Barbara Elia

  • At 100 marathons and counting, Barbara Elia still going the distance

    March 9, 1963 was the last time Barbara Elia failed to go the distance. She was one of 18 Morton College students signed up for a Kennedy Walk, a 50-mile challenge issued by President John F. Kennedy to promote fitness nationwide.

    “A friend of mine talked me into it,” Elia recalled in an e-mail interview. “It was painful. I got to 44 miles and rested, but could not go on as my legs refused to go.”

    Five days later, a story in The Collegian (Morton College’s student newspaper) about the walk made an observation about the Cicero native’s effort. By today’s standards, it would be considered politically incorrect. But it also turned out to have a prophetic ring about it on Elia, one of three females to attempt the walk.   

    “I’ve heard so many people call her the 'Energizer Bunny' that she should get royalties from the battery company...”

    “One of the greatest accomplishments of the day which should turn many male faces to a nice pink hue was the 44 miles tramped by freshman Barbara Elia in 13¼ hours,” The Collegiate wrote in describing the walk.

    Nearly 50 years later, Elia, who now lives in California, is still making those male faces (and also those half her age and younger) turn a shade of nice pink hue. She completed her 100th marathon in 2012 and her combined total of marathons and ultra-marathons is approaching 500. Ultra-marathons are longer than the traditional 26.2-mile marathon distance. Many are 24-hour endurance races, some go 100 miles and beyond and the course is often on a trail instead of a road.

    At age 60, Elia completed the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in 29 hours, 37 minutes. The race follows the historic Western States Trail in California and it’s not for the faint of heart. According to the race’s web site, runners climb more than 18,000 feet and descend nearly 23,000 feet before reaching the finish line. There’s a 30-hour time limit and most of the territory is accessible only by foot, horse or helicopter.

    Needless to say, the 68-year-old Elia, a physical education teacher at Modesto Junior College in
    California since 1991, is greatly admired and respected by her peers in the local running community at the Modesto-based ShadowChase Running Club.

    “I’ve heard so many people call her the Energizer Bunny that she should get royalties from the battery company,” said Karen Lozano, public relations director for the ShadowChase Running Club in an e-mail interview. “She puts on her running shoes and keeps going and going.”

    Elia recently broke her wrist, but was back on the trails the very next day.  

    “She was walking under doctor’s orders – holding her arm high in the air,” Lozano said. “Then surgery and a huge cast on her arm couldn’t knock her out of action.”
    “America Graffiti,” a 1973 coming of age film directed and co-written by George Lucas, put Modesto on the map. But today, Elia is the one cruising the streets of Modesto. Daily, you’ll see her running through East La Loma Park or the nearby canal.

    “She is always willing to stop and say hi, question you on a race, inquire about family or lend you a smile or some encouragement,” Lozano said. “Barb is always right there to offer encouragement and support as well as advice to those less experienced than her.”

    In 2013, Lozano was training to run the Western States. She came home one day after work to find a bag hanging on her door with Elia’s plaque and medal from a previous Western States race as well as a personal note and a bottle of wine.

    “Barbara was wishing me luck in my training and eventual race,” Lozano said. “It was pretty cool she was willing to entrust me with that beautiful hard-carved plaque as well as the fact that she was thinking of me. But that’s how Barb is. She’s so giving and thoughtful. One day I came home to find peanut butter cookies hanging from my front door. Yep, Barb. Just to brighten my day.” 

    Elia started running on a lark with friends in the summer of 1978. A year later, she completed the Chicago Marathon in 4:22. A year after that, Elia broke four hours for the first time and in 1981, she did a 3:16 in Chicago to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Her personal best also came in 1981 with a 3:08:08 at the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, Alabama.

    “My favorite marathon was my first one in Chicago,” Elia said. “We ran through lots of ethnic neighborhoods. I had never run over 18 miles, so it was virgin territory for me.”

    Elia’s favorite parts of marathon running are the competiveness and winning trophies. Her competitive nature popped up when running a half-marathon last year in Modesto.

    “There was a lady ahead of me with her ponytail swishing,” said Elia in a 2012 feature story in the Modesto Bee. “I was right behind her the whole way. With a quarter-mile to go, she looked back and I knew she saw me there. I went for it. I hadn’t sprinted in years, but we both hit the mat at the same time.

    “I turned to her and said, ‘Good job,’ but she wasn’t having it and just walked away. The competitive part is still there, but I thought I was going to lose my cookies.”

    She religiously maintains a mileage log. Elia reportedly has logged over 90,000 miles, the equivalent of running 43 times from Morton College to Modesto Junior College.

    Elia attended Morton East High School. Like many others who attended Morton College at the time, Elia worked her way up to the third floor of Morton East. That’s where Morton College was located until the 1960s. There were no competitive athletics for women at the time, so Elia participated in the Women’s Recreational Association. She graduated from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights.

    How does she stay so active? Lozano once asked her that and Elia responded, “Hmmm, let me think about it. Just got home from a 50-K.”

    “That’s the Barb I know and love,” Lozano added. “She’s just a true running ambassador.”
    Morton College, the second oldest community college in Illinois, is celebrating its 90th anniversary in the Fall of 2014. This is a periodic series of interviews profiling Morton College graduates from all walks of life to mark this special milestone. If you would like to submit an alumni’s name for consideration of a profile, please contact Jim O’Connell at (708) 656-8000 Ext. 2459 or e-mail him at
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