There was plenty of joy when Nitin Bhojraj crossed the finish line of the sixth First Midwest Half Marathon Sunday with his 3-year-old son Nayan in his arms.
The Palos Hills runner, who finished 435th, raised his right arm and made a fist while Nayan waved to the hundreds of fans who were cheering near the finish line. Oh, and Nitin wore a white T-shirt with a picture of him and his son crossing a finish line in a previous race. It was a moment to remember.
A few hundred yards north of that blissful moment, there were two people who weren’t cheering or waving. They had stern looks on their faces and carried machine guns. They were Cook County policemen performing security detail near the finish line.
The many heartwarming stories of the run in Palos Heights had a backdrop of cold reality. Less than a month after the bombing at the Boston Marathon killed three and injured hundreds on April 15, race officials were taking no chances on the remote chances of something similar happening on their watch.
So the 2013 version of the race featured beefed-up volunteer roster, bomb-sniffing German Shepherds roaming around and a stronger police SWAT team and FBI presence that included observers and marksmen on top of area buildings and cops with machine guns near the finish line. And a Chicago Police helicopter made a few rounds before the start of the 7:30 a.m. race for good measure.
“This is how we live now,” race co-director Mel Diab said moments after handing out the final awards. “It’s going to be like this for every major event — not only running. It could be a community festival. You will see more security. We had people inspecting bags and purses today. They do this at Disney. They do this at ballgames. It’s a part of life.”
Diab and more than 20 other area runners ran in the Boston Marathon and the incident hit home for them, even though none of the area runners were injured. The Palos Heights resident was far away from the physical explosion but could feel the emotional impact.
“At mile 18, we saw all the volunteers hold hands, kneel down and start praying,” Diab said. “I knew there was something going on. I could see this was real.”
Meanwhile, back home the race’s other co-organizer, Jeff Prestinario was hopping mad about what happened in Boston and immediately started making calls and setting the wheels in motion to increase security and awareness for the Palos event. He declared “We need to make a statement here in Palos Heights…” by running a good and safe race. Area police consulted with the FBI on a gameplan and the result was a security presence that wasn’t overbearing, but wasn’t invisible either.
With cool weather and no rain during the three-hour run, the race went well from a runners standpoint. Best of all, for Prestinario, there were no safety issues.
“We had about 2,000 runners and maybe another 2,000 spectators,” he said. “We’re thrilled to death to put on another fantastic race. There were no incidents. It was a beautiful day. We did it. It was a great show today. Everyone should be very proud.”
Woodstock’s Dan Kremske won the 13.1-mile event with a time of 1 hour, 6 minutes and 16 seconds, beating out Kenya’s Elly Sang by 17 seconds. Jacqui Giuliano, of Oakwood Hills, was the top female finisher with a 1:20.49. Darryl Bingham, 43, of Oak Forest, won the walk, run and roll race sponsored by the South West Recreation Association. Sandburg High School’s Eagle won the mascot race.
U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski finished 107th with a 1:37.28, ABC-7 TV reporter John Garcia claimed 147th with a 1:40.32 and state Sen. Bill Cunningham was 457th with a 1:56.51. There were 1,465 runners who finished the race in at least 3:32 and a few hundred who were taken back in vans because of time limits.
Lipinski said he wasn’t bothered by the heavy security.
“I only really thought about it when he had the moment of silence for the people in Boston,” said Lipinski, who said he ran in all six half-marathons in Palos Heights. “A Part of the reason is that I’m used to being in Washington and I’m used to it.”