Church of Sunday Long Run

“I thought everyone’s parents ran.  I thought everyone got up and went to … the Church of Sunday Long Run.  That’s what my dad would call it.” ~ Shalane Flanagan, April 13, 2014, 60 Minutes interview

Not everyone was born to talented long-distance runners, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when Shalane learned that her weekly family tradition was unique, or even bizarre.  But when she said this during an interview with Anderson Cooper, it made me laugh and think.

Over the years, the Sunday Long Run has become more than a weekly run, it’s become a ritual.  Three out of four weekends of every month typically feature a run of 13 miles or longer.  It is simply a thing I do now, like going out on a Saturday or watching The League on Wednesdays.  So when she said those words, Church of Sunday Long Run, I realized with some consternation that perhaps I did belong to a religion (though outsiders may call it a cult).

Or as my wife so eloquently said, "Look at this dweeb."

Or as my wife so eloquently said, “Look at this dweeb.”

But every church or religion has to have its high holiday.  And that for me, without a doubt, is the second Sunday of October, when the city hosts the unrivaled Chicago Marathon.  That wonderful day is like Christmas to me, a magical time of year when extended family descends on Chicago for a weekend of big meals, shopping and fond reflection.  The city teems with people from all over the world with flags proudly draped over their shoulders.  Reservations at Italian restaurants are impossible to get, the Magnificent Mile enjoys rising revenues and all around are eager, nervous faces ready to run and get to know the Windy City.

I haven’t run the Chicago Marathon since 2011, but I’ve always been in town for the celebration.  Every year I have a blast seeing the multicultural hordes on the trains, cheering for each runner who puts their name or country on their shirt, and hosting the ceremonial Deep Dish meal after the race is done and the city shines with the glint of swinging medals.   

For the last two years, I have escorted people to my favorite spectator spots in hope of seeing their significant other’s first ever attempt at 26.2 miles.  But this year, I was given no such duty, so I visited the course with Otter to see the elite race play out in four different spots.

We watched the East African lead pack rocket up LaSalle Boulevard around mile 4, gliding past us almost effortlessly.  They ran easily, lightly on their feet.  You could be forgiven for thinking they were barely trying.  They ran alone, with the next cluster of runners a block away.  Tucked in the middle was Kenenisa Bekele, already a legend in the running world, wearing the coveted #1 bib, as defending champion Dennis Kimetto had chosen to run Berlin instead, where he ran a gobsmacking world record.  Around him were the other top stars, Eliud Kipchoge and Sammy Kitwara, accomplished runners in their own right competing for their first World Marathon Major victory.

They continued their blistering pace down Wells Street at mile 11.  Wesley Korir, the 2012 Boston Marathon champion and 5-time Chicago finisher, had dropped from the lead pack but stayed close to the leaders.  His full-time job as a member of Kenya’s parliament had surely taken a toll on his training, but that wasn’t stopping him from running a world-class time.

Mile 2

Mile 2

By the time the elites had reached mile 21.5 in Chinatown, we were down to an aggressive lead pack of three Kenyans.  Kipchoge, Kitwara and 2014 Tokyo Marathon champion Dickson Chumba led the race, having recently dropped Bekele.  The Ethiopian great was not far behind, but at this stage in the race, it was all but guaranteed that he was not going to make the podium despite his impressive track credentials.

We reached our last spectator spot at the base of “Mount Roosevelt,” the only significant hill in the entire race, sadistically located at mile 25.9, just in time to see the winner.  By the time the pace car arrived, there was just one man running behind it –  Eliud Kipchoge, donning a neon yellow singlet, hammering out a celeritous pace, chasing his 2:04:05 PR from last year’s Berlin Marathon.

About twenty minutes behind him was the female leader, Rita Jeptoo, who went on to win her second consecutive Chicago Marathon and fourth straight World Marathon Major.  If she wasn’t already the #1 female marathoner in the world, then there’s no doubt about it now.  Just a few minutes behind her was top American Amy  Hastings, who equaled her personal best of 2:27.  I would have followed the female elites more closely but it would have prevented us from seeing the male competition at every spot.

