Mayor Richard J. Daley was never much for exercise. As a young man, he played football and softball with the Hamburg Athletic Club, a Bridgeport social group, but in his era, most people gave up sports after youth. As a result of party luncheons, ceremonial dinners and his wife’s cooking, Daley -- who rode everywhere in a limousine -- grew into a portly, jowly politician. Journalist Hunter S. Thompson once compared him to “a potato with mange.”
Yet the first modern Chicago marathon, in 1977, was named the Mayor Daley Marathon, both a memorial for the recently-deceased mayor, and an honor for his support in getting the event started.
Compared to New York, or Boulder, Colo., or Eugene, Ore., Chicago was slow to catch on to the running boom of the 1970s. Daily News columnist Mike Royko, always suspicious of trends -- really, of anything he hadn’t seen growing up on Milwaukee Avenue -- had this to say about runners: “It’s unnatural for people to run around city streets unless they are thieves or victims. It makes people nervous to see someone running. I know that when I see someone running on my street, my instincts tell me to let the dog out after them.”
Park District Commissioner Ed Kelly, who was just as old-fashioned as Royko, didn’t think much of running, either. When approached with the idea of a marathon, he refused permission to use the parks or the lakefront. But Daley -- who had attracted the 1959 Pan-American Games to Chicago -- liked the idea. His successor, Michael Bilandic, liked it even more. Bilandic was an avid runner. When he took over City Hall in 1977, he persuaded Kelly to endorse the marathon, and even handed out medals at the finish line at that year’s first race, which was won by Dan Cloeter in 2:17:52, not a world class time even then. Mayor Daley’s Marathon attracted 4,200 runners -- a tenth of today’s total, but a big number for the ’70s, before the days of charity runners and couch-to-marathon programs. (In the 1960s, runners associated with the University of Chicago organized marathons in which the clock was rolled away after three hours.)
The race was only named Mayor Daley’s Marathon for its first two runnings. In 1979, Beatrice Foods became the first corporate sponsor. The race was retitled America’s Marathon/Chicago. It’s now the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, after its current sponsor.
Mayor Daley couldn’t have run a marathon. During his years as mayor, he probably couldn’t even have run a mile. But he saw that a big sporting event would be good for Chicago’s image, so he’s part of the Chicago Marathon’s story.