During the Saucony Hurricanes team dinner Friday night, I found myself seated right between a woman who was about to run her first marathon and a guy who just completed the Leadville 100 miler for the fifth time earlier this year. Although the discussion topics varied and the conversation flowed effortlessly between us, there was one particular question that the marathon rookie asked that hung in the air for longer than it should - During the marathon, what happens after mile 20? As I entered the twilight zone otherwise known as mile 21 of the Chicago Marathon, I found my mind asking my body the same thing.
I've been here before, I was sure. But somehow it feels different. I see people with their head down faces transfixed in a daze walking, limping, struggling to move forward and it reminds me of me, how I was, how I used to be during this mile. But now I am not, I am running. My hamstrings and quads are becoming sore and my back is starting to hurt just a little but I am running! I take another GU, my third of the day, to celebrate. If I could run sub 7 minutes miles for 6 more miles, I will be golden.
I turned a corner at 20.5 to begin my final out and back loop on Chicago's South Side and see my Flyer teammate SH standing and cheering alone on the side. Given that this part of the course was relatively dead with minimal crowd support, I was surprised to see her there. I stick out my tongue to show my fatigue but she just laughs and snaps a photo of me as I ran by. I wanted to thank her but had no energy so I just continued on.
Relative to the others on the course, I thought I was running well. I was running strong. I passed many with ease and never felt like I was slowing down. So it was a little demoralizing when I passed the mile 21 marker in a very pedestrian 7:02. This was the first mile I'd registered over 7 and served as further evidence that I was starting to fade.
My head was not in a good place at the beginning of mile 22. My pace was bad, it was starting to get warm, and my legs were starting to hurt. I needed some help to get my mind back in the game. So I asked for my brother and conjured up our own private conversation. You see, a few days ago, I'd promised him 22 as his personal dedication mile. In return he was to find a special power song that I could hum/sing while running his mile. He came back to me a day later with a number by Justin Bieber and I just had to laugh. I smiled while running 22 thinking of all the excuses he gave for that little faux pas. It served its purpose as it distracted me from having to think about the road, the sun, and the deep fatigue I was starting to feel. Mile 22 ended with a 7:05, which wasn't good, but wasn't horrific either.
I started mile 23 wanting to regain my pace. After all, there was only 4 miles left and I wanted for all the world to finish strong. But right then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a bright yellow weather alert marker behind an aid station and quickly decide that it just wasn't safe to push pace. Besides, in the back of my mind, I knew a special spectator was waiting at 22.5 and I thought blowing up and dying right at her side probably would not make for a very good first impression. So I just continued on, running with the same effort I had established before. I made sure to concentrate on my breathing and focus on my form, knowing both will be important as I got more and more fatigued.
Then at 22.5, I saw HER. She was where she'd said she would be...out on the side of the road, all decked out in her pink tutu and posters filled with inspirational messages and names for all the runners she's planning to meet. Legend has it you gain an extra few seconds per mile on your pace just from witnessing her spectation at a race! I am speaking of the lovely Redhead Morgan who drove all the way from Michigan just to cheer and watch me run past. Although our encounter was brief (yet she manages to take 2 photos of me ?) I thoroughly enjoyed seeing her there, cheering for me, which honestly made me a little self-conscious, given that there was barely any other spectators around! It is weird to think that after a couple of years of reading and following each other's blog, our first chance encounter would be for just a split second at mile 22.5 of the Chicago Marathon!
I run on, more slowly now, because my hamstrings are sore and tight and are threatening to cramp with any sudden change in pace. I see more bodies on the sidewalks at the edge of the road, walking and stretching their feet and my heart skips a beat wondering if they were me some time ago or if I would be like them in the next mile or two. i see myself past mile 23 at 7:08 and can feel my goal slipping ever closer away.
