Carey Pinkowski: Chicago Dumps Pacemakers, rediscovers Racing, by Larry Eder


Okay, let's get this straight.

I love the Bank of Chicago Marathon. I spent most of the 1990s and all of the 2000s coming to this race, and enjoying the best big city Marathon that the Midwest has to offer.

Under the watchful eyes of Carey Pinkowski, Mike Nishi and their team, the Bank of America Chicago marathon has become of the finest races in the world. There were many years, quite frankly, when the racing in the Windy City made this race the best race of my year.

Carey Pinkowski is the life long race director of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. The guy has been here for nearly a nine hundred years (biblical reference), in reality, it just seems like that some days to the marathon staff.

In truth, Carey Pinkowski has been executive race director since 1990. That makes it twenty five years of managing one of the most important events each year on the City of Chicago calendar. With runners from fifty states and 100 countries, and three world records under his belt, Carey Pinkowski and his team have built the Bank of America Chicago marathon from a nice regional event with some global potential to one of the six most important marathons in the world, each and every year.

Pinkowski_Cary2-WorldMM06.jpgCarey Pinkowski, without a hat, photo by

A key memory that I have of the late Fred Lebow comes from a story by Marc Bloom, for the Runner magazine, published in the early 1980s. The story is about how Fred Lebow, the man who made the New York City marathon what it is today, could not sleep the night before the marathon. If one was curious, one could find Lebow out on the course. Early in the morning, or late at night, depending on your preference, Fred Lebow would be on the course, making sure that the course was marked to perfection, the right distance, and all was good in the Big Apple.

I seem to recall, and this must have been in the mid 1990s, with my friend and then business associate Jeremy Solomon, heading back from a late night soiree in Chicago and finding Carey Pinkowski out on the marathon course at 2 AM in the morning. I remember sharing the story with Jeremy of the late Fred Lebow.

A few years later, we spoke to Carey Pinkoswki's saintly wife. She noted that noted race director slept little the few nights before and the night before might be able to get a few hours of shut eye.

Consider it. Moving 40,000 people through the Windy City is no mean feat. One not only gets the accolades, but more than likely, one gets the complaints. The executive director of such a moving village has to be a bit concerned, after all, PInkowski is human.

Carey Pinkowski is part of a rarefied breed. Successful marathon race directors, like successful track meet directors, are impressarios of the modern age. They are social animals, great salespeople, good listeners, cheerleaders, and insomniacs, among other talents. They also tend to have strong running pedigrees. They are able to find disparate people with remarkable talents that fit somehow into the chaos that is a marathon week. These people thrive in these situations and come back, year after year. Much of this is due to a bit of cajoling by said race director, or a bit of asking by another member of the marathon team, at the request of Mr. Pinkowski.

How did this executive director develop his skills, you ask? Well, we shall tell you!

Such is the case of Carey Pinkowski. In the 1970s, along with Rudy Chapa and Tim Keogh, Carey Pinkowski was part of a trio of young men who broke nine minutes for two miles in Hammond high school, on the same team. That team ran many of the miles of their 100 mile weeks on a grassy field in the city of Gary, Indiana. I recall an article in Runners World, about 1975, regarding their coach and the talented trio. Breaking nine minutes for the 2 mile, all three in the same race, plus many other exploits, earned the trio interest from some of the finest universities in the country.

Chapa went to Oregon, Pinkowski went to Villanova. Pinkowski would run a 2:22 marathon before injuries and a buddy life called his running into retirement.

Pinkowski joined the Chicago Marathon under the reign of Bob Bright. Bright was a man of many talents, and some were real talents and some were apparitions. Bob Bright should be recognized for putting the Chicago marathon on the map. His apparent rivalry with New York's Fred Lebrow was a bit fabrication, a bit Barnum and Bailey, a bit Transvaal showman (the Lebow part). Whatever it was, Chicago and New York rivalry was picked up in the sporting press and provided the fledgling marathon business some much needed publicity.

Carey Pinkowski soaked it all in. One can learn from good things, and from not so good things. Race Directors see all of that. It is part of the job, and part of working with volunteers and professionals in one organization. Being an executive race director is like, well, herding cats.

Pinkowski survived the lack of funding, and has been the executive director since 1990. Building the race up, from designing the course (Pinkowski was requested by the Chicago 2016 bid to develop the Chicago Olympic marathon course in the proposed Chicago Olympic bid), to building a team to support the sponsors, volunteers and medical team that is needed to manage a major marathon, are all part of Pinkowski's skill set.

Carey PInkowski and his team grew the marathon, and grew it did. In the 1990s, there was La Salle Bank and New Balance as major sponsors. That lasted until the 2007, when Bank of America purchased La Salle Bank, just days before the race. In 2008, Nike replaced New Balance as footwear sponsor.

