The drawback of telling everyone your goals and dreams is that when you fall short, you do so publicly.
All year, I’ve been talking about trying to earn a Boston Marathon qualifying mark at the Chicago Marathon. I trained harder than ever, put in more miles and more speedwork and more literal blood, sweat and tears than ever. I learned a lot, I grew as a runner and a person, and as a happy byproduct, I recorded personal records at every race distance along the way — 5K (twice!), 8K, 10K, 7-mile and half marathon (also twice!).
I did my very best to prepare both mentally and physically, and while I had my doubts, I trusted in my training and confidently toed the starting line at Sunday’s race — my fifth Chicago Marathon — with a perfect combination of confidence, patience, joy and focus.
When the 3:35 pace team disappeared — why, pray tell, did the pacers NOT carry signs with them during the race? I’ve never seen that before. — I didn’t panic. When I realized my first mile had been 30 seconds too fast, I slowed down. I used the 3:40 pacers (also sans signs, but they did have “pacer” handwritten on the time bibs on their backs) to start steady for the first five miles before making my move to a slightly faster pace.
An intense pain in my outer left hip hit me around mile 9, but it didn’t slow me, and by mile 11, it was all but gone. I could already tell that I’d have a bruised toenail on my right foot. Eh, whatever. I momentarily lost track of which aid station I was *supposed* to take my Shot Bloks and ate one too early. Oh well. Better than too late, I thought.
The miles were clicking by and at each marker I would check my watch and then my pace tattoo. I was between 70-90 seconds off my 3:35 target all the way — which was just what I had planned with my slower start. I made it to mile marker 22, feeling confident. I told myself, “Only 4.2 miles to go. It’s just 35 minutes of your life. You can do this.”
The Agony of Defeat
And seemingly, just like that, a searing pain in my left hip overwhelmed my body and began to infect my brain. It was becoming difficult to keep my stride and fatigue was coming on. I decided to take 30-second walk breaks at the aid stations, to drink my entire cup of water slowly, carefully, and then start running again.
The miles were not clicking by quickly anymore. I soon became enraged by every song on my playlist and kept skipping to the next one. I would look up, hoping the mile markers on Michigan Avenue would become larger, but they still looked so tiny and so, so far away.
I checked my watch and the seconds, minutes were adding up too fast. My No. 1 goal, 3:35, was long gone. My No. 2 goal, 3;37, gone. My No. 3 goal, 3:40 — the absolute limit on my Boston qualifying hopes — was slipping away.
I was fighting off tears and trying to repeat my mantra — “it’s only 10 minutes out of your whole life, you can do this” — but the pain became unbearable. I finally reached the turn onto Roosevelt Road — and the wretched bridge hill that I knew was waiting for me at mile 26. It was going to require everything I had left to propel myself those final .2 miles into Grant Park.
I made it a few steps up the bridge but then I had to start walking. My entire left leg from hip to toe was rendered utterly useless, and my back hurt so badly that I couldn’t stand up straight. I was hobbling along like a car with a flat tire, veering off to the right, trying to steady myself while on the verge of collapsing from pain and exhaustion. At that moment, a stranger pulled alongside me. She looped her left arm through my flailing right arm and said, “Come on, we can do this.” She said it with a calming confidence, and I’m not sure I believed her, but I picked up my feet and started to shuffle along with her anyway. A few seconds later, she unhooked her arm and told me to keep going.
I made it a few more steps before stumbling into a George Romero-era-zombie-like-walk-thing. A volunteer approached me. “Ma’am, are you OK?”
“I’m gonna finish!” I shouted through clenched teeth as I choked back the tears. If I fell down, I knew they would haul me off the course, and there was no way in hell I wasn’t going to cross that goddamn finish line.
A second volunteer approached me. “I’m gonna finish!” I said it as much for my benefit as for hers.
And then I broke into a run. I had to. That’s just what you do, you RUN over the finish line, no matter what. My arms flailed wildly and I swung my left leg around as best I could while hunched over and wobbling with every step.
I finished the race.
And I missed qualifying for Boston by 24 seconds.
Immediately after crossing the line, a medical volunteer, Chris, was at my side. He put his arm around me and grabbed my hand to steady me. I was still drifting to the right, and the dizziness hit me hard. He led me to get my finisher’s medal and some water. He asked me questions to make sure I was lucid and to assess any potential injuries, but all I remember saying was, “I just couldn’t do it. I had it. It was right there. I just couldn’t do it.”
We reached the medical tent, and Chris passed me off to a small army of medical volunteers. They led me to a cot and helped me lay down. Nurses and med students surrounded my bed, covered me with hospital blankets and elevated my feet on a box. They gave me water and Gatorade and potato chips and took my vitals. Nothing to worry about, I was just dizzy, dehydrated, physically destroyed and emotionally defeated.
One of the students pointed to my left arm. “Cool tattoo. I’ve never seen one of those before.”
I looked down at the 3:35 pace tattoo. “It’s kind of a mark of shame right now,” I sighed before explaining my near miss.
Fifteen minutes later, a med student checked my vitals again, and I was ready to try sitting. The nurse, Andrea, pulled me up as I swung my feet over the side of the cot. For the first time, I looked at my medal. And I started sobbing.
Andrea sat down on the cot across from me and held my hand. “I know you’re disappointed and I know it hurts, but you still accomplished something great today.”
