You knew it was coming, didn’t you? Yes the post-marathon blog. Apologies, I know I can be like this guy, so feel free to just move on through. Back to White Sox, Phishy stuff and other bits soon.
Yes, I completed the Chicago Marathon on October 7. It is everything you’ve heard about the marathon experience; grueling, exhausting and fulfilling all wrapped up into one 26.2 mile package. I think the best way to describe myself after the event, besides bone-tired, is that I’ve realized I’m a bit of an accomplishment junkie. As I was finishing on Sunday I was thinking about the next marathon I want to run. There is something wrong with me, ultimately. I like doing THINGS, projects, tasks. Of course I procrastinate like hell on things I SHOULD be doing, but give me a schedule, a deadline, and a goal and I’m all over it. It helps if it is more personal than professional too, work deadlines just don’t track. I love collecting, crossing things off a list, hitting submit, seeing the finish line. It’s weird too that I enjoy the task as much as the end, perhaps more so. As people have been congratulating me, I’m thankful to be sure, but I also feel a slight embarrassment a “oh, it was nothing really.” I had the same emotions after finishing my PhD as well. Honestly, the feeling inside of calmness I feel after the task is what I enjoy the most. When someone praises me, besides just making me feel weird, it also feels like I’m exposed, like they are looking at something very personal and commenting on it and I’m not always ready for that intimacy.
I won’t give you a mile-for-mile account, but there are a few distinct phases of my experience that are worth noting. First is the start, kind of cliché I know. For the first time in a long time, however, I was nervous at the start of an event (I resist the urge to call it a race. I’m not racing anyone, there is no competition). Am I warm enough? Will I finish? Did I eat enough? And many other questions were in my mind prior to the walk to the start line. That walk is one big march of energy and nervousness regardless of the race. People just want to get going! What made this walk even more entertaining than usual was all of the clothes being thrown over the heads of the runners to the sidelines. It kind of looked like a running apparel store had exploded. I’m glad all those disposed clothes made their way to Good Will and the like. Once I actually got to the line and started running, all the nerves were gone. I spent 16 weeks getting ready for this, I was ready to run.
As prepared as I was, this was my first marathon so I decided to stick to the schedule I used during my long training days, 20 minutes of running, 2 minutes of walking. The first hour of that schedule was torture, especially the first break. OH! How I wanted to keep running! All of these people were passing me, my legs were feeling great and there were people cheering for me. I held fast though and watched my timer count down the break. Even with the break, I was a little too fast in the first few miles so I consciously slowed myself down in the next two segments.
By the time I hit Lincoln Park, which looked absolutely gorgeous on this day, I was in a great rhythm and decided to push myself during the next hour. I’m still not sure if this was a good or bad thing. By the time I hit the half-way point, I had recorded my third best half-marathon time, perhaps a little too much energy expended. It is difficult during any race though to rein it in. If there is any competitiveness to a running event it is the feeling that I’m going too slow, even if, or especially if the watch says otherwise. Maybe it’s more of a herd thing. I want to stay with the pack that I’ve bonded with over a stretch of road. Keeping myself in check is and probably always will be a challenge.
After Lincoln Park and a few twists and turns, I saw my family for the first time. They lifted my spirits exponentially every time I saw them on the course. At first it was just great, I reached out and high-fived my son, I don’t remember if I kissed my wife and had a definite spring in my step. As a matter of fact, I missed my twenty minute break by ten minutes I was so jazzed. With each subsequent meeting with my family I was more uplifted and more emotional, practically ready to cry when I saw them in Chinatown in the latter stages of the race. I wouldn’t call it an emotional toll, more like an emotional cleansing, like a sweat lodge or great fast. As the body is put under more stress, deprived, so much comes out in other areas. A great example of this was seeing all of the people who had names of loved ones they were running for attached to themselves. In miles 1-5, I thought it was a nice, cool thing to do; miles 6-10 I wanted to high-five them and tell them how awesome it was that they were honoring their loved one; miles 11-20 I wanted to put my arm around them, encourage them, and if they were faltering, remind them this was for Nana; in the last portion of the race, I just wanted to hug them all, cry and tell them how much their loved ones, whom I’ve never met, inspired me.
