I had done several 5Ks and even a couple half marathons in the past, but I remember realizing as soon as I got to Grant Park the morning of the 2006 Chicago Marathon that this was going to be a completely different experience…. and it wasn’t just because of the longer distance – it was the entire atmosphere surrounding the race.
The weather had been perfect for running the day before the race – sunny with a high in the mid 60’s, but typical of Chicago in October, race day itself was cold and rainy. It didn’t matter though – as thousands of runners stretched, warmed up, got good luck hugs and kisses from loved ones and shuffled into their corrals, there was a buzz in the air that was unlike any of the other races I had done before. I’ve heard plenty of stories about people being nervous at the beginning of their first full marathon, but for some reason, I wasn’t. It may have been because I had spent the entire summer training hard and felt confident that I was going to have a great race, or maybe it was the energy in the air at the start line or me being in awe of running my first marathon and being determined to prove to myself that I could do it… or maybe I was just too naive to realize what it was really going to be like to run a full marathon, but in any case, the butterflies that I was expecting to feel in my stomach while I was standing at the start line just weren’t there. All I felt was a feeling of resolve to do whatever it would take to run a strong race all the way to the finish line mixed with excitement at the thought of running 26.2 miles through what I still consider to be the best city in the world.
Despite the weather, I have so many good memories of the 2006 Chicago Marathon that it’s hard to list them all out. The most obvious one was that it was my first full marathon. I ran harder and longer than I ever had before for over three and a half hours, experienced some of the greatest highs, pushed myself to keep moving forward through the toughest lows, saw some of the most amazing sights the city has to offer, and knew the second I crossed the finish line that for the rest of my life, nobody would ever be able to take away the fact that I was now a marathoner.
Even the months leading up to the marathon were memorable. Before I started training, 13.1 miles had been the furthest I had ever run…. but to train the right way for a full marathon, you have to do at least one 20 mile run along with all of the other long runs that lead up to it, so once I got about halfway through my training, I started to feel like I was setting a new personal record for distance almost every weekend (because in reality I was)…. and each one of those long runs was further than I would have ever thought I could have gone before I started training.
On race day I made my way to my coral about a half hour before the start time and looked around in awe at some of the other runners. I talked to a lady from New York City who was planning on running Chicago and then flying home and running the New York Marathon a few weeks later. She said it was her third time doing that (back then it was a lot easier to register for races than it is now). I saw an older gentleman who had an announcement written in sharpie marker on the back of his shirt that said that it was his 11th and final Chicago Marathon and hoped I would be able to do that many. I saw runners with names of charities or pictures of loved ones that they were running for on their shirts, fidgeting with their GPS watches and talking to each other about their strategies for the various parts of the race or just about running in general.
When the race started, dozens of old sweatshirts and plastic bags that people had been using to keep warm while they waited began to fly to the sides of the course while the first sets of runners started to head north on Columbus Drive. I remember a bunch of runners (myself included) letting out loud WOOHOOs when we ran underneath the overpass by Randolph Street and listening to them echo through the tunnels…. and I tried to take as much in as I could and enjoy my running / sightseeing tour of Chicago.
The first few miles of the Chicago Marathon are always pretty congested with runners weaving back and forth to try and find a comfortable pace. It isn’t until about mile 10 that things really start to open up. After the race, I remember looking at my split times with a runner friend and she asked me how I managed to speed up and run the second half of a marathon faster than I ran the first half. I told her that I didn’t really speed up – I just finally got enough space to run at the pace I wanted to. Regardless of that though, the course is so flat and the weather is (usually) mild at that time of year so a lot of people still tend to PR and qualify for the Boston Marathon in this race, so if I have one piece of advice for anyone running the Chicago Marathon, it would be to not stress out about your pace too much in the beginning. Just go with the flow and try to gain some ground when you can, but save your energy and keep in mind that things will eventually open up and you’ll be able to use all that extra energy to push yourself harder later in the race.
One of the best things about the Chicago Marathon is that the course goes through 29 different Chicago neighborhoods so runners really get to see what life is like all around the different parts of the city. The crowds in Boystown, Old Town, and River North are amazing. It’s still early enough in the race when the course goes through that area that nobody is feeling too sore yet (this is about mile 8 through 12) and the music, dancing, thick crowds of spectators, and general overall atmosphere make it feel more like you’re in the middle of a massive party that stretches out over several miles than running a marathon.