By finishing in 2:04:11, Kipchoge ended up missing both the course record and his personal best, but nonetheless gave Chicago a brilliant performance.  Not only was it the third fastest time ever run in Chicago and the Western hemisphere on a record-eligible course, but he did it all smiles.  And why wouldn’t he?  This is the best race in the world.  It has a pancake-flat course, thousands upon thousands of eager spectators, twenty-nine distinct neighborhoods, and an incredibly deep elite field that always put on a real race.  Oh, and the weather has been absolutely perfect for the last three years.  Seriously, I should demand that race director Carey Pinkowski pay me not to run, because it basically guarantees ideal conditions.

I already know that I won’t be running the 2015 Chicago Marathon (you’re welcome, everyone) for the same reasons that I haven’t run it the last three years: there are other states to conquer.  By running Chicago, I am essentially not running a host of other races that could help me reach my goal.  And yes, the lottery system is also a huge bummer, but at least I don’t have to deal with hometown rejection for another couple of years.  As Mike said, the London, Berlin and Tokyo marathons will provide that in spades over the next decade.

But that doesn’t mean that I won’t relish the day when it arrives yet again next October.  I will be there, along with all the other acolytes of the Church of Sunday Long Run, cheering happily with a hint of vicarious envy, for the world’s fastest runners and the 40,000 athletes behind them.

Congratulations to every proud finisher!

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2013 Chicago Marathon Weekend

Once again, I did not run the Chicago Marathon.  It wasn’t because of under-preparedness or a lack of interest, but rather a product of planning out the year very far in advance.  By the time registration opened in February, I already knew that I would be running the Leavenworth and Portland marathons the weekend before.  Given Chicago’s perfectly flat course and reliably cool weather (and high price tag), it’s not a race that I would run for fun.  But over the years, marathon weekend has taken on the same snow-globe wonder as Christmas, so I have to participate in it as much as possible.  And so on Sunday, October 13, I was once again in the middle of the Loop as a spectator, waiting for the race to start.

Breakfast of (Soon to Be) Champions

breakfast-with-laszloBut my 2013 Chicago Marathon experience did not start there.  Earlier in the week I was contacted by Laszlo, a fellow blogger and half marathoner who was coming to Chicago for his first stab at the full beast.  Given my penchant for meeting fun people during my running adventures, I agreed to breakfast with him and suggested the great pancakes-and-eggs eatery Eggsperience.  His wife and daughters were sleeping in from the long drive from East Michigan, so it was just the two of us talking about life, how running has changed it and what he should expect during the monumental challenge that awaited him on Sunday.

Stalking a Living Legend

scott-jurek-chicago-marathon-expoFull on pancakes, I made my way to the Marathon Expo, where I waited coldly, stalker-like for ultramarathoner extraordinaire Scott Jurek to arrive at the Pro-Tec Athletics booth.  I made some Costa Rican friends as I waited.  I had brought a flag, which hung loosely by my side from a drawstring, which caught more than one eye.  Among those was a Costa Rican reporter, who took a picture of me for the paper (I’ve since checked and I didn’t make it to the print edition).  By the time Scott showed up, I was closest to the table in front of a crowd of adoring fans.  He signed my copy of Eat & Run, but not until I showed him that we had met before at the Garmin Marathon.  Steph told me that Scott most likely notified security of my presence after I left.  I will admit that part of me felt like Buddy from The Incredibles, except I hope to not become his nemesis in twenty or so years …

The Tables Turn

left to right: Jime, Chris, Steph, me

left to right: Jime, Chris, Steph, me

That night, Steph and I dined with Jimena and Chris, who hosted me in Kansas for the Garmin Marathon back in April.  Jimena was a high-school classmate of mine and her husband Chris was attempting his first marathon the next morning.  They had gone out to the Garmin race to watch me run in the spring, so I was returning the favor by escorting Jime to various different spectator spots.  Chris was still vacillating between joining the 3:05 and 3:10 pace groups, and I unabashedly endorsed the faster time.  If he was confident enough to BQ on his first marathon, then it was his duty to abandon restraint and aim for glory.  There’s no shame in going as hard as you can and with the weather forecast showing perfect conditions, there were few reasons to hold back.  It’s not advice that I would have followed myself four years ago, but I wasn’t teeming with such self-assurance.

Same Pose, Different People

chicago_marathon-02After seeing the elites rocket down State Street under the iconic red Chicago Theater lights with Chris not far behind, Jime and I went to LaSalle and later Sedgwick, where I managed to get three pictures of the same person in three disguises.  First came Laszlo, who after gushing about how much fun he was having, romped down the block like a kid in a toy store.  Not far behind was Marla, equally thrilled to be running her first marathon, strutting down mile 11 with a million-dollar smile.  Behind her in the second wave of runners was Louisville’s own Glenn, who took a half second to recognize me under my cap and beard before sprouting devil horns from his hands.

