ST. CHARLES – Paul Thomas discovered the Advocate Dreyer Fox Valley Marathon not through word-of-mouth or an online marathon search engine.
The Batavian stumbled on the race during a morning run last September, and on Sunday, his muscle memory more than held up.
Thomas earned the title of top Tri-Cities men's marathon finisher after traversing the familiar course in 3:05:12, a personal record in his third career marathon.
"It kind of snuck up on me at the end," Thomas said, "but it was a good day and a nice time."
A 33-year-old ironworker, Thomas lives near the marathon's seven-mile marker on the Fox River Trail, which doubles as his training course on most mornings.
Although a friend was in the 2012 Fox Valley field, Thomas said he didn't know a marathon was going on until the opening stages of his run. He followed along the marathon course for about half of a 17-mile workout.
"It was supposed to be a long, slow run, and then with people out there cheering and whatnot, it turned into a race pace," Thomas said.
Sporting a puzzled look and no bib number, Thomas still blended in.
"The only time I caught any flak was when I was going to veer from the course," he said. "I'm like, 'I'm not in the race.' "
Thomas, who finished 44th on Sunday, found himself very much involved in a tune-up for next month's Chicago Marathon. His wife, Tina, will be part of the field, too.
"She doesn't like to run with anybody, though," Thomas said.
In Chicago, chances are she'll make like her husband and find a pack anyway.
A little help: Jeff Kelly, winner of the men's marathon, and Lindsey Kong, winner of the women's marathon, had something in common Sunday – moral support on the course from a close acquaintance.
In Kong's case, her boyfriend, Gabriel Stanek, ran the entire race with her. Kong said Stanek could have beaten 3 hours on his own; she came in at 3:01.23.
"He encouraged me when I wanted to give up, so that was very helpful," Kong said.
Two of Kong's sisters also participated in Sunday's festivities, including women's half-marathon second-place finisher, Amy Kong.
Kelly, meanwhile, said his friend, Brandon Smith – who, like Kelly, is part of the "CU Racing Team" in the Champaign-Urbana area – ran about seven miles with him late in the race.
"That really helps because when I'm alone, you're in your head," Kelly said. "Brandon's a coach. He'll help motivate you."
Smith said he told Kelly "that he's tougher than anybody, and I know he is."
"I didn't want to get in front of him, I felt like I was stealing his glory because people thought I was in the lead or something," Smith said. "So I was going behind him, and he started yelling at me to get in front of him. So I was like 'Well, whatever, I'll get in front of you.' … I was just there to help him out. We're not used to being in the lead."
Logistics legends: By year four of the Fox Valley Marathon, co-organizers Craig Bixler and Dave Sheble know how to cover the bases, but pulling off such a huge event is never stress-free.
"We had the usual things things that don't go as planned, but we build in checks and balances," Bixler said. "So a piece of the course wasn't open when it was supposed to be, but we checked that early enough that it was open long before the runners got through."
The St. Charles men take pride in coordinating the logistics as smoothly as possible, including a prompt clean-up of the course and race headquarters downtown that begins long before the races are complete.
Bixler said the cities involved appreciate the commitment to tidying up.
"Invariably, we get the comment that we're the standard that they wish all events would adhere to," Bixler said.
In with the old: John Collet of Verona, 46, grinned with self-deprecation after placing second in the men's half-marathon in 1:17:08.
"Us old guys, it's hard to run with the young kids," he said.
Not so much Sunday, when seven of the race's top nine finishers were at least 43. Winner Eric Ott, a 32-year-old Genevan, clocked in with a time of 1:15:54.
Collet officially was the master's winner, a distinction for the top finisher over 40. He suggested the layout was the course's great equalizer.
"There was shade everywhere on this thing, you know. Just a couple of baby hills," Collet said. "This is a fast course. If you want to run fast, this is the course to run."