I have fallen in love with the Chicago Marathon — and the city of Chicago — all over again.
Each marathon has been incredibly special in its own way, and No. 4 proved to be more emotionally powerful than I even imagined.
For the first time, I didn’t stay in a hotel downtown the night before the race. Instead, I tossed and turned in the comfort of my own bed, eyes popping open with a gasp of fear every 90 minutes until my alarm went off at 4:05 a.m.
I walked to the El platform before sun-up (when many Chicagoans were just stumbling home from another wild Saturday night). Every person on the train was either wearing a bib number or holding signs in preparation to spectate. At each stop, more runners and fans piled on, and my heart swelled with joy and excitement. I love Chicago.
While walking from the train to the start line, I noticed a very tall runner with a British accent asking a volunteer for directions. He had the same color bib as me, so I told him I knew where to go and he came with me. Dave was from the UK, coming off a PR in London earlier this year and running Chicago while on holiday. Together we navigated the new security lines at the entrance gate and to the gear check tents, where we parted ways. (He went on to finish in 2:44. NBD.)
(SIDEBAR: A big to-do was made about the marathon’s increased security measures, but honestly, it made everything run much more smoothly. There was zero question of where you had to go and how to get there. And with no non-runners allowed in the start and finish areas, it was far easier to maneuver your way around. In my opinion, the race organizers knocked it out of the park on their first try. In making things safer, they also made things more efficient. Win-win.)
While standing in the C corral before the race, (my half marathon PR last year was JUUUUST fast enough to qualify me), the speakers kept cutting out. It was super annoying, especially while the national anthem was being sung. But rather than chatting and making fun of the technical difficulty, runners in my corral began singing along. By the time “the land of the free and the home of the brave” came around, I was among those singing their hearts out with tears in my eyes. I love runners.
Then we were off.
A couple weeks before the race, I made the conscious decision completely forgo a time goal. I ran without a GPS, stopwatch or pace tattoo. I did not run with a pace team. I wore a simple wristwatch and listened to my iPod. I ran at a comfortable pace — not easy, comfortable — and decided to let the chips fall where they may.
And goodness gracious, what a glorious day it was. Picture in your mind the most beautiful of fall mornings, sunny and crisp with a slight breeze, changing colors and 45,000 of your running friends surrounding you as 2 million fans cheer you on. I can’t think of anything better. I love this race.
Beautiful as it was, it was still rough. This marathon put me through the ringer, mentally and physically.
At mile 10, my hips and feet began to ache. By mile 17, I was in full-on waist-down hurting hell. It was at that time I also started to have another ache: in my stomach. The rumbling had begun, and I knew I couldn’t fight it forever. But seeing as how I had already let go of worrying about my time, I quickly decided to take a pit stop at the next aid station. Sweet relief! And it only cost me about 90 seconds off the clock. Onward!
Mile 20 lasted an eternity. Only an hour left, I told myself as I winced with each step. I just want to not be running anymore, I lamented. Then the opening bars of “Suburban War” by Arcade Fire piped through my earbuds, and instantly, I was overcome with emotion. Truth is, I specifically put that song on on my playlist to induce that reaction. You see, for years, that song has signified strength, perseverance and determination, thanks in large part to this amazing video (warning: you will probably cry). So the tears came, as predicted, and I made the pledge that I would not stop again, I would not walk, I would finish strong no matter what.
Of course, the pain did not go away or even let up; it just kept spreading. Lower back, hips, knees, calves, ankles, heels, toes. I made it to Chinatown, but as I continued on into the quieter, more industrial part of the course at mile 22, I had to dig deep. And that was when my music did a lot of the heavy lifting for me.
First, it was Florence + the Machine reminding me the “Dog Days Are Over.” Tears.
Then, Matt Stone and Trey Parker got me fired up. “America, Fuck Yeah!” Laughter.
LMFAO, the Michael McDonald-led Doobie Brothers, Macklemore, Fitz & the Tantrums, An Horse and Toto were all there. And then Lil Mama showed up with her “Lip Gloss” at 25.5. “Whachu know ’bout me?!?” I rapped aloud with fervor as my legs picked up speed.
I turned the corner to go up the bridge at Randolph, one of the lone hills on the flat 26.2-mile course. You know something? That bridge ain’t shit. I conquered it in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and in 2013, I officially annihilated it (with an assist from Santigold and Karen O).
I put my hands on my head and sobbed as I limped toward the row of volunteers with beautiful blue-and-red-ribboned medals. The woman next to me gave the volunteer a gigantic, exuberent hug; it made me cry even harder. I love this sport.
I slowly but surely completed the post-race gauntlet of space blankets, water, snacks, beer and finisher photos, and eventually retrieved my clear, race-issued gear check bag. I left Grant Park to walk back to the El, where I proceeded to put on a clinic in going down stairs backward. I rode the Blue Line back to my home stop and soaked everything in.
The train, once again packed with runners and spectators, was exactly where I wanted to end my race day experience. A symbol of this city I love, full of people united by the event I love even more. — Mags
- Nearly stepping on a dead rat in the gutter near mile 3.
- Grabbing water from my friend Lisa, who was working the aid station at mile 5.
- Spotting friends Kendra, Anne, Jane and Pat all within a half-mile of each other near mile 8.
- Soooo many cute dogs.
- Hearing “We Like to Party” by Vengaboys in Boystown. Blast from the past.
- The Charity Cheer tunnel gets bigger every year, I think. Amazing.
- TEAMSTER CITY! WOO!
- Pilsen party. Actual thought in my head: Mmmmm, tacos sound awesome.
- The Nike #OWNCHICAGO sign from the expo on display near mile 24.
- The Mariano’s box-o-snacks at the finish line.
Signs I Loved
- There’s No Time For Walken (accompanied by this photo of Christopher Walken)
- What’s your favorite scene from Battlefield Earth? (I literally cannot think of anything more random to put on a sign. Well played, sir.)
- Honk if you love running!
- I’m just here to see if Sean Astin shits himself (He didn’t, and you’ll be glad to know Samwise Gamgee finished in 4:31:05. Woohoo! Too bad he didn’t show us his horns. Maybe next year, Sean.)
- Pain Now, Malort Later (If you’re not from Chicago, you probably don’t know what Malort is. Consider yourself lucky.)
- Yeah, Bitch! (accompanied by two floating Aaron Paul heads. This is a “Breaking Bad” reference, for the uninitiated. Also, this sign was actually my idea but executed to perfection by Bad Angel and 2012 Chicago Marathoner Will, who rocked the sign at mile 16.)
- Accio Finish Line! Apparate to the Finish Line! (Harry Potter references get you top scores in my nerd book.)