Ethiopian runners have frequently won the Chicago Marathon.
Last weekend, two suburban Chicago runners won the Ethiopian marathon.
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Jason Doland, 43, a civil engineer from Inverness, and Megan McClowry, 25, a nurse from Naperville now working in Uganda, won their divisions of the inaugural Haile Gebrselassie Marathon Oct. 20 in Hawassa, Ethiopia.
The field of runners in the 26.2-mile race was split into two groups: elite Ethiopian runners and foreign-born runners. Doland and McClowry won the latter group, in the men's and women's divisions, respectively.
It was a life-changing experience for Doland, a father of four who coaches cross country at St. Theresa School in Palatine, who had never before traveled outside the United States.
Ethiopian running legend Haile Gebrselassie has been Doland's inspiration, but when Doland heard Gebrselassie was hosting the country's first marathon, his initial reaction was, "I'm not going."
"I'm not a traveler. I don't like to go out of my living room, much less the country. It's a big deal when I go to Dallas," he said. "My wife and kids made me sign up for it."
After getting a U.S. passport and the required immunizations, Doland left on the eight-day trip organized by California-based Moray Mountain Sports. He got to tour different parts of the country, including a visit to a local school, and Doland and McClowry spent three days at the secluded, high-altitude running camp where the world's elite runners train.
"Now I see why we (Americans) can't compete with them in a race," Doland joked.
Doland and McClowry are both veteran marathon runners, but this is the first time either of them has won.
McClowry said she knew she was doing well among the females, but didn't realize how well until men on a motorcycle started riding alongside her at Mile 24, helping to clear the way for her 3:36:00
"Initially, I ignored them, because I was so tired. But they didn't leave. The men then said, 'We take you to the finish.' I looked at them and gave him a weird look. Then one of them said, 'You do understand you are the champion.' It then clicked, the motorcade was for me! They drove ahead of me the rest of the way clearing the road, honking the horn, and made sure I was going in the right direction," McClowry said, in an email from Uganda. "I was exhausted those last two miles, but experiencing that made me feel excited and in awe. 'Breaking the tape' was something I have only dreamed about."
Doland feels the same way. There were so many unique aspects to the marathon, including plastic bags of water at the aid stations which he had to rip open with his teeth, and running around the horse and goat herders who occasionally crossed the course, followed by police officers yelling at them to move their animals. The wonderful townspeople cheered for them, and an occasional wild steer or monkey darted by them.
"The roads were open. They were ours. But it was obvious that agriculture and wildlife was a way of life in the cities and it was going to stop for no one," he said.
Even at a breath-shortening 5,600 feet above sea level, Doland said he ran harder than he ever had, figuring if he was going to make the sacrifice to be in Ethiopia and leave his family, he was determined "to get up on that podium." He finished in 2:53:03.
Leaving his comfort zone allowed him to meet his hero, run the most memorable race of his life, and discover Ethiopia's wonderful people, unique culture and rich history. He hopes to return one day with his wife and children.
"You find inspiration in interesting places," Doland said. "It was a marathon on the soil of the greatest marathoners in the world."
Also part of the American group were Chicagoans Sarah Ames, Doland's nephew, Joe Podge, and McClowry's friend from St. Mary's College in Indiana, Anne Maguire.
"To look back on that moment and think, 'I really did that,' is incredible," McClowry said. "It is definitely something I will not forget."