Chain-smoker-turned-marathoner looks to complete feat in London

Chris Bartosik is one marathon away from finishing his Abbott World Marathon Majors, a series of six races: Chicago, New York, Boston, Berlin, Tokyo and London. With a finish in London on Sunday, he will have finished all six races in 18 months. Courtesy of Chris Bartosik

Chris Bartosik woke up one morning about seven years ago and made a life-altering decision: He wanted to finally quit smoking.

He wanted to change his lifestyle; he wanted to break the chain of smoking-related issues on his father's side of the family, and he wanted to do it before it was too late.

So just like that, he quit. He stopped being the multiple-packs-a-day weekend smoker and was drawn to running. The activity was kind of his medication, only it was healthier and better. He was a track and field runner in high school, but he quit that for smoking. It was ironic that he quit smoking for running years later.

"When I quit, I got back to running, and it has really helped me a lot to go through the process," said Bartosik, 48.

Now, he is one marathon away from finishing his Abbott World Marathon Majors, a series of six races: Chicago, New York, Boston, Berlin, Tokyo and London. With a finish in London on Sunday, he will have finished all six races in 18 months.

His inspiration for running: his mother, Halina Bartosik.

He doesn't remember his mother being able to walk on her own. With severe kyphoscoliosis -- a condition that causes an abnormal curvature of the spine -- she initially used a cane to walk, which then turned into a tripod and later a quad-walking stick. Her legs couldn't bear her weight after that, and she has been bound to a wheelchair ever since. She just kept going and never once complained.

So when Bartosik was going through the challenges of quitting smoking and running, he would say to himself, "Come on, how could I not finish? If my mom, with no use of her legs, could still have a smile on her face and laugh during the day, I can finish 26 miles."

That was his mantra every time he went for a run. A short run became a half-marathon, and before he knew it, he finished his first marathon -- Chicago 2012. Although he could barely walk for two days after that initial race, he knew this was what he wanted to do -- run marathons across the world and raise awareness about the harmfulness of smoking.

He did not have a coach or a trainer to rely on, and had to stay focused on his own and learn about marathon running during his training. Once, he took the phrase "ice bath" too literally. Instead of getting in the tub, running the water, and adding ice once he was acclimatized, he threw a bunch of ice in his tub full of water and got in.

"You just don't do a polar plunge," he said.

Though his mother couldn't make it to the finish line for his races because of her wheelchair, he knew she was waiting for him to come back home to discuss it. It's become a tradition to have her wear his medal and take pictures with her.

But she did get to see one race, the 2013 Fox Valley Marathon in St. Charles, Illinois. Chris' brother, Greg, made special arrangements to have her stationed at the finish line. St. Charles was where he grew up and where his mother lived, so it was very special, Chris said.

In all, he has run the Chicago Marathon twice (again in 2015), the 2015 New York Marathon, the 2016 Boston Marathon, the 2016 Berlin Marathon and the 2017 Tokyo Marathon.

The journey has not been easy. Twenty-plus years of smoking caused damage to his lungs -- he has to use an inhaler, for instance. He also can't train in the Chicago winter: His pulmonologist makes sure he trains indoors because the cold doesn't bode well for his lungs. He ran 20 miles on his treadmill before the Tokyo Marathon, and Bartosik said it was terrible.

Tokyo 2017 was even more difficult. His mother died on Jan. 5, less than two months before the marathon. It was unexpected and took everybody by surprise, he said. He had gone to visit her on New Year's Day, to have lunch with her and talk about his upcoming marathons. She seemed fine then, but a few days later, what doctors assumed was the flu that was going around in her nursing home was something else -- she had to be taken to the hospital immediately. Before the transportation arrived, she went into cardiac arrest. Chris and his brother Greg rushed to the hospital, but the ER doctor informed them that she had been unresponsive for 20-30 minutes. She was 79 years old.

Chris ran in Tokyo with his mom's yellow-and-white beaded bracelet and will carry it with him during the London Marathon, too.

"She was wearing it when she passed away, and I have carried it with me ever since," he said.

Greg has seen his brother's journey through its entirety. "He's adamant about wanting to run," Greg said.

Chris will be running the London Marathon as part of the American Institute for Cancer Research's running team. Smoking-related cancers are common, and he wanted to help in some way. Though he will be done with the marathon majors after London, he wants to keep going. He is running the Berlin Marathon again in 2017, and hopes to qualify for Boston 2018 in the process.

But he admits it will be hard to not be able to visit his mother once he's done. Even talking about Boston makes him tear up.

"It's the mother of all marathons. When I turned that corner and saw the finish line, it was perfect," he said.

Asked about where he saw Chris going after 2017, Greg said, smiling, "Maybe he is going to turn into Forrest Gump and start running across the country."