UPTOWN — Brendan Cournane has finished 87 marathons across 50 states and all seven continents — including Antarctica — where he ran 26.2 miles along ice-covered paths in March for a crowd of spectators that included more penguins and seals than people.
So it's hard to believe that when the 59-year-old River North resident attempted his first marathon in 1985 in Chicago, he vowed to quit marathon running for good.
“At the end of that race I was passed by a woman who was 80-years-old, and another woman who was seven and a half months pregnant,” Cournane remembers about the event, which was then called America’s Marathon/Chicago. “I swore I would never do it again.”
But Cournane, who has also finished a marathon run atop the Great Wall of China, didn't give up over the years.
Cournane grew up in Auburn Gresham and is a part-time public finance lawyer. He works sparingly as a consultant while he focuses on his “entrepreneurial spirit,” and skills as a running coach, writer and motivational speaker, he said.
When about 45,000 runners hit the streets for the 26.2-mile Chicago Marathon on Sunday, Cournane estimates that more than 100 runners will be folks he has helped prepare for this year’s event.
“And if you count people I’ve trained in previous years, there will be several hundred, maybe a thousand or more that I’ve trained over the course of the last 15 years,” Cournane added.
One of those students will be Ann Vargo, a 47-year-old Roscoe Village resident running the marathon for the fourth time with the modest goal of finishing under six hours. Vargo called Cournane a "great listener," who "genuinely cares about his individual runners," and is "completely focused."
Vargo challenged herself with her first marathon to "do something outside of myself," years ago during a hard time in her life after her grandmother passed away at 63 due to Alzheimers-related issues.
"It was a way for me to get myself on the right track after a really rough time," said Vargo, who added that completing a marathon even once grants a runner "an enormous amount of confidence," in other areas of life that continues long after the event ends.
Vargo can relate to Cournane, who didn’t get into endurance running until later in life. He said he ran a couple of marathons in his 30s, including his discouraging debut in Chicago in 1985, but “had no idea what I was doing" until he reached his 40s.
He didn’t catch the running bug fully until 1995, when he said he “came back to running, learned how to run,” and qualified for the Boston Marathon.
“I was hooked at that point,” he said. “I started coaching runners the next year, and everything took off from there.”
In his early coaching career, some of his clients included older women who grew up without sports.
“What really got me into coaching was seeing how people could benefit themselves in different aspects of their lives,” he said. “I saw people grow and make progress and make strides, literally and figuratively, in their lives.”
Cournane remembers the sense of relief, accomplishment and satisfaction he felt after running his first marathon back in 1985, despite the disappointment of finishing at the end of the pack — and the physical pain that left him sore for days.
He said he "always thought I could do better than I did that first time. And I was stubborn and wanted to prove things to myself."
He doesn't run as fast as he did when he was younger, but said that for every race he runs, he wants to give "the best performance I could on that day, even if it's slower than I anticipated finishing."
He has finished 87 marathons and has a goal of eventually finishing 100.
“I want my runners to grow the same way,” Cournane said. “I want them to shift their goals so they’re constantly achieving something different beyond what they did before.”
Cournane has run the Chicago marathon 11 times but hasn't entered the event in about six years, he said, "because as my coaching has grown I have more and more runners on the course." He prefers to ride his bike and see them at various points along the course.
His primary mantra for his students is "good form will carry you through."
"I'd like them to know that at some places along the course on marathon day, if they're starting to fade that they will have a chance at seeing me and hearing those words," Cournane said.