Chicago Marathon — Overwhelming in every sense

The Chicago Marathon has by far been my most overwhelming race.

I was overwhelmed by all the support the city gave to its marathon. The cheering crowds overflowed the streets and sidewalks and filled me with happiness. Their witty signs were funny and their loudness