Don’t call it a comeback.
“Don’t call it a comeback …”
LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” blared in my headphones as I ran down Green Street near mile 2 of the Illinois Half Marathon, and I pondered the sentiment.
All along, I’d been thinking of this race as a comeback, my return to distance running following nearly seven months of ongoing injury and rehab. But maybe LL was right. Maybe this actually wasn’t a comeback because, like Mr. James Smith, I been here for years.
And then the song continued:
Don’t you call this a regular jam
I’m gonna rock this land
I’m gonna take this itty bitty world by storm
And I’m just getting warm
That’s it right there. This race was not a comeback; it was a warmup, a precursor of things to come. You guys, LL Cool J is a goddamn genius.
In the week or so leading up to the race, I’d started experiencing pain and tightness in my right Achilles. Sweet. Just add it to the list of jacked-up body parts caused mostly by compensating for a bum left hip for months on end. My physical therapist showed me how to tape it up with Kinesio tape, which helped immensely.
My left hip flexor was stiff — typical — and I did my best to stretch and stay warm in the corral before the race. No small task, as it was a windy and an unseasonably cold morning in Champaign-Urbana. I also was bewildered by the pre-race DJ’s stylings. At one point, he played “You Can Call Me Al” and “Graceland” back-to-back. A Paul Simon rock block? Um, OK.
I then spied a guy with a “My First Marathon” bib pinned on his back, and tears began to well up in my eyes. Moments later, it was time for the national anthem, sung by University of Illinois women’s a capella group Girls Next Door. Cue the waterworks. (Also, cue me getting even more jazzed for “Pitch Perfect 2,” in theaters May 15!)
And speaking of waterworks …
Here Comes the Rain Again
All week, the forecast for race morning was calling for rain. A 100 percent chance of rain. There was no way we weren’t going to get rained on. The only questions were, how early would it start and how severe would it get?
Thankfully, the rain held off until pretty much the exact moment the race began. I’ll take it. Once you’re actually running, the rain doesn’t matter so much; what really sucks is standing around in the rain and cold before the race even starts.
The sprinkles turned to drizzle, and the drizzle turned to steady rain around mile 3. By that time, I didn’t care. I was already warmed up and in a groove. Soon enough, I was soaked completely through my clothes and shoes, though my shoes never felt squishy (I successfully dodged all of the big puddles). I could see the water rolling off my cap, and I silently mocked/lamented the poor saps who did not wear hats.
Every so often when the course changed direction, a gust of wind would take my breath away and chill me to my core. But otherwise, the rain didn’t faze me DURING the race. More on that later.
Stretch It Out
I knew this race was going to be another “reverse PR,” and honestly it was the first half marathon I’ve run that I truly did not care about my time. All along, the purpose of this race was to finish and, most importantly, to finish without limping across the line. So while I did wear my Garmin, I only looked at it when it chimed at each mile. I stayed steady, but that damn left hip flexor was still feeling stiff. I walked through the water stops, and I stopped three times to eat my Shot Bloks, drink water and stretch my hips and calves. And I’m so glad I did.
Apparently, I am the only one enjoying myself at the finish line.
After my final Shot Blok at mile 11, I took stock of how I felt. Overall, I felt great. My cardio was strong, my Achilles was much less tight and the ol’ left hip pain was bearable. Then I saw the football stadium, and I realized two things 1) I was getting close to the finish, and 2) I was super effing stoked to finish inside a college football stadium. My iPod Shuffle must’ve read my mind because it delivered the perfect trio of songs to finish: “If Rap Gets Jealous,” “99 Red Balloons” and “Shut Up and Let Me Go.”
The last mile, I picked up the pace — A LOT — and I was surprised by how fresh my legs felt. I turned the corner to enter the stadium, and wouldn’t ya know it, I got a little misty-eyed again. Then I broke into a dead sprint as I hit the grass. The finish line was at the 50-yard line, and cameras projected the finish on the stadium scoreboard. I threw up double horns and smiled my face off.
In fact, it might be the most joyful I’ve ever felt at a finish line.
By the time I retrieved my finisher’s medal and a space blanket, the men’s marathon winner was entering the stadium. Perfect timing!
The next challenge was ascending a flight of stadium stairs to reach the post-race food. SO CRUEL. I can’t even imagine how the full marathon finishers climbed those suckers. They had the concession stand in the stadium concourse set up with food — bananas, pretzels, granola bars, cookies, pizza and pasta — and it was a bit of a cluster in there. You know, just like stadium concourses always are on game day.
