When I first started running, a marathon seemed like an impossible feat. But if you did it, if you somehow managed to run 26 miles, your time didn't matter.
That changed when I started running them.
As with any other race, it was never enough to finish. I had to beat them. I'm not exactly proud of that. But it was what attracted me to running in the first place. Every year I saw progress. That progress was intoxicating. I measured that progress by my times.
My first marathon didn't go well. I cramped up to the point where I couldn't run after mile 20. I had to do better, and next year, I did. I ran the whole way, with no cramping, and finished well. I began to think I could do even better.
Last year, I ran a small marathon in South Carolina with some good friends. It was a wonderful experience. I ran a solid time, even PRd by a minute, but I believed it could have been so much better. Cramping, again, slowed me down. I didn't feel too bad about it, but there was an asterisk next to it.
That's why I targeted the Chicago Marathon. I thought I was finally ready to run fast and hard for a long time, just like I did in my half marathons. I wanted that perfect race. I even dreamed of qualifying for Boston.
The Boston Marathon is the crown jewel of marathons. I thought it about it a lot. I wondered how good it would feel to cross the finish line, and this is embarrassing to say, post on Facebook and see the accolades pour in. I wanted to shock people. I wanted to shock myself. I especially wanted to shock all those people who picked on me when I was much younger for, among other things, being a lousy athlete.
I didn't approach the Chicago Marathon to qualify for Boston. But I wasn't afraid of trying. I told myself I would run what felt good, but that I would also push it. I knew, going in, that it was risky to run a hard first half, given what happened in South Carolina last year. But I wanted to try it.
I tried not to obsess about it. I was still a father, and a husband, and a guy with a job. For the most part, I didn't. I would think about it late at night, when everyone else was asleep. Or when I'd go on one of my frequent training runs. Everything seemed to point to a great marathon. My six half marathons all went well this year, and I PRd three times. I knew the course was usually cool and flat almost the whole way.
I really, honestly thought I was ready. I was wrong.
But this is not a sob story about another failed attempt at a perfect marathon. It is an examination of the human spirit - not my own - and how a little kindness can ease a painful situation and leave you with a smile on your face.
• • •
Marathons bring out the best in people, but I always thought it was the runners who benefitted, not the people watching. When the cramps hit in my first, other runners stopped to share pretzels, bananas and their drinks. A marathon, if you hadn't guessed by now, is unpredictable, and all you can do is plan for the worst and pray for the best. These runners had planned for the worst, meticulously, in fact, and at mile 20, when the worst was probably yet to come, they crumpled up and threw that planning and caution in the trash to help a fellow runner who they didn't know. Marathoners bond over the grueling training and distance of the race, and they cheer each other when they pass, talk about their plans and offer words of encouragement about their training.
I changed my mind a little bit about spectators after Boston, when it was the spectators, not the runners, who felt most of the bombs' wrath, and yet many others stepped forward to help the runners after the explosions. There were stories about neighbors bringing out water and juice and fruit for the trapped runners who wouldn't get to finish.
So I was excited to run Chicago because I'd never been in a race that attracted a lot of spectators. Chicago, I was told, had spectators three deep, all 26 miles of the course, for a total of 1.7 million. It seemed almost impossible to comprehend. Surely, I thought, those people had to be passive. There were 45,000 running the race. Wouldn't your hands hurt from clapping so much?
• • •
It was a cool morning, almost too perfect, when me and a friend strolled out of our hotel to walk the mile to the race. It was dark, but I could sense the anticipation of the other runners as they swept past me. I was not the only one, it seemed, who had high hopes for the race. My friends, three of them who traveled with me, had the same high hopes. Everyone does before a race.
By that point, I was already blown away by the enormity of it all. The race expo was big. HUGE. There were booths from every major apparel and shoe company. Hal Higdon, whose plan I followed for my marathons, was there. The walkway had to be the size of at least a football field, if not two, and it went five rows deep.
The city, too, was massive. Think about the fact that I liked Denver, and enjoyed Denver, but considered Denver too big for my tastes. Chicago seemed three times as large as Denver. It probably is.
I walked around the city with wide eyes, trying, at first, to avoid contact with anyone who came in my way. I had assumed that people in large cities were hurried, busy and, well, a little rude. Again, I'm not proud of that, but that was the mid-sized city in me. My fears seemed justified, too, when the first desk clerk at the hotel hissed at our request for a late check-out to grab a quick shower after the race. Too many people, she said, would want one.
I began to change my mind when strangers would look us over while waiting for a light at the street corner, then smile and ask if we were running. They didn't have to ask about the race. Just "are you running?" When we said yes, they would tell us good luck.
So my fears about Chicago had dissipated as we walked toward the race. But as the race began, I would be pleasantly surprised.
Almost euphorically so.
• • •
I felt good as the race began, but I always feel good the first few miles of a marathon. It's a deadly trap. I told myself, over and over, to slow down, and so I was careful about sticking to my plan. But even my plan was aggressive, and I was happy to realize it felt good. As soon as two years ago, my pace would have PRd my half by four minutes. But it had been two years. Again, I thought I was ready for it. I was barely breathing hard as my pace crept down to 7:35 per mile. I felt elated. Maybe this would be THE race.
By the time I crossed the halfway mark at 1:41, I was a little concerned. If I stopped now, I thought, I'd be tired. I'd consider that a pretty good race. I might even have a hard time making it back to my hotel without limping a touch. But I was confident, too, that I had run smart.
The thing was, yes, I ran well, and yes, I felt elated, but my stomach was a little crampy. I began to walk through the aid stations to try to get more fluids in my body, but that seemed to make it worse, and I was having trouble breathing. It was as if someone had inflated a balloon in my mid-section. Well, I thought, I'd just have to back off on fluids and nutrition for a bit.
Well, that works in a half. I've ran whole halves without eating or drinking a damn thing. A marathon is two halves. And this would be a tale of two of them.
My calves began to twitch at mile 16. I knew that wasn't good. I changed my running style a bit, and it seemed to work, for a while, anyway. I threw down a 7:50 mile and prayed I'd be OK.
Prayers don't work in a marathon. I'm sorry if that offends your religious nature. But they don't.
By mile 18, the road sloped down a touch, into a short tunnel, and when I came out the other side, my hamstring began tightening. OK, OK, I whispered to it, gently. We'll take it easy. But my hamstring froze, and I couldn't move my right leg. I was helpless. Pain radiated down my leg and into my foot. I felt like the tin man without his oil can.
A police officer approached me. "Are you OK?" he asked. "Yes," I said, and it was the truth. I was positive, lucid and had energy.
I just couldn't move.
"Cramps?" the officer said.
"Yeah," I said. "This is the marathon for you."
"Well," he said, "if you need me to support you, you just lean on my shoulder and let me know, OK?"
I almost began tearing up. Here was an officer who had a lot on his mind, like, you know, terrorism. Chicago was the biggest race since Boston. It was a natural target. And there's always crowd control. But he seemed more worried about me.
That's when I looked around me, and I saw a group of about 50 all cheering for me. "YOU GOT THIS COLORADO" many yelled, referring to my tank top with the Colorado flag out front. I smiled and gave a little wave, and they nearly burst my eardrums.
I"d never experienced anything like it in my life.
I began to walk, to work out the cramp, but I had no hopes at that point of my best race. I knew I'd have to play cat and mouse with the cramps. I could run, but it would only be for a while, and then I'd have to stop to ward them off again. I hoped I could still run, say, 3:30 or 3:35. It seemed realistic. I'd only have to run a half slower than any time I'd run in five years.
I continued to walk, and then I jogged a bit and took a look around. The spectators were roaring at this point. It was almost unnerving. They were shaking signs, hilarious ones at that, stuff that read "You've done dumber things drunk."
A mile later, when I had to walk again, a spectator reached out to pat me on the back. Her hand lingered on my shoulder. "It's OK hun," she said. "It's a long way to the finish. You take your time."
That's when it hit me. These people were not only here to cheer me on. They were here to will me to the end.
At that point, I dropped all my natural defenses and hesitations and let them wash over me. I gave thumbs up, high fives and cheered right along with them, even when I had to frequently walk.
I had a smile on my face the whole time. But more than that, even when it was apparent I'd just miss the four-hour mark, a landmark that most marathoners consider a goal, I just shrugged my shoulders. I ran the last mile the whole way, even when I had to grit my teeth through it, and I didn't do it for myself. I did it for them.
The people who didn't know me did something amazing. They made me not care, at least not too much, about my time. They forced me to understand what a cool thing it is to be able to run a marathon in a big city. I preach all the time to my friends to be grateful for what they can do before they start a race. Chicago made me follow my own advice.
Later, dozens of people passed us on the street, and they continued to lift me up. Far too many congratulated us. I thanked them as best I could. But I prefer to think about when I crossed the finish line.
I didn't cheer, raise my arms or clap. I simply turned around and blew them all a kiss, before I turned around, joined the hundreds crowding around me, and reveled at how comfortable I was in their masses.