Kathy Contreras had a single goal when she left home Sunday for Naperville's inaugural marathon: Just make it to the starting line.
"If I can just get there, I'm good," the 44-year-old Aurora runner told herself, convinced that once she started the race, she could finish it.
Finish it she did, but not according to plan and not without some help from unexpected sources.
By midway through the 26.2-mile race, Contreras says she was somehow lost and low on supplies. That's when DuPage County Forest Preserve District police officer Lou Addante and a group of strangers came to the rescue, making for one of the most triumphant seven-hour marathon finishes imaginable.
"It was like a gift from God," Contreras beamed Monday. "What Lou did and what the others did -- without them, I would have been in the forest preserve starving to death."
Contreras, an experienced runner who was determined to compete despite a series of recent health complications, said she realized around the 11th mile that she'd fallen far behind and race staffers were taking down directional signs and water stations.
By the time she entered the Greene Valley Forest Preserve, she was beyond lost and looking for anyone to guide her.
Then Addante appeared.
"Just after mile 15, I saw her come from out of nowhere," the officer said. "She's like, 'Which way do I go?' And all the volunteers and staff are like, 'Oh my gosh, we still have a runner out here.' I said, 'I'll make sure she gets there.'"
Contreras said Addante guided her through the entire preserve, routinely circling back in his SUV to check on her.
Along the way, the cop and the runner were joined by race volunteers, Naperville Park District officials and random strangers. One man kept up Contreras' spirits with a toilet paper-adorned sign that read, "Don't poop out now."
"Everyone was like, 'Don't worry, we've got you,'" Contreras said.
"And it started becoming this really cool experience because you've got these people rooting for you every step of the way."
As Contreras made her way back toward the finish line at North Central College, Addante pulled ahead, changing stoplights so she could continue uninterrupted.
At one point, Addante's sister and wife joined the fold. Contreras' husband, Antonio, also pushed their 3-year-old daughter, Sophia, in a stroller alongside her for the last five miles of the marathon. As Contreras neared the finish line, race organizers were playing "Eye of the Tiger" -- just what she needed to hear for that final stretch.
For Contreras, finishing the marathon was especially significant because of everything she'd been through to get there.
Her helpers didn't know it, but just a few years ago, she weighed roughly 300 pounds. She said she started working out and running half marathons to set a healthy example for her young daughter. She later suffered two miscarriages -- including one after signing up for the Naperville Marathon -- which set her back both physically and emotionally.
"There's no way to express to these people how I felt inside," Contreras said. "Here are complete strangers really taking a personal ownership, and they didn't know my back story."
"Out of all those setbacks," she said, "it really taught me it's OK to depend on people when you need to. You really have to let go and just trust that God is going to provide somehow, even if it might not be the way you think."
She described Addante as "my hero."
"I'll love that man until the day I die," she said.
At the finish line, it was hugs galore.
Addante, a 19-year veteran of the forest preserve police force, had never seen anything like it.
"It's just a great thing," he said. "Not only does it feel good, but she was just so motivated -- she never stopped running, she was always smiling. This is what it's all about. It was as much fun for me as it was for her. When I heard her back story, we just gave each other a big hug."
Race director Bob Hackett said organizers had to take down directional signs to meet time constraints. He said an experienced "sweeper" runner was in place at the back of the pack to make sure no one was left behind, but Contreras must have briefly slipped by, which isn't uncommon in large marathons.
"I'm just glad the forest preserve police were kind enough to do what they did, and the volunteers -- who were tremendous -- were kind enough to do what they did," he said.
Contreras says she wouldn't change a thing.
"I was the third-to-last runner and I don't care," she said. "Finishing was cool, but it really was the people who helped me. There's no way you could top the story and make it any better."