Reflections on the Chicago Marathon (2006 – 2012)

I went for a quick run yesterday around 5 PM.  It was intended as a recovery from the previous day’s long effort, but it ended up tainted by frustration and resulted in a speedy dash, a way to purge the morning’s anxious energy.  Though the title of this entry might suggest it, I did not run this year’s Chicago Marathon.  It was never my intention to do so.  I watched as registration opened and I didn’t throw my name in the ring.  Registration closed and the race was run without me.  Yesterday’s run happened strictly because it was in my training log.  So I stepped outside and did a large lap around Grant Park on the shores of Lake Michigan, the spires of Chicago’s iconic skyline keeping watch over the setting sun.  As I ran past stuffed garbage bins, empty charity tents and barricades splashed with corporate logos, I saw the remnants of one giant party, one that I had in some capacity attended for the last seven years.

2009 Chicago Marathon w/ Mama

It definitely got me thinking of what the race has meant to me over that time period.  In college, my only exposure to what was then called the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon was anecdotal.  Friends of friends had trained for months and had finished it, and that’s all I had heard.  At that point in my life, “running a marathon” was almost a talking point.  It wasn’t an actual feat, but a rhetorical device that you would use in conversation to suggest something difficult to the point of insanity, like “scaling Everest” or “circumnavigating the globe.”  So when someone would say that they ran a marathon, the magnitude of their accomplishment never actually effervesced from its conceptual pot.

It was like someone telling me they got a 1600 on their SAT or bench pressed 400 pounds.  I couldn’t ever wrap my head around that, so I’d nod courteously, say the requisite “wow” and move on with my life.

2010 Chicago Marathon w/ Papa, Steph & Mama

And then in 2006, I was dating a girl whose dad was a pretty intense endurance athlete.  His name was Steve and his athletic résumé was padded with enough rides, triathlons and marathons to make casual runners envious, and he was running Chicago.  Having graduated from college about five months prior, I had gotten a sense for the city and its neighborhoods.  I learned to navigate the bus and train system and had managed to translate distances into commute times.  So with this mental map of Chicago in my mind, I suddenly understood the true scope of the marathon.  I traced a line from the city center to Wrigley Field, then all the way over to United Center, back to the city, down to Sox Field, and back up.

2011 Chicago Marathon w/ Paula

I could see this course reproduced in my brain and it was then that I had a sort of epiphany of just how insanely far 26.2 miles really is.  Surely only a tiny amount of physically gifted demigods would be able to do this.  Anachronistically, I would have thought the entire cast of Thor would be the only people up to the task.  But as I stood in the cold (2006 was very cold), watching a bouncing sea of people brave the elements, I realized that I hadn’t given enough credit to those I already knew had finished a marathon.

We were surprised to see a good friend of ours mid-crowd.  We yelled her name and she spasmodically threw her arms in the air as if in the front row of a concert.  I remember thinking at the time, how good must it feel to see the finish line of a marathon?  It seemed to me a mythical moment, like a blind man suddenly being able to see (though after I read An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks, where he details that exact situation actually happening, I changed my mind about the wonder of such an occurrence).  At the time I never dreamt that I’d ever experience such a moment, and if someone had told me otherwise, I would have laughed at them, shrugged off such a ludicrous suggestion and returned to my chips and dip.

The 2006 race was won by Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, but only after a famous finish: he slipped backwards on the race decal just inches before the tape and ended up with a concussion.  Daniel Njenga was right behind him and finished thinking he might have taken the lead at the very last second.  After reviewing the footage though, organizers verified that Cheruiyot had crossed, adding to Njenga’s frustrating series of runner-up finishes.

The following year, I was still dating the same girl and her dad was back for another stab at the marathon.  I was not a single step closer to becoming a runner myself, but I was still intrigued by the idea of people running for such a long period of time, the “how” and the “why” being equal components of my curiosity.  But this year was a much different story.  In 2006 we had to seek refuge in a Starbucks because our fingers were about to snap off.  Not this time.  This was the fated year, the Chicago Marathon that lurks in the back of every runner’s head like one of those giant, blind Japanese salamanders.  I remember sitting under a tree in Grant Park, waiting for Steve to finish, sweating.  All I had done was walk and sit down and I was perspiring.  It was bad.  A lean, twig of a runner who had already finished was sprawled on the grass next to me, a small puddle of vomit bubbling on the grass next to him.  Obviously, if I was sweating just sitting in the shade, what were runners feeling?  I would later find out that they had black flagged (cancelled) the race, urging everyone still on the course to find a way home or walk to the finish line.  Steve managed to convince kind strangers into letting him use their cell phone so he could let us know the event was done.  Patrick Ivuti would go on to win the race in 2:11, much slower than the times the world had come to expect from Kenyans.

