It’s pretty obvious, the world isn’t doing much of anything at the moment.
Weddings. Graduations. Sporting Events. Birthday Parties. Races.
Over the last month, countless races were cancelled or postponed throughout the months of March, April, May, June, and even July. But one Special Education teacher from Crystal Lake wasn’t going to let a global pandemic get in the way of her first marathon.
Meet Jennifer Miller, wife, mother of 5-year-old twin girls, and a K-2nd grade special education teacher at Chesak Elementary School in Huntley for the past 14 years. She’s been running since college and ran her first half marathon in the fall of 2019 in Naperville. She had caught the running bug. She wanted to take her running and training to the next level: the marathon. She had chased her husband around Chicago and NYC for his marathon endeavors, but decided a smaller race fit her style. Insert the Milwaukee Marathon, April 11th, 2020. She reached out to her coach and just after the first of the year, her official training took off running.
Chicago Athlete: What was your motivation to run the Milwaukee Marathon?
Jennifer: I turned 36 this year which is just another number but to me it marked the same age that my mom was when she passed away from Cancer. I always had this doom and gloom associated with this age. I wanted to make this age/year one to celebrate and make it a positive year to look back on.
Fast forward to Friday, March 13th. Jennifer’s race was officially canceled, much like many others.
Chicago Athlete: How soon after the race cancelation did you know you still wanted to the run the 26.2-mile distance?
Jennifer: I knew immediately that I still wanted to run the 26.2 distance, I just had to get creative.
And that she did. Jennifer and her husband Zach created her very own marathon route that would take place in their home town, running through neighborhoods of friends, family, and many of her students. The start line would be her very own driveway, she was able to create any start time she wanted (9am), and she had the luxury of real bathroom if needed when she ran by friends and family’s houses.
Chicago Athlete: Describe your emotions going into race day.
Jennifer: It was a rollercoaster of emotions for sure. I was nervous/excited in the morning. I just kept telling myself, I’m just going for a run. I had everything I needed, my race day outfit, nutrition, and tunes. I had the most amazing weather; nothing could stop me.
8:57am rolled around and Jennifer walked out her front door to find her husband, daughters, father, in laws, and coach waiting for her in the driveway (at a safe distance). She said her brief hellos, did a small stretch or 2, and at 9am on the button, she took off down the street. Her race had officially begun. Cheers filled the street as everyone yelled and promised they would see her soon. Her coach hopped on her bike and followed safely behind Jennifer for the entire 26.2-mile journey.
It was less than 2 miles before Jennifer approached her first set of cheerleaders, complete with sidewalk chalk messages in the driveway, kids cheering in their PJs, and Mom & Dad securing their coffee in hand while the family dog barked in agreement. Being a witness to this moment, I can assure you it was pure joy and the happiness that everyone needed. The miles ticked by and these moments continued to happen, mile after mile, more and more smiles filled the streets. The energy coming from Jennifer’s fans was as pure and authentic as you can imagine.
At points she was greeted with a homemade aid station, complete with her choice of water, Gatorade, Perpetuem, gels, bananas, a Hypervolt gun, Clorox wipes, and that real bathroom if she so desired.
And just when most marathoners tend to hit that “wall” she was greeted with her sister, coworker, and a former student of Chesak Elementary that hopped in for a few miles to get her over that hump. Fans grew more and more at this point in the race, as she was in the neighborhood of her school. Just when she needed it, she got every bit of support she craved.
The last few miles, Jennifer pounded the pavement on her own, husband and coach beside her on bikes. Around mile 25 I asked her what she was going to do upon finishing. I caught her response on video:
“I’m going to hug my girls and my husband. Just knowing I did this for my mom. [I] Turned 36 this year and wanted to do something positive in my life and be a good role model for my girls.”
Well… if that doesn’t get the water works going, I don’t know what does.
Jennifer approached mile 26 and she grew more excited. She reached Crystal Lake, turned right on Lake Shore Drive, and she looked up to see all of her family and friends greeting her with a toilet paper finish line. It was as perfect of an ending to a race as you can imagine in April 2020.
Chicago Athlete: What was your most memorable moment on race day?
Jennifer: The moment my two daughters walked over with my medal and placed it around my neck and they said, “You won mommy!”
And that she did, she won more than her medal that day. She won the hearts of her community, family, friends, and students. She set a goal for herself this year, and wasn’t about to settle for a race cancellation. Being a school teacher with 2 kids of her own, her world was also flipped upside down, teaching, homeschooling, and training for the unknown all at once.
Chicago Athlete: How important was it to have your husband and daughters on course with you?
Jennifer: It was so special! I knew that if I were running the Milwaukee Marathon, I might have a chance to see them two or three times. Having to get to run my own gave me a chance to see them about 8 times! It was awesome that they were able to run alongside me a few times. The many hours that it takes to train was all worth it. My family got to see that all the hard work that was put in & didn’t go to waste because of COVID-19. They were able to see me complete my goal that I had set out to accomplish, I just did it my own way.
Lessons can be taught in so many ways throughout life. I’m sure none of us expected this COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. But even fewer of us expected life lessons to come out of it. Jennifer made sure to remind us all that goals don’t have to be erased, just adjusted.