I am going to run a marathon. The Chicago Marathon because of the shear size of the event, the number of people involved, and the opportunity to run through a vast array of communities. At this point of my decision I had never run such a far distance, but as a runner, I knew that I could not and would not want to run a marathon surrounded by fields, trees, water, and farms. I needed to and wanted to be excited. I wanted something to look at. I wanted people, millions of people, to cheer me on.
Registration for the Chicago Marathon opened on January 1st. My goal was to sign up on January 1st. I did not sign up that day. I did look at the website and collected information. I knew I would register just no telling what day that would be. I think I held out because of the large fee just to go run. I thought spending $90 to be included in this event was uncalled for, but now I know you can never put a price on it. Now, I would have paid more for that experience.
Why am I running a marathon? Good question and I did not, nor do I still have a great answer for that. Maybe it is the feeling you get on the inside. The feeling of respect you expect from others. Maybe it was the magnitude of the accomplishment. It was not just one day you go out and run a marathon. It is months of training physical and mental. It is months of giving up so many things just to be even the least bit ready. For me it had nothing to do with competition or wanting to single out the one person in the crowd I would like to keep up with or beat. It was about me. I wanted to learn and struggle and see what I as an athlete and as a person could handle.
Each marathon is exactly twenty-six point two miles. No more. No less. Friends, family, and strangers thought I was crazy. Was I crazy? No, not particularly. Well, maybe a little crazy. I was certainly excited and eager and impatient with the entire idea, but most of all I was terribly determined.
I thought about the marathon daily. No, actually I thought about the finish line daily. When in preparation for your first marathon, especially that far in advance, you are intrigued at the idea of running a marathon, you do not think about the lack of sleep, the many miles, the pain, and the almost torturous training. I’ll admit I never thought about it. I just recall the goosebumps that ran through my body and how my eyes welled up with tears and joy when thinking about crossing the line and being done. I still get goosebumps with the thought of it. The bumps come from the emotion and the anticipation of millions of people watching in awe, cheering you on, some crying, some speechless. I wanted to be the runner they watched. I wanted to be the other set of eyes they looked into when I ran past.
Finally, after so many cheerful and wonderful thoughts of the marathon I signed up. I signed up thinking of the imaginary rush of emotion while crossing that finish line. It repeated in my thoughts over and over again. I imagined a smile on my face. I imagined tears forming and eventually running down my cheeks. I imagined those I care about, supporting me. I imagined them waiting for me to finish.
Race day was Sunday, October 9, 2005. If my memory serves me correctly, I registered about 8 months prior. The time frame seemed so ridiculously long. Those 8 months included the rest of the winter, the entire spring and summer, and the beginning of fall. Eight months off into the future I could hear the faint sound of the gun shot start. It felt like an eternity. I carried on with my daily mileage of either 4 or 6 miles. It seemed too early to start training. I had two-thirds of a year until judgment day. The days continued to go by and not a day passed without the thought of my marathon. I thought about it often. I talked about it often. At times it seemed unreal until the day I got my confirmation ticket in the mail that read, “You’re In!”
Yes. I was, in fact, in. I still had not started my “religious” marathon training. Or at least at the time I did not think I was in training but I was. I had to start my weekly long runs and I began this in May. It was my Grandpa’s 75th birthday and my family was up north at our cabin vacationing. It was Memorial Day weekend. Amidst all of the eating, drinking, sleeping and boat rides, I got up early each morning for those 2 days I was there and went for a run. I would be lacing up and the bodies would be emerging from the bedrooms. I was already awake, strapping on I.D. tag, my MP3 player, and my watch. They asked what I was doing. “I have to go run. I am training for my marathon.” I said “my marathon” like I owned it. Like I was the only girl in the world running in it. I think I had to think that way. I had to become part of it. It was not just “a marathon” it was “mine”. At that point, 5 months ago, my weekly long runs were 8 miles. The days of the 20-mile training runs were long in the future.
