[Note: This is an old essay, from when I ran 'shod' but I haven't ever published it anywhere else, and I thought folks might enjoy]
I didn’t sleep very well the night before, though I went to bed early. Getting up while it is still dark, and cold, I’m not hungry, though I know I’ll need some energy later, so I gnaw on a bagel as my mom drives us into town. At first there aren’t a lot of cars, but then gradually more and more appear, and I start to get an idea of just how many people are running in this thing: Traffic gets clogged. I check my watch and make a back-up plan with my mom that if we can’t park in time I’ll just get out and meet up with her later. But we make it into a designated lot and get out, joining the lines heading north to Grant Park. People everywhere. No cars. The whole city of Chicago shut down to traffic for this Sunday morning, and just that alone makes the entrance fee for the race worth it.
I say goodbye to my mom so she can get going over to a good spot along the course. Unfortunately, we don’t plan a specific spot or time along the course to meet, so I don’t ever see her, though she will see me run by briefly, but with no time to take a picture. I sit in the grass in the park, trying to stay warm until people start to line up. Including my running shoes, I’m just wearing a long sleeve shirt and cut-off camouflage shorts, cotton by the way, and the temperature is in the low 50s at most. When a crowd starts to form at the starting area, I join them, if only for the radiant body heat, though we’ll wait there at least a half-hour standing up. I’m back in the ‘open’ section, with the folks who have no hope or desire to do anything but finish. There are time markers posted every twenty-five feet or so, that say 10:00 or 8:00, referring to how fast of an average minute mile people think they’ll run. Since this is my first marathon, and I basically just train by running times units (as in run for an hour, or run for two hours) I have no idea where I should be, so I decide to hang out with the ten minute folks.
I feel very out of place, which I like: Everyone is wearing their running shorts and wicking shirts, with their ‘bat utility belts’ full of sports gels and other goodies. I have long hair, and have decided to not pull it back, in order to feel more wild, but that, plus my cotton clothes, are things I will regret pretty soon, and mark me as an amateur. Still, I kind of like the idea of being oddball. I’m just spent a summer as a wildland firefighter, where getting dirty and suffering physically is a regular day. I want to show people you don’t need all that fancy stuff to run a marathon. Famous last words.
It’s never clear when the race officially starts. Some guy gives a speech we can’t really hear through the loudspeakers from the PA. We just hear cheers from up front as the wheelchair guys start off first, then a few minutes later a louder cheer, a roar, as the competition class runners, the insane Kenyans and all those guys, start their twenty-six mile sprint. A Van Halen song starts blaring, why Van Halen I don’t know, and it ends and we still haven’t started moving! Then the roar spreads to our area, we roar ourselves, starting to move, and Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell” begins to play, sending shivers up my spine: The lyrics are actually about running out of fear of getting killed, and I’m not sure the organizers know that, but it does bring out the primalness of the race, of running in general. That first Greek guy didn’t run those 26.2 miles for fun, he ran to warn a city about an invading army.
After that brief moment of creepiness, the fun begins. Finally, we are moving. Everyone is smiling, looking around at the people cheering us on, full of energy. I’m running fast, pumped on adrenaline, passing most people, dodging in and around them. I probably should have started farther up, in the 8:00 minute mile group maybe. People on the sidelines are screaming and waving. For us? Crazy. And yet, 35,000+ people starting out on a 26.2 miles race in the middle of Chicago does lend itself to an infectious energy to anybody there. It is kind of amazing that that many people have come together to challenge each other, and to help each other fulfill that challenge.
It’s not until mile 10 that I think to think about whether I should be tired or not, and even then I tell myself I’m not and keep going for a couple more miles. At mile 12 or 13 though, I do start to feel it. That’s about the farthest I’ve ever run regularly. As part of my training, I did run 17 miles once, a month before the race, to push myself a little, but 12 miles is a lot and I’m usually exhausted afterwards. I’m slowing down, the tide is changing. Instead of passing people, people are passing me. Here is where the mental stuff starts to get to me, the doubt, knowing I am not even halfway. But around this time, two hours in, a buzz starts to go through the runners: The first runners have finished! What?! In two hours?! That’s insane! That’s like...under a seven minute mile for 26 miles I think. It hurts my head to calculate it. It hurts my body to think about it. I am a pathetic wimp to even think about stopping! Onward!
Another thing that helps me keep running is the other people, both the runners and the spectators. The runners for the most part are your standard-looking people in pain, but some of them have gone out of their way to do something unique, like the guy who runs the whole race holding a Green Party sign. You have to admit a Republican or Democratic voter wouldn’t have done that. Then there was the guy dressed as a fancy waiter, in a tuxedo, carrying a tray with a full drink. I only saw him at the beginning so don’t know if he made it the whole way. He passed me though. I also like that a few people, actually they are all women, are wearing white t-shirts with their names on them. It’s ingenious really, because it gives people on the sidelines, who don’t even know them, a chance to shout specific encouragement. I wonder if there’s a certain point where that becomes annoying, like ‘Just let me run in my own private pain,’ but so far it seems to help.
Speaking of the spectators, it’s surprising how excited and encouraging they are. They probably came to cheer on someone they knew, but something happens, you can see it in their faces, they’re kind of amazed, and they start cheering everybody. Many are holding cool signs that say stuff like RUNNERS ARE HOT!! or YOU ARE ALL KENYANS!! Then there are some who go farther than that, like the group of guys dressed in cheerleader outfits, with purple wigs and matching pom-poms. Or the weird girl, who seems on drugs but who is probably like that all the time, standing right in the middle of the oncoming runners picking out people and saying stuff like, “Good job guy with a crew-cut. Good job girl with red shorts. Good job long-haired guy.” (That last is me.) Plus the person in the alien costume holding the sign saying, YOU EARTHLINGS ARE CRAZY! At least, I think it’s a person in an alien costume....
