Mile 26 – 26.2
Without doubt, the last mile leading into the next felt like the longest two miles of any race I have ever run. Running through the 25 mile marker the normal relief that would take hold, knowing I was just one last effort to the finish, simply didn’t. The road only continued straight ahead with no refuge in sight. Up ahead I could only see the same thing I had been looking at for the past 2 excruciating miles, buildings on either side, a line of runners seemingly coming not towards me or moving away, spectators shouting incomprehensible encouragement, and the unforgiving black asphalt that just would…not…end. At this point in any other race, no matter how exhausted I might be, my speed would inevitably pick up and I would push as hard as I could to finish out strong in a ceaseless attempt for another PR. I would pound off the pavement as hard as I could with what was left of my leg muscles and simultaneously allow the pace of my breathing to go wildly out of control as I shortened the distance between myself and the line, but this distance had destroyed all the physical ability I had to move ahead faster and faster. Everything within me struggled to shorten the distance to the line as fast as I could, but the physical reality was that my legs were severely limited in their strength after so many miles of rhythmic pounding. By now, every muscle in the lower half of my body was frozen like ice and my body seemingly moved only on the memory of repetition. I bared my teeth and continued to pass lines of spectators who by now were as out of it as I was, or so I assumed when I continued to hear delusional shouts like, “You’re looking great! You’re doing great!” I hate those people. Suddenly I heard a much different noise, the sound of a car horn bleating quickly and repetitively. I was a bit confused at first, but assumed it must have been a med vehicle or race vehicle getting the crowd riled up as it drove down the street, and the best part is, it was working. The crowd responded by yelling and cheering louder and louder. Thinking I had stumbled into a fortunate coincidence I thought to myself, “Nice! I need this right now!” and then, like an oasis in the desert, I looked ahead to see a mass of people trailing around a turn that would bring me only 1 more block to the finish stretch. However, I still had one more massive obstacle to overcome….the bridge. Jessie Davis, who had run Chicago last year, informed me of “the bridge” that led to the finishing stretch. His exact words were, “It feels like a fucking mountain.” And he wasn’t kidding. The bridge itself is relatively short and the elevation is only 24 feet, which is actually the highest point of elevation on the entire course. The thing is though, it’s not the length of the bridge, or the incline, but WHERE it is. After all those miles, all that pounding, all that fatigue, the bridge sits just before the final stretch and the mile 26 marker sits on the crest itself. Personally, I like hills, and I made it a point to take the bridge like it was nothing, so when I rounded the turn and started up the incline I found a surge of speed I didn’t know was still in my legs. Maybe it was the incline that took pressure off specific muscles and allowed me to focus on others, but I actually started picking up my pace as I ran up the bridge, just a couple feet over from the spectators who stood on the side cheering, either masochistically waiting for runners to collapse at the effort or more likely being at a crucial point of encouragement for friends and loved ones. Whatever the reason, I was glad they were there to fill my head with incomprehensible, but still motivating, noise as I worked up the bridge. Initially, my pace had picked up and I was feeling relatively good, but quickly I felt the incline take its toll and just like a tractor pull the closer I got to the summit the slower my pace slowed. Step by step I pushed hard up the bridge, but it seemed like the harder I pushed the weaker I got. Then bam! Like a rubber band stretched to its breaking point then set free to let its momentum explode, I hit the top of the bridge and my body felt like it was propelled by an unseen force as my pace doubled and tripled almost immediately. The bridge turned downward and my legs followed suit as I tried to retain my balance down the slope. As I approached the end of the bridge I saw a volunteer yelling towards me and wildly gesturing with his arms “Get right! Stay right!”, as I swung around the final turn down the finishing stretch. I looked up to gauge how much distance I had to cover before I hit the finish line, figuring I had another 800 or so to run (I obviously wasn’t thinking all that coherently at this point), but to my surprise the fat red letters on the finish banner seemed close enough to grab. Despite the pain that continued to consume my lower half, despite my fears that my muscles were going to tear free from their tendons, I inherently pushed harder and harder until within seconds I was already laying into a sprint. Harder and harder I pushed trying to find another gear and another and another, all the while the pain in my legs filling and growing stronger and stronger as I moved down the short stretch of road. Suddenly I heard cheering, LOUD cheering. Despite being engaged in an all out sprint I was struck by the peculiarity of how loud the crowd was. Surely this wasn’t for me, but then I wondered if this was just how it was at the finish. I looked toward the finish and caught sight of a large screen broadcasting a female runner and heard an announcer mumble something about the “…first woman runner!…” Suddenly, I realized I was in a sprint next to the first woman finisher! (which explains the honking car and wildly gesturing race volunteers on the turn). I won’t lie, I didn’t want to get outsprinted, not necessarily because my current competition was a woman, but because, well….this is a race! I found one last gear, my legs about to explode in pain, my face marked with suffering, and put down the final powerful strides to the finish. Then just as I hit the last precious timing mat, the first woman finisher broke through the tape next to me…one second behind. I pulled up immediately and struggled to stay upright as my legs absorbed the weight of my slowing body. I looked up and to my surprise saw my other training friend Poray who had just crossed the line in front of me. I reached my arms out to stable myself on his shoulders and became acutely aware of the fire in my legs with each tiny step I took. And then…..it was all over….I was finished. And with that….26.2 miles lay behind me, in worse shape from me than I was from them, though they sure put up a good fight. Officially, I hit the line at 2:25:55, an average 5:34 pace per mile and 53rd place overall. And I was happy. Ok…ecstatic!