After a few minutes, I stood up and walked around the tent, and this time, I could stand up straight and I didn’t feel dizzy, so they signed my discharge papers, and Andrea walked with me to the exit.
Take a Bow
Every couple minutes during the slow, painful march back to the Palmer House Hotel — where my American Cancer Society Team DetermiNation post-race party was happening and where my friend, Jennifer, was meeting me — I would burst into tears. I couldn’t believe I had worked so hard for so long and come so close only to fall short.
I reached the hotel, and Jennifer was waiting for me. On sight, I began crying. She enveloped me in a huge hug and told me she was proud of me. After a few moments of ugly crying, we finished ascending the stairs, and a chute of ACS volunteers welcomed me with a chorus of “congratulations!” and ringing cowbells. When I walked in the hotel ballroom, everyone applauded, and I took a bow. (From now on, I would like that to happen every time I enter a room, please and thanks.) For the next hour, I abandoned my pity party and tried my best to revel in the actual party happening around me.
When I got home, I fielded dozens of text messages and phone calls and Facebook notifications. I attempted to process what I had just gone through and cope with the intense physical and unyielding mental anguish. I broke down in tears again and again.
Hours later, following celebratory beers and burgers with friends, I finally got the courage to look up my official results — and I lost it all over again. 24 fucking seconds. I had it. I was right there. I just couldn’t do it. I replayed those final miles over and over in my head. I should’ve been stronger, I should’ve pushed harder.
And then, before getting ready for bed, I composed the following Facebook post:
The drawback of telling everyone your goals and dreams is that when you fall short, you do so publicly. Today, I ran my fifth Chicago Marathon, and ultimately, I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do. And while I know that time will help that wound heal — and motivate me to try again — it’s still difficult.
But in the end, I believe this day served to remind me of the good people in the world. From the incredible support from my friends (especially Jennifer, who drove all the way from Cincinnati just to meet me at the finish line), to every spectator who yelled my name, to the stranger at mile 26 who looped her arm into mine and helped me start running again, to the volunteer who steadied me when I thought I would collapse after I finished, to the nurse in the medical tent who held my hand while I sobbed and told me that I still accomplished something great today.
Yes, I fell short, but I didn’t fail.
What happened next amazed me.
Almost instantly, dear friends and vague acquaintances, runners and non-runners, were posting comments, and each one of them lifted my spirits. Their words were filled with support, compassion and above all, love.
And the kind words just kept coming — and the tears kept coming. But now, the tears were not of defeat and disappointment, they were of inspiration and gratitude. And then late that night, I returned to the results web page.
3:40:24. Holy shit, Maggie. You did it. You fought. You finished. You ran faster than you ever have. You overcame obstacles. You inspired people. You DID accomplish something great today
The next day, every conversation I had about the race helped me gain more perspective, and seeing a dozen brutally honest and horrifying finish line photos – the zombie shuffle, frame by frame, in high definition — showed me just how close I was to not finishing at all.
Yes, I’m still very disappointed that I didn’t qualify for Boston. But I have no regrets. Some things you simply can’t prepare for, and we can only push our minds and bodies so far. I did my best, I finished, and that’s good enough. With every passing day, I become more thankful for the experience, and I become more motivated to give my goal another shot.
In the end, it turns out the best part of telling everyone your goals and dreams is that when you fall short, you do so publicly. And everyone helps you get back up again. — Mags
- My aforementioned friend, Jennifer, really knocked it out of the park on friendship. She drove the 5-plus hours from Cincinnati to Chicago on Saturday afternoon. Sunday morning, she hopped on the El to see me at mile 8, hopped back on the El to see me at the turn onto Roosevelt (and witness that carnage first hand), went to the medical tent after being relayed the message and just missed me, then went back to the hotel to meet me there. She took the dry clothes out of my gear check back and shoved my gross race clothes into my backpack after I’d changed. She drove my car home and walked my dog while I took an ice bath. And then she drove the 5-plus hours back to Cincinnati to go to work Monday morning. She is my hero, and I cannot thank her enough.
- The people in Lakeview/Boystown know how to spectate. You can tell the difference between people who ONLY come out to watch THEIR runners and the people who come out to watch RUNNERS — and the fans in that neighborhood are of the latter variety, and I love them for it.
- I gotta say, the race organizers really dropped the ball on both the race shirt and medal this year. The shirt is SO BORING — dark gray slate with the corporate Bank of America Chicago Marathon logo and NOTHING MORE — and the medal doesn’t even have the exact date on it. What’s the deal?
- Five stars for the marathon’s medical tent staff. Honestly, while I was laying on my cot I thought to myself, “Well, maybe this is a good thing because I’ll have something new to blog about!”
- For the first time ever, I had zero chafing problems! Shout out to my Athleta Hullabraloo sports bra and Body Glide on the valiant no-chafe tag-team effort.
- Thanks again to American Cancer Society Team DetermiNation for all of the support throughout the year and for the outstanding pre- and post-race perks. Top-notch in every way. Oh, and no big deal, we all raised a combined $1.2 million. Suck it, cancer!
- I also couldn’t have run that fast for that long if not for the training and guidance from the stable of Chicago Endurance Sports coaches and runners. I’ll be back.
Signs I Loved
- “I’m just trying to cross the street”
- “When your legs get tired, run with your heart”
- “You’re not cool unless you pee your pants (while running)” with corresponding Billy Madison photo (Side note: If peeing your pants while running is cool, consider me Miles Davis.)