So it’s been a while. There are things I should have written about, but haven’t, because I was in a funk.
This is going to be a long post. Of course, running related, and emotional. And if you want to read it through, please do of course. But this one is, more than the others, for me. To remember as much of this experience as I can.
First, it has been quite a season of running. I joke that I simply have poor impulse control but that’s actually quite true. Every weekend since September I have had a race – and generally, a half+5k or a full. (When you have recovery and taper at the same time….)
There was the Bird in Hand 5k and half, where the miles flew by because I had the rare experience of doing the entire half with someone who not only was at my pace completely, but whom I really, really like as a person and enjoyed spending every minute with! Then came the Canada Army Run, and I did the Commander’s Challenge, which meant a 5k and a half, back to back. That experience deserves its own post, because Canada, and Ottawa, and this race in particular – were some of the best experiences I have ever had. (These races were so hot though – 87 degrees and 93 with the heat index.) And meeting my Canadian friends in person, at last! But I’ll save this for another blog. Racing in Canada – being in Canada – was so sweet and satisfying. The following week was the Jimmy Fund Boston Marathon Walk, which turned out to be a 93 degree marathon. Even though it’s billed as a walk, I ran some of it. This is the Boston Marathon – the route, and the same RD. For me, the meaningfulness was in the course. The best part – aside from feeling how it feels to run (or walk) every step of the Boston Marathon and helping the Jimmy Fund – was spending the weekend with a good friend whom I don’t get to see very often. And then there came Wineglass, which is always a wonderful time (with the added karaoke event this year!). Wineglass, though, for all its components being truly perfect, including my own race, has ended for me the past couple of years feeling badly about myself. I can’t explain it.
Back to Chicago marathon weekend. There was so much more about the weekend as well. It was about the marathon and then it wasn’t about the marathon. It was also about people whom I love. People with whom I got to spend time beyond the marathon. It was celebrating a friend’s milestone birthday, my Elsa. That was amazing. I’m so glad I was able to celebrate this with her and to meet the people close to her in her life! One of my very favorite people whom I see every so often but whom I have never got to spend time with the way I got to this time. I got to be a part of her world in a way I never have been able to before, because I got to spend so much time. Thank you for that, Jennifer and Marc! And then to see other people – some I’ve known in real life and others not until now. It was amazing. People I would who were in the race, but whom I would only really ever see outside the race, because they were so much faster than me. And being a part of Marathon Maniacs. This isn’t my first full since becoming a member, but it’s the first time I got to join up before the race for a photo. (Too bad I was with the group on the wrong side of the fountain and we ended up missing the official photo, but we did get a different one together.)
And, we did the International 5k the day before the marathon. It was amazing. It was a 5k but it was also so much more than a 5k. It was the happiest race I’ve ever run and loved the experience. Everyone was so… happy. The joy was palpable. People from countries congregated and ran in matching kits and with flags. People walked and ran and stopped for selfies and to gawk at the really impressive Chicago architecture. (It really is super nice – where DC has torn down the old stuff in favor of severe glass and steel, Chicago’s is still there, and beautiful.) Running along the lake. Grandparents walked it with young grandchildren. Families of marathon runners did it together. The weather was beautiful. The sun shined. Everyone stayed out on the course – the water, the photographers, the medals. The scarf we got as swag was absolutely beautiful. It was so nice. The weather was perfect. Running along the lake was amazing and beautiful. Everyone was so friendly and the people who were course marshals and water stops were out there the entire time. Even the photographers were amazing. And then we got medals too! It was hands down probably the best 5k ever.
And then I got to speak a lot Twi of all things. Twice. The night the bellperson who brought up our rollabed was from Ghana. My uber driver the night of the marathon when I went to the restaurant for Jennifer’s party was from Ghana. It was the coolest thing because I got to really spend time speaking it with them – not just the basic greetings. It has been a long time and it was so very cool.
And it poured on Friday and Saturday night and on Saturday night we were treated to the most gorgeous rainbow.
Which leads to the Chicago Marathon.
I went in thinking I should have deferred this race. I was tired and worn down, I wasn’t really super excited to run this marathon. I felt like I should have savored and spent more time on my other races. And every weekend a new bag to pack and new stuff to do… it’s a lot. (And not just for me: massive kudos to my husband Chris, who held down the fort, caring for the dogs and the house – no small feat with our crew – as well as holding down two jobs.) I didn’t defer, mostly because I wanted to spend the weekend with my friend Jennifer, who was turning 50. Spending time with Jennifer, going to the expo – I began to get excited.
