Crystal Lake firefighter runs half marathon in full gear, tank and all

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Woodstock's Matt Thuma has been a regular at the Crystal Lake Half Marathon since the 13.1-mile race, formerly held at Lippold Park, became a staple of the running community.

The 54-year-old Crystal Lake firefighter may not place among the top finishers, but that's for a good reason.

Unlike other runners, Thuma, who got his start in long-distance races about 20 years ago, crosses the finish line wearing more than 42 pounds of gear: boots, a turnout coat and pants, gloves, a helmet and air tank. "By the end of the race, it's a lot closer to 50 pounds," the 1984 Woodstock graduate said.

Thuma, who tries to do three or four long-distance events a year, ran his 20th Crystal Lake Half Marathon Sunday morning. He's done them all in his full firefighter uniform. Asked why he does it, Thuma replied, "Probably because I’m a bigger idiot than I thought."

Sunday's race started at Main Beach, traveled through Lakewood and Lippold Park, passed by the Dole Mansion and Crystal Lake South and Crystal Lake Central high schools and ended at Grant Street in downtown Crystal Lake.

"It’s not something I would every suggest anyone do cold without any training," Thuma said.

Thuma, who has been a firefighter/paramedic for 35 years, including the past 22 with the Crystal Lake Fire Rescue Department, guesses that he has raced in about 50 marathons and other long-distance events since the start of 2000, both in and out of gear.

Thuma's first in gear was at the 2000 Chicago Marathon. It didn't take long to encounter the first of many challenges to running with an extra 50 pounds.

"I drank three gallons of Gatorade and another gallon of water during the race," Thuma said. "It’s definitely a challenge when you’ve got that much heat to deal with. That’s the biggest challenge I have to face ... the overheating."

Thuma doesn't run for fast times, necessarily, but he does like to keep his half marathon time around 3 hours, 45 minutes, and full marathon time under 7. "Anything under four hours for a half, and I'm happy," he said.

"Some days, you’re just grateful to see that finish line," Thuma said. "And some races, you feel so good that you’re ready to go back out there and do more. You never know what day you are going to get."

Thuma first ran in full gear to bring awareness to the heightened risk of firefighters developing cancer due to the smoke and other hazardous chemicals that they are exposed to in the line of duty. He has also run for many charities, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society.

Any money raised for this year's Crystal Lake Half Marathon will go to support The Break teen center in Crystal Lake.

"He’s always been an inspiration to every runner out there," said Denise Smith, owner of Smith Physical Therapy and Running Academy in Crystal Lake. "He gets a standing ovation every time he runs. Because the event is normally around Sept. 11, people get emotional. It causes a pretty emotional reaction from runners and spectators."

Thuma has done short-distance races, too, but he prefers to stick to longer distances. "I like the long races because I’m not that fast," he said. "I'd much rather challenge myself than just watch myself get blown away in a short race."

Thuma's final race before the COVID-19 pandemic halted most running events was in Honolulu. To his surprise, two other firefighters signed up for the race and ran it in full gear. "It was kind of nice to see somebody else suffering for a change," Thuma joked.

There are always new challenges that pop up, Thuma said. Those can range from small and annoying, like the blisters from logging long miles in boots, to something a little more serious.

In 2007, Thuma ran in the Chicago Marathon in full gear on the hottest Oct. 7 in the city's history, with temperatures peaking at 88 degrees. With more than 30,000 runners on the course and the heat unrelenting, the organizers announced that they were stopping the race.

"Everybody was dropping," Thuma said. "I've never seen anything like that. I noticed I was in trouble at mile 6. I was literally on the ground, having to rest. By mile 10, I’m losing my lunch."

During the 2013 Crystal Lake Half Marathon, a fellow firefighter joined Thuma in full gear.

"That ended up a really hot year, too," Thuma said. "It was so hot I had to take away his helmet because he was overheating. For a mile, I actually carried his air pack, as well as mine. We were both struggling. And that was a guy whose longest race was a 100-miler. For him to struggle that 13 miles ... he said it was the most challenging race he's ever done."

Thuma said the support he gets from other runners and spectators is a big part of what keeps him going.

"I’ve seen the leaders of the race, and they make it look easy," Thuma said. "But when you get to the back of the pack, those are the guys that can barely stand up. They can't keep their heads up, they’re dehydrated, they’re hurt, they’re bleeding. But they won't stop. Those are the ones, it's amazing to see."

"It’s amazing what you see at a marathon, the true determination you see out of these runners. They give it their all and those are the ones you love to go and see. I’ll cheer them on any day."

This year's Crystal Lake Half Marathon was presented by Smith Running Academy and directed by Trudy Wakeman of Race Production by Trudy, with help from the City of Crystal Lake, Village of Lakewood, Crystal Lake Police Department, McHenry County Conservation District and Crystal Lake Park District.