The year before, though cold, everyone at the finish line was walking proud with medals resting on their chests.  For a while, running a marathon seemed possible.  But those ambitions, flimsy at best, evaporated with the famous 2007 race.  So it wasn’t altogether surprising that when that same date came in 2008, I was sitting on a couch.  I was still with the same girl, watching TV at her apartment, which was on LaSalle drive, overlooking the race.  I remember glancing briefly out the window and seeing the steady river of hopeful runners, suddenly realizing that it was marathon day.  I stared at them for a few beats and then turned back to the couch.  Later in that week, I congratulated a friend of ours who had run and asked for his finishing time, which I did largely as a courtesy, almost a reflex.  He gave me a number that didn’t mean much to me (is that fast? what’s that per mile? what percentage is that?).  Though I had started running by that point, I hadn’t joined the cult of marathon, so his impressive finishing time might as well have been a string of 0s and 1s.  Had someone told me that Evans Cheruiyot won the race in 2:06:25, I would have probably looked upon that number with similar confusion.

But a year later, I was a different person.  A series of impulses led me to sign up for the 2009 Chicago Marathon, an act that, all hyperbole aside, would change my life.  I would write about it now, but I think the words I wrote in my personal journal the day after I finished my first marathon accurately capture the wonder I felt:

“Yesterday was, without a doubt, one of the best days of my life.  … the Open corral behind me was teeming with eager runners, hats and sweaters flying in the air towards the sidelines.  It was at that point, as the sun crept over the horizon, obscured by thin clouds, that it started hitting me.  This is happening, I said aloud.  This is really happening.  Seven months of training, racing, logging and daydreaming all lead to today.  Every athlete in this corral, all the others ahead and behind me, have worked very hard to get here, and will all strive to do their best.  I was so caught in the majesty of the moment that I forgot to start my stopwatch until about nine seconds into the race. “

2012 Elite Breakaway Group, featuring eventual winner, Tsegaye Kebede

My mom had come to Chicago to cheer for me.  A few months prior, I had sent her a copy of Spirit of the Marathon because I felt she had to truly know what I was about to do.  I suspected that she, like me three years before, would use the phrase “run a marathon” as a means to win an argument or a simile to make a point.  I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to say the documentary heavily influenced her decision to fly out to Chicago to yell encouraging words at me during my maiden run.  I handed her off to the same girl I had been dating for over three years now, who had become an expert spectator (this was also the trip where my mom first met my future parents-in-law).  After wrapping themselves in several layers to survive the cold, they stepped outside with noisemakers, signs and balloons.  Four hours after starting, I was just shy of the finish line, and my long-standing suspicion was confirmed.  Seeing the bright red banner just a few minutes away was a truly Homeric experience.  I felt like Odysseus beholding Ithaca after his stormy voyage.  It was the cathartic experience I had anticipated and I spent the rest of the day with a stupid smile stretched across my salty face.

The late Sammy Wanjiru won that year after a mindblowing race in the Beijing Olympics.  Proving that his performance in August was no fluke, he ran Chicago to a course record of 2:05:41 and established himself as one of the greats at the young age of 22.

3-time Chicago Marathon winner Liliya Shobukhova (in green) zooms by the Fleet Feet aid station on her way to a 4th place finish, picture courtesy of Marla Brizel

Crossing that finish line was a game changer.  Despite not being able to sit or even think about sitting without inviting a muscle cramp, I was convinced that my marathon career had just begun.  A year later, I would be back on Columbus Drive at the 2010 race, with much more mileage in my legs, scores of PRs under my belt and a ravenous hunger to dip under four hours.  But 2010 was a warm year, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t qualify for the club.  But that didn’t stop defending champion Wanjiru from running the race of his life against Ethiopian rival Tsegaye Kebede, both vying for the World Marathon Majors title worth $500,000.  The two traded first and second several times in the race’s last miles, giving spectators a historic race that is still talked about today.  But it was Wanjiru who took the title after surging on the Roosevelt Bridge to win the 2010 race in 2:06:23.

