Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The marathon of broken dreams

My lowest point was in mile 16. I’d been alternating between running, walking and staggering since somewhere after mile 7. I’d passed at least three waterless water stations. My head was light. My mouth was sticky and dry. I was about to cross the bridge where my mom and sister had cheered me on in earlier marathons when I looked down and saw an ice cube sitting right there in the street. I looked behind me to make sure there were no runners about to plow into me, and then I squatted down and I picked it up. And I put it in my mouth.

* * * * *

So the 30th annual Chicago Marathon wasn’t the triumph everyone had hoped for. And while all but a handful of runners are out of the hospital and many runners are still angry and I genuinely feel sorry for the first-timers who trained an entire summer without getting to cross the finish line—which is a thrill that’s hard to equal—I think the race organizers did the right thing by canceling it. Though I don’t for a second buy their story that they ran out of water because they hadn’t anticipated runners pouring it on their heads. I’ve run probably 40 races in my life, and unless it’s cold out, everyone pours water on their own heads.

The marathon was canceled at 11:30, but I didn’t get word until well after 12:30. I was struggling along at mile 18 at the time, and we were told to keep moving along the course, which was taking us farther and farther away from the finish line. I limp-walked almost to mile 20, along the way chatting up a guy from New Zealand who decided to keep on running and a woman from Paris who stuck with me until we finally saw a bunch of runners exit the race course en masse against the instructions of a couple of cops and we decided to follow them. We’d walked at least a mile past little clusters of collapsed runners when a school bus pulled up and offered to drive us to the finish area. I had my camera phone with me, but instead of taking a picture of my new French friend and me on the school bus, I for some reason took a far more boring picture of the space over the driver’s head. But now that I look at it, I see that our angel of a driver had a name: Mrs. Lewis
* * * * *

Truth be told, I was thrilled when I heard the race had been canceled. I’d spent the previous two painful hours working up the courage to convince myself it was OK to quit. I weighed the benefits of getting out of the sun and quenching my undying thirst vs. the thought of having to tell people I couldn’t finish. I thought about all the people who’d paid a lot of money to sponsor me. I thought about sick and injured people who would give anything to be able to get up and walk, much less run a marathon. I wondered what it would feel like to collapse of heat stroke. If it would hurt. If I’d even know what was happening. I worried about not getting my medal.

But while my lips were dry and numb and my vision was sometimes blurry and I was light-headed and unable to keep a linear thought going in my head, I kept soldiering on. I also decided that if I did quit, I’d wait for the fiancé around mile 22 and run/walk him in. And if he looked like he was on the verge of collapse, I wasn’t going to tell him that I had quit so he wouldn’t think quitting was an option.

* * * * *

Heat exhaustion does funny things to you. You get light-headed. You get wobbly. You get goosebumpy and shivery. You get irrational about how miserable you are. And when your bladder gets too full and you finally find a bank of porta-potties and you reach in your running shorts to pull out your usually man-sized penis—and this is going to be waaaaaaaaaaay too much information for a lot of you (Hi, Mom!)—you discover that it has gotten cold and pale and it’s shrunk to the size of the last bone in your pinky. And you actually have to stretch it out to give you enough flesh to hold onto so you can pee with some rudimentary semblance of aim.

Since I’ve already broken down the pee wall, I’ll take the topic even one more level in the direction of inappropriate. Our trainers have reminded us all summer to monitor our urine to make sure we were properly hydrated. Urine that was too dark or too pungent was just as worrisome as urine that was too watery. But when the fiancé and I got home from the marathon and I dug in my shorts for my now-normal-sized penis (whew!) and I went to empty my bladder, I discovered that I was so dehydrated that my pee felt like pudding on the way out. And there was precious little of it. And more than 72 hours later, I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m thirsty. Though I’m peeing like normal. In case you were worried.

* * * * *

This was supposed to be my easiest marathon ever. I wasn’t injured. I was pooping normally. We weren’t running in last year’s crippling cold. I had just gotten a really good haircut. I was finally going to beat four hours. Matthew and Justin and I were all smiles at the packet pickup on Saturday:

And when we woke up Sunday to cooler weather than we’d been bracing ourselves for, the AIDS Marathoners were giddy with anticipation as we gathered in the charity village before the race:

My pace group was all smiles as we waited to take off in the marathon crowd. Even cute little Ryan was all confident and smiley, though for some reason he decided to spray his hair orange before a long, sweaty run in a hot, sweaty marathon:

The crowd of runners was thick, and we collectively raised the ambient temperature before the race with our tightly packed bodies:

If you look to the vanishing point of the crowd in front of us, you still can’t see the start line from where we waited:

By the time we reached the starting line—21:45 after the gun sounded—the winners were probably already at mile 4 and the temperature had gotten decidedly muggy:

I lost Matthew (and his camera) around mile 7 when I hit my wall. But not before I accidentally knocked an old lady to the ground at mile 5 as she stupidly tried to cross the street when the runners were at our thickest. Matthew and the heartier among us eventually crossed the finish line intact—though much slower than our collective 4:00 goal. I started doing more walking than running around mile 8, and by mile 15, when the heat was definitely at its peak, almost everyone around me had stopped running altogether. In fact, the pictures of me posted on don’t show anyone around me running. I don’t intend to buy any professional photos this year, and keeps the thumbnails so small and grainy that they’re not even worth screen-capturing to post here.

After the old lady incident and the ice cube incident and the cold gray little elf-penis incident and the heat and the exhaustion and the relief over the race cancellation and my bus ride with my new Parisian friend, I eventually met up with everyone back at the charity village. I feel terrible that the fiancé and everyone else who had invested so much time didn’t get to cross their first marathon finish line, but Justin and I are young(ish) and able and already excited about trying again next summer.

And I am deeply touched by all the emails and calls and blog comments from friends and strangers alike expressing worry about me. Thank you all for both your well-wishes and your concern.

To top the day off, my hair looks the best in this picture of Matthew and Justin and me with our medals. So in a way, I totally won the marathon:

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