And the music. All the bands playing along the course that unfortunately we runners only hear about one minute of. But the fact that they volunteered to come out and play on a Sunday morning, probably for free, is amazing. And it’s all styles: The mariachi band, the traditional Chinese drummers (along with a New Year’s dragon!), Scottish bagpipers, an Elvis impersonator, plus lots o’ rock bands. Even one heavy metal band, who seem a little out of their element, but I catch the lead singer’s eye and give him the devil horn sign to let him know there are some old metalheads in the crowd.
Also let us not forget the volunteers at the drink station who help pass out drinks and offer words of encouragement. There are cub scouts, girl scouts, school groups, church groups, and just tons of individuals standing there holding out plastic cups of water and Gatorade, or orange slices and bananas to anyone stumbling by. If they ever thought it was a thankless job, let me assure them it is not. We may just be too dead to take the time to say thank you. They are so encouraging, and put in so much time and effort, that I would feel guilty for stopping and disappointing them.
But, despite all that, eventually I do start to consider quitting. I had heard about “The Wall” at mile 20, and it’s true, it happens, though my personal Wall seems to be at mile 19 for some reason, perhaps in anticipation of Mile 20. But whatever, it hits me. I think to yourself, ‘Why the hell am I doing this? I don’t need to prove anything. Not to myself and especially not to anybody else. Who cares about some dumb medal at the end?’ My body is in pain, I’m penguin-shuffling along not much faster than a walk, and it seems so easy to do just that, to walk, to walk back to my car and go home and take a nice warm bath. At that point in the race we get into the south side, where there are less people. No more bands, us runners are more spread out, though we’re still a fairly constant stream. Some local people, dressed up for church, have to scurry across the raceway to get to their churches, looking at us like we are crazy. And the race brings us partly up on the highways, where everything is more open and I can see more space, and I just feel more on my own. Which is maybe how it should be somehow. But it’s hard. It’s damn hard. I keep going though, because another part of my brain is rationalizing: “It’s only six more miles, five really. You can run five miles in your sleep. Five miles is nothing! And you have everything to prove to yourself!”
We head back north and enter a long tunnel, which is fitting, because by then I am getting tunnel vision anyways. Here is where I hear maybe the weirdest but coolest music, just one lone guy standing there with his guitar, strumming out a slow minor key tune. I don’t know why, but it seemed the most appropriate somehow, and it gives me some kind of calm energy boost.
Out of the tunnel, we’ve got maybe a mile to go. Other people are different, but I always keep a reserve, and normally, when I know that the end of a run is in sight, I give everything I have left. I’m not sure if I have anything left physically, but mentally I tell myself to go for it, speeding up out of my trudge-shuffle to a regular run, starting to pass people again. The mile markers get more specific. One kilometer to go! A quarter mile! I can see the park now, and stands full of people, there’s music and cheering. This is it! Only a quarter mile? Let’s go out strong!
I try to vaguely sprint, but it’s like my body almost doesn’t know how anymore. My legs will just not lift up. I concentrate on the fact that I can normally always sprint a short distance like that, so I do. I pass rows of bleachers and a roar goes up. For me? Not sure, maybe. It’s for everybody. Whatever, it pumps me even more.
And there’s the finish line!
I did it! I’m not even a Christian but Holy Mother of God I did it!
I slow to a walk, but we don’t stop. The crowd is gone and walls on both sides keep us shuttling forward. A man, a doctor or EMT, is standing in the middle of the flood of runners, checking faces for signs of exhaustion maybe, to make sure nobody keels over and/or has a heart attack. Embarrassingly, he stops me and asks me if I’m alright. I say yes, but I realize maybe I’m not: I really just want to lie down on the pavement right there. Surely people would respect that and step over me. But I can’t, we’re still being funneled along, down a narrower chute, which gets backed up even more by race employees on wooden boxes handing out medals to everyone. People surround them, jumping and grabbing for them, it’s kind of embarrassing, so I don’t even take one. This day was for me, I don’t need to show others I did it.
More funneling. A beer stand (Ugh, why would someone want to drink a beer now?) then back out into Grant Park, where the alphabetical meeting areas are, so the people dragging your corpse home can find you. I just want to sit down, but I’m scared if I do that my muscles will tighten and I won’t be able to straighten my legs again. At the same time I’m trembling, hobbling, starting to feel even more pain. Never did I suspect I used so many different muscles in running. My legs, my back, my arms (!?), everything stiff. And all those places where my soaking wet cotton clothes rubbed against my skin for four hours? Raw. Even, Jeezuz God!, my nipples and other embarrassing places! Listen to me now and believe me later guys, lube up before the race! The one surprising thing is that I have no blisters on my feet. They are about the only places on my body that feel alright. How is that possible?
My time is four hours and seven minutes, which is more than fine with me. I’m just happy to have finished. My mom finds me. I was worried she would be bored waiting around for me, but she had a great time walking around with all the people. We walk back to her car and I can see the race from the parking lot still going on: Still a continual line of people showing no sign of stopping. The streets are officially opened up after six hours and there will be people finishing even after then. In a way, I admire those folks more than the crazy Kenyans.
Then home. I can barely get out of the car. All my muscles have now frozen. It’s a painful effort just to step up on the curb, and thankfully there’s an elevator in my mom’s apartment building.
And a long hot bath.
And maybe not the next day, but soon, after my body starts to forget how much pain it has been in, I start thinking about doing it again.