“I think they all posed that way because they think you would do that,” Steph would later tell me.  Maybe.

chicago_marathon-03Regardless, it was proving to be a beautiful day for runners and spectators alike.  Last year, clouds obscured the sun and drove my body to shivers for most of the day.  This year’s morning was bright and we were too busy yelling out people’s names, nationalities or identifying features (“GO FACEPAINT!”) to ever succumb to chills.  Costa Rica was the fifth most represented country at the race and they definitely made themselves known.  “I think if you’re running the marathon and from Costa Rica, you’re obligated to wear a shirt that says so,” Otter remarked after the race.  I believe him.  I yelled every single nationality I could see and few were out there in chicago_marathon-01such large numbers as Mexico or Costa Rica.  What I did learn from this experience was how heartbreaking a marathon can be for people with foreign or exotic names.  I’m sorry, I really am, but if you have “Valtyja” or “Jørgün” handwritten on your shirt, that potential moment of irrevocable indignity where I butcher your name is enough to keep my lips sealed as you run by.  I know that by mile 11 the runner might not have it in them to turn around and give me the stink-eye for soiling their moniker, but in the time it takes me to figure out the best way to pronounce it, they’re past my shouting range.  Plus, what if I try to be smart about it and end up looking like an idiot?  It’s possible that I’ll see “Georg” and think, “Ah, this dude is German,” thereby shouting “Looking strong, Gay-Org” just to have him turn around and say in perfect apple pie American, “It’s pronounced George, dick.”  Maybe one day I’ll shed those silly concerns and just yell everything I see on everyone’s singlets.  But that time will have to wait.

The Best Spectator Sign I Have Seen in Recent Memory

I was reading a recent recap of this race and the author mentioned seeing a Harry Potter-themed sign (“Accio Finish Line!”) and some politically germane zingers (“You’re running better than the government”), which I would have loved.  But the prize for the best sign I have recently seen goes to this brilliant collage.

breaking-bad-marathon-sign

PRs (Post-Race Pizza Reunion)

Later that night, as volunteers and Parks employees were taking the race apart in Grant Park, Steph and I got together for dinner with a group of runners and bloggers alike.  I had warned her ahead of time.  “You know those conversations that I’ll have with Otter or Marla about running where everyone else tunes out?  That’s going to be this entire dinner, all of it.”  Appropriately cautioned, we made it to the South Loop Gino’s East, where we met up with RunFactory Jeff, Zombiephile Glenn, Brew Crew Otter, Scott and Edna (the latter of whom, while cool people, I met at that dinner, so I can’t give them any relevant nicknames).  Glenn talked about his struggles in the middle miles of the race; Jeff begrudged the Achilles pains that kept him from running under 3 hours; Otter carped about the ascetic lowlifes that complained about his Hash House Harriers Beer Station at mile 23, forcing them to shut it down.  But they also talked about the amazing crowd support, the remarkably diverse and electrifying performances in each neighborhood, and how great it felt to see familiar faces and strangers on the sidelines cheering with equal fervor.  It was a fun dinner over a few delicious pies and, believe it or not, the conversation didn’t entirely revolve about running.  War stories were exchanged, drinks happily consumed and half-promises of future races offered.

left to right: Scott, Glenn, Otter, Steph, me, Jeff, Edna

left to right: Scott, Glenn, Otter, Steph, me, Jeff, Edna

Dennis the Course Record Menace and Rita Jep-Too Fast To Catch

The last thing I did before bringing the “holiday” weekend to a close was watch the recording of the morning’s elite race.  My pre-race favorite Moses Mosop didn’t take the crown as I had predicted, finishing instead in 8th (2:11:19).  The top prize went to Kenyan Dennis Kimetto (2:03:45), who broke the course record, became the third fastest man in history and ran the fastest record-eligible marathon in the western hemisphere.  Perennial runner-up Emmanuel Mutai was just seven seconds behind him, making the 2013 Chicago Marathon the first record-eligible race ever to have two finishers under 2:04.  Meanwhile, on the women’s side, Rita Jeptoo took first and joined the elite sub-2:20 group of female marathoners with a 2:19:57 finish, redeeming herself from last year’s performance, where she lost to Atsede Baysa by less than a second.

I can’t wait until next year.