About a block or so after the 13th mile marker I remember thinking to myself “OK this is officially the furthest I’ve ever run in a race”. That by itself gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment that helped carry me through the next several miles….. which ended up being pretty good because the loop around the United Center during miles 14-16 can be pretty dull. I honestly don’t mind this part of the course though – I know that most runners will say that it’s not their favorite stretch, particularly because there’s not a lot of crowd support here and the course tends to get pretty quiet as soreness is starting to creep in, but for me, this is an area of the city where I spent several years working in while I was in college in the late 90’s, during a time when people were afraid to go outside because of the amount of crime in the area…. and over the last several years, I’ve watched it go through one of the most amazing urban renewals that I’ve ever seen. The transformation has been stunning and I’m still in awe so running through the area and thinking about what it used to look like and how far it’s come since then always brings a smile to my face.
At mile 18 there were some people who had set out their own “water” table in front of their house and were handing out tequila shots to any runners who dared to stop and do one. After some internal debate, I decided not to do a shot myself (I was focused on running hard and finishing strong) but a number of runners did and it made me laugh. I did the Chicago Marathon again a few years later and looked for the people with the shot table but unfortunately I couldn’t find them….
By mile 20 my body was craving protein and all I could think about was how much I wanted a nice big steak taco. I didn’t care how badly my legs were hurting or how many more miles I still had to run… all I wanted was some nice juicy red meat… in a corn tortilla surrounded tomatoes, onions, and peppers…. and the fact that I was running through Pilsen, which has some of the best Mexican restaurants in the city (and probably even in the entire US for that matter) definitely did not help my craving to subside. I think I might have grabbed an orange slice at the next water table, but alas… an orange is not a taco…..
Throughout miles 21 and 22, I remember having to make a conscious effort to push myself to keep running. The pain in my legs was really starting to set in and I was sweaty and tired but running through Chinatown and watching the parade of dancing dragons and listening to the cheering and music during mile 22 gave me a nice boost. This couldn’t have come at a better time.
When I hit mile 23, I remember thinking “ok all that’s left is a 5K… I got this”. My legs were far too worn out to let me run any faster than I already was but it wasn’t long before I was heading north on Michigan Avenue by that point and I could see the Chicago skyline and at that point I knew that I would be crossing the finish line in less than a half hour.
Mile 24 and 25 were kind of a blur… that section of the course is pretty flat and the crowds along Michigan Avenue keep getting bigger and bigger as the finish line gets closer and closer. I remember feeling like I was slowing down and the miles were taking longer than I wanted them to, but that was offset by the feeling of knowing that I was going to finish this…. and that I would be finishing very soon. My legs were stiff, my skin felt like a sweaty, salty mess, and my clothes were soaked with rain and sweat, but I didn’t care… I wasn’t going to stop. Close to the end of mile 25, there are signs that start to pop up alongside the course that count down exactly how many feet are left until the finish line (1000, 750, 500…..). Looking at these helped give me another extra push.
At mile 26, runners turn onto Roosevelt Road and run up the only significant hill on the entire course before turning back into Grant Park and heading to the finish line. This isn’t a particularly long hill and it’s definitely not as steep as the hills that you’ll find if you go running in places like Seattle or San Francisco…. but it’s a hill nonetheless and after running on nice flat even ground for the entire race up to that point, it can feel a bit daunting…. But by then I knew that I had made it that far and that this one last hill was the only thing that’s in between where I was and the finish line, so I push myself hard to get over it.
Crossing the finish line gave me this really weird surreal feeling. I was in pain, but I felt great. I had just done something that I never thought I would have been able to do but it still hadn’t sunk in yet that I had actually done it. I got my race medal and some post run snacks and relived parts of the race in my head while I walked over to get my gear and started to notice the pain in my legs…… Then I changed into some dry clothes and went to go get the one thing I had been craving for over an hour – steak tacos (and a beer too of course).
Aside from the training and the race itself, something else I’ve noticed is the way that I changed after running it. I crossed the finish line and even though it was cold and rainy and I was exhausted and in pain, I still felt like I was on top of the world. And since then, the way I look at my goals and how I handle criticism and big obstacles that get in the way of things I want to do is completely different now than it used to be and I attribute that to the mindset that I had to put myself into in order to train for and run a marathon. Out on the course, there’s simply no time to dwell on a bad mile any more than there is time to spend celebrating a good one. You have to just keep pushing yourself forward through the good and the bad, ignore whatever happened in the past, and look forward to what’s coming all the way until you cross the finish line. Any marathon runner will tell you that thinking about running that way also forces you to think about the rest of your life that way as well, and it gives you a completely different perspective on the types of things that are important to you and what your priorities should or shouldn’t be along with instilling a sense of confidence in you that makes you feel like you can tackle any obstacle that gets put in your way regardless of whether anyone else thinks you can or not. Since that October day in 2006 I’ve done five more full marathons in various places both in the US and internationally, but some of my fondest memories will always be of my first ever Chicago Marathon.