The OWies keep pace with the times

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By Paul Oppenheim

Running Columnist

The Oak-William Runners (the OWies) is that other local running group. I've been with them on early morning runs for a long time. They, of course, meet at the corner of Oak and William in River Forest on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:30 a.m., and on Saturdays at 7 a.m., and claim to have been around since 1968 — longer than the Oak Park Runners Club, of which I'm an original member.

The group started back when now-retired Oak Park & River Forest High School Superintendent Don Offermann was the Huskies' track coach. He and his team ran between the school and track practice at Concordia College (now University) during track season. In 1968, team member Rich Brooks and Coach Offermann continued their runs during the rest of the year, starting at Offermann's house at that Oak/William corner. Until the late 1970s when a few more guys began to run along, the OWies were just two guys.

As the group expanded, females certainly weren't excluded — Colleen Bolin occasionally ran with them when she was in school, as did Emily Jensen, and Allison and Marianne Kirk, who sometimes ran with their dads. And Evelyn Ho was a regular member about 10 years ago, until she moved to Naperville. But female participation was relatively uncommon, and the group was mostly a bastion of male domination.

Until this year.

The OWies now have significant female participation with several ladies, all running buddies, joining over the last few years. Michelle Wolter and Ann Ryan are regulars. Stacy Jutila (who has since moved to Naperville) was a regular and ran all through her pregnancy. Sarah Buerger qualified for this year's Boston Marathon, but unfortunately broke her foot and had to postpone the Boston trip. She's now healthy and back to the morning runs.

Ryan started running about 20 years ago when she quit smoking. She met Michelle Wolter in 2009 and said, "I was lamenting how I always had to give up my early morning runs as the days got shorter in the fall, as I didn't feel safe running in the dark. That was when [Wolter] told me about the group, and that was when I started running year-round."

As a result she was no longer "starting over" every spring. "Definitely, running with the OWies has upped my game," she says. Ryan recently ran half-marathons on consecutive weekends — one of them in San Francisco — where she reported that she much preferred its steep hills to the heat back here in Chicago. She is signed up for this year's Chicago Marathon, her first, where she will run in memory of her dad, Norman Johnson, also an accomplished runner, who suffered from Parkinson's disease.

In a huge precedent, the group selected Ryan as this year's OWies captain, indeed a major transformation. But as she tells it, "I believe Kevin Conway posed a question during a Saturday run and, I didn't hear it clearly, inadvertently raised my hand, and someone said, 'I second it!' and, well, that was that." Chicago-style politics, even in running.

Paul Oppenheim is a member of the OWies and the Oak Park Runners Club.

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