Memories of Bonfield Express abound as Downers Grove race reaches end of the run

To those who woke up early on Thanksgiving morning, the annual Bonfield Express 5K in Downers Grove was more than about racing to cross the finish line. It was an annual holiday tradition for participants and spectators while uniting the community in honor of a man with great character and heart.

“When I would go to the race, I felt this sense of the community,” Downers Grove resident Janene Cerulli said.

For the past 17 years, the Bonfield Express 5K was part of the Thanksgiving ritual for participants, spectators and volunteers. Some drove or flew across the country to join family members at the starting line to kick off the holiday. Even with a virtual race in 2020, many families maintained the tradition, documenting their Thanksgiving Day run on social media.

Last week, race organizers announced they would end race operations, evoking heartache and questions among the many longtime participants for whom the race was as much a part of Thanksgiving traditions as turkey and stuffing.

Cerulli said that through the annual race she connected with old friends and it became a tradition to run together before going for post-race refreshments at Ballydoyle Irish Pub.

“I’m not a competitive runner, and this race was about the fun,” Cerulli said.

Fun included silly turkey hats and costumes. As the race grew in popularity, it gained more spectators, including the homeowners along the course who cheered on runners and offered treats. Racers were tempted to stop and pick up a doughnut hole from the Power Doughnut stand erected on Marsha Giesler’s front lawn on Maple Avenue less than a mile from the finish line. What started out as a joke – handing out doughnut holes from a folding table at the curb – caught on as a tradition and by 2019, Giesler and her husband had bought 3,000 doughnut holes to hand out to racers from their homemade wooden stand.

“The elite runners would wave and circle back after they finished,” Giesler said, adding that the less competitive runners didn’t mind stopping for a doughnut hole and a quick chat, giving the family a chance to see many friends and neighbors.

“It got to be part of the tradition. That is how our family starts our Thanksgiving,” Giesler said.

The race was launched in 2004 in memory of Jim Bonfield, a former dean, coach and teacher at Downers Grove South High School. Bonfield died in 2003 because of complications from rheumatoid arthritis, leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease. The aim of the race was to raise money in honor of Bonfield’s memory for scholarships to award to students based on their outstanding character and commitment to the community.

Many of the initial 500 race participants were drawn to the event to honor Bonfield, including Ann Kimpton and her son, Aaron, who played for coach Bonfield. Today, Aaron Kimpton is a teacher and coach at Oswego East High School and models his leadership on the field after that of Bonfield, Ann said.

At the last in-person race in 2019 more than 6,000 runners and walkers lined up along Main Street waiting for the blare from the train horn to start the race.

“I had numerous people call me heartbroken because the Bonfield Express was such a great race,” said Will Kupisch, who served as the race director for Bonfield Express and is a retired cross country coach, teacher and counselor for Downers Grove North High School.

Kupisch said at the heart of the race was celebrating Bonfield’s memory and character. He recalled how even when Bonfield was worn down by illness and treatments, he continued to support and inspire those around him.

Character was at the center of the Bonfield scholarships. In the past 17 years, the Bonfield Express Foundation has distributed $966,500 in scholarships to high school seniors from Downers Grove North, Downers Grove South, Hinsdale Central, Hinsdale South, Lisle and Westmont high schools.

This year, 56 seniors received Bonfield Express Foundation scholarships, including Downers Grove South graduate Sam Hudec. He started running in the Bonfield Express in middle school, first with his family and later with his Downers Grove South cross country teammates and friends. He plans to use the scholarship money to help buy a computer before leaving for the University of Minnesota in August. He plans to continue lacing up his shoes for the college’s running club.

The decision to end the race wasn’t easy, but Bonfield’s wife, son and extended family decided it was time to close the chapter on the annual 5K while continuing to support the foundation and its dedication to student scholarships, said Debbie Hare, who ran marketing and communications for the Bonfield Express. In addition to individual scholarships, the foundation was able to support schools, programming and even assist nonprofits.

“We’re touched that the community loved the event as much as we did,” Hare said, recalling fondly the nights spent at the Bonfield’s kitchen table planning the annual event with its volunteers.

“The Bonfield Express 5K is something people hopefully remember with happiness for the joy it brought to the community,” Hare said.

Like so many others, the Kimptons started their Thanksgiving at the race. They started with the immediate family and added spouses and children as the years passed.

“We’re really going to miss it,” Ann Kimpton said. “It’s like a thread that united the community. You can go and listen to a concert, you can walk past the car show, but with the race, you were a part of the experience.”