The epic heat in 2007 forced nearly ten thousand runners to not finish the race, as at three and one half hours into the race, the runners were re routed to finish and told to stop running, for safety reasons. It was the perfect storm, and Carey Pinkowksi and his team weathered many complaints.

Remember how I noted earlier that race directors are a rarified breed with different skill sets? Well this is where those skill sets come into place.

Pinkowski, as smiling as he can be on race weekend, is a perfectionist. He took the complaints to heart and re invented the services on the race. Medical management was better, more fluids and aid stations were available, and more volunteers and members of the team were ready for 2008, when, the heat hit again, but not in the drama of 2007.

In the early days of the Chicago Marathon, it was, admittedly, all about the fast runners and the citizen runners were a bit of an afterthought. Pinkowski has changed that on his watch. Over the last twenty-five years, the running masses know that Chicago is a great place to run a marathon, and a great city to experience with one's family around a marathon.

During Carey Pinkowski's reign, there have been three world records. One with Khalid Khannouchi in 1999, one with Catherine Nderiba and one with Paula Radcliffe. Chicago marathon is fast, and the fields are amazingly deep.

Again, Carey Pinkwoski and his team learnt well. Pinkowski visits many of the major marathons each year, but has developed a strong relationship with David Bedford, one of the co-founders of the London marathon and the man who orchestrated and curated the fine fields in London for over three decades. One can see Carey and Mike Nishi at many of the events, observing and noting how to make their race better.

Carey Pinkowski is always thinking. That is how the conversation on pace making came up this past Thursday.

" How many pace makers did we have last year, Larry?" Carey asked me rhetorically on Thursday. " I think nine or ten, Carey." was my reply.

"They are gone. We are relying on the races to develop naturally. Without pace makers, the elite runners have to race" noted Carey Pinkowksi.

I asked Carey how he felt about the end of pace making in Chicago. Carey did the Pinkowski shrug, a bit of both shoulders moving up and down and a slight smile. " It should all the races to develop more." was how Carey alluded to the demise of the practice.

Carey loves a good race. And he knows how to orchestrate them. But the work that goes into building a group of pace makers is almost as tedious, at times, as developing a marathon field.

So, the Windy city will no longer have pace makers.

And it will be a fine race.

When we asked Wesley Korir about the lack of pace makers, he was very happy. The 2012 Boston marathon champion noted, " I have only won marathons without pace makers, so now, I am very excited about Chicago."

Wes Korir has tried many times to win in Chicago, only to take second or third.

Pinkowski knows he is taking a bit of a risk. To get local TV and global TV to produce a marathon is one of the best sales jobs in the business. One has to produce a field that can work together, with enough different styles of racers, and with racers with local stories, national stories and global stories.

That is relatively easy to do for Pinkowski, as the Chicago Marathon has runners from fifty states and 100 countries. The economic impact of the race is $254 million over the marathon week for the fine city of Chicago. That comes in hotels, air travel, food, amusement, and perhaps, after the marathon, an adult beverage or three.

Developing a field for an elite marathon is like planning a great dinner and trying to pair the right wines with the flavors and types of food. What wine and food complements each other? Is something over powering?

In fine tuning a field, Carey hopes to put runners together who will challenge each other and bring out a new and exciting rivalry. A great race means more newspapers write and TV's prognosticate on the race developments.

As the Chicago marathon has matured, and the level of needs that Bank of America and Nike grows, the team at the Chicago marathon has continued to grow and evolve.

Carey Pinkowski is seen checking everywhere, and his partner in all of this, Mike Nishi is hard at work making sure that everything is running smoothly and that the crisis that develop (always something) are dealt with in a manner that keeps both the city and the sponsors happy.

The Bank of America Chicago Marathon is a major mover and player in the World Marathon Majors. This continuing evolution on the stand on pace makers now gives elite marathoners a few races that have gone away with pace makers.

How will the race play out?

No one knows.

" Marathoners need to know how to race" noted Wesley Korir. "In a race without pacemakers, we can actually race," noted Fernando Cabada, an emerging American talent.

Watching all of this, keeping notes in his cerebelum, is Mr. Pinkowski, executive race director and a man who will not sleep much on Saturday night as his team orchestrates, on the course that he designed, 42,000 plus marathoners across the streets and through the iconic neighborhoods of the Windy City.

And, on October 11, 2015, all will be good in the City of Chicago for six to eight hours.

And, around October 12, 2015, Carey Pinkowski will again find a full night of sleep to his liking.

And, all will be good with the world of running in the Windy City, as Pinkowski and team begin planning

for next year's race.

Will pace making be a question for next year?

One has to wait and see how 2015 turns out.

If the races are good, and deep, then, why change.

Our sport is about racing, and Carey Pinkowski knows that.

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