Chicago Gazelles make their mark on River to River Relay

Jane Murphy, of River Forest, and Eileen Dolan, of Oak Park, contribute to team's race records, wins

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Paul Oppenheim

Running Columnist

The River to River Relay is an 80-mile race across the southern tip of Illinois from the Mississippi to the Ohio River held annually in mid-April. It was first run in 1987 and has been hugely popular over the years, with far more applicants than teams accepted to compete. Teams consist of 8 runners, each running three legs of roughly 3 miles, so runners cover a total of about 10 miles apiece. There are numerous competition divisions – open, males, females, mixed male/female, masters (over 40), etc.

In 1995 a team of elite women from the Chicago area set the Women's Open Division record that still stands after 20 years. That team, the Chicago Gazelles, included two-time US Olympic marathon trials qualifier Jane Murphy, of River Forest.

Murphy recalls that first race: "Back in 1995 when my team dropped me off at Leg No.1 and wished me well in the dark, I was confident (and probably even cocky) knowing 'I have this.' Back then I loved downhills and was actually quite good at them."

Ten years later in 2005, the Gazelles, then with everyone over age 40, went back to River to River, setting a Women's Masters record that also still stands. Many of the original 1995 team members were back, but due to health issues, Jane Murphy couldn't run, instead serving as team captain.

This year the Gazelles were back again, now chasing the Handicap Division record. That division awards time handicaps for various ages plus time bonuses for women. It is very competitive, with the record held by a team from Albuquerque, New Mexico (obviously this event attracts teams from all over the place). The 2015 Gazelles team included Jenny Spangler, US 1996 Olympic marathon trials winner, as well as fellow marathon trials qualifiers Ann Schaefers-Coles, a now healthy Jane Murphy and a new team member Oak Park's Eileen Dolan – a solid age-group runner who had been asked to join the Gazelles for their record attempt.

Dolan confessed to being a bit intimidated by her teammates: "I had never done speed workouts, never run more than once in a day, never been part of a team that relied on others to meet a running goal and certainly never been in a van with 9 elite (I mean--world-class) woman runners. Yikes! To put this in perspective, they are the 'Rolling Stones' of women's running and I am a groupie that watches from a distance."

As in 1995 Murphy took the first leg: "I chose Leg No. 1 again because I used to love downhills and nobody on the team wanted it because of the gravel road's steep decline. This time when my team dropped me off I faked my confidence, and being so nervous, I almost let them drive off before realizing I didn't have the baton!"

Over the 80 miles the Gazelles maintained a friendly battle with their New Mexico rivals, finally beating them to win the Handicap Division. But despite the win their time was 9 minutes short of the record. So three races over 20 years – 2 records plus a win – those Gazelles are impressive! Will they be back again to get that third record?

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