ST. CHARLES – Jeff Kelly started running marathons 20 years ago, counting numerous respectable finishes among the 30-plus races he's completed.
He had never won a marathon, and at age 39, those ambitions were beginning to flicker.
On Sunday, the Urbana man added a landmark moment to his accomplished running career, winning the fourth annual Advocate Dreyer Fox Valley Marathon in 2:40.01.
"I get real emotional, and it pops up at weird points," said Kelly, who finished fourth at the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati in 2003. "It hits me, and I tear up, and then that goes away, and I'm happy. I do get emotional, but then I go back to 'I've got to keep working.'
"It's very exciting to me. It means a lot to get a win because I don't know how much longer I'll be able to run hard. I'm almost 40, so this is a huge thing for me."
Kelly's winning time was less than two minutes ahead of second-place finisher Mark Wehrman, 27, of Chicago. Kelly works at Carle Heart & Vascular Institute in Urbana, helping administer heart tests. He was joined for the late portion of the race by one of his running-group teammates from the Champaign area, Brandon Smith.
"To actually win and get some glory for all your hard work is pretty incredible for the amount of time that he puts into it and the passion he has for it," Smith said. "I know it was very emotional for him. He won't even justify it in words how much it means to him. He's probably going to train like twice as hard now."
Kelly has run big-city marathons such as Boston and Chicago but prefers smaller races like Fox Valley, saying "the bigger they get, the more work it is." It was his first appearance at the Fox Valley race, which begins and ends in downtown St. Charles and snakes along the Fox River through Geneva, Batavia, North Aurora and Aurora.
"It's fairly fast," Kelly said of the river trail-intensive course. "At the end there were some hair-pin turns that hit you when you're hurting. Overall, it's great. I kind of felt like I was on a long run most of the day because there was nobody really except the [half-marathoners] that I could see."
Wehrman was happy with his second-place performance and the Boston Marathon qualification that came with it, though he was unsure whether it would apply to the 2014 or 2015 Boston race.
"My goal was time, I wasn't necessarily concerned about place, but it's fun to finish in the top three, at any time," Wehrman said. "And of course having a time to back it up feels really good, too."
The women's marathon crown went to Lindsey Kong, 25, of Madison, Wis.
A graduate student at the University of Wisconsin studying physical therapy, Kong also is a former runner for the Badgers cross country and track teams. While thrilled to win the race, Kong badly wanted to beat the 3-hour mark. Her time of 3:01.23 still was a women's course record.
"I feel silly complaining, but when you're so close … " said Kong, who only had run one marathon before Sunday.
It was a classic, sun-splashed fall morning, especially ideal for dense clusters of spectators compared to past years.
"The biggest change I'm seeing now, and it's partly weather-related, is spectators," said Craig Bixler, co-race organizer along with fellow St. Charles resident Dave Sheble. "I've heard from the runners there was not a blank space out there on the course, and in past years, we had pockets of spectators, and then areas where there's no one out watching, and they're running along kind of in solitude."
The total field of registered runners for the three races – as has been the case all four years, race day included a 20-mile run and a half-marathon – was about 4,500 as the event continued its incremental growth. The final mile of the affiliated, summer-long "Kids Marathon" took place Saturday.
Sheble said there were about 1,000 race-day volunteers Sunday tending to various components of the event.
Heather Ruiz, of Niles, experienced the day from both perspectives of runner and spectator.
Ruiz, part of the North Shore Distance Running Club, ran the half-marathon, then settled into a grassy area along the banks of the Fox River just before the final turn to cheer on club-mates and other runners.
Ruiz said she empathized with those who were laboring, saying "you know exactly what they're feeling."
"As an athlete, if you're paying attention, you've seen it all," Ruiz said. "At the beginning of your training career, you're one of the weak ones, you're one of the ones who say 'I don't know if I can do this, if I can complete a whole half or I don't know if I can complete a whole full.' Those are the people that are walking, and you're like, 'You know what, you can do this.'
"That's the inner voice you're just hoping to encourage inside of them to make them push through their boundaries. That's what sports and athletic [competitions] are all about, getting to the next level because you never knew you could."
As for her own race, Ruiz said she enjoyed a "runner's high" unlike any she's previously experienced.
"I was just skipping and running and crying and laughing, all at the same time," Ruiz said. "It was other-worldly, is what it was. It was amazing."
Top finishers, men's full marathon
1. Jeff Kelly, Urbana, 2:40.01
2. Mark Wehrman, Chicago, 2:41.53
3. Ian Sanchez, Richmond, 2:44.22.
Top finishers, women's full marathon
1. Lindsey Kong, Madison, Wis., 3:01.23
2. Elena Shemyakina, Geneva, 3:02.32
3. Jennifer Benitez, Carol Stream, 3:04.33
Top finishers, men's "Fall Final 20"
1. Steve Breese, Palatine, 2:06.03
2. David Manikowski, Lake in the Hills, 2:14.56
3. Bill Akins, Naperville, 2:19.17
Top finishers, women's "Fall Final 20"
1. Julie Talbot, Arlington Heights, 2:32.32
2. Mary Andorfer, Chicago, 2:33.40.
3. Heather Graves, Naperville, 2:41.47
Top finishers, men's half-marathon
1. Eric Ott, Geneva, 1:15.54
2. John Collet, Verona, 1:17.08
3. Steve Nusser, Geneva, 1:17.47
Top finishers, women's half-marathon
1. Britt Kelly, Naperville, 1:28.20
2. Amy Kong, Sun Prairie, Wis., 1:29.51
3. Laura Papageorgiou, Skokie, 1:30.32
Notable: Ott, 32, is a former college runner at Miami (Ohio) who said this is the first half-marathon he seriously has trained for; he usually focuses more on triathlons. After winning the half-marathon, the Geneva man said he planned to head back out on the course to run the late stages of the race with his father, Bill, who was running his first full-marathon. "He's 65, running his first marathon, so that should be pretty cool," Ott said. "I'm more excited about that [than winning the half-marathon." … Kelly, the female half-marathon winner, said she ran the race as training for the upcoming full marathon in her hometown of Naperville. She had to fight some queasiness during the race afterward. "My stomach wasn't agreeing with me too much today," the 29-year-old said. "So it's kind of rough. My breakfast wanted to make a re-appearance. Always when I'm feeling rough, I just kind of repeat to myself 'Steady focus, steady focus,' and then just try to make it to the end in one piece."