In life there can be many first time experiences that become a special part of our memories. Destined to never be forgotten, they can seem as real today as the day they happened. Maybe the first day of school, your first kiss, the birth of your first child. Very memorable and exciting events. What special memories are forever etched into our minds?
On October 10, 2004 I ran in the Chicago Marathon. At 48 years old it was my first marathon, and even though it was only a few months ago I can remember it and feel it like it is still happening today. What a great experience! It was so intense and so loud! There were people everywhere, they were runners every where, swarming all over Grant Park. The sky was cloudless, the temperature would prove to be ideal. Something big was happening and I was right in the middle of it. I was not prepared for how much fun it was to run in Chicago. It was the best race I have ever been a part of. Chicago measured up to all the advance billing it had received from my peers. But it was also much harder than I ever thought it could be to race for 26.2 miles.
I thought I knew what it meant to run until you were totally exhausted. But let’s face it , how tired can you really get after running a 5K race? Sure you might be able to push yourself far into oxygen debt and make terrible gasping and wheezing sounds as you cross the finish line and fall to the ground on your hands and knees, especially if there is a big crowd on hand. But it’s only 3.1 miles, you can do that race with a half a bowl of oatmeal or just a spoonful of honey for breakfast. The kind of exhaustion you feel after a marathon is a whole different kind of tired. You are completely drained of all physical, emotional, and mental strength. Every muscle fiber in your legs feels totally used up, and they hurt clear to the bone. When you finish the sense of relief is enormous, for some reason it is just as easy to cry as it is to grin. Your brain can finally shut down, the splits, the mile markers, the worrying about the pace, too fast, too slow, too soon, too late, it’s over, it’s all over. Difficult to explain to a non marathoner but every detail of the day has been permanently recorded into your memory . Was it worth it? Oh Yeah! No regrets, it was a small price to pay for the feeling of accomplishment, the validation, the euphoria. Every mile of training was worth it
1.2 million people, really? That’s a lot of people. They all got up just as early as the runners and they came and they waited. Every spot along the route was filled, eight deep in some places along the sidewalks, pushing into the streets, standing on bridge banisters, hanging out of windows, balconies filled to the max. It was a spectacle unlike anything this old farmer had ever seen. The costumes and the signs were outrageous, they came not only to cheer but to entertain us as well. “Run like a Kenyan”, “We love you Daddy”, “Only 25.2 miles to go,” Luke don’t Puke”, “Free beer”, “Today you are all Kenyans”, Only 1 mile to go”. We ran between tall buildings, over bridges, past gas stations and stores, through a park, underneath trees that shaded us with fall colored leaves. The changing scenery and flavor of the different neighborhoods was so interesting it helped to pass the time and inspire the runners. We were on a running tour of the city and everyone was glad you came to their part of town. This was fun!
Just a few minutes earlier I had no idea what was coming up and was getting a serious case of butterflies as I was penned in with a bunch of loonies in the green preferred starting corral. Man these guys were scary. Steely cold eyes staring off into space. What was I doing up here with all these fast runners? It was like soldiers ready to receive General Picket’s orders to begin the charge up cemetery ridge. These guys and gals were stripped down to skimps and tank tops 20 minutes before gun time. They were hopping around and stretching and looking meaner by the moment. I took a stroll forward into the front part of the corral and it just got more intense. What in the world was I doing here? I turned around and headed to the very back of my corral and sat down on the pavement. There was a lot of room at the back, but the runners in the next corral were packed in like a herd of cattle ready to stampede and I am sure they would have knocked that fence down and trampled me if it were not for the National Guard soldiers holding them back. It was chilly and I sat on my cotton gloves, bent my knees up under my chin, and pulled my extra large and red Indiana University sweatshirt over my legs and down to my ankles and waited. I decided to run for a while with the sweatshirt and anticipated with great pleasure when I would get to toss the IU shirt into one of Chicago’s gutters. That was because I was a Purdue graduate of course. Well it was time to hop up and get ready. Two friendly fellows from Florida struck up a conversation and that made me feel much better. Hey I was only two hours from home, so I am not nearly as crazy as these guys.
I had ridden into town just yesterday with a van load of runners that included my sister and her Carmel running buddies. My name had been painted on the windows along with everyone else and our destination, “Chicago Marathon or Bust.” Lisa, Amy, Craig and Lucy and their 12 year old son Randy. These middle aged adults were all veterans of Chicago. But it was to be the first time for Randy and me. Yes, he really was only 12, and yes the rule says you must be 16 to run. But his mom said he really is in great shape and it’s only a little lie. When making the room reservations she said their 16 year old son would be with them also. Lucy said I don’t know why I thought I needed to tell another lie, but it just gets easier every time. It would be her and Craig’s fifth Chicago race together, and even though her doctor told her she should not run on her stress fracture she said she had plenty of pain killers to take during the race. I began to wonder what is wrong with these people?
The race was on, man was that first mile really that slow? OOPS I forgot about the delay, the clocks started with the gun, and I was 36 seconds behind. Relax and enjoy the day. The cheering was great, folks giving high five’s, it didn’t even seem as though I was running but just being carried along by this huge organism with thousands of legs. You don’t get to choose your speed , that is predetermined by the pack, run or get run over. Only 22 miles of training last week, boy did I feel good. Sitting in my 1660 International combine picking corn all week I had run this race many times in my mind. My stomach wasn’t feeling real good, but I kept telling myself you run with your legs not your stomach. Forget about it. But I was still a little worried. You see due to the discovery and treatment of another sister’s colon cancer, it was recommended that all siblings should have a colonoscopy. Due to a busy schedule I was finally able to have the procedure on Wednesday just four days ago. The nurse said oh you’ll be fine to run on Sunday. After getting cleaned out my system never quite returned to normal. The carbo loading routine just never worked out.