I tried all different things this time. I’ve turned into a 10-hour marathoner, give or take, and yet I can finish a half in under 4, so there’s no reason why it takes so long for me. I crash and burn toward the end, and before I went to Chicago I solicited advice from running experts (who are basically friends of mine who are runners). So this race – it was flat. I put in a new fueling strategy. I did intervals for a big chunk. I also had the advantage of running with someone, which doesn’t necessarily make me faster but makes the time seem to go by so much faster!
I got to run with Denise, a friend with whom I have shared much (the NYCM finish line, the run4allwomen, the Women’s March in January 2017) and another back of the packer. I found her at about the 5k mark, and we ran the rest of the 37.2 km together. Part of this description I’m about to give you – it was her idea. She said it, “our race is not your race”, and she’s completely right. She took photos to document what it’s like to be there at the very end of the runners.
The marathon experience
When you are in the far back of the packer like I am, you are running very different race. My point is to give a picture of how it IS to be at the back, something most people have no idea of and would never ever consider. What I want to do when I point out about losing support – is two things. One is just to create an awareness and an acknowledgement that this exists. That we exist and this is what it’s like for us. I have a friend who is an amazing marathoner. He BQ’s and everything. A couple of weeks ago, he passed me in his full when I was at about mile 11 of my half, and I had a half hour head start. We were talking about this and he was genuinely surprised at my experience – the entirety of it, how we do it, how we handle it, how long it takes. I want people to know about it (and respect it, and not disparage it). Second, if I “want” anything, it’s for people to think about it, people who are in a position to do something about it. Maybe at water stops that are breaking down, leave the water that’s already poured on the sidewalk. Or leave the jug and a stack of cups like they did in Chicago. Just little things like that.
One of the things Denise and I talked about during our 8 hours together, were things things most people will never know. For example, how demoralizing it is when you are APPROACHING an aid station and they SEE you, and they dump out tables full of water and hydration onto the street (they flip the tables over). Is that really necessary? The water and cups are already out, just leave them out! Why waste it! Even leave out a couple of jugs and some cups.
Chicago, its people, its police, and its marathon on-course folks were really good to us back of the packers. It seemed like we were handed off from neighborhood to neighborhood by the police and by Tim the course director. God, I loved him. He was amazing. But probably for me the biggest surprise and difference from NYCM were the regular people. This group around mile 4-5 – yellow shirts, with “26.2 You Run, We Cheer” on it – really cheering us on. They were absolutely great.
Other experiences on the course: Seeing Suzanne, who is a legendary four-time finisher/walker of this race and who was so encouraging and welcoming to me, and also Alan, who is a quadriplegic, walking with his guides and support team. Getting hugs from people I didn’t expect on-course, people I knew from Facebook who now are real-life friends.
And we passed people! We. Passed. People.
And we got lost and had to backtrack. Yes, we got lost. That thin dotted blue line was awfully faint in places, and moved all over the streets.
And the strangers and regular people on-course. The police officers who stayed out after the park area directing traffic, even yelling at the drivers who tried to pass through while the course was closed. The women who stayed out for us at mile 6-7 or so, handing out Twizzlers, pretzels and chips. The people who offered sports drinks and the woman who stayed out long after her aid station closed up – she got them to let her keep a jug or two of water and a stack of cups. The people who were dining along the route as we passed by maybe miles 9-11 or so – it was a gorgeous day and outdoor seating was packed. And we were all alone and running past, and someone would see us, and it would start a chain reaction and everyone would be cheering for us, shouting encouraging things and… it was like a wall of sound. The Wall of Sound I never got to hear in NYC off the 59th St. Bridge and probably will never hear – I got a flavor of what that would have been like here. My Wall of Sound. And then the diner who beckoned us over and offered us his water glass. HIS water from HIS meal as he was dining. He figured we might need it and he offered it. And then the waitress who came over as we were drinking, told us to hang on a minute and returned with big plastic cups full of ice water to take with us. I can’t express enough what this kindness meant to me. The kindness, yes, but also the recognition and the desire to enable us to reach our goals.
Later there were other people. There was the man with a booming voice and microphone and music and a woman who was helping him – he kept shouting encouragement and saying we were “walking with purpose”. (Actually I was still running, but it was so slow that probably it looked like walking!) We took a photo with him, he was so awesome.