Now that the adrenaline had drained from my body, the very acute physical pain that sat in my legs hit me full force as the muscles in my legs constricted as much as they possibly could. As if I had turned into the tinman, unoiled, it became nearly impossible to flex my ankles as everything in that region locked tight. I did a sort of comical waddle forward when I saw Little coming back to us to walk the rest of the way out of the chute. Just then I heard Michelle yell my name from the other side of the fence and when I caught sight of her an uncontrollable smile spread ear to ear and I waved at her direction before turning to focus back on my pain-filled shuffle. Then an awkward sensation came flooding over me, an absurd giddyness. The race was over and everything I had dreaded coming into the effort never really materialized, I had run a successful strategy (nearly even splits), and essentially surprised the hell out of myself. I was so incredibly relieved to not only have the effort behind me, but to also have run so well, that I could barely contain my excitement and enthusiasm. I was absolutely ecstatic. I had never felt so joyous after completing a race, no matter how well I ran, in my entire life, and I know I wasn’t the only one feeling this. Little came back to us as we walked down the stretch and although he didn’t run the race he wanted, he put in a gutsy effort to make the Olympic Trials, you couldn’t really tell. We continued to walk through the finish chute in a pain that for some reason was absolutely hilarious to us as we waddled away like constipated 90 year old men, cracking jokes and laughing loudly. Where some crash to the ground crying or walk away dazed like deer in headlights or dejectedly hang their head in frustration, we were laughing and joking like half-drunk frat boys. We knew that the pain, no matter how debilitating, no matter how much it compelled me to stop and lay down on the spot, came from an effort most don’t dare attempt, and in that was reason for celebration and personal victory. We had taken on the marathon and came out the other side, and no matter how contrived it sounds, I AM now a different runner, a different person.
I ran this race, meaning I’m the only one who put one foot in front of the other for 26.2 miles, but it would be an incredibly arrogant and massive act of denial to take full credit for the performance I had in Chicago. There is no way, NO WAY, I could have continued to run like that without the support of my friends Michelle, Colleen, Nolen, Dan, Keith, and Jill who rode their bikes all over the city intercepting my race and screaming me forward. There is NO WAY I could have run like that without the flood of pre-race encouragement that was sent my way by everyone who had been following my blog, by everyone who sent me messages on facebook, and everyone who sent me private emails wishing me the best of luck. I can’t tell you how warmed and inspired I was by the attention and well wishes of so many people, both deep friends and strangers alike, who looked for me during the race, whether that was in person, on the internet, or just in their thoughts. I almost became paralyzed with the responsibility I put upon myself to have a good race for everyone who knew of my training and hopes for this debut marathon. I am indebted to so many people and for what it’s worth at this time, thank you so incredibly much. I was honestly inspired by everyone’s hopes for me and I’m beside myself with satisfaction that I was able to put in a good race. But one more thing…..this is not over. Not the season and not the effort. This is, in some way, just beginning. In the near future I have a few races, culminating in a pretty brutal trail marathon in Southern Indiana in December, in which I hope to be the first person to break 3 hours…that is, if I decide this is a good idea once I figure out how I recover. After that race, although I will continue running daily, I owe Michelle and Noah a good dose of personal time for the sacrifice they endured as I spent so much time training while building up for Chicago. Then next, well, it’s a bit off, but I plan to continue my marathon training until I get this race strategy and performance nailed. And, albeit a bit premature, if things go well, I’m making a push for the Olympic Trials.
Oh, and I’ll be blogging all the way.
Thanks for following along friends. This is just the beginning.
Take care, run fast, vegan power.