Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Running a Marathon

I went back to work today after running the Chicago Marathon this past weekend and I wanted to check in with a little recap. But first...let's back up.

I started running races when I was a kid, maybe six or seven years old. At the time the distance was half a mile. My dad would run the full race, probably 2-4 miles, and my brother and I would tackle the half mile with all the grace and enthusiasm two little kids could muster. We would collect our ribbons and medals and head home. I developed quite the stash of awards (many of them just for finishing. Let's clear that up...I was no prodigy.) over the course of those childhood summers.

When I was a kid I didn't really like running very much. Ironic, I know. It felt like a chore, and it always seemed like something I had to do rather than wanted to do. But as I got older and tried out all the different sports that every kid seems to try—gymnastics, softball, soccer, basketball, swimming, the list goes on—nothing stuck. Nothing except running. Maybe it was my lack of balance and coordination in other sports, but there was just something about it that worked for me. I was on the track and cross country teams for most of junior high and high school and somewhere in there I decided I would love to run a marathon someday, but it was always more of a dream than something I thought I could actually do.

The summer before I left for college that dream shifted to a goal. I'm not sure exactly why that happened, but I do know that for the first time in my life, I wasn't running for anyone else. Not for my dad, not for my cross country coach, just for me. And I think it was then that I really fell in love with the sport. I was also about to move into a tiny dorm room with a complete stranger and start a brand new phase of my life. Everything was changing around me, and it seemed like the perfect time to go after one of my biggest goals to date; to run a marathon.

At the time I had never run more than seven miles at once, but somewhere deep down I knew I could do it. I signed up for my first marathon that summer. I remember laying in bed texting a friend who was also planning to sign up, as we waited excitedly for registration to open at midnight. After signing up, my first year of college was spent waking up at 5:30am, quietly getting dressed, and tiptoeing out of my shared dorm room to go for a run. The overnight staff at the dorm must have thought I was crazy. Or dedicated. Or something in between.

I ran my first marathon in June 2009 on a steaming hot summer day. I think it was 95 degrees. I finished in 4:45. My second marathon was a year later, and despite a very sporadic training schedule, I finished in 4:11. A little over a year after that, I ran my third marathon in 4:05.

Until last Sunday I hadn't run a marathon since 2011, and in that time I had completely forgotten just how hard they are. But as I rolled out of bed in the early hours of the morning on Sunday, ate some almond butter and bread, put on sunscreen, and got dressed, I felt ready. It had been 3 years and I was itching to run that distance again.

I left my hotel and walked through the quiet, dark streets of downtown Chicago and boarded the L. It was packed to the brim with runners. We all got off at Jackson and made our way to the start. It was chilly, but there was so much excitement in the air. While I was waiting to go through the security check to get into the runners' start area, I turned around and looked at the city behind me—a city that feels so much like home. It was beautiful in the early morning light.

Chicago Marathon Start // Photo by Lee Hogan/for Sun-Times Media

After entering the start area and waiting as long as possible, I took off a few outer layers of clothing, checked my gear bag, and headed to the start corrals with 45,000 other runners. We waited and waited, collectively knowing that the months of training we put in all came down to these last 26.2 miles, and after the gun sounded we slowly made our way to the start line. The energy was palpable. As we got closer and closer to the start, the adrenaline was building. And began.

As we ran through the streets of Chicago we were flooded with encouragement and cheering, especially in the first half. If you've ever cheered at a marathon before, thank you. Not only is the cheering entertaining, but it also distracts you from your thoughts, which can be a very good thing over the course of 26.2 miles. The first 14 miles I was running Boston pace, averaging between 8 - 8:10 minute miles. Boston has always been my goal. It's every marathon runner's goal. And as I kept going, from mile 15 to 16 to 17 to 18, I started to lose momentum, and I could feel it as it happened. My right foot had been hurting, and then my left knee started to ache. My body was exhausted, and my positive mentality was weakening. But I kept going. I broke up the distance by mileage, by water stops, by when I would take my next energy gel—anything to distract me from how far I had run and how far I had left to go. At multiple points, thanks to unexpected pain in my foot and knee, I wasn't sure I would finish.

Around mile 24 a man passed me and said, "Hey, I wanted to say thank you. I've been following you the entire way." It shocked me that, unbeknownst to me, I had helped someone through the race. And I knew exactly what he meant. There had been times when I would focus on another runner's legs, or their shoes, just to serve as a point of distraction.

The last mile of the race was rough. It should seem easy, right? After 25 miles, there's only a mile and some change left to go. But as the crowds cheered around me and the announcer yelled that we had a mile left, all I could do was look down at the ground and focus on putting one step in front of the other; focus on each hundredth of a mile as they added up on my watch.

Finally, we turned a corner, ran up a slight hill, then turned another corner and approached the finish. I started tearing up, but that caused me to lose my breath so I stopped. I finished and slowed to a very unsteady walk, making my way through the finish corral. My time was 3:42:57. Not Boston, but pretty damn good as far as I'm concerned.

I've heard people say a million times that marathons are like life. And they are. You work hard for them, and most of the time the work you put in ahead of time directly correlates to the results you get. And as in life, you can never quite predict what will happen in the course of a marathon. You can train for it all you want, but sometimes it's going to go worse than planned and sometimes it's going to go better. The best thing to do when the going gets tough in a marathon is to focus on the present; focus on putting one step in front of the other. And eventually, you'll make it.

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