Before I left for Chicago, people told me, “Chicago is the greatest marathon. You'll never forget it.” People were right. Here are some things that can happen at the Chicago Marathon:
1. You Might Freeze at the Start Line, but Your Heart Will Soon Warm You Up.
When the corrals opened Sunday morning, the temp was a good 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The windy city was windy. The air was a blanket of cold. Runners were wrapping themselves in trash bags to deflect the wind. It was high fashion.
Outside the start corral, I jumped around trying to find pockets of sunlight to stand in. Luckily, I spotted some friends from Miami's iRun group, and we huddled in Corral G to start the race together. There's nothing like starting a marathon with people you know. You never forget it.
Even with the morning chill, Chicagoans were out with their signs and skullcaps and coffee, standing on sidewalks and raised medians and street corners, waiting for the runners to come by. I have never, in my life, seen so many people come out and support anything. I was stunned. In South Florida, when you run a marathon you pass by occasional clusters of people, and it's so exciting to see cheerful faces. But in Chicago, it was wall-to-wall spectators the whole 26.2 miles. The whole city was out. Signs, pretzels, painted faces, bananas, cowbells, pompoms. Bands, cheerleaders, acrobats, costumes. It makes the experience surreal and dream-like. Amazing work, Chicago. You guys know how to show spirit!
2. You May Realize that Running a City is Amazing
I grew up in Decatur, Alabama. We didn't have skyscrapers. Probably the tallest building is the hospital, and I think it may have seven floors. As a kid, I thought skyscrapers were the office buildings in Huntsville, Alabama, that had ten floors. Having visited lots of major cities now, I know this: Running a city is different than visiting it. Way different. As we wound through the streets like a big rush of water, I felt the energy of the city pumping through my legs. You become a city when you run it, inside of nothing but yourself and the force of life and motion around you. It's almost like you have to put in the work of moving forward to really appreciate what you're moving through. The race starts at Grant Park and winds through almost 30 different Chicago neighborhoods -- Streeterville, Lincoln Park, Wrigleyville, Greek Town, Little Italy....It's a giant block party in every stretch.
3. You May be Hungry, But You Won't Go Thirsty
When a marathon is on the schedule, I get really excited about a few things. Namely, bagels. God I love bagels. I even like the way they look – all shiny and round and full of personality. Bagels are the food form of laughter. Bagels are the Minions of the food world.
But if you're coming from a temperate climate, no matter whether you eat a bagel on the train, race morning, by the time the marathon starts, you will have jumped around so much to stay warm that you will be STARVING. Like, I could eat a steak on top of a pizza covered in buffalo wings starving.
When I started the Chicago Marathon, I had the dark_void feeling in my stomach. It didn't go away until 9 miles later. I drooled every time we passed a Dunkin Donuts or a pizza joint. Thank god it was too early for the ovens to be on. I might have lost my mind.
Good thing Chicagoans are amazing, because they hand out food during the marathon. I saw a man with a giant basket full of pretzels. Hoots of joy. There were cute girls handing out bacon at mile 20. Bacon.
The aid stations at the Chicago Marathon are phenomenal: An entire block of water, followed by an entire block of gatorade. I've been at races of 5,000 where they ran out of water. This race hosted 45,000 runners and hydrated us all like a boss. Incredible! To every volunteer -- thank you. What an incredible human machine you made.
4. You Might Roll your Ankle and Keep Running
I rolled my ankle on mile 6 of the marathon. Before that point, I was running strong with a smile on my face and great music pumping in one ear. Then, I felt a crunch as the right foot landed on someone's discarded water bottle on the ground. I wobbled, turned my ankle, and felt a pop. I screamed “Oh Shit.” The woman next to me stopped with me – another sign that runners are good people. I felt shock in my soul, because something was definitely wrong. But I started to walk, and then jog, and then decided to hell with it. I figured, if I could still run, it couldn't be that bad. I thanked her and kept running. Don't be a baby, I said. (I would not say this is a great idea, but I did it anyway.)
5. Your Mind May Get Weak (This will be honest.)
After the ankle roll, which I desperately wish could have been a cinnamon roll, I ran with my head down on the road for the next 8 miles. I was still glad to be there, but I was focused on not feeling pain. It was tough. Nothing else hurt yet, so the ankle was the only thing singing to me. This is when my mind got weak.
Those who run know about the points when the mind gets weak. It happens to all of us. Somehow, your ego becomes your enemy, and the little negative things you've heard start to creep into your mind. There is no statute of limitations – some of these negative things may come from decades passed. Somehow they pop back up.
