Sunday’s Bank of America Chicago Marathon will feature an elite group of major race winners. Olympians and world champions up front, and an estimated 40,000 or more filling in behind.
Many in the crowd will be looking to top a previous best. Others will be on their first go at 26.2 miles. Some are just looking to finish the race, regardless of time.
Within the pack are a group called the Nike Windrunners. They are Chicago’s first all-women’s competitive road racing team. They were built last year from a pool of not-quite-elite-but-still-highly competitive athletes. They were sharpened through 5am workouts squeezed in before workdays, and evening workouts wedged in amid the rest of their lives.
Among this group is Vanessa Righeimer, a 27-year-old former collegiate athlete who has loved running from her youth. On Sunday, she hopes to finish in under the magic sub-3 hour barrier and make a statement. “This is bigger than just me,” she told Outsports this week during a phone interview. “This is about inspiring for more girls and more women to not give up on sports and not give up on their dreams.”
Righeimer said she started running as a young girl growing up in Park Ridge, Illinois. In the sport, she found something she loved and along the way found her truth and her voice.
“It was a rather conservative place and I was just starting to come to terms with my sexuality,” she said. “I felt like the outsider and in high school you are trying to fit in. In cross country, I found this place where I could fit in.”
She described herself as “one of the slowest on the team” as a freshman at Fenwick High School, but a coaching change in her sophomore year changed her athletic trajectory.
“The new coach didn’t know anything about us so I figured I’d just see how fast I could be” Righeimer remembered. “It was after a practice when I finished in the top group of girls when the new coach took me aside and said ‘you know, you might just be good at this’.”
Righeimer improved from slowest on the team as a freshman, to putting together times and finishes as a senior-year team captain that helped her school finish second overall in their region. She was twice all-conference and all-region, and was named the team’s Most Improved Runner. Her sport also helped secure a piece of her future.
She began her college career at Loyola-New Orleans in 2010 but transferred two years later and landed at the University of Tampa. Her time in Florida saw her athletic and personal trajectories fall, converge and rise.
“Running was always my safe haven, even in the closet. Outside of running I was struggling with it, she said. “The summer before my junior year, a good friend of mine outed me to a group of people and I wasn’t out to anyone at the time and that kind of led me into a downward spiral. I was just going out, drinking, and wasn’t training and not really caring about running.”
“I was at practice my junior year and the coach was expecting me within the top 5 and I’m not even finishing in the top 10,” she noted. “The coach pulled me aside and he knew something was up by I wasn’t going to let on exactly, but he said, ‘If this is something you love and care about, why are you throwing it away if it’s something to brings you joy and something that you are good at?’”
At the start of senior year and the cross country season, Righeimer decided to stop running — from herself.
“My happiness in my sport and my happiness in my personal life meant much more than what anyone thought of me,” she stated. “I came out to one of my teammates and she was great about it and I started coming out to others. My running improved because I felt I was running more from a place of happiness rather than a place of anger or a place of fear.”
The results in 2013 spoke for themselves, as an out-and-proud Righeimer earned top 10 finishes at the Sunshine State Conference championship and in their NCAA regional. She earned a berth in the NCAA Championships and Academic All-American honors in a comeback senior season.
“Once I was out with friends and with family, I really got to just enjoy the riches of both,” she remembered fondly. “Being fully authentic with everything in my life. Every run was me celebrating something that got me through a hard time and now it’s a celebration of life.”
A new challenge
Since graduating from Tampa in 2014, Righeimer has worked as a copywriter, a freelance journalist and as a volunteer with Back On My Feet, a non-profit organization that uses running as a vehicle to help get homeless people moving again. At last year’s Chicago Marathon, she raced as a part of a fundraising team for the effort.
She’s never stopped running competitively, but felt something was missing.
“I did a lot of running clubs after college but it was hard to have this cohesive group,” Righeimer pointed out. “I missed the camaraderie that I had in high school and I had in college with my team.”
A friend at a track workout told Righeimer about a “badass group of girls” who were building that kind of closeness in competition. What she found in the Windrunners was something familiar to someone who competed for national championships just a few years before, and it was something fresh and new.
“A lot of them had ran in college and right away I was into it,” she said, “But they also talked about that they had more of a mission for the community. They wanted to see women’s running in Chicago elevated but they also wanted to inspire the younger generation.”
Being accepted here was a short sprint, not long hike of her youth. “Me and another girl identify as gay on the team,” she said. “They know all about me. My teammates know my girlfriend.”
This season, Righeimer and the Windrunners have been pounding out miles and performances. Righeimer races with a renewed joy and a renewed purpose to show a generation to come what’s possible. “When I was a kid, running was a punishment and now I see my cousins who have little girls and they say, ‘Hey cousin, Vanessa runs all the time and she run races!’” she noted. “Now, they’re signing up for races themselves. They see it’s cool to do what you love and it's cool to work hard for what you love.”
On Sunday, a fast time is what would be “cool” for Righeimer. Regardless of her finishing mark, she’s aiming higher. “My lifetime goal is to qualify for the Olympic Trials in the marathon,” she said. “The mark is competitive at 2:35 so I have a lot of work to do.”
Yet she also sees a goal in being an example to someone struggling the way she did growing up. Using what she found in running to guide others to find their own voice. “What I’ve experienced with running has only been positive and any teen or young girl who is struggling through anything could pick up running and it could help them through really challenging situations.”