayor Daley Marathon, Dan Cloeter came to a halt.

He and the other lead runners had been striding over a narrow bike path in Chicago’s Lincoln Park near Lake Michigan when they hit a traffic jam.

“You could hardly have two people running side by side on this path,” Cloeter recalls.

Dan Cloeter out in front along Lake Michigan during the 1977 Mayor Daley Marathon. Photo: Courtesy of Dan Cloeter.

It was essentially an out-and-back route, and those at the front were suddenly running against the tide of slower runners coming from the opposite direction. It wasn’t an ideal situation for a race with 4,200 starters.

“There wasn’t a motorcycle or bicyclist, you know, yelling, ‘Be careful, the lead runners are coming!’ ” Cloeter says. “I remember several times along a 2- or 3-mile stretch where I came to a complete stop.”

As it turned out, Cloeter won the race anyway, in 2:17:52, five minutes in front of the runner-up.

Cloeter, 65, laughs now about one of the few glitches he recalls as the 40th running of that race–now known as the Bank of America Chicago Marathon – approaches Oct. 8. He and Dorothy Doolittle were the first winners of an event that has grown and changed significantly since that first race day of Sept. 25, 1977.

Doolittle, in fact, was part of a women’s field that comprised only about 10 percent of entrants, compared to 45 percent now.

“Back in those days as a woman running, you knew where the competitors were,” says Doolittle, 71. “Because every time a woman passed, the crowd would give a big cheer.”

She hardly had reason to worry. She took an early lead and never let it go, winning in 2 hours, 50 minutes and 47 seconds, a personal best.

“There weren’t that many women,” she says. “Now it would be a different story.”

At left, Dorothy Doolittle holds the Tiffany & Co. silver cup given to her by the Chicago Marathon on the 25th anniversary of her win in 2002. (She lost the original trophy given to her in 1977.) She earned the black trophy for finishing third at Boston Marathon in 1976 and won the wooden trophy for winning the Gulf AAU Championship Houston Marathon in 1977. At right, Doolittle poses with a dog she ran with recently from the Austin Pets Alive! program. Photos: Courtesy of Dorothy Doolittle

 

Still running, 40 Years Later

Today, Cloeter is a pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Osceola, Neb. The thick hair and mustache he had in the ’70s are long gone. Doolittle is retired in Austin, Texas, from a career in teaching and coaching that took her to the University of Missouri, Houston, Stanford and Tennessee.

Both still run, though Cloeter is bothered by a hip injury. He ran a 5K this year and did a half marathon two years ago in an hour and 39 minutes, but now puts in more time on a bike and elliptical machine than on the roads. Doolittle runs about five days a week, doing about six miles, mostly on trails with dogs as a volunteer for Austin Pets Alive!, a shelter that saves pets from euthanasia.

“It helps them and it helps me,” she says. She no longer enters races.

On that first Chicago race day, 40 years ago, Cloeter was a 25-year-old seminary student living in Fort Wayne, Ind. He and his wife “were living off a few dimes” after a recent move from Denver, where he’d served a vicarage year before his final year at seminary. But a year of training at altitude made him strong, and he’d already had marathon success. Part of a Nike athlete assistance program, Cloeter had won St. Louis’ Third Olympiad Marathon in 1976 and early ’77.

At Chicago, he vowed to run at the pace he wanted, so he ignored another runner who took an early lead. By the ninth mile he caught him and by Mile 12 he figured the race was his. He clocked his first mile in 5 minutes, 13 seconds, and his second mile, too. His average for the entire race: 5:13.

“To me, that’s a really great way to run a race,” he says. “You don’t burn yourself out at the beginning.”

In 1977, Doolittle was a 31-year-old high school coach and teacher from Texas. She had finished third in the Boston Marathon in 1976 and was a two-time winner of the Houston Marathon and also had marathon wins in Austin, Crowley, La., and San Antonio. In 1976 she ranked eighth in the world among women marathoners. At a time when women were just pushing into a male-dominated event – Boston had permitted women just five years earlier – Doolittle was ecstatic to run in Chicago.

“I was so excited about being there, because I was invited to run, and gosh they even paid my airfare,” she says. “So it was big time.”

Both Cloeter and Doolittle remember a festive atmosphere and a beautiful, sunny day. There was a band at Daley Plaza for the start – at one point the theme from “Rocky” was played — and another about six miles out at the first turnaround. A guy dressed as Abe Lincoln started the race. A ceremonial cannon was supposed to fire at the race’s start, but it didn’t work. A few minutes later it went off by itself, causing a scare and slightly injuring three people.

 

Dan Cloeter poses with some of his running memorabilia. The blue plaque over his left shoulder is from his 1977 win at the Mayor Daley Marathon in Chicago. The big trophy in the middle from his 1979 Chicago Marathon win. Photos: Courtesy of Dan Cloeter


A Different Era

When the race celebrates its 40th running this year, it will be far different from the innagural event. Then, the entry fee was $5, winners received nothing but a small plaque and the starting field of 4,200 was huge for its time. Now the entry fee is $195 (for U.S. citizens), winners receive $100,000 and 45,000 runners will start.

In 1977, the race was a fresh novelty, and its route mostly followed walkways and bike paths. It began at Daley Plaza, went north about 6½ miles, turned south and ran along near the lake to Promontory Point before turning north for the final 6-plus miles to the finish at Buckingham Fountain.

“Back then, street closures were a premium,” says Carey Pinkowski, executive race director.

Now, the race is one of six Abbott World Marathon Majors and its famed for its fast course and crowds. Runners start and finish at Millennium Park. They stampede up wide streets across much of the city – covering 29 neighborhoods — with as many as 1.7 million spectators.

On race day, there will be a nod to history, says Pinkowski. Six men who have completed the 39 previous races and will start the 40th will be honored, as will the four runners who have set world records at Chicago: four-time winner Khalid Khannouchi, Steve Jones, Paula Radcliffe and Catherine Ndereba.

For Cloeter and Doolittle, Chicago remains special. Cloeter came back to win again in 1979. It was Doolittle’s farewell marathon. After his victory in ’77, Cloeter was given a 20-minute film of the race. He had it transferred to disk and gets a kick watching it sometimes.

“I gave a copy to all my kids at Christmas some years ago,” he says. “I said, ‘You can pull this out someday when I’m dead and gone and you can remember that I was young at some point.’ ”

Doug Williams

Doug Williams is a freelance writer based in San Diego. He’s a former sports editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune.