One of the Craziest Things We’ve Ever Seen In A Race: Elite Runner Ian Butler Turned Around & Ran the Wrong Way in the 2021 Chicago Marathon

By Jonathan Gault
October 15, 2021

Barely a mile into the 2021 Chicago Marathon, Ian Butler was already in no-man’s-land. With a 2:09:45 personal best, Butler was the second-fastest American in the men’s elite field and hoping to lower that pb in Sunday’s race. Shortly after the starting gun was fired, however, Butler found himself running with the leaders of the race, a group of men who began the race by running 2:04 pace — a minute faster than the American record.

Just after the one-mile mark, Butler backed off the pace, but by that point, the leaders had already created significant separation on the chase pack. He was on his own. And since he was still on pb pace, he continued.

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But 26.2 miles is a long way to run by yourself, and as he approached three miles, Butler had a problem. The lead pack was running too fast for him, but the chase pack was on 2:10 pace — slower than the pb pace he desired. For most runners in that situation, there are two options: keep trying to run your own pace solo, or slow down, allow the chase pack to catch you, and run with them. Butler chose a third.

And that is how, at the intersection of North LaSalle Street and West Randolph Street, just past Chicago City Hall, Butler did something that many running fans including everyone at LetsRun.com had never seen before: he turned around and ran in the wrong direction. Within a few seconds, he had “caught” the chase pack and promptly turned around again so he was running in the right direction. He would run with them for the next 20 kilometers before the pack began to splinter around 25k.

“I’ve never been known to be the smartest runner and I needed to find people and a smart pace,” Butler wrote on Instagram after the race.

LetsRun reached out to Butler and he expanded on his decision-making process.

“I ran back to join the second group,” Butler wrote. “I don’t know why I didn’t stop or slow down. Chicago was kind of weird and I felt like I was forcing things from the beginning and at half way [sic] when I turned around it was so I could settle in to a more comfortable pace. I went for it at Chicago instead of settling for a pace that was slower than my PR and I wouldn’t say I regret it, but it’s rough that it didn’t work out, but that’s the marathon some days.”

Butler wound up fading to 17th place in 2:20:01, but said that he was proud to have finished the race on a tough day.

As wild as it was to see Butler running in the wrong direction in Chicago — seriously, it was insane — it would be wrong to reduce him to “That Guy Who Ran the Wrong Way in Chicago.” His story is an inspiring one. As a child, he suffered two traumatic brain injuries that made learning difficult, but found running as a high schooler and went on to run in college at Division II power Western State.

Though he graduated with fairly modest personal bests of 14:46 for 5k and 29:49 for 10k, Butler continued to grind on the roads post-college and was rewarded with a huge 2:09:45 personal best at the Marathon Project last year. Now he has become a LetsRun cult hero, sometimes rising before 5 a.m. to log workouts before working as a teacher (he also has a sponsorship with adidas).

For more on Butler, check out this 2013 feature from The Denver Post.

Talk about Butler running the wrong way on our world-famous messageboards.

MB: This is the weirdest thing Letsrun has EVER seen in a marathon. Why did Ian Butler run backwards in the Chicago marathon?

 

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