Sister Stephanie Baliga, ’10 LAS, is fast as well as faithful. The former Illini track and cross country runner previously completed a full marathon in 2 hours and 53 minutes—an elite pace of six minutes, 38 seconds per mile.
On Aug. 23, 2020, she ran that distance at a slower pace for a higher purpose. On a treadmill in the basement of the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago’s Humboldt Park, she ran 26.2 miles in 3 hours and 33 minutes and raised more than $140,000 for the Mission’s work caring for the poor and sharing the Catholic faith.
Since 2011, Baliga has organized and coached a charity team for the Chicago Marathon that has raised upwards of $200,000 a year for the Mission. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic both elevated the needs of the neighborhood—the organization’s food pantry has been serving triple its normal volume—and endangered this critical funding source.
When officials canceled the marathon in July, Baliga and key volunteer, PJ Weiland, a Chicago-area business and executive coach, got creative. Not only would Baliga go the distance, she’d submit it to the Guinness World Records, which didn’t have an entry for fastest amateur female treadmill marathon runner.
They contacted sponsors such as Fleet Feet, along with the media; set up a Zoom feed; and invited special guests, including Chicago Marathon announcer Dave Kappas, Baliga’s parents and former Illini teammates, to pop in along the way.
No race goes without a hitch, and this one was no exception. Baliga’s training wasn’t ideal, consisting of fewer running miles and more lifting heavy boxes of food. The treadmill tripped the circuit breaker, knocking out power three times. Near the end, her legs cramped and fatigue set in.
But at mile 25, a special guest—Deena Kastor, an Olympic bronze medalist whom Baliga has long admired—appeared via Zoom to cheer her on. “My pain level was subsumed by the awe of the whole experience,” Baliga says.
In the end, Baliga made national headlines, brought the total raised by marathon runners for the Mission to more than $1 million, and provided a much-needed source of inspiration. (You can watch the whole race, donate and learn about joining the team next year at www.olagiving.com.)
“It was kind of this ‘don’t doubt God’ thing. He’s got this taken care of,” Baliga says. “If the Holy Spirit wants it to be, grace will use the weirdest things to make sure people feel motivated and connected.”