I ran everyday. I ran in the heat. I ran in the rain. Some days I would run twice, just to get my mileage up. I was not the most intelligent in the beginning of the summer training. Eventually I became to realize that summer was the absolute worst time to train, especially at high noon in the 90 degree 100% humidity. The heat drained me of everything. Days when it was so hot, sunny, and humid I would go out and make it a mile and my only thoughts were stopping to walk. I would have to walk. It was terribly tiring and each day I thought to myself, “I will never be able to run a marathon. This sucks. I hate it. I can’t even run a mile without dying.” I kept pushing. I kept pursuing. I started to run later at night, or at least after the sun went down. I remember one day it was much cooler than what the summer heat usually brought. That night I went to run around 7. I felt like a true rockstar. I felt like a runner again. Twelve miles of time were dedicated to my shoes and the city streets that night and finally it felt easy to run. I wore a smile with each step. I finished and thought to myself, “That was easy. I am back. I can do this.”
Days passed. Weeks passed. Months passed. All filled with miles and hours of time. My mileage continued to increase. My appetite continued to increase. My boredom with my music and my running routes began to increase. My hatred for running continued to increase. I hated even looking at my running shoes. Every song on my Ipod irritated me. September soon came. Sooner than planned. My short running days were now 10 miles and my long runs finally reach 20. I always ran by myself. I could go on my own schedule and one night my schedule for my run kept getting put off. I sat on my couch and listened and watched the clock arms pass. I got sensible at 8 p.m. and realized, “If I don’t get out there and run I am going to be running well into the early morning hours.” I went running for 4 hours that night. After a quick stop at Perkins and a couple gas stations for water, I made it home. It was midnight. I was tired. An expected feeling after just running for 4 hours. I talked to Jessica the next day and told her my most recent running adventure. She commented to me, “You know, I never thought about how much time you had to put into training until you said to me ‘I was running for 4 hours last night.’” A lot is an understatement. It takes more than a lot.
The training month before any marathon is called “Monster Month.” It is the point you reach when you hate it. You hate the running. You want to give up mentally. You never want to run again. You wonder why a person would do this. It is not fun. It is not rewarding. It is a full-time job. Everything you do and think of during the day eventually falls on running. “Should I go run again?” “Sorry I can’t, I have to go run tonight.” “Did I drink enough water today?” “Am I eating healthy enough?” “I am tired from running. I want to take a nap.” “I don’t have time to go to work, I have to run.” “I shouldn’t be sitting all day, my legs are going to get stiff and I have to go run.” I wanted to literally throw in the towel. I could not wait to be done training. Then I got worried. Why was I having these thoughts? I wondered how I could go from being so excited about something to despising it. The article explaining every aspect of “monster month” could not have come to me at a more perfect time. I was relieved after reading it. The facts and feelings expressed in the article were everything I was experiencing. I was relieved after reading further about how these almost ghastly emotions will go away once a runner starts to taper. I relieved myself when I thought of the finish line over and over again. That elusive finish line.
Injuries? One can not forget about the injuries. It is bound to happen. Athletes get injuries, especially after putting such a “beating” on specific body parts. Of course, I am not taped off from the world of pain and injuries, and it happened to me. I feel guilty admitting it but I was almost joyous when I got injured. I was almost joyous when I couldn’t even run a block, or walk down the stairs, or walk for that matter. I did not want to go run anymore and finally I was recommended not to do it. Perfect timing. I had about one month until my marathon so I began cross training to keep myself at the level I needed to be. But what worried me was when it was 3 weeks before my marathon and I took myself to the chiropractor to try to fix me. I even went to see a doctor two-weeks prior to my marathon. After the appointments I found out my body was uneven and I had tendonitis in my knee. I heard many theories and therapies for what was ailing me but I listened to those doctors. I got my back cracked. I stayed off my knee. Just that did not seem like enough so I went to the pharmacy and purchased a bottle of muscle and joint vitamins and a knee band cleverly marketed toward those with “runners knee.” That was me. I was the consumer with “runners knee.” The knee band was talking to me. I bought it. I wore it. I was still in pain. One week before the marathon I could not walk. I could not walk up or down stairs. I could not bend my knee. I could not back down from the marathon. I decided to seriously listen to the doctor and I did not run. Well, that is a lie, I did run 4 miles on the Wednesday before the marathon, but that was it. I felt good. I was ready. I felt no pain. At least I don’t think I felt pain. Maybe I was trying to avoid it. I had no time for pain. But as I was saying, the injury came at the perfect time because I had a great excuse to stop running so much. After I took some time off the thought of going out for a run began to excite me again.