At mile 24, I asked my late sister for advice. As marathons go, this is a tradition for me. Although her physical presence no longer inhabits the earth, I always feel a spiritual connection with my sister at this late stage of a marathon. We share conversations that are so deep i taste the salt of my own tears halfway through the next mile. Today, she tells me to focus on what's important. She tells me to believe in myself. She tells me I am not a failure because she sees me victoriously crossing the finishing line! As I closed my eyes slightly to say a prayer and thank her for those kind words when all of a sudden, the runner in front of me stops dead in his tracks and I crash smack into him. I don't fall but the force of our collision sends me to a complete stop. Immediately, my right hamstring cramps, I can't move and am in severe pain. I'm stunned. I send a slate of four-letter-word expletives into the air as he tries profusely to apologize. I take a couple of seconds to assess the situation and force my legs to move. Once I realized I wasn't seriously hurt, I just got angry...very very angry. In my head I was thinking - There is no way I'm running 23 miles just to let some punk kid ruin my chances at sub3. I force myself to run despite the shockwaves of pain shooting up my right leg with each step. I didn't care anymore. I saw that I was already at 7:30 pace for the first quarter mile of 24 and the world be damned if I lose my goal because of this debacle. Once the cramp loosened and the sharp pain gradually transformed into sustained soreness after a couple of steps, I just took off and sprinted HARD for the rest of the mile. I ran fast but still registered a 7:12 for mile 24.
We are all running for home now, one straight shot up Michigan Ave. Way in the distance, I could see the Sear Tower and the skyscrapers emerging triumphantly against a pastel of blue. Rows of spectators lined the streets and grew thicker and louder as we approached the finish. They rang cowbells, played music and yelled words of encouragement to urge the runners along . Although the atmosphere was jubilant and festive, I couldn't for the most part hear. My mind was fixated in another place in another time. After discovering that I was more than 20 seconds off my intended pace in the previous mile, I'd figured that my race was over. I felt sad, angry, and extremely frustrated. Despite the intense pain and burning in my quads, hamstrings and legs, I continued to sprint as if my life was dependent on it. I kept running hard because I was convinced right then that the only honorable way to race is to leave everything you brought coming in out on the course. NO REGRETS. LEAVE EVERYTHING. I repeated this mantra to myself as I forced my legs to accelerate and move faster than they've ever moved before. A mixture of tears and sweat sting my eyes but I was running too fast to acknowledge them there. I see a water station coming up on the side, but I don't dare waver from where I was in the middle of the road. The mile marker is coming up and there's just no time, I told myself. Besides, there's barely a mile and some change left now and there's too much at stake.
I covered mile 25 in 6:54 but still felt somehow I could've ran faster. I tell myself there's just a one mile sprint between me and the finish line now, it's time to charge! My legs though felt heavy as if they were just barely hanging on. I thought about all my twitter, DM, and Facebook friends who were tracking and virtually cheering for me right then and decide for them I must represent. For them, I must run as hard as I can.
At 25.5, I see my friend M again off to the side jumping up and down as I came sprinting by. She was yelling "You're Doing It! You're Doing it!" although at the time I was confused by what "It" meant. It was truly invigorating to see her so excited for me that I felt slightly embarrassed for all the other runners around. I didn't have time to run over and say hi so I just waved as I ran by. I see the giant crowds gathering at the finish and know I'm getting close to home. My legs were not able to sustain the sprint for so long so I'm slowing down slightly as I make the final turn onto the final bridge. I hear applause from spectators for the 3 hour pace team coming up behind and I pick up the pace once again. I see the 800m to go sign and curse Mr. Yasso out loud. 400m...a turn...and the end is in sight. 200 m...I can see the clock strike 3 and I let out a sigh. 100m left and almost there, almost there. Finally I come cross the line and stop my watch. I see 2:59:55 flash on my Garmin and was in complete shock. Did I indeed make my time? I walked through the procession of medical aide, space blanket, and medal, gulped down 2 free beers and picked up my bag. It wasn't until I saw my twitter feed blow up and my phone inbox filled with 50+ congratulatory texts that I realize that yes, indeed i had done it. A 2 minute PR, a sub-3 time, and a hard fought victory were completely mine!
In summary, all you really need to know is that Marathon #10 on 10-10-10 in Chicago turned out quite perfect for me after all!