Sunday, October 11, 2009
I knew it would be hard. I knew I would be pushing my limits. What I didn't know is the marathon would prove to be one of the most fun experiences ever - and that I could hold a beaming smile on my face for more than 4 hours.
People always told me that training for a marathon is worse than the marathon itself. And while putting in the necessary miles takes plenty of planning and time, I quickly became accustomed to pounding the pavement, doing extra loads of sweaty laundry, and building up a great library of iTunes for running music. Running was built into my routine and I had courses mapped out with different mileages all over my neighborhood. I watched my body become different, stronger….and I felt powerful…until about 5 weeks before the marathon, when a routine 10 mile run ended early with stabbing pain in my right knee that knocked me flat. I could barely limp back to the car because it felt like a knife was working its way under my skin. It was my IT band, and it was angry. That was the end of my long-distance training. My longest training run before that had been 15 miles, and now my injury limited me to cycling, icing, and stretching before the big day. My dreams of completing my first marathon in less than 4 hours quickly changed to praying I could limp faster than the sweeping truck at the end of the race. I figured I had 6.5 hours to get this done.
Chicago on October 11, 2009 was an unusually frosty day. The alarm goes off at 4:30 am and we get to the subway station at 5:15 am. A lot of marathoners are starting to gather and one guy is wearing a full banana costume. Come on, if a banana can run a marathon, then so can I, right? A non-runner with dreadlocks looks around the station and says, "Wow, I really respect you guys. I could never run that far," and takes a drag of his cigarette. The Banana Guy says, "Yes, you could do it."
Temperature was in the low 30s and was different than any sweltering day I had trained in. I didn't bring warm clothes and had to buy that plastic jacket thing they sell at the expo. My friend and I hung out in a nearby hotel lobby for warmth and I watched runners mill around with that familiar look of anxiety and determination.
I stripped to my shorts around 6:40 am and lined up in the 10-minute mile corral group, right in front by the separation rope. The sun was rising, the air was crisp, and I was looking at my knee and wondering just how far it could take me. Minutes before the gun went off, runners started shedding clothes; pants and sweatshirts were flying in all directions. My legs had been uncovered for almost an hour, and they were red and frozen. BANG! Cheers erupt and we're off. I crossed the start line only about 8 minutes after the gun went off. People were starting to jog before the actual start line, but I refused to exert any extra energy until this thing was officially started. I just so desperately wanted to finish and to be able to wear my marathon shirt with pride.
The first 2 miles were landmines of discarded clothing and my eyes were on the ground, carefully choosing my steps. The moving mass of runners headed under the overpass and screams and hoots (including mine) echoed off the cement walls. This was it! I was running a marathon!
What a spectacle those first few miles were! Before even Mile 2, men were running off the course to relieve themselves on the sidelines; nearby trees appeared to be swimming in urine.
I tossed my jacket at about Mile 6 - I had finally warmed up and now I wanted spectators to be able to see my shirt with my name printed on the front. Immediately, I heard my name shouted: "Go Erica!!!" "You're doing great, Erica!!" I couldn't have wiped the smile off my face if I tried. I didn't feel low on energy, but took one of my GUs because I wanted to get one in every 6 miles for fuel. By Mile 8, I ran passed a girl I had met at the hostel I was staying in, so it was nice to see the only familiar face I had in the city.
I was in complete bliss through Mile 10. Time sped by and I was just soaking it all in. I had figured I could at least make it that far before my legs started arguing with me, and my knee continued to be mercifully silent. I wondered how long it would be before I was forced to slow to a walk. The crowd was a never-ending distraction and I enjoyed reading their signs. My two favorites were "26.2 Miles = Medal" and "Toenails are overrated!" I had to agree - I had lost three of my own.
I crossed Mile 15 and said out loud, "You've never run farther than this in your life!" I thought of my fiancé through that entire mile, just like I promised him I would.
By Mile 18, I swallowed my third GU and was finally ready for my iPod. Still no complaints from my knee and now I was running to the beat of "Sexy Back", although I was far from feeling sexy. My gloves were full of snot and my nose was raw.
Around Mile 19, my left calf started feeling tight. It didn't hurt terribly, but I wasn't going to risk a major cramp towards the end so I stopped for a few seconds to stretch it out. I couldn't believe my knee hadn't started hurting yet. Maybe it was still numb and frozen? I walked for maybe 45 seconds a few times to give my calves a break, but I quickly realized that running didn't hurt any more than walking; it was just a mental battle.
I passed Mile 20 and gave a cheer. TWENTY MILES!
By Mile 23, someone yells out, "Only 5k left to go!" and it was the longest 5k of my life. Amazingly, I never hit the dreaded wall or felt like I couldn't continue. There was a slight uphill at Mile 26 and then it was all bliss again. True to my sprinter background, I kicked in a pretty good stride to the end as I heard the last shouts of my name. I finished in 4 hours, 28 minutes. I thought I would cry as I received my medal at the finish, but there was no room for tears, just pride.
We made it back to the hostel several hours later. Just a tip to all the traveling marathoners out there: hostels are wonderful and cheap places to stay for a marathon, but please don't make the mistake I did and reserve a bed in a dorm room. I was physically unable to climb up to my top bunk bed and instead collapsed in a dirty bed on the bottom bunk and laid there feeling nauseous for 4 hours until the maid service came in to clean the room.
The next day I packed my bags and flew to Peru, where I met my fiancé for our vacation. We hiked the 4-day Inca Trail exactly one week after my marathon, and my silly knee never said a dirty word.
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