There was the woman who was sitting all by herself, with a spread any ultra race director would be proud of: pretzels, Pringles, candy, blueberries, cantaloupe, water, other drinks. When we thanked her for staying out, she replied that she was staying out as long as she felt she should stay out. She had a World Vision sponsor tee, and we told her some of the World Vision walkers were behind us – we’d passed three or four of them at that point. We gratefully ate the sweetest melon I think I’d ever tasted, and took some blueberries. At least that was the idea. She gave us the entire pint! I think they sustained us for three miles.
That’s how it all went, actually. Despite being outside the time limit and all official aid stations dismantled, we found support every couple of miles.
This is the only race I have ever been complimented by the police on-course, on my tan!
We stayed on the streets and dodged the sweepers and garbage trucks. Big, blue, loud tanks. Empty streets other than the two of us, and eventually these behemoths.
There were police and overseers and Tim (bless his heart) looking our for us (cold water, pretzels, sunscreen! He said I was getting burned and could he put sunscreen on me, and sprayed me with it!). I remarked a few times how nice everyone was and how easy it would have been for them to boot us to the sidewalk, but they didn’t. It’s something, when you are weaving between the different trucks and street cleaners along the way, it definitely adds some mileage! They made a point to look out for us and never once said to move to the sidewalk, they gave us the dignity of working around us. Not until they reopened the streets did they do that, and so for most of it we were able to stay enough ahead of that, that we got most of it done on the street. As such, we were able to get to mile 15 without being put on the sidewalk, which is really great. It was also a BIG help. We were lucky because the asphalt really was much more forgiving than concrete. The concrete sidewalk is much harder on the feet and legs than the asphalt. (A lot of the problem with my crash and burn, I think, is basic pain from fatigue and soreness – the amount of time, added to concrete, added to standing at stoplights etc. – it’s a challenge! But one I will meet EVERY time.)
Denise and I, we are slow, but we are experienced marathoners who know how to manage our race. Therefore, although we are slow, we were never in any physical danger. Except for maybe bee stings and eating flies. I think the people from the race whom we were dodging on the course, knew this and understood this and that’s a lot of the reason that they were so supportive. I think human nature wise, They saw what we were doing and were supportive of it. I wish I knew what happened to the 10 or so people that even we passed. There were at least four different women at three different points that we passed between miles 10 and 18, in orange Worldvision shirts. There was a guy all in navy blue tee shirt and shorts, a woman who had a quick pace and was very thin, but ran almost backward leaning as she ran and walked, she checked in with medical tents along the way and kept going, after passing them I didn’t see them again, but I lost them both somewhere. There were 3 different people from H corral and L corral whom we passed, they weren’t wearing metals and didn’t have heat sheets, they just seemed to be hanging out. Where happened to those people?
We entered the University of Chicago at Illinois area. I was really excited to see Hull House!
Then there was the guy in the college area in the bar by the no-glass window opening who was apparently yelling at his buddy across the street as I ran past. He yelled, “the marathon is over!” – so I looked right at him and said, “no it’s not!” He smiled and said it was aimed at his friend across the street and told me to keep going.
And then there were more, even after we went to the sidewalk and they reopened the roads. The women who gave us cut-up pickles. The people sitting on their steps in Pilsen as we ran past – just doing their thing in the late afternoon but cheering us along when they saw us. The blueberry woman who drove by us later on, shouting encouragement. The police who encouraged us along the way, the kids at university-area bars. And intermittently but perennially, Tim. The last time we saw him, he gave us peanut butter pretzels and more cold water, and we took photos. He took photos, I should say – he took pics of our bibs and said he’d find us through our bibs and send it to us. (Tim? Paging Tim here….) The women in the big unofficial aid station at mile 20 – they had everything. Cut up oranges – in tiny ziplocs so we could take them with us! Pickle juice shots in tiny to-go cups so we could take them too. They were in such wonderful spirits it buoyed us for the rest.
It had to. It got a little ugly after that. Needing to stop and stretch. Sidewalks and pain. Street light delays. We probably would have been half an hour faster without the street lights to wait for to cross the street! Not that nine hours is a record, but it would be for me these days and half an hour less on my feet – I wonder if they would have done better. I had an ugly cry before turning onto 33rd, and another one when it seemed the distance to go up Michigan Ave to the finish was neverending. And in contrast to how it was during the course, the finish was almost the opposite. The finish line in Chicago was a completely different experience. Nothing like staggering up Mount Roosevelt just before dusk to turn onto Columbus and be screamed at by people breaking down the scaffolding of what was once a finish line, now gone. To finish on the sidewalk because they won’t let you cross under what’s left of the finish line and then have to ask where to go and is there any water (to say nothing of medals or anything else), only to be yelled at to go away, that’s not their department, the race ended hours ago, you don’t get anything. Eventually we found the right people, hanging out – a race person and a volunteer who was staying late, and got water and metals. Honestly, water. This should not have been a hard thing to find. Anyhow, we finished, Denise and I, every step, and extra since we got lost and had to backtrack to get back on the course. However, you wouldn’t have seen us in Monday’s Tribune. You won’t find us in the official results because they stopped recording them. We knew this and that’s okay.
