Mile 6 – 11
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point the group I was running with actually started to pick off the string of runners stretching out before us. I don’t know if the ease of the race began to bore me, but I found myself at the front of the group and decided to start moving us toward the runners up the road. When we passed them, most would fall off, but a few grabbed onto our pace and strengthened our group even more. We were now about 6 or 7 strong and running as a clump instead of single file like everyone else in front of us. This afforded us a number of benefits, namely being able to swap positions at the front to take hold of the pace and keep us on point, which worked smashingly as we continued to hit mile after mile after mile at 5:30 dead on, if not a couple seconds under. As suggested before the marathon I was sufficiently disconnected from the race itself, still just concentrating on hitting my pace until things either went south or it was time to drop things even further. We rolled through 10k without reason for celebration and simply continued on, making the Northern most turn on the course before heading back towards the downtown area. Now, although it felt something like an easy-paced group run, our efforts were about to be rewarded massively as we entered “Boystown” and onward, one of the more encouraging stretches of the course. All of a sudden we were again engulfed in spectators going absolutely nuts. Honestly, I didn’t see much of what was going on around me, but boy did I hear it. Music, shouts of encouragement and who knows what else all around me, filling me with an energy I’ve never experienced in a race before. Everything was so incredibly exhilarating. The stretch that brought us back into the heart of the city was ceaseless in its crowds and I was a touch concerned that I was being pulled faster than I should have been. Spurred on by the excitement all around me I suddenly found myself at the front of our group of 6 or 7 runners, pulling us all into the city. Up to this point I heard a lot of cheering…a lot…but somewhere around mile 8 a spectator seemingly ran onto the course at our group and yelled “Run Vegan!”. I thought to myself “Awesome!! My first personal cheer!” It might have seemed a small gesture, but it was incredibly encouraging to know that complete strangers WERE on the course looking for me and I was pushed stronger down the road. I no longer felt like an anonymous runner in a sea of people. Leading our group back into the city we rolled towards mile 10 and 11 and although I was concerned that this stretch might seem agonizingly long – not yet at half-way – it came and went with nothing more than a glance at the 5:30 broadcast on my watch. Still running smooth with not a hint of fatigue our group continued into the city, toeing the beginning of the “Miracle Mile” and one of the most exuberant portions of the course.
When I stand on the start line of any other race I find it hard not to look at the other runners around me and essentially size them up. There is always a competitive dynamic that drives a wedge between any sense of camaraderie among runners just before the race, but standing on the line at Chicago there was something noticeably different, not only because most of us were looking for others to actually run WITH instead of against, but there was something else as well. As I looked around at the other runners I saw twinges of nervousness for sure, but more than anything else I saw smiles. Smiles! We were about to put our bodies through something tremendous and everyone was absolutely giddy! It was infectious. The connection I felt among those strangers around me was deeper than a sense of camaraderie, I imagine it’s akin to the bond soldiers have in battle. We all knew that somewhere in the next 3 hours we were going to have to fight and fight hard, and there was something of extreme comfort to know everyone else around us would be doing the same. I felt not competition, but comfort by the other runners on the start. Fast forward to the group of 5:30 runners that clumped on the course and I had found not only brothers in battle, but for the rest of the race, what felt like my best friends. I had no idea who they were, but in contrast to most races, I didn’t want to lose them on the course. I needed them around to help push me to continuous 5:30’s and I dare say they needed me all the same. At the same time, while we carried each other to our pacing by taking turns at the front, our group created another unexpected dynamic. A spectacle for the crowds. Most of the runners in front of us were ants in a line, individually pulling themselves up the road and being encouraged by the spectators, but imagine the visual for everyone else when among that line of runners breaks into a mass of 6 or 7 guys spinning down the road. The cheers grew noticeably louder when we would blast around a turn into an open stretch of road, as I must assume we looked like we weren’t just “running a marathon”, but RACING one. The cheers for our group were loud and pointed and helped tremendously. And for those in the running know, we heard a lot of good advice “That’s it! Run together! Work together!”, “Great job guys! Help each other out! Stay together!” It’s good advice and my new, albeit temporary, best friends did our best to heed the demands as we fiercely ran into the shadowed streets of downtown Chicago.
