I ran my second marathon in Chicago on October 11, 2009. My finishing time was 3:41:27. It's hard to see how this one could have gone much better.
Having completed my first marathon earlier in the year, I started training for Chicago with the clear goal of getting faster. I had found something that I loved, and that I felt I was good at, and I wanted to see how far I could push it.
I had several reasons to believe that I'd finish this race much faster than the first. I had already been training for months for the first race, so I'd be building on top of a much stronger base this time around. I would also be running a flat course, as opposed to fighting the hills in Austin. And I had the advantage of being at home. Having the chance to get a good night's sleep in my own bed, after having cooked exactly what I wanted to eat, was a big comfort. I had been developing a routine for the nights before my long training runs, and I loved the idea of not having to alter that before the actual race.
I piled up the miles all summer. And as fall approached, I was was boiling over with confidence and excitement. I felt physically strong for the first time in my life, and I was anxious to get out there and give the new wheels a spin.
Race day weather was fantastic. I think it may have been around forty degrees when I walked to the el train before dawn. The course runs two blocks from my house, and it was exciting to walk down the street and watch all of the volunteers setting up the water stations in my neighborhood. That home turf feel was easy to feed off of.
Seven of my friends/coworkers were running that morning as well. I met up with most of them for a brief moment, but we soon parted ways. The crowd was massive, and I wanted to get to gear-check, and then work my way up as far as I could.
Once the starting gun was fired, it took nearly twenty minutes for me to reach the starting line. And even when I did finally cross, the pace only picked up a little bit. We shuffled through that first couple of miles shoulder to shoulder, zigzagging through the eastern edges of downtown. It wasn't until we finally turned onto LaSalle, that I was able to find some daylight to run through.
But from there on, I didn't run into too many outright bottlenecks. I was still running with a lot of people that were moving at a slower pace than I was, and it did get tight in some spots, but I could usually find a hole to squeeze through.
By the time I reached the half way mark, the crowd had started to thin out. I'd been trying to take back the minutes that I'd lost in the early going, but my success was limited. The crowd just wasn't conducive to the fast, straight-line running that I needed in order to recapture the spent time.
The crowd was helpful in its own way though. Running among so many is quite a rush. And while I don't ever root against other runners (My battle is with myself.), it was empowering to find myself passing so many people, mile after mile. And when fatigue and pain did eventually creep up on me, I felt like I could draw on the energy of everything that was happening around me.
A big part of that energy came from the spectators. Austin had had spectators, but not like this. Locals lined the streets nine and ten deep at some points, friends and families of runners carried signs and noisemakers, and music blasted from the apartment buildings that we passed. It wasn't exactly the Super Bowl, but it was a major sporting event, and participating, rather than watching, was awesome.
When we ran south of Chinatown and started into Bridgeport, I could feel the first undeniable signs that I was breaking down. But this was the 20 mile mark. Quite a bit further along than the last time. And again, I think the location helped a lot at this point. The neighborhoods that we ran through for miles 18 through 26, were the neighborhoods that I ran through every day. That familiarity was comforting. I could look back on the runs through those streets just fifteen months earlier, when I was heaving and panting and struggling to get through a five mile run. I drew strength from the understanding that I'd come so far already. And it helped to know exactly where I was. I had no need for mile markers out here. I knew the course. I knew where the Finish Line was. And I knew what I'd need to get there.
When we turned onto Michigan Ave., I finally found the uncrowded straightaway that I'd been looking for. But there were only a couple of miles to go, and the idea of speeding up to pick up some minutes was long gone. The only thing left at that point is to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I managed that all the way to Roosevelt, which is where we turned to run along the southern edge of Grant Park, and where we were faced with the only hill on the course. It's one block long, and it's followed by the flat two blocks that lead to Finish Line. In my mind, I envisioned a strong finishing kick, similar to the one that I'd found at the end of the Austin Marathon. But that hill wasn't having it. I was able to run through it without slowing my pace, but I'd have to be content with that. There just wasn't anything left for a kick.
Once again, I finished the race to find myself in a state of elation, peace, exhaustion, and pain. I had some muscle spasms just past the finish line that were more excruciating than any other running pains that I've felt before or since. But those did pass. And within a couple of hours, I was on my feet again.
I had knocked more than a mile per minute off of my time, and I felt invincible. The idea of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, which had been growing in my mind for some time, shot straight to the forefront of my thoughts. 2009 was coming to a close, and I had fully felt the empowering impact of running marathons. It was all beginning to feel easy. But 2010 was on the way. And I would be reminded time and again throughout that year, that nothing worth having is easy. I was about to discover the humbling impact that running marathons has to offer as well.