This year, my dad came along and we bought a few Costa Rican flags to add to the cheering experience.  We thought, why spend all that time waiting for just one person when you can have runners yell enthusiastically at you instead?  Just like the year before, that trusty girlfriend of mine, with whom I now shared an apartment, was practically handcuffed to my parents for the day, dragging them to different lookout points in the city (this was also the year where my dad met my future parents-in-law and we thus had our first “family” dinner).  Frustrated by my 4:05 finish but no less determined, I knew I’d be back.  It was the first marathon that I ran where I try to improve, and in the absence of said improvement, I practically had no choice but to continue.  And best of all, I’d only have to wait a year.

But it seems like for every cold year we get, we need two warm ones.  2011 was, for all practical purposes, a repeat of the last year but only in terms of weather.  Moses Mosop would go on to win the race in a new course record of 2:05:37, showing that the heat couldn’t stop the Kenyan dominance of the sport.  Equally used to training in warm temperatures, my cousin Paula had chosen Chicago to be her first marathon and brought her family in tow.  It was another weekend of fine dining, sightseeing and covering the entire city on foot.  It was the first time I would finish the race in under four hours, but only barely.  Paula’s family was with my former-girlfriend-now-fiancée at the usual spots, enjoying the warm weather and taking unusually long bathroom breaks.  It was once again a very fun race, but the third time around I felt like part of the magic was gone.  Maybe it was that the marathon was no longer the merciless behemoth of years past, or that it was once again a hot year and my spirits weren’t as high as the mercury.  Perhaps it was time to start seeing other races.

So when it came time to sign up for the 35th running of the Chicago Marathon, I didn’t.  The reasoning was simple: I was getting married just two weeks prior!  With all the insanity that inevitably surrounds preparing and executing a wedding, I knew I wouldn’t want to escalate the stress by adding high-mileage weeks.  So I made plans instead to run the IMT Des Moines Marathon on October 21 … and I also ended up running the Crazy Horse Marathon on September 30, just a week after saying my vows.  What can I say?  It’s an affliction.

The point is, I had set up my schedule in such a way that running Chicago would be, to put it as scholarly as possible, bad.  That doesn’t mean that the Friday before the event, I wasn’t on Craig’s List on a purely investigative mission to find out what a last-minute bib would cost.  With the city slowly preparing for the race, I couldn’t help but feel extremely jealous.  During all of my training runs in the last week I had to watch as city organizers built stages, set up tents and put up signs in Grant Park, all the while knowing I wouldn’t be participating.  To make matters worse, the weather was going to give all runners the VIP treatment.  Just my luck to sit out on the year where the start and finish are both in the 40s.  But I didn’t let my seething envy take over and instead, I returned to the Chicago Marathon as a spectator for the first time in five years.

Triumph!

I was at the Randolph Street Bridge at 7:30, watching the pace car and official motorcade lead the elites through the first mile of the race.  Javier, a close friend of mine’s brother, was running his first marathon and I had gladly volunteered to escort his girlfriend Andrea to the different spectator points for the day, with a few additions of my own.  We saw runners exit the Wacker Drive tunnel and cross the river just before the first mile marker; we walked to State/Lake and saw them enter the heart of the city and past the Chicago Theater’s famous sign; we hopped on the Brown Line and cruised over the course, getting a few shots of the field going up LaSalle Drive, crossing the river again.  We joined the crowds at the Fleet Feet aid station on Wells street and saw the elites fly by us as if on a conveyor belt.  I yelled every name I could find on people’s shirts and gave a shout-out to any countries proudly decorating the same space.  With a Costa Rican flag tied to my chest like a large bib, I got just as many shout-outs from the many ticos running.

Although I definitely felt like I was missing out on a perfect race day, I was having a great time.  I got to repay the favor that Chicago has done for me the last three years by encouraging as many runners as I could to “keep it up” and that they were “lookin’ good” and “gettin’ it done.”  I loved how everyone’s reactions would become less emphatic as the miles added up.  Ebullient responses turned to simple thumbs up and by the end of the race, as we stood in the bleachers lining Columbus Drive, no amount of cheering could elicit even a head turn from the exhausted masses.  I saw a few familiar faces, but largely I was there to see everyone turn south from Mount Roosevelt onto Columbus Drive and behold the Finish Line.  Every year, a large chunk of the field is made up by first time runners, all of whom round that final bend towards the final stretch of an epic journey.  We saw calm and collected strides, sprint finishes, hands thrown up in the air and a few unfortunate runners who had to stop completely to massage tight hamstrings.