Run just run. The farther I went the better I felt. I forgot how good it was to run on fresh legs and the stomach thing just faded away. After 8 miles in 57:11, I felt as though I had hardly expended any energy and was ready to roll. I just kept repeating to myself everything I had been taught by my training buddies. They had all completed many marathons successfully. Dave and Brad and Tony kept saying don’t trust your body. Engage your mind and think. No matter how good you feel don’t run too fast too early. Don’t make a move until mile 15 or 16, there will be plenty of time to run fast. I felt so good, but my pace was faster than I thought I should be running. But how can I crash when I feel so good? What do I know about running a marathon? I had never run farther than 22 miles in training. Quit thinking and just relax and run I told myself.
It was about that point that I spotted Ben and Jason. Of course I didn’t know who they were yet, but I was impressed with how relaxed they ran as they talked and watched their stop watches. They moved along at a very even pace slowly moving through the crowd of runners. It was easy to follow them as they were side by side and I could duck in behind them and follow in their wake. After they discussed their most recent mile split I pulled along side and began a conversation that was to last for the next 14 miles. They were on a 3:10 pace which Ben needed to qualify for Boston. Jason already had qualified but Ben had just missed several times and was determined to make it today. They had been high school teammates and college roommates. Ben had come from Texas to run and Jason lived in Chicago. It was ironic that an old high school teammate of mine who lived in Texas had planned to run today. I stayed overnight in a downtown room Fred had reserved for us, but he had a last minute change of plans and had to cancel. At 11 miles we turned a corner made a slight surge and broke free of traffic. At last we had elbow room and open road out in front of us. It was quite relaxing and the pace picked up as the crowd noise increased. Miles 12,13,14 proved to be the fastest of the race. We headed downtown though the tall buildings and there were so many people and whistles and bells and horns. There were terraced sidewalks with people on several levels. High rise apartments with all the balconies filled with cheering people. It was like running through a stadium of people that lasted for miles. The adrenaline was surging and I didn’t care if bonked, the last few miles were just the best time I had ever had running.
With plenty of room to run we settled into an even cadence three abreast down the center of the street. A little breeze kicked up but it was very welcome as the sun was very bright and it was warming up. At every water stop my partners would drink Gatorade at the beginning and water at the end to wash it down. It wasn’t exactly according to my race plan, but these guys knew what they were doing, so I did it too. Only 2 more miles to my last Gu. During the latter stages of this race it is amazing how much I looked forward to each refreshment of drink or food. You just obsess and focus on it to pass the miles. Some runners say that the marathon is really two races. A 20 mile race and then a 6.2 mile race. I was still much afraid of the last part of this race. I was feeling tired as I expected I would, but I was also way ahead of my hoped for pace due to Ben and Jason. Mile 20 came and went and we just kept cruising along. In fact of the 8 different 5K splits recorded by the chip timers, the difference between my fastest and slowest split was only 32 seconds. A statistic that amazed me days later as I was able to analyze the race.
It was mile 24 that the second race really started for me. I had pulled just a few seconds ahead of my running partners. The time for talking was over and the time of testing was at hand. So this is what the marathon is all about Everyone knows that running is a mental sport. But until you ask your physical body to do something as ridiculous as running for three hours as fast as you can, you have not yet tested your mental metal. It became a courtroom drama with my brain presenting all the reasons why it would be foolish to slow down. All those miles, all those pre-dawn runs, all those cold temps when you ran every day last winter, why can’t you run a little more when it’s sunny and 65 degrees. What will the guys think of you if you croak now? You’ve come too far, don’t fear the pain. But the legs were quick to give a rebuttal. We don’t care, this is one argument you are losing. You’ve got your BQ just survive and jog it in. The legs seemed to be winning with the closing arguments coming up soon. And then I heard him barking loudly with an amplified megaphone standing in the middle of the street. He looked like he was the leader of the last water stop. A youthful African American man with his yellow jacket on pleading with the runners. “You can do it! It’s all mental. You can do it! “ Over and over again he just kept encouraging. Just when I needed to hear it. Any sooner or any later and it wouldn’t have helped. He reminded me that I really could do this. Too bad legs, you lose! I don’t care what I feel like tomorrow I am not quitting. But the best part of the man with the megaphone was my niece was about a half hour behind me and he was right there, ”It’s all mental”, it kept her going too. And then my sister came by an hour later and he was still there, what a cool guy.
It was still a scary trip to the finish line because right after the mental guy there were all sorts of ambulances parked ready to cart off casualties. Tents were set up and there were people lying on the tables. Some limping runners with fast pace times on their backs were struggling , and some had succumbed to walking. It was a long way home. The finish line was great. I still had the presence of mind to raise both arms high in the air for the finish line camera. If not for Craig, the leader of our group I would have completely ignored preparing for the finish line pose. We had practiced in front of the hotel mirror on Saturday. It was a great picture. It’s on the wall and I look at it everyday before I go out to run.
When the day was over and we had finally began the trek south to Indiana, it was great to relive the race from each runner’s perspective and compare stories. After about an hour’s ride it was time to stop for the traditional Steak and Shake meal and ice cream treats. As we wheeled into the parking lot Lucy pulled out a handicap sticker and hung it on the mirror and told her hubby to park right up front next to the door. I wasn’t a bit surprised because by now I was used the web of deceit that seemed to surround this family. Being a first timer I also didn’t know that I was supposed to wear my shirt and finisher medal home. All the customers gave quite a stare to these hobbling and grimacing folks wearing medals as they made their way inside. Some one made the mistake of asking did you ‘all run in that race up in Chicago today?
My advice for anyone planning to take on their first marathon: Run a lot, practice your pose, and borrow a handicap sticker.