I was ready physically. But mentally I was stressed. I was anxious. I was nervous. I was very unorganized. In between finishing up a busy season at the office, I was trying to get directions, plan times and places to meet and drive and eat and what to do to once we got to Chicago and what to do to pass the time. I woke up every morning with butterflies in my stomach. My heart skipped a beat all throughout the day. I watched the minutes tick past knowing ‘it’ would be here before I knew it and there was nothing I could do to make the time stop. I was excited. Very excited. But after so many months of waiting and the day looming so far in the future, I didn’t think October 9th would actually show up on the calendar.
And then it was the morning of Saturday, October 8th. I was in the passenger seat riding down to Chicago. The city was full of marathon energy. Pedestrians running. Pedestrians in running outfits. Advertising littered the streets and the buildings. The Chicago Marathon surrounded me it was almost Closter phobic. Plans were going smoothly. We had only gotten to the point of checking into the hotel room, but it was a good start. Twenty minutes later the energy from the Expo Hall poured over me. I had my confirmation ticket that was sent to me with specific instructions to bring it to the expo to get my number. I did just that. I gave it to the volunteer and in return he handed me my chip and my race number. I had it all in my hands. At that moment, the world was in my hands. I was not number 346 or 915. I was the biggest race number I had ever had 21,306. Behind me there was a clock with a countdown only 22 hours to go? Great. It was no longer a matter of counting down weeks or days. I was down to the hours.
It was the afternoon of October 8th. I was told to mentally prepare yourself for the monstrosity of what was to take place the following day, you should take a short, slow jog. So, as a good direction follower, we took that jog for mental preparation. We also took a nap. It was in fact my day and I could take a nap if I wanted.
It was the early evening of October 8th. Expectedly, the hours continued to tick away. I, along with the group, needed to eat. After walking up and down and back and forth on the surrounding streets and being turned away by every restaurant associated with pasta, bread, or Italian of anything we found a place to enjoy a late dinner. We were sitting at the table. We were talking. They were drinking. I had water. The meals came and the meals were eaten. We were done eating. And there we all sat. “Are you nervous?” they asked. “Terribly nervous. Because now I know I am done eating and all I have to do is go back to the hotel to sleep and when I wake up tomorrow I have to go and run 26.2 miles.” We could not sit at that table forever, but I certainly wished I could. The group went their separate ways. We ended the night with a shopping bag filled with skittles, gum, water, and then 1 hour of the Sopranos, and 5 minutes of Sex and the City.
My sleeping pattern that night was definitely off. I woke up a million times probably worried that both of the alarms would fail to wake me. I woke up often relieved that I had 4 more hours to sleep. Then 3 more hours. Then 2 more hours. Then it was 5 a.m. We were getting up at 6. The overpriced oatmeal was to be carted into the room at 6:15. The overpriced oatmeal was not worth $16.
“I am not riding in a shuttle. Too many people making useless conversation. I want a taxi.” We got a cab. I do not like making conversation about the events that were soon to come. I just want to silently get there. We did end up sharing a cab, Andrew did most of the talking, with another first time marathoner from San Francisco. He had a goal time of 3:10 Boston Marathon qualifying time. I, on the other hand, could have cared less about Boston or any other marathon out there. I had one marathon right in front of me breathing in my face. And, my goal time was 4:30.
