Joe Fletcher and Veronica Wolf-Boyle were among the runners at the hOKA Chicago Half Marathon. Credit: Provided

CHICAGO — Joe Fletcher signed up for Sunday’s HOKA Chicago Half Marathon to honor his mother, who has lung cancer.

The race was the first half marathon in three years for Fletcher, of suburban Evergreen Park, and he fundraised for lung cancer research. He dedicated his run to his mother “because it’s 13.1 miles and her lucky number is 13.”

“My goal was also to complete this under 12:13-mile pace as that is her birthday,” Fletcher said. “It just felt like something I could do to honor her and to raise money for lung cancer research and support.”

But the race was altered at the last minute and shortened by half of a mile — without runners being notified. Many of the runners — for whom the sport is a passion and the race details very serious — have posted complaints and concerns on social media.

“The fact that they cut the race short meant I didn’t even run the 13 miles that held such a huge personal significance to me,” Fletcher said. “Maybe it seems silly, but I poured everything into this race emotionally and physically, and I remember seeing this and feeling so disappointed like I failed at my goal to honor my mom, even though I didn’t do anything wrong.”

This Sunday was the 25th HOKA Chicago Half Marathon, which runs along the south lakefront and is organized by Life Time Fitness. It had an All Things Chicago theme, which included Chicago artist NNAMDΪ performing at a post-race festival.

The race is typically 13.1 miles to qualify as a half marathon. But runners said they used GPS on their phones and watches to determine the race cut a half-mile short — which was later confirmed by a Life Time email.

“A required, last-minute course change was implemented due to unforeseen circumstances in partnership with the City of Chicago,” marathon organizers commented in response to complaints on Instagram. “The impact of this change was a reduction to the overall course distance. We apologize for any inconvenience as we chose to prioritize athlete safety.”

Chicago Half Marathon and Life Time did not respond to requests for comments.

Tim Bradley, interim executive director of Chicago Area Runners Association, said distance errors can happen at any level of racing.

“No one plans on this happening,” said Bradley, who didn’t run the race but had several club members compete. “It’s very unfortunate when it happens.”

Some runners, including Gene Tam, of Logan Square, are working to get refunds. Tam, who prepared for this half marathon — his first — for 18 weeks, disputed the charge on his Amex card “because the race was not what the distance promised.” Tam said Amex agreed and has processed the chargeback. 

Megan Dickey traveled from Springfield, Missouri, a seven-and-a-half-hour car ride, for the half marathon.

“I am disappointed to hear that the race was cut short and that this wasn’t a decision communicated to the participants before the race,” Dickey said. “I truly feel cheated from an accomplishment I was looking forward to achieving for months.”

Dickey’s Apple watch was on track with the half marathon’s mile markers until she passed the 9-mile sign, which her watch clocked at 8.5 miles.

Dao is training for the Chicago Marathon, a full marathon that runs Oct. 9. The HOKA event was supposed to be part of his training; when he realized his half-marathon times were not as spectacular as he thought because its length was changed, it “crushed” him, he said.

“I run on the Lakefront Trail all the time. That was one of the appeals of this race to me,” said Dao, of Hyde Park. “There were many points where they could have averted the course to have accounted for that half mile.”

Dao’s GPS watch showed the discrepancy was at the turnaround, close to the 8-mile point; other runners said their trackers showed the same.

Veronica Wolf-Boyle, who participated, made a TikTok about her experience where she asked why the distance change wasn’t communicated to runners and why the “mile markers between 8 and 9 [were] just slapped together half-a-mile apart, as if they thought that no one would notice.”

More than 200 comments were left on Wolf-Boyle’s TikTok, with many runners saying the race’s $125 price tag was expensive and they’d signed up for the full 13.1 miles.

On TikTok, Wolf-Boyle said the change is “highly disappointing.”

“I know that tracking runs, especially in Downtown Chicago can be a little off sometimes because of the tall buildings that can block the GPS signal,” Wolf-Boyle told Block Club. “The course for the half marathon was down south far enough where there were no tall buildings to interrupt the signal.”

Dao said Life Time could have recalculated the race to include a loop on the Lakefront Trail or to extend the starting area to ensure it hit 13.1 miles.

“There were so many opportunities to account for this half mile, but they just didn’t add that in,” Dao said. “I think that’s the most frustrating thing to me. … This entire debacle could have been prevented.”

On Tuesday, almost 48 hours after the half marathon ended, Life Time Chicago half Marathon emailed participating runners a statement to runners

“As directed by the city of Chicago, the Chicago Half Marathon event operations team implemented a required course change just prior to the start of the event, reducing the overall distance by .5 miles,” according to the organizers. “Given the last-minute timing of this change, options were extremely limited to properly inform all participants for the lack of advance notice of this change.”

The organization changed the course “as opposed to delaying or canceling the event entirely,” according to the statement. All race results have been adjusted to reflect the actual course distance of 12.6 miles, according to the organizers.

In the end, Fletcher ran an additional half mile Monday on “dead-tired legs” so he could actually “finish” the half marathon in honor of his mom. But Fletcher — like many of his racing peers, including Dickey, Wolf-Boyle and Dao — doesn’t plan to run any Life Time races in the future.

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