Williams Route 66 Marathon founder Chris Lieberman defies the odds.
Kim Hann and Chris Lieberman lead the Williams Route 66 Marathon, which Lieberman founded in 2005. The couple fell in love through their passion for running and started dating after working on the marathon together. In March 2016, an accident left Lieberman with severe brain trauma, causing Hann to step up her responsibilities with the event.
On Nov. 19, Chris Lieberman hopes to cheer on Corral D — the final group of runners to start the Williams Route 66 Marathon — as he has every year since he began the race in 2005.
“They’re my people,” he says, smiling, of the “slowest runners.”
Last year was the first time Lieberman missed seeing the marathon in person. Instead, he watched and listened to it on TV from a hospital room. He was still recovering, as he is today, from a traumatic brain injury he suffered in March 2016.
“That day he stood up for the first time in I don’t know how long,” says Kim Hann, Lieberman’s girlfriend and the marathon’s co-executive director. “He waited for everyone to start — from Corral A to D — and then finally sat back down.”
The past 20 months have been a rollercoaster for the couple. In March 2016, Lieberman was working in the marathon warehouse when he fell about 10 feet from a ladder, hitting his head and causing serious brain trauma. Extensive surgeries and care proceeded, all with Hann by his side. Lieberman has spent time in Atlanta, Houston and Dallas for intensive speech, occupational and physical therapy.
“Chris told me one day, ‘I’m not training for the Olympics,’” Hann says. “I said, ‘No, but you’re training for life.”
As he recovered, Hann stepped up to not only take care of Lieberman, but also fulfill marathon responsibilities.
When Lieberman became injured, it was a pretty significant blow to the organization, says Tim Dreiling, co-owner of Fleet Feet Sports and longtime Route 66 Marathon race director. Questions arose about who would step into Lieberman’s role because of his countless responsibilities.
“Kim was really there for Chris, and Chris was always there for the marathon, so Kim plugged herself into that role,” Dreiling says. “Kim is amazing in the strength she has exhibited.”
While Hann’s priority remained her boyfriend, the marathon provided a needed outlet. “Living in a hospital isn’t easy,” she says. “Luckily I had the marathon and the board to support me … I love running, and I love the event. It really was, I hate to say it, a distraction. It kept me motivated and kept me going, having that to focus on every day.”
Quite the undertaking
Dreiling is one of 30 volunteer directors who work year-round with Lieberman and Hann to make the Route 66 Marathon happen. The event includes a health and fitness exhibition and five races: a 1-mile fun run, a 5K, a marathon relay, a half-marathon and the marathon. The event is now in its 12th year, and organizers expect 12,000-15,000 runners from every state and nine countries to participate Nov. 18-19.
Community support is key to an event like this, Hann says, and Tulsa turns out every year. Race weekend calls for nearly 2,000 volunteers. More than 30 bands dot the course, which winds through iconic Tulsa neighborhoods and districts and brings out spectators who cheer on the runners.
“That’s exactly what we want it to be: a big party for everyone who comes to town,” Hann says. “(The participants) have already done all the hard work. They’ve done the training. The training is what takes so much time. Race day is just a celebration of the training.”
But it’s not just the Tulsa community that steps up. Race directors from across the country have come to Tulsa — and will again this year — to work the weekend and help out with operations and logistics.
“They know how hard it is to put on a race, especially of this caliber,” Hann says. “They understand what it takes. They want to see the Route 66 Marathon succeed and carry out Chris’ vision. (Their support) has been overwhelming.”
For 12 years, Lieberman and the Route 66 Marathon have put Tulsa on the map when it comes to running. He was first inspired to create the marathon as he was running his first — the Dallas Marathon — in 2004. “As I ran I thought, you know, we could do this in Tulsa,” he says.
Over the years, the Route 66 Marathon has garnered several local and national awards, including Best Overall Marathon in the U.S. by the 100 Half Marathon Club.
Defying the odds
First-time marathoners hold a special place in Lieberman’s heart. “For them, they’ve made so many changes,” he says. “And, they are so excited when they finish.”
The finish line is an emotional place for Hann, who can’t be at the finish line without getting teary. “To see someone set goals and achieve them, and that one moment has changed their life,” she says. “It’s pretty amazing.”
As Lieberman has traversed recovery, he has had setbacks. Fittingly, doctors told him and Hann that brain injury recoveries are more of a marathon than a sprint. His inpatient benefits maxed out in Dallas, so four months ago he returned home to Tulsa where he goes to post-acute rehabilitation once a week. He continues to make significant strides.
“It’s great to see him recovering, have him back around,” Dreiling says. “He comes to board meetings; chimes in; tries to tell Kim what to do, which is humorous.”
Just like any competitive runner, Lieberman has set goals for himself. First up, walking his daughters Ashton and Aldyn down the aisle at their 2018 weddings.
He currently walks at therapy with assistance, and running isn’t out of the question either. “I had to open my big mouth and tell Kim I would do a half marathon for her,” Lieberman says.
But no one questions the possibilities after how far Lieberman has come in less than two years. “At one point, they told us Chris would never speak, never laugh, all these nevers,” Hann says.
“Of course, they were full of it,” Lieberman chimes in, exuding confidence and the charm
Tulsans have come to know.
“They didn’t know Chris would prove everybody wrong,” Hann adds. “That’s what it’s all about: proving everybody wrong. It’s the same thing with endurance running. You’re setting a goal, you’re achieving a goal, and you put that time and effort in, and then it happens. You defy the odds, and you realize you can do things you didn’t think you could do.”
Williams Route 66 Marathon
Presented by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma
11 a.m.-8 p.m., Health and Fitness Expo at the Cox Business Center
8 a.m., 5K Run and Walk at Guthrie Green
9 a.m., 1-mile Fun Run at Guthrie Green
9:30 a.m., Mascot Dash at Guthrie Green
10 a.m.-6 p.m., Health and Fitness Expo at the Cox Business Center
8 a.m., Marathon, Half-Marathon and Marathon Relay start at East Seventh and South Main streets and finish at Guthrie Green