There were so many people runners and spectators of the like. Runners were walking to the park. Runners were in taxis and buses and shuttles. Hoards of people all headed in the same direction. I think I was speechless. There was no turning back. The massive number of people to my left, right, in front of me and at my footsteps were overwhelming. Runners were climbing the security fence to get into their pace starting time. Andrew said, “you can jump the fence over here.” What! I thought to myself. I have to jump a fence to get in? I have short legs and I’ve never been good at jumping fences. He helped me over. I was shaking. I was nervous. I was over-emotional. Not about the fence but the realization that over the fence were 40,000 marathoners. On the other side of the fence were 1 million spectators. He was on one side of the fence. I was on the other. We watched the runners throwing off the unnecessary layers of clothes. We watched the many more runners jump the fence. It started getting even more crowded. It was 7:45. He gave me a pep talk. He told me that it was going to be hard and I would want to quit but just to keep going. He brought tears to my eyes.
Less than 5 minutes to the start. I had my stretchy gloves on (thank you Jessica) and I had my music playing. I pushed pause though. I wanted to hear the noise around me. I wanted to hear the people and the music and the crowds. I wanted to hear the helicopters. I got one last “good luck” kiss and I walked away to my position.
The start gun went off. I did not actually hear it but I heard the yells and the crowd of runners quickly shifted. A few steps and then the entire group slowed up. And we started again and I maintained a very slow jog up to the start line. I remember I was listening to Britney Spears “Overprotected.” Yes, I like the song and it is a definite adrenaline booster for me and probably for a few thousand other girls in the mix. I was passing the people on the other side of the fence. They all watched. I did not make eye contact. I shifted my sight from side to side and to the people and the buildings. I was trying to take it all in. I wanted to remember what I saw and heard at this moment. I spit out my gum. As much as I wanted to keep it, chewing gum was wasted energy. I did not need to waste any energy.
Under the first bridge, probably a mere .2 miles into the race, an unexpected large number of men ran to the side. The concrete walls moistening quickly. The crowds roared and laughed and I giggled to myself. They were lucky. I had to use the “bathroom” as well, unfortunately, that task for me required more than just the cement wall under a bridge.
The entire experience is so difficult to describe. So difficult to put it all into words. The feeling I got when I saw and passed the crowds of people is unexplainable. There were so many signs and cheers and hands clapping. There was so much to take in. I felt really strong. I felt really proud. I kept running and running and running and each time I got to a corner where the crowds thickened I thought to myself about my appearance. Not my hair or my clothes but how my body language and face looked to the millions of spectators. At those moments I felt more than strong. I wanted those people to look at me and feel the same. I wanted to be an inspiration. I wanted at least one person to think to herself, “Wow, that girl doesn’t even look tired!”
I kept watching out for everyone. It was agreed that I would stay on the right side of the road during the entire route giving more of a change to see them. I was eager to see them at any point at least once. I watched especially close at around mile 7, as that was a targeted point for someone to be, if everything went as planned. Once I was nearing that mile I was excited to see someone, but at the same time I knew I wouldn’t mind if they were not there. I think I just needed to know that there was a possibility that someone would be there. That thought kept me going. It kept me looking forward to each upcoming mile.
I say that I did not get tired until I was at about the 18th mile. That is a small lie because I remember at Mile 6 I freaked out a little as I started to get a bit winded and knowing I had just put a small dent in the mileage that awaited me. At this point dwelling on the tired feelings were not an option and I knocked the thoughts out of my head. There was no room for being tired with 20 miles to go.
Water stations came and passed. Songs on my Ipod played, got passed over, and got replayed. I remember the halfway point sign. It read, “You are halfway there.” The hard part was over. Whenever I am running I always dwell on the miles until I get to the halfway point. Once I make it there, I can start counting backwards. It’s a good feeling. I was up on the bridge at the 13th mile and I don’t even remember hearing my name but I quickly turned my head to the right and focused my vision and there were Jackie and Kyle. I couldn’t believe it. I ran over and gave her a hug and Kyle tousled the top of my head. I didn’t talk but Jackie said to me, “Jessica is right over there.” I started running again anxiously looking through the crowd and there she and Ted were, looking for me. Her eyes scanned over the crowd and there I was, standing right in front of her. I gave her a hug and tried giving Ted a hug. This time I talked. It was all so blurry and emotional and I was still listening to music but I looked at her as I started running away and I muttered out, “I am halfway there.” What they gave me if what I needed. No cup of water, Gatorade or hammer gel packet could have uplifted me like the sight of my family.
