If you race long enough, you’ll eventually have a race where nothing goes right (I’m talking physically AND mentally). This was that race for me.
I woke up race morning as I had gone to bed: With a headache. I didn’t think much of it. This was not a time to ruminate. It was a time to “do.” This is the best I would feel until several hours after the 2017 Chicago Marathon. After the race, my wife would tell me I felt warm to her the night before (she kept it to herself at the time because she is smart).
At 5:45am, I walked to the start. The logistics of Chicago are convenient and easy. Plus, the race is well-organized. The layout at the starting area is such that it never feels claustrophobic (as it feels at the NYC Marathon to me). Anyway, I forced down my normal pre-race food even though I wasn’t as hungry as I usually am before a race. I chalked that part up to nerves because, yes, I still get nervous before a marathon (that never changes for me).
Ironically, just before the start, there was a chill in the air which I took to be a good sign. I thought to myself: “Maybe it won’t be as warm as they’ve been predicting.” In fact, the temperature was not an issue for me in the first half of the race. I went out conservatively, and decided not to look at my watch for the early mile splits (especially because I know how inaccurate the GPS watch would be on this particular course). However, I never got into a rhythm. Through Mile 6, I was probably in that 6:45-7:00 range which is where I figured I’d be (around 3 hour pace), but I needed to go to the bathroom, so once I found a porto-john, I took the opportunity.
When I resumed running, I felt better and more relaxed. However, roughly around Mile 8, my left hamstring became tight and eventually would be relatively useless, but honestly, that would not be the main issue for me. At this same point, my legs and arms started feeling heavier and sluggish (which they actually were heavier for this race. I usually lose 10-15 lbs in a training cycle, but this time I didn’t lose any weight. This may or may not have been a contributing factor for my performance on this day).
My head was pounding too. In a way, I felt like I was running at altitude which is funny because of how flat and close to sea level Chicago is. Something was obviously not right.
I tried the mental tricks to re-sharpen my focus and get my head in the race to overcome my body which was failing me. Also, I tried to use the energy from the awesome crowds in neighborhoods, such as Boys Town and Old Town. Third, I tried connecting with other runners to pull me along. Nothing was working. I have felt poorly in other races, but most times, the moment passes and I’ve been able to regroup. This was not the case on this day.
For the first time since I can remember, I thought about dropping out. I wasn’t even at the half yet. Somehow, I missed where my wife was standing just before the 20K mark. This was probably a blessing in disguise because if I saw her, I would have been more tempted to drop out (even though she would have probably kicked my ass back on to the course).
It was around here that I started to think of both the album “Alone With Everybody” by Richard Ashcroft and the following song lyrics from Dawes:
“But the only time I am lonely is when others are around.”
Yes, weird thoughts, but I was officially alone on a crowded beach on my island of misery.
I knew my race was over (at least the goal / performance part of the race). It is a lonely feeling. People were everywhere around me (runners and spectators) but I felt so far from everyone. I cried. I pride myself on being a tough runner, but I let myself cry in that moment. In that moment, I was sad and feeling sorry for myself. I knew the next time I would see my wife and friends for support would be at Mile 23.5 (over ten miles away). That felt so far off.
At the same time, I was leaving the comfort of the shade from the taller buildings. The second half of the Chicago Marathon doesn’t have much shade. Plus, the temperature was now over 70 degrees. This is not a good combination for me because I usually overheat like my old Honda Civic in such conditions. Cue the cramps…stabbing stomach cramps that took my breath away. Up to that point, I stuck to my tested nutrition plan, but it did not fend off these painful cramps. Taking a deep breath became an issue. Also, as my body temp started rising from the warmer weather, it became harder to keep my heart rate down.
My pace slowed. I could not feed off the crowds in the Pilsen neighborhood, even though I appreciated that thunderous energy from this Mexican-American community. Now, it was about survival and finishing safely. I had another thought about dropping out, but somehow I chuckled and remembered how much I had spent on the Chicago Marathon hoodie at the expo. If I didn’t finish, I would never wear that hoodie. Yes, a hoodie became my motivator. I was desperate.
After the roar of the Chinatown neighborhood (somewhere around Mile 21-22), the crowds were more sparse which is normally a good thing for me; however, today, it only made each mile feel like two miles. I overhead a runner say this portion of the marathon was a 2 mile death march. She was correct. My left foot was now throbbing. “Whatever” I said to myself. I was disgusted.
Finally, at Mile 23.5, I saw my wife, who was cheering with our friends, Char and Luiz. I stopped to give her a hug. This is where I cried again. This time, it was full on cry. My wife asked if I was OK, and I don’t remember what I said. I remember feeling bad for making people worry about me. Those who know me understand that I never want to be a burden on anyone.
I forced a thumbs up, and said “I might as well finish this.” I also gave Char a hug (I apologize for this because of how digusting I probably was at that point) and I gave Luiz a high five. It was time to shuffle on.
Soon, I would finally be on Michigan Avenue for the last two miles. This part of the race kind of reminded me of First Avenue in the NYC Marathon; however, I no longer was able to get energy from the crowds. My adrenaline was no longer there. At this point, I was walking at the water stops, and every time I’d walk, I felt like I was going to pass out. My stomach cramps were daggers. There was nothing subtle about them. My legs had no will.
When I finally turned into the park, I laughed because there is a short incline at Mile 26. Normally, this wouldn’t even be considered a hill, but it just comes at a horrible place in the race. Once I made the final turn to the finish, I knew my day was over. Despite my disappointment, I’m always thankful when I cross any finish line. A bad race is minor in the grand scheme of things. I have my health and I live to run another day. Even though it was a bad race day experience, I’m thankful that I had the experience.
After I got my race medal, I might have cried a third time. Not sure why. Maybe because I could…because I needed to cry. Who knows? This time, it wasn’t a sad cry though. It was a peaceful cry. After all, I was still standing. I was alive.
Sometimes being humbled is a good reminder that we are human, and we can’t always do anything and everything we set out to do. The important part is to try to find something valuable in the experience…to learn from it and grow. We grow over a lifetime, not just until someone says we are adults. Is it OK to wallow? Yes, but wallow and move on. I actually did some wallowing and mourning in the race itself, so I was able to enjoy the rest of my time in Chicago, which is an amazing city.
The post-race nausea and fever were thankfully not too lengthy. I’ll spare you the details there.
I’ll be back.