Mile 12 – 13.1
Still feeling incredibly strong and sensing not a hint of fatigue, not in my legs or lungs, I stayed at the front of our group as we continued to run back into the center city where the skyscrapers loomed ominous and threatening. Like fearless warriors we ran straight into the gauntlet of spectator lined streets cheering us on, their voices heightened by the echoes of the buildings all around. We ran through the aid station just before the 12 mile marker, split apart as we grabbed for cups of fuel on either side of the street and then regrouped in formation once past the line of blue-jacketed volunteers, myself still at the helm as we crossed the last bridge within the darkened heart of downtown. Just up ahead was the second most important time clock of the marathon…halfway, and maybe it was the magnitude of that threshold, or maybe again it was the crowds that gathered around this crucial point, but we were forcefully sucked into a mass of incredibly energetic spectators that surrounded the 90 degree turn towards 13.1 miles. As far as crowd support went, I think this felt like the most intense point of the whole marathon as people yelled wildly when our group swung around the turn, igniting the cheers of the crowd that watched us come into view. And if I remember correctly, it was also at this point I heard some of my friends who also came out to watch me run, who were also following me around the course. We pushed up a small incline that crested at another bridge and then pointed us downward towards 13 miles and soon thereafter 13.1, the official halfway point. At this juncture I had no idea what we would be running through midpoint at as I had not taken the time to plan out goal times for the course. I was more comfortable with running by goal pace and feel instead of worrying about compensating for missing projected goal times, so imagine my shock then when we ran through halfway at 1:12 and change, a predictor of a sub 2:24 marathon if I negative split the second half of the course, which is most often the marathon strategy. Probably still running on the adrenaline of the first half of the course, I barely flinched when we ran through at 1:12, but as the following mile stretched out before us I couldn’t help but consider what this meant, which was either a stunning marathon debut far ahead of any projection I had envisioned if I negative split the course, a complete blow up at the wall that forces me to do the “survival shuffle” the last 4 – 5 miles, or something of a mix between the two. I had no idea what lay ahead, but continued on at the quickened, but seemingly effortless pace we were running.
My Own Personal Cheer (death) Squad
For those of you who followed my blog leading up to the race, you know all about my calls for support while out on the course and I’m deeply grateful for everyone who obliged. I DID hear you. However, I owe a special expression of gratitude to 6 individuals who not only carried me through when I needed it, but made the race infinitely more exciting for me as I knocked out the miles. My girlfriend Michelle and my friends Colleen, Nolen, Dan, Jill and Keith comprised the most dedicated and badass cheer squad on the Chicago streets that day. Armed with steel horses (well, bicycles), these 6 individuals, broken into 2 groups blasted around the city catching me at crucial points and giving much needed encouragement and blasts of adrenaline (spiritual, not the drug…I’m clean I swear!). Michelle, Colleen and Nolen alone caught me at like 7 or 8 spots alone. Michelle took photos as Colleen hoisted our famous “Fuck Yeah! Run Vegan!” hand painted sign and Nolen screamed such inspirational one-liners at me such as, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” And when I couldn’t hear those three, Dan, Jill and Keith were picking up the slack screaming right in my face (literally) and calling out overall placing in the race. So not only did I have the hoards of spectators cheering us on, I was doubled and tripled up with groups riding around the city catching me all over the course. I couldn’t HELP but run fast! It undoubtedly added another encouraging element to my race as I wondered where they might pop up next and it seemed like they were there at every high energy point, adding that much more needed encouragement. In my blog I gave pointers as to the type of encouragement that works best for me and these two groups carried through smashingly. After the race, the coach of my running buddies excitedly exclaimed to me, “Dude, you were the only one that I heard people yelling FUCKING GO for!”. I assured him there were F-bombs dropped all over that course for me…..and it worked, I’m telling you. I owe a good portion of that race to these 6 individuals…I owe you all.
Mile 14 -15
Running on the thrill of passing 13.1 miles I still tried to stay disconnected from the race for as long as I could hold out, which would of course be determined by my body and the point it decided to tell me that the honeymoon was over. Still though, we carried on into mile 14 and I only briefly entertained the thought that this was now the longest I had ever raced in my life. Sure, I’ve run well over 14 miles, but never so fast this consistently. I was now in new territory. I tried not to dwell on the concept for long as we pushed up a road that ran West out of downtown and suddenly fell eerily quiet as the spectators thinned out considerably. Our group still held tight though and we pushed towards another aid station where I ripped another Gu that was pinned to my shorts, squeezed a few globs into my mouth and threw the package to the ground. We made it through the station unscathed and continued West down a noticeably slanted road that started to put undue strain on one side of my body. Fortunately, at the point I decided to make a move away from this aggravation the runner to my right veered to the center of the road which ran level, allowing me to surge ahead and get on even ground as well. I then felt something sharp on the outside of my big toe, which could have been a blister, but the pain was pointed enough that for a second I wondered if I lost a toenail and it was jabbing into the side of my foot. I wiggled my toe a bit and eventually the pain subsided. Not giving it another thought we continued up the road, but that minor pain might have been the first moment of foreshadowing of what was to come. Making the Western most turn of the course at mile 15 we veered back towards the city and into a noticeable wind that we took turns breaking by exchanging places up front as we stayed tight together. Still ceaselessly hitting 5:30 pace we continued to pick off runners ahead that were failing in the effort. Whether it was the wind or the struggle of the effort to keep pace, around mile 15 was the first time I noticed I wasn’t pulling the pack ahead, but I certainly wasn’t falling off either. I relented to the leaders and allowed them to pull me along while I gauged the effort that was to come. This race was by no means over.