What we didn’t see because it happened hours earlier was Tsegaye Kebede overtaking his countryman Feyisa Lilesa to take first place in the race with a time of 2:04:38.  That was not only a Chicago Marathon course record by almost a minute, but the fastest marathon ever run in the US.  It also made Kebede the 9th fastest marathoner of all time.  Though I’d need a translator to verify this, I’m pretty sure his 2010 duel with Wanjiru played more than once in his mind as he scorched those last miles up Michigan Avenue.

Javier (blue, center) on his way to a smoking fast 3:34 finish

Not running this race made me realize how much I love the sport and the fanatical culture that surrounds it.  Despite not participating in the running, I had just as much fun being part of the aura, the glow that comes with attending an event like this.  Kathrine Switzer, the famous woman who snuck into and finished the Boston Marathon in 1967 before women were allowed to participate once said, “If you are losing faith in humanity, go out and watch a marathon.”  It’s like watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, except it happens every weekend all over the world.  But in large races like Chicago, it truly becomes a gathering of humanity, both participants and spectators alike.  Everyone comes together with one purpose: to support the thousands out there who decided to do something great.  With the booming voices of a million fans, nobody is too slow or not fit enough to put one foot in front of the other and make that greatness happen.

2012 Chicago Marathon Medal

For me, it was additionally special because it allowed me to give back, albeit in a small way, to an event that has accompanied me through many meaningful moments in my life.  In 2006, Steph and I were spectators who had only been together a few months, and this year I was doing the same but fiddling with a wedding ring that I still haven’t quite gotten used to.  And yes, you could frame anyone’s story with any recurring event – Christmas, birthdays, 4th of July.  But the Chicago Marathon, besides simply occurring every year, has demanded a lot of me and in turn has become an essential part of who I am.  Not only does it hug an amazing city, but it winds in and out of many places that practically explode with memories.  I could never run it again and still look back on it with nothing but fondness and an eager desire to be out there with everyone, either as a runner or a fan.

But if this message from a close friend in Costa Rica is any indication – “Maes, corramos la maratón de Chicago el próximo año” – then I will be at the starting line next year, ready to run through the beating heart of the vibrant city I call home.  Lucky for me, it’s just a year away.

Congratulations to all runners, but particularly those whose recaps I will soon enjoy reading, namely Otter, T-Rex, Jeff and one (or more?) of the Bad Angels.

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About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

11 Responses to Reflections on the Chicago Marathon (2006 – 2012)

  1. MedalSlut says:

    And congratulations to you!

  2. Tania Kissling says:

    Buenísima recapitulación Danny!!

  3. You really capture the whole “essence” of the Chicago Marathon, so much so that I got all sentimental just reading this 😉 Thanks again for being out there and being such an active part of the race as spectator this year. Can’t wait to hear about how your rev it up for next year!

  4. denise:) says:

    Why’d it take you so long to get hitched?!?! 🙂 I’m kidding- congrats and thanks for the Chicago Marathon Story. It’s a story that we may share come 2013. We’ll see. 🙂

  5. lrekkerth says:

    I’ve been saying it’d be cool to do this marathon again… after reading this I think I need to! Congrats on your marriage! and maybe we’ll both be at the starting line again next year!

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  7. Mike says:

    Unique and compelling perspective on the Chicago experience… all that’s left now is for you to organize and direct the race (assuming elite Ethiopian runner would be a stretch). Really enjoyed the way you captured the psyche of the Marathon from several different mindsets, from sub-4:00 finisher on one end, to blissfully unaware non-runner who asks “So how far is THIS marathon?” on the other.

    “Homeric” is a good word for that finish-line-in-sight feeling… although I’m not sure even a group of Sirens singing at mile 26.1 could keep me away from that finish line. Love the way it’s set up so that once you turn on Columbus, you have a solid 200m to stare it down before you reach it.

    Keep up the great work! Glad I’ve found your blog, look forward to following you from here.

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