I ran my very first race—a 5K, which is 3.1 miles—on May 14, 1994. The company I worked for at the time was the principal sponsor, so I got a free entry. And I had a bit of a crush on a co-worker who was running it, so I thought this might be a good way to impress him so much that he’d abandon his wife and his well-established heterosexual lifestyle to spend the rest of his life with a barely athletic non-runner who entertained pointless fantasies about converting the non-convertible.
Of course, I hadn’t run a lick to train for the thing, and that short little run all but killed me. Needless to say, the co-worker is still happily married (and—as far as I know—still clueless about that fleeting little crush I harbored). But things have definitely changed for me.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think my pathetic entry into the world of running would grow to a passion and a dedication that would eventually see me running an entire marathon ten years later.
When I ran the half marathon three weeks ago, I gave you a mile-by-mile account of the adventure. The full marathon is a different beast, though—one that plays with your mind and completely redefines the space-time continuum. I have very few specific memories of the race—at least that I could tie to specific mile markers. So instead of a chronology, I offer you a few random impressions and news items:
THINGS THAT MADE ME SMILE
• The people. The miles and miles of volunteers lined up—sometimes five deep—along the course to cheer, hand out water and fruit, hold up signs, and navigate the trains and buses to race ahead and see loved ones more than once as they ran. The people ROCKED.
• The way everyone yelled GO JAKE GO at me. Just like my T-shirt told them to do.
• Rounding the corner from Addison to Broadway in Boystown. This was arguably the BEST crowd in the whole race, and I felt like a friggin’ rock star who’d just won the Nobel Prize and found some really cool shoes on sale as I ran godlike through the cheers and smiles and high-fives. The buzz stayed with me at least five or six miles.
• All the throwaway clothes. Chicago Marathon runners use the iffy October weather as an opportunity to get rid of their old running gear. They layer themselves with the stuff to ward off the morning cold and then just throw it in the road as they get warm. It’s funny in a way, but it’s also irritating for those of us at the back of the pack who have to dance through miles of crumpled sweatshirts. The funniest part was when the siren went off to start the race and the air over the crowd was suddenly filled with flying fashion. (Wow. The alliteration police are gonna bust me over this post.)
• Running by a DJ playing “Y.M.C.A.” and watching an entire streetful of marathoners pump their arms joyously together in those four letters.
• Stupid, goofy signs that people held up along the course. The only one I can remember today said something like Custom-fitted running shoes: Priceless. Moisture-wicking running shirt: Priceless. Water stations every mile. Priceless. This stupid sign that your brother made: Worthless.
• All the runners who came up from behind me to offer congratulations and encouragement after seeing MY FIRST MARATHON on my back. One poor guy, seconds after telling me how well I was doing, tripped over his own feet and made a violent face-plant in the asphalt. I helped him up and offered whatever meager assistance I could, feeling overwhelmingly guilty that I was in some part responsible for his accident. He insisted he was fine, but he grabbed a Gatorade out of his pocket and held it to his hand as a cold compress before he disappeared in the crowd.
THINGS THAT GOT ME CHOKED UP
• Crossing the starting line. I’m serious. I had worked so hard and given up so much time and energy (and social life) and survived so much pain—and I was finally here. I was actually about to run a marathon.
• The people. The miles and miles of volunteers lined up—sometimes five deep—along the course to cheer, hand out water and fruit, hold up signs, and navigate the trains and buses to race ahead and see loved ones more than once as they ran. Their dedication and enthusiasm brought my heart to my throat more than once.
• Watching runners encourage each other—sometimes by even holding their hands or stopping to help people who’d dropped by the side of the road. The constant selflessness I witnessed was at times overwhelming.
• All the runners in T-shirts emblazoned with words and pictures in memory of or in honor of friends and loved ones. Or the bald woman I saw running in a shirt promoting breast cancer awareness. Jesus—it made my goal just to prove to myself I could do it seem petty.
• Seeing my mom and sister at mile 8 and then again at mile 16. They’d gotten up at 3 in the morning to drive all the way to Chicago, navigate the subway and cheer me on amid an endless sea of happy strangers. And I looked forward to seeing them more than anything as I ran.
• Crossing the finish line. I didn’t sob like I’d expected, but I definitely got choked up.
• Writing this list and reliving these memories again. I actually did it. I ran a marathon. I can’t believe it.
THINGS THAT KIND OF SUCKED
• My bad knee more or less blew out at mile 13. I’d been carrying my knee brace in my hand, so I simply strapped it on and kept going. It didn’t make everything better, but it helped.
• The miles after 21. Especially the ones running south along the highway toward U.S. Cellular Field. Every time we approached a bridge, my heart kind of fell when I didn’t see the runners crossing it and heading back north to the finish line. But eventually I reached that bridge. At least I think I did.
• The last mile. It was a marathon in itself. I had to keep reminding myself to pay attention through the pain and savor the experience—especially the experience of running the last eighth mile between bleachers filled with people screaming their encouragement and shared joy over my accomplishment. How often do you get to do that in your life?
TWO FINAL THOUGHTS
• I couldn't find a running partner and I didn't join a marathon training group, so from April to October, I trained for and completed a full marathon all by myself. I'm quite proud of that.
• If you have even a tiny bit of desire to tackle a marathon, go for it. With the proper training (and shoes) it’s actually not so impossible to accomplish. And the feeling you get when you cross the finish line is absolutely incomparable. I highly recommend it. And there’s a good chance you’ll see me on the marathon course, because I WANT TO DO IT AGAIN.