It is kind of the same effect with the sideline crowd as well but a little more immediate. In the beginning it is cool. Running through downtown feels awesome, the biggest part of the stage weaving through the skyscrapers, the closest I’ll ever get to playing on a major league field. Lincoln Park is a great respite from that urban landscape and as the field makes the turn into Boystown the surge of the crowd is not just palpable it is inspiring. I WANTED to run faster. I WANTED to live up to the cheers. The crowds down Wells to Adams were a little more spread out, but at certain points pockets of cheering would appear to kind of push us along. The next big surge came in Pilsen. I’ve talked to many folks who have run the Chicago marathon and everyone agrees that Pilsen comes at such an important time. The run down Ashland Avenue is everything the run in Lincoln Park is not. It is an industrial-urban stretch where there are few spectators and little beauty. The turn onto 18th Street into Pilsen is like a great big hug. What’s more it is pretty much continuous through Chinatown.
The letdown after Chinatown was expected and I get why so many people hate the south side stretch. It was so familiar to me, however, that I kind of liked it. I walk on those streets going to White Sox games all the time so it wasn’t this foreign part of the city. In contrast, it was one of my favorite places. I’m also a big “final turn” guy, meaning, psychologically speaking that when I make the last turn of any route I get a lift. In this case turning onto Michigan Avenue and heading north made me feel as rejuvenated as I could be at that point.
The final two miles, well 2.2 miles, were like a wave. At first, turning onto Michigan Ave., the crowd was kind of small, but as we approached downtown and the final right hand turn into Grant Park, the crowd was awesome. Some people came to the aid of loved ones just trying to finish which at that point was enough to make me all weepy. The turn on Roosevelt is the one genuine incline on the route and it comes at the 26 mile mark. I won’t say it felt like a mountain, but it did feel like crap. At that point my legs were so locked into forward momentum on a level surface that even that slight incline made everything below my hips ache. After the “hill” the last .2 felt like a victory lap. I love running between the barriers at the finish of a course, especially if there are bleachers around.
I crossed the finish line officially a little over five hours, but according to my watch it was 4:58:53, almost exactly what Runner’s World said it would be, my half-marathon time doubled plus twenty minutes. The discrepancy in times comes from my rule that potty breaks shouldn’t be counted. If you have a problem with that, you can time your marathon any way you please. As I walked through the finishing area, I’m amazed at a few things. First, I was able to walk reasonably well (let’s not talk about stairs however). I managed to keep moving, get a snack or two and amble to the gear check. Second, I am shocked that I didn’t start crying. As mentioned, even at my most emotionally stable, I can be brought to tears. Being physically and mentally exhausted and seeing others just losing it (I’m a sympathy crier) pretty much is a recipe for me to start crying too. I did get a bit choked up, but I think I was just too tired. Every task had this kind of laser focus; get to gear check; keep walking; text wife and kids; keep walking; take picture; keep walking and so on. Finally, I’m amazed I didn’t throw up, especially after passing the beer truck in the middle of the finish area. Again, it was close. The smell of rancid beer even on my best days doesn’t do me many favors, and after the race I was not happy with the aroma of late-night bar, but I held it together (or held it in I suppose).
I met up with the family, took a picture or two and we made our way to the L then the car. I should have known that I wouldn’t want to eat much, especially the rich, fatty things I had been depriving myself. We made it home and after a quick shower I took a very nice two-hour nap as my son sat and read. I probably should have done something to stretch out before that because when I woke up I felt like I had been beaten up. Even so, I managed to get up, have an almost normal night and get to bed early. Would I do it again? Yep. Overall it was a very positive experience, and not just on race day. The entire process was worth it, at least to me. The preparation was such a great way to push myself, test myself and discover new things about myself. The final 26.2 miles of that journey were a celebration, a party that I got to enjoy with 45,000 like-minded people. Why wouldn’t I do that again?