Miles 6 through 14 were a mix of emotions. I thought about how slow I was running, and it made me upset. Then I scolded myself for being such a narcissistic baby. That made me feel even worse. I felt like a mean person. As if that wasn't bad enough, I suddenly remembered some things this professor told me, so long ago, when I was struggling in her freshman year class. She said, and I quote, “Everything about your body language tells me that you don't care. Maybe you're in the wrong place. You're not afraid of failing. You're afraid to succeed, because you don't want accountability.”
I haven't thought about this in over a decade, but for some reason, on mile 9 of the Chicago Marathon, her words crept back into my head. They made me angry. NO Dr. _____, I thought. You are so dead wrong. You are lazy in trying to understand humans. I do care. I do want to succeed. I'm just lost. I need help. From a real teacher. One who has more than a shallow understanding of humans.
Man, I chewed her out in my head. I laid it on thick. Oh guys, I got so angry at Professor X during that mile. Like seething angry.
And then, like an angel sent to tame me, a runner in his mid-20's with a lot of speed and cool blue shoes passed me. On his back, he had a sign pinned to his shirt. It said, “Running for my grandmother.”
I got a little watery. I followed him. This guy, running for his grandmother, was running for something positive. I needed to get in on that. I needed to stop running for some professor who probably doesn't even remember my name. Let the people who are wrong be wrong, and run for things that are right.
6. You Might Cry
A few miles later, I thought I had my spirits back together. My ankle had gone numb. My hunger was gone. M83 was playing. I was pretty proud of myself for keeping it together this far. I rounded a corner and saw a girl with a crocheted green beanie and a brown parka. She was holding up a sign with big letters. It said, “Mom, you are my strength.”
Guys. I lost it. I burst into tears. I didn't even care anymore who was watching or photographing. I just let the good tears roll. I cried for my mom, who isn't in my life anymore. I cried for that girl's mom. I cried for my dad, who has been my sole parent and number one fan for most of my life. I cried for people who don't know that they are understood. It was a solid three minutes of damn good crying.
I cried because the longer you're alive, the more you realize that everyone is just trying to make it in this world. You realize the invisible burden so many people have that you overlooked. I could write a manifesto of all the things I've realized while running. Running gives you resolve.
I don't always cry during marathons. But when I do, it's usually because of a profound feeling of human compassion. I usually want a Dos Equis afterward.
7. Your Mind Will Get Strong Again
If there's anything I've learned in my 30 wild years of life, it's that you can't bottle emotion. You have to learn how to use it.
As soon as I wiped the tears and snot from my face, I raised my head to the sun and shook out my hands, and picked up my pace. By this time, I wasn't sure if I even had an ankle anymore. But I knew I had a heart, and legs, and Excel Gel. I knew I had Nuun Energy in my pocket and a lot of determination in my aorta. So I ran and I thought about all the people in my life who have made me believe in myself.
Here's the number one thing: People will always remember how you make them feel. We all make mistakes, we all screw up, and we all say things we don't mean or don't realize are wrong. But we always have the power to make each other believe. Always. It's not a power you lose. Inside of you is an infinite well filled with this power. I promise you. I promise. So let go, apologize, forgive, move forward, and be a positive force, not a negative one. It's so worth it.
8. Your Body Might Be Injured, But Your Heart Will be Healed
I powered up on the belief of human awesomeness. I fueled on free gatorade and my personal truth that this world is full of positive belief and bagels. I finished the Chicago Marathon, hugged my friends, ate some delicious food, and flew back home.
I went to the doctor the next day and came home with an ankle sprain and two tibial hairline fractures. Things could be way worse. I ran 20 miles on a sprained ankle and came out with some really minor injuries. I have a thing with luck, and I don't suggest that anybody run on injuries, ever ever. It's not what the reasonable person would do, but I wasn't trying to be reasonable -- I was trying to finish a marathon. I'm so glad I did. I met so many cool people at the Chicago Marathon. I came home with new inspirations. It was a win.
Now, I stop running for a while and heal my body. I study. There are so many things I hadn't thought of doing until now -- Yoga poses on one foot. Swimming.The CrutchFit workout. Break dancing. (just kidding.) Studying for law school exams with my foot on a chair. It's not about not being able to run. It's about being able to do so much with this time for a bit.
Chicago, I'll be back for you again. You were so much more than I expected.
If you have the chance, run the Chicago Marathon. You'll never forget it. If you ran it, congratulations and solidarity, friend.
And as my trail-running homies say – On, On.
Where To Catch Me
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