“One of my friends... said, ‘that's a stupid idea. Do you realize that people would be highly interested in this, if you did some publicity?’” Baliga said. “I'm like, ‘Are you serious? You think people will actually be interested in this? I'm going to run 26 miles on a treadmill. The only thing more boring than running 26 miles on the treadmill, is watching someone run 26 miles on a treadmill.”
Her friend convinced her. On the day of the treadmill marathon, dozens of people joined Baliga via Zoom to cheer for her and offer encouragement.
“I was talking to people the whole time, it was super fun,” Baliga said. “It was actually interesting because lots of people came on Zoom and talked to me during the whole thing, including Deena Kastor, the bronze medalist in the 2005 Olympics, which was crazy.”
Baliga held the world record as the first ever woman to try to record a time for a marathon on a treadmill. But she says the best part of the experience was raising more than $150,000 for the outreach program run by her community, the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago.
The Franciscans live and work at Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, an outreach to the poor on the West side of Chicago.
“We have been feeding 3000 to 4,000 families a month during COVID, as well as doing a lot of other outreach to the neighborhood,” Baliga said. “We do a lot of other work with evangelization and things of that nature, but during COVID mostly we feed people.”
Since 2011, Baliga and a team of runners have raised more than $1.1 million dollars for the mission through the Chicago Marathon and other local races.
Baliga first became interested in running when she was eight or nine years old. She registered for a youth cross country team and soon realized that not only did she like running, she was actually pretty good at it.
She ran track and cross country in high school, winning 18 conference championships. She was recruited by the University of Illinois to run Division I cross country and track.
“It was a great blessing,” Baliga told CNA. “I was the sixth fastest freshman in the nation in 2006 … and our teams placed eighth, sixth, and tenth in the nation my freshman through junior year. So it was a great blessing to be part of that experience, and one of the greatest and coolest things that I've done in my life.”
Baliga was sidelined by an injury her sophomore year. She said the injury forced her to slow down and honestly evaluate her life and her priorities.
“I'd never been forced to stop doing anything,” Baliga said. “I was forced to actually reflect on what I was doing, and why I was doing it, and what was the meaning behind any of this?”
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She admits she wasn’t very involved in her Catholic faith at the time. She was raised Catholic, but her family wasn’t very serious about the faith. Running and academics were everything to her.
“It was who I was,” Baliga said. “I defined myself by these things.”
She did make a point in college to go to Sunday Mass, and she had made some friends in the process. Baliga started spending more time with those friends while she recovered from her injury.
“I had all this time because I couldn't run and I was spending ad nauseum hours a day running and doing running associated activities, like weight work and physical therapy,” Baliga said.
“Then they invited me on a retreat, where I had a very powerful experience. I did realize very intensely that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist.”
When Baliga fully recovered from her injury, she said she faced a crossroads.