The eight-minute walk back to my car was brutal. I was soaked to the skin from running in the rain for two-plus hours, and my space blanket wasn’t helping whatsoever. Though, it did come in handy to cover me up while I awkwardly changed out of my dripping wet clothes into dry ones in my tiny Ford Focus with the heat on full blast. In no time, I had completely changed outfits without flashing a single person in the U of I stadium parking lot. Success.
I was responding to messages with my frozen claw of a hand and saw the runner tracking texts for my two friends, Elaine and Kelli, who were running the full marathon. I had about 30 minutes to dry off and warm up before heading back out in the rain to cheer them on. Again, I say, perfect timing.
I threw on my neon yellow raincoat and made my way the three blocks north to the 25.6-mile marker of the full marathon course. There were no other spectators on this stretch, only a couple race photographers, and the marathoners were coming through almost one at a time (it was a small race). It had been years since I’d spectated a marathon, and I have to say, it was just as enjoyable if not more so than running my race. I clapped until my hands hurt and called out runners by name.
“Looking good, looking strong!” “You’re getting close, less than half a mile!” “Keep pushing, you can do it!”
Around 10:30 a.m., a minivan pulled up and the woman inside told the race photographers, “they’re cancelling the race and asking all volunteers to clear out.” The three of us exchanged puzzled looks, and just then, a crash of thunder sounded. But the runners kept coming, so we stayed put, too.
Every time I runner thanked me for being there, for telling them how close they were to the finish, for standing in the rain, I almost burst into tears. I’ve been on the other end of that exchange so many times, it never dawned on me how it would feel to hear those thank yous. It felt amazing, just as amazing as it feels to have a spectator cheer your name when you’re THISCLOSE to finishing a marathon. It’s a symbiotic relationship, runner and spectator; we both need each other.
I saw my friend, Kelli, and jumped in to run with her for a minute. I waited and waited for Elaine, but somehow I missed her, because I got the text alert that she had finished. And still, I stayed out there in the rain.
The sky opened up and the steady rain turned into a downpour, so I scurried back to my car. I flipped on the radio and heard the news: Yes, the race had, in fact, been cancelled due to severe weather and several lightning strikes in the area. They were asking runners to clear the course and seek shelter while buses were sent around to pick people up. Crazy. All told, about 500 marathoners didn’t get to finish the race.
My heart ached for the people who didn’t get the chance to finish and for those to endured despite the less-than-ideal conditions, but my heart soared for the people who did finish — including myself — and endured despite the less-than-ideal conditions.
Man, I love races. — Mags
- Illinois Marathon today. Netflix marathon tomorrow.
- Why is everyone running? Should I be concerned?
- The university really took advantage of its captive audience, and during one boring stretch around suburbia development hell, it placed signs every 100 feet or so bragging up U of I graduates’ accomplishments. (i.e. “PayPal, YouTube, MRI. You’re welcome.”) I read every single sign. Brilliant strategy, Illini.
- But by far the best was a spectator near the first water stop at mile 2. He was dressed in an old timey vendor’s outfit, paper hat and all, with a serving tray strapped around his neck. As the water stop volunteers called out “water!” and “gatorade!”, he called out, “Cigarettes! Runners, get your cigarettes here!” I laughed for about 5 solid minutes afterward.
The expo was small and not much to blog home about, save for a couple things.
- The “Why I Am Running” Wall. It’s just what it sounds like — and I get weepy just thinking about it.
- It was held in the University of Illinois’ Athletics and Recreation Center (aka ARC). Co-mingling with the students simultaneously made me feel like a college kid again and like an old lady.
- The race shirt is the EXACT SAME slate gray Nike Dri-fit that was used for the 2014 Chicago Marathon. However, at least this one has some semblance of a design. (Can you tell I’m still salty about the weak-ass marathon shirts?)
- I love the bag it all came in; yes, it’s another drawstring backpack, but this one has a separate small zip pouch and mesh on the back, perfect to use as an actual gym/running bag. Oh, and it’s bright orange. Bonus.
- The finisher’s medal is dynamite. At first glance, it just looks like President Abraham Lincoln kicking it Lincoln Memorial-style. On closer inspection, you’ll see that he’s rocking running shoes and a racing bib that says “Abe 2015.”