I get very emotional. I can speak only speak for myself but I don’t even have words to explain what it means to me when I see or read or hear other runners who don’t need anything at all and finish with no trouble, acknowledging our struggles and validating my race and finish as opposed to those who say it isn’t a finish, I don’t deserve to call myself a marathoner, I’m not a real runner, because it takes me longer. I’m seriously sitting here on the sofa bawling at the compassion of others. But still, even though I crave the validation after the fact, in reality I don’t do this for that. The race is for ME. So I can lament that I didn’t have support, which is not an entitled complaint that I should – it’s just being sad that I’m not fast enough to. But I also revel in the fact that I also know they can’t kick me off a sidewalk, and I know that in the races I choose, I will full well either be prepared to be by myself 100% and more, because I KNOW that I will lose support (I firmly agree with statements and waivers and acknowledgements that if I continue and am late, I will lose support) – or else I will choose races, as NYC and Chicago, that I know there will be bodegas where I can buy hydration and fuel as needed. I’ve done urban fatass 50k’s and done that, and that’s also what I’ll do in training sometimes.
In the time since this event, there have discussions among friends about the back of the pack folks. How some people would like to support them and ideas of how to do that. There are some places where people already exist who do this – I love the finish line final mile folks, I met someone in Ottawa who does this in Canada. I was thinking it would be so great to have cheer folks like the group in Chicago, on the course and maybe organize them into two shifts, if they wanted: the first shift, maybe 4-5 hours (they could overlap), they could tell them, this shift will have the majority of runners. They will be running fast and you’ll see most of the runners, but most will run on by appreciating your cheers as they run. The second shift, maybe another 4-5 hours (they could overlap and it all depends on where in the race, obviously no one needs to be out at hour 8 at the 6 mile mark), and they could tell them, you’ll have a lot of downtime. You’ll have a lot of quiet time and the runners who come through may be absolutely uninspiring, they might be walking at this point. They might be so slow. But you can bet that they will be absolutely so appreciative of your being there. They may cry, they may hug and sweat all over you. I can tell you how it feels when it’s all gone, and how it feels and what it’s like when you finish and there’s actually something there (or along the way) and you are heralded for your efforts. One thing I’m not sure of with regard to implementation is how to know who’s still out there once tracking goes off and it gets dark, support is lost, etc. I was afraid in NYCM last year that they wouldn’t know, and would close up. But they did, and they didn’t. But know that if you volunteer to do this prepare to get messy: you will likely be hugged by salty and sweaty bodies, and also cried on by emotional and grateful finishers.
I have to say, in the ongoing-during-race miles, Chicago was much more encouraging than NYCM was. I’m one of the late ones. Last year I finished New York at 9 pm and I know I wasn’t last. I had friends I knew there for me and a couple of friends whom I didn’t really think would be but were. After miles of aloneness, of sidewalks as you said, of getting lost because that blue line is hard to see in the dark, after being trolled by kids in Harlem and police in the Bronx (“the race is over. You lost. Go home”) – both times, true story… finishing TO something and someone who makes you feel like what you just did is a celebration… it still makes me cry. Thank god NYCM keeps the finish line up and people stick around to give medals and ponchos and after race bags. Imagine in Chicago, what a difference even a couple of cheering people would have made to us. And we weren’t even last. In comparison to NYCM, at Chicago the race folks breaking down the finish line, or what was once a finish line but isn’t anymore, just a bunch of scaffolding were semi abusive people screaming at you. Like New York, where you don’t count as official for the New York Times or for giving you an official time, Chicago is the same way. But in New York, they do record your number when you finish and know who you are, and you still can get a finisher certificate (and they’ll count it for the 9+1). In Chicago, I don’t think there was any keeping record it all at the finish line as to who crossed, if they cross late. Which is really super interesting, because of the way we were looked out for and encouraged all along the Chicago route much more than in New York.
Maybe one day I will be faster. As I said, there should be no reason I can’t be. But if I never do, I need to be okay with what I do now, even if it’s not like anything anyone else does.