Al Velasco, the training coordinator for the Oak Park Police Department, left, during a recent 7K race in Elk Grove. Photo Courtesy of Al Velasco

Oak Park police officer Ian Miller says that having six marathons completed under his belt not only keeps him in shape, it also serves as a scare tactic.

“It always helps when we’re stopping a bad guy that may be a bit edgy,” Miller said. “My partner says, ‘you don’t want to mess with him — he runs 26 miles for fun.'”

Miller is one of many officers in the Oak Park Police Department who have taken up running, cycling, swimming, or all three in distance races in the Chicago area and elsewhere. They balance hours of training with their jobs and other commitments in order to take their minds off work, improve previous race times and stay fit so they don’t look bad in front of the young guys, the officers said.

Miller, a patrol officer, said he used to hate running, but has always been one to attack challenges. He decided that he might as well try to train for the Chicago Marathon, since it’s a huge event that happens every year. Miller ran his first Chicago Marathon in 2006. After that, he says, he was hooked.

He joined the department in 2008 and took some time off of running so he could get used to the job. Now, Miller says he’s back at it. But he’s also working 12-hour shifts, “so there’s not much time in-between work and sleep,” he said. Sometimes he’ll have to attend court on an off day after he finishes the previous night’s work at 7 a.m. In that case, sleep takes priority over running.

But Miller said he isn’t as exhausted as some might expect. Once he’s a month or two into training, Miller says he notices the extra energy it provides, which is helpful at work.

Like Miller, Training Coordinator Al Velasco will also be participating in the Chicago Marathon this October, but he’ll be doing it with his hands.

Velasco said he used to love running — the feeling of throwing on his headphones, hitting the road and working up a sweat. A former member of the Marine Corps reserves, he was deployed three times to Iraq while he was working in the Oak Park Police Department. Then, in 2007, Velasco was involved in a car accident that has since confined him to a wheelchair. He had been training for the Chicago Marathon at the time.

But after a couple of years of physical therapy and his return to the department, Velasco discovered hand cycling. It took him time to get used to it, but, in 2011, Velasco completed the same race he had been training for when he got injured. He raced as part of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, an organization that is dedicated to curing spinal cord injuries.

When he saw his wife and kids cheering him on toward the end, “There are no words to explain the feeling that I had.” Velasco said handcycling has allowed him to feel the same adrenaline rush and competitive edge he felt when he was a runner, and he has since participated in several other cycling races while raising money for foundations. His next goal is a para-triathlon in March.

For Detective Robert Monty, running is not enough. He started kicking the pavement in order to pass a fitness test as part of a tactical team leaders class, but knee pain got him thinking about a triathlon instead. Motivated by his approaching 40th birthday, he decided to start training for the 2011 Chicago Triathlon.

Monty started cycling, running and swimming — something he hadn’t done in 30 years — to prepare for the 1-mile swim, 40 kilometer ride, and 10 kilometer run. He tried to do cardio everyday before or after work. He also started a weekend routine of biking from his Oak Park home to the lakefront, where he’d go for a swim before biking home to run. He said he liked the focus that training brought him and the ability to forget about anything weighing on his mind.

Monty said his first triathlon swim was a little tough because of the crowd and the inability to see clearly. By the time he did his second triathlon in 2012, he was better at getting in the zone and concentrating on his stroke. For the second one, he also bought a better bike and shaved some time off of his bike ride.

Now, Monty’s thinking about doing a 100-mile Century bike ride this summer with a couple members of the police department. He’s also considering a marathon in the future, “just to see if I can do it.”

“It gives me a goal,” he said.

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