The 2023 Christie Clinic Illinois Race Weekend is here, and race director Jan Seeley has a message for the 8,000+ registrants, “be prepared to be wow’ed by how welcoming everybody here is.” Seeley is no stranger to interviews, so sitting down virtually with her was a bit like chatting with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Seeley has lived in the area since 1987 when she and her husband moved from the East Coast for grad school. They thought they would only be here for a short time and then they never left (if you’re a townie, you know this is a common theme). A runner for over 50 years, Seeley worked as a publisher for many years for a running magazine before getting involved with the race weekend from its inception. She started out as a committee member the first year, became the co-director the second year, and she is now the sole director. Her love for the sport is apparent, as her favorite part of the race weekend is the emotional experience of watching the finishers meet their goals and dreams. When I asked her what she hopes people will take away from this experience, her passion for the participants and the race weekend can be summed up by her answer,
I want them to feel the strength of being a moving person and being part of this community. Being fit is a big part of — some might say the key to— longevity and health. We know anecdotally that this race weekend is moving the needle in terms of health and wellness in Champaign-Urbana. We’ve heard so many stories of people who just started out as spectators and they’re like ‘wow, i really want to do that’ so they walked one of the events, and then they ran, and then did a longer race. I want people to feel their own power and know what they’re capable of, because we are always capable of more than we think.
Last year was the first year back for the race weekend since the pandemic shut it down in 2020. That’s 1,097 days between races. In those two years, the race lost money from refunds and deferring registrations over and over again, lost participants (there was a 25%-28% no show rate last year) and due to police shortages, the marathon race had to be canceled. But it seems Seeley isn’t so easily discouraged. After getting things (mostly) back on track for 2022, she asked herself and her team, “what would it take to get the [marathon] back for 2024?” The answer was the Bring Back the Marathon Coalition which included a wide spectrum of people from all over Champaign-Urbana who worked together to figure out how they could work within the confines to be able to safely get the marathon back for 2024. The answer was just down the road in Savoy. Seeley said,
That was huge. That was the key. Mike [Lindeman] had this idea for the route. It all hinged upon being able to go into Savoy because we were trying to shrink the footprint and they were very welcoming. I’ve said many times before that I don’t think our community will be completely whole until the marathon comes back because it’s a big part of the community now and what it means to be a part of it.
The race weekend has become such a special part of the fabric of Champaign-Urbana. You can see it in the participants and spectators who bring their families and in Seeley’s best memories of previous race weekends.
Seeing my son finish his first marathon in 2015 was certainly one and going back to the 5K in 2012 which is the year that Joe [Seeley’s husband] died. He had about a month long remission in his almost two year Leukemia illness and that month of remission fell in April and May of 2012. He was able to walk the 5K with our sons and his dad and one of his sisters. At the time, our photography company was also doing video, so I have like a 12 second video clip of him coming across the finish line, and that was really special because shortly after that we got the news that the cancer was back, and then he died four months later, so that certainly holds up.
Seeley’s resilience to overcome challenges is certainly apparent, as is her respect for the people that are a part of this weekend. I asked how community members can get involved with this incredible event.
We still need volunteers, go to the website and there’s a big button. There are still positions at the expo, at the finish line, and a few spots on the course. And that’s really fun to just be a part of the joy of being there. There is a lot of reciprocal love back and forth between our participants and the volunteers, that’s a very joyful and positive experience for people. You can also come out and cheer. We have a beltway that we publicize so people don’t try to cut across the course during the race. And if you want to participate you still can, registration will be open until 7 p.m. on Friday night.
If Seeley’s confidence, enthusiasm, and love for this weekend is any indication, I would say the race is going to be back stronger and better than it was before and we’re lucky to have her leading the way.