It all went by quickly. I was surprised once I got to Mile 19. I was surprised at how fast it went by. I remember thinking I was only at Mile 18 and was slightly surprised that the sign up ahead was marked with a 9, not an 8. I started getting tired. My legs were sore, my feet were sore, my arms were tired, I was salty and sticky and I got my 2nd wind miles back. Now I needed my 10th wind. I wanted nothing more to go on but at the same time I did not want to take another step. I had to start walking every now and then. I held strong until the 20th mile. It got tough after that point. Knowing I only had 6 miles to run was great. Knowing I still had 6 miles to run was torture. Fortunately, just like the beginning of the race, the miles continued to go down. I was in a small community on the outskirts of the city when I finally reach Mile 23. That was respectable, I could run a 5K, it was just a 5K. I can do this. A very slow 30 minutes of running and I would be done. One step at a time. I kept looking at my watch. Shit. I was never going to get done in 4:30. My idea of running a 30 minute 5K was not achievable. Well, it could have been achievable if I just ran and ran and ran, but it is hard to get your legs to think the same thing. My legs thought I was crazy and they were perfectly happy trotting along at the turtle-like pace.
Mile 25. There was a water station here. I think I kept running through that one. I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to get done. I was getting impatient. After the mass collision of people at the final water station the greatest moment of the race hit me. It occurred .2 miles after that water station. There was a sign, a big sign (the same size as all the other signs but this one just seemed bigger). It said “1 Mile to the Finish Line.” I smiled. I wanted to scream out “ONE MORE MILE!” One more mile and I was done.
I turned the corner onto Michigan Avenue. I am not familiar with Chicago but I know where Michigan Avenue is and I know that the finish was at Millennium Park, on Michigan Avenue. This mile was taking an eternity fortunately just ahead I could see the mass of people turning into the park. Soon enough I was one of those bobbling heads making the last right turn and up a hill that felt like a mountain. The crowds were thick. The cheering was especially loud. I shifted my path to the left side. I regret that decision now as everyone was at the 26th mile at the top of the hill on the right side. On Saturday night I told everyone I would stay on the right side and in my delirious state of almost being at the finish line I shifted. I think I felt closer to the finish on the left side.
Mile 26. I could see the finish line just .2 miles ahead. There were bleachers all along the last stretch. People sat and cheered and I scanned the crowds. I ran a little faster with whatever was left in me.
Then I beeped. My timing chip crossed the finish line. I crossed the finish line. I stopped my watch. I was done. What now? I felt great. Is this what it felt like to finish a marathon? My legs were throbbing. I wanted to keep moving but the crowd was solid. I didn’t feel like I just ran a marathon. I was angry. I wanted to keep moving. I didn’t want to stand motionless. I wanted some cold water. I got warm water. I wanted to find everyone. For one second I shut my eyes and took a breath. I did not think about what I wanted at that moment. I recollected on what just happened. I just did it. I just crossed the finish line at my first marathon. The Chicago Marathon. I am a marathoner!
Thank you Jessica, Ted, Jackie, and Kyle for coming down and helping me through this amazing time. Thank you for listening to my endless stories about running and training and all that was entailed in my journey.
Jessica, I will never forget the look on your face. You were standing at the “V” in the reunite area. I looked up and you looked up and we spotted each other. Your eyed sparkled a bit and a huge smile came across your face. That was the moment I was waiting for at the finish line. That was the moment I dreamed about.
Thank you Andrew for everything and for giving me “my weekend.” Thank you for your support. Thank you for being there for me. Thank you for being an inspiration. Thank you for being my rock.
Thank you all who were with me physically or in thought for believing that I could do it.
Road Runners Club of America
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