Wednesday, April 6, 2011

April 5

  I was anxious before my run today. 21 miles is a long way to run, and I'd never gone that far during training before. I'd always stuck to the widely accepted rule that while training for a marathon, your longest run should not exceed 20 miles. It wasn't the extra mile that made me anxious though. I'd have been a bit nervous if it were 20, or even 18. That's just a long way to go, and I know that if I'm not feeling my best that day, its going to get tough towards the end. But I decided back in February that I was going to push harder for this race, and so push is what I'll do. After all, conquering those fears and tearing down self imposed limitations are a big part of what running these races is all about.

  I set out at 1:00 pm on the nose. I ran southeast to start, and I was out of Pilsen within minutes. I passed through Chinatown and into the northern edge of Bridgeport. I was feeling good but not great at this point. I felt a little stiff, but no real pains. And I was catching a few strong gusts of wind, but nothing sustained. By the time I turned east into Bronzeville and then headed north towards downtown, I knew I was going a little too strong. Its easy to do without even thinking about it at the beginning of a long run. If your mind doesn't tell your body whats coming, your body won't bother to hold anything back.

  Running down State street, from Bronzeville to the South Loop, you can see the slow and seemingly sporadic  process of gentrification as it makes its way south. It doesn't happen one block at a time. It happens one building at a time. New condos on this block. A couple of hip restaurants on that one. But plenty of old run down properties still among them. Warehouses, housing projects, liquor stores and fast food spots are still common. But not as common as they once were.

  By the time I got to Roosevelt and turned into Grant Park, the aforementioned contrasts were gone and I was in Downtown Chicago. Scrubbed and clean as to appear welcoming and not the least bit threatening to the tourists and suburbanites who've made their way here to shop and pass through the museums, pizza parlors, and bars.

  I cut over to the lake and saw that the buoys were back in the water. The boats won't be far behind. I passed Navy Pier and Ohio Street Beach and saw only a sprinkling of tourists. Summer is close but it isn't here yet.

  As I got to the north end of Oak Street Beach I saw the Pigeon Lady. She had fewer birds around her than usual. But she sat motionless as ever. Bundled up under multiple layers of coats and scarves, she sat on the sand and stared out at Lake Michigan. I have no idea what she looks like. I've only seen her back. And I know even less about what might be going through her head as she sits there, day after day.

  As I approached the boat house at North Ave Beach, I realized that I was getting a little tight. I wasn't even close to the half way mark, so that was a little disheartening. But I was able to put that out of my head fairly easily as I moved west and into Lincoln Park and headed for the zoo.

  I was only peripherally aware of the animals as I ran through the zoo. My thoughts were wandering back to April 5, 1994 at that moment. That was the day that Kurt Cobain killed himself. I was in Houston visiting my Uncle Bob, who was fighting through the final stages of lung cancer in the next room. It was late at night and the rest of the family was in bed. I sat in the living room with only the light of the TV, and when I stopped on MTV for a moment, I learned from Kurt Loder that Cobain's body had been found in his Seattle home. My cousin Shelli came home a little later. I think she was about 21 years old at the time. I was 19. We sat in front of the TV as the news of his death was repeated. I had been reminded of that earlier this morning when I saw on the internet that today was the 17th anniversary of that death.

  I ran past the ponds on the north end of the park and made my way through Lakeview, Boystown, and Uptown. When I hit Montrose, I turned left and ran along the back side of Graceland Cemetery. I'd wanted to run through the graveyard, but by the time I located the entrance I was heading south on Clark, and I had already ruled out the possibility of backtracking. I passed by Wunder Cemetery as well. Wunder is surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, as opposed to the high brick walls of Graceland, so I could at least let my gaze comb the grounds. But again, I didn't feel up to exploring, so that was all that I was going to get out of north side cemetery tour.    

  By the time I got to Wrigley, the Cubs game was well under way. The streets and sidewalks were relatively clear. Those that had tickets were in the park, and the rest were on bar stools.

  I was becoming genuinely fatigued by the time I turned onto Sheffield and made my way south towards Lincoln Park. (The neighborhood this time. Not the actual park.) When I'd got as far as Belmont I accepted that I was going to need something to drink. I ran into the drugstore across from the Vic Theater, made my way through the maze of stuff that I didn't need, grabbed a sports drink, downed that, and got back on the road.

  I passed a few pretty girls when I ran by DePaul University, but I didn't notice much else at that point. My thighs were hurting, my hamstrings were wound tight like fishing line, and I wasn't aware of much that was happening outside of my own body. I was far from out of gas, but I was constantly taking stock of my condition.

  When I turned onto Clybourn, and saw Halsted in the distance, my spirits lifted. Halsted was the home stretch, and while I was fading, it was a slow fade. I didn't see any wall on the horizon, and I didn't anticipate seeing one.

  Running south on Halsted, I slowed and then stopped as I approached Division. Across the street a wrecking ball (it was actually more of a wrecking block) was knocking down the last building in Cabrini Green. I looked around and saw that others had stopped to watch as well. Nobody was speaking, as far as I could tell. We all just stood there and watched as the last piece of this infamous housing project was knocked down.

  I've only lived in Chicago for six years. And by the time I got here, Cabrini's fate had already been decided. Condos and boutiques lined the streets just one block away. And the residents of this failed experiment were already being relocated. I don't think I've ever even met anybody that has lived there. But I couldn't help stopping to look. A lot of lives had passed through those buildings on that little chunk of earth. Lives that are so different from mine in so many ways, that it would feel dishonest and arrogant to even speculate on what it would have been like to live there. But a piece of American history was coming down before my eyes, and I couldn't help but be moved. Though I'm still uncertain of the root and nature of whatever it was that I was feeling.

  My legs began to stiffen as I stood there, and I took that as my cue to get moving. I was about 17-18 miles in, so stopping for any significant length of time was a bad idea. The bridge on Halsted that carries you across the river is being rebuilt, so I turned west on Division and followed Hooker street around and back to Halsted.

  I had a couple more bridges to cross and I'd be in Greektown, and from there I was almost home. Just a quick shot across the UIC campus. My body was sore and the running was slow, but my mind was clean and clear. I jogged through the last few miles with a quiet calm inside of me. Even the outside world seemed a bit more peaceful. Cars seemed slower, the sun a bit more soft, and the city noises seemed like they were far off in the distance.

  When I touched the mural on 19th street, which is my finish line when I'm coming home from the northeast, my legs locked up almost immediately, and the pain began in earnest. But the peace remained. It was 3:50 pm when I got to my building. I talked briefly with a neighbor before excusing myself. I climbed the stairs to my apartment, downed some water, and laid down on the floor with my knees pulled up to my chin.

  At that moment I was empty. Mentally and physically, I was empty and at peace. And I laid there like that. With just the hint of a smile at the corners of my mouth. Letting the beauty of it all soak in.

  Five and a half weeks until the Cleveland Marathon.

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