Photo courtesy of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon
While the Bank of America Chicago Marathon’s popularity has grown tremendously over the past quarter century – there were 6,168 finishers 25 years ago compared to a record 40,659 in 2014 – the head-to-head race to the finish between Mexico’s Martin Pitayo and Poland’s Toni Niemczak in 1990 remains one of the most thrilling moments in the event’s 38-year history.
After setting the world half-marathon record (1:00.46) in Philadelphia just a month earlier, Mexico’s Dionicio Cerón entered the 1990 Old Style Chicago Marathon – that was the final year of that sponsorship before the race was called the LaSalle Bank Marathon starting in 1994 – as the favorite, even though he was making his marathon debut. That race on Oct. 28, 1990, was also the first for Carey Pinkowski as the Chicago Marathon’s race director.
“(Cerón) had been on a tear all summer long and there was a great amount of anticipation of him running the Chicago Marathon,” Pinkowski said. “He made one of the greatest, boldest moves just past the halfway point and had this huge lead and it appeared he had just run away with the race.”
Pitayo and Niemczak had other ideas. The two, running stride for stride and wearing nearly identical shorts and Reebok shirts (Pitayo donned the #2 bib; Niemczak wore #3 and a white hat with the bill flipped up), passed Cerón on the Chicago River bridge southbound on Lake Shore Drive and turned the event into a two-man race.
“(Running with Martin) helped because we paced each other, but even if I run by myself, I would have passed (Cerón),” Niemczak, who’ll be 60 next month, said by phone from Albuquerque, where he and his wife, Natalia, own and operate a 15-room bed and breakfast called The Inn at Paradise. “I knew it – I was in really good shape and I was a really experienced marathoner.”
Niemczak, the winner of the inaugural Vienna Marathon in 1984, arrived in Chicago for the 1990 race just four months removed from finishing first at the San Francisco Marathon in 2:13.48. “When I won San Francisco, they called me ‘No More Mr. Second Place,’” said Niemczak, who was runner-up in his previous five marathons, including the 1990 Los Angeles Marathon.
Pitayo had never claimed a marathon title heading into Chicago in 1990, but he, unlike countryman Cerón – who went on to win the London Marathon from 1994-96 – was no stranger to running 26.2 miles at an elite level. Pitayo finished sixth in a then-personal-best 2:10.29 in his first Chicago Marathon appearance in 1984 and took fourth (Niemczak finished second) at the 1989 Columbus Marathon.
“I remember the competition – it was very tough (in 1990 at Chicago),” Pitayo, 55, said from his home in Mexico City, where he’s been a running coach at the National Polytechnic Institute for the past 15 years. “The last kilometer was very hard for me, but the mentality was very good for me.”
Pitayo needed that strength heading down the final 100 meters on Columbus Drive as Niemczak’s strong final kick earned him a one- or two-step edge heading toward the Grant Park finish (the race had previously ended in Lincoln Park).
“Martin Pitayo’s trying to catch him. I don’t believe (Pitayo is) going to make it,” broadcaster Dan Roan said during WGN’s coverage of the race.
Pitayo, though, shifted to Niemczak’s left and edged the Polish runner by three-tenths of a second as both finished in personal-best times of 2:09.41. The two shared a brief hug after what was, at the time, the closest finish in American marathon history, according to the Bank of America Chicago Marathon record books.
“I was sure I was going to win and then the problem was Martin accidentally hit my elbow and I lost my rhythm, I almost stopped,” said Niemczak, who also set a national Polish record with his performance. “Of course this was (an) accident. This was so close.”
Twenty-five years later, it’s still the second-closest finish in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon’s history. The record was set eight years ago when Kenya’s Patrick Ivuti beat Morocco’s Jaouad Gharib by .05 seconds.
“(Martin and Toni) had one of the great head-to-head runs to home that we’ve seen in the history of the event,” Pinkowski said. “And how fitting to have these communities represented with Toni being Polish and the athletes from Mexico (Pitayo and Cerón). Dionicio was the clear favorite, but in your first marathon things can change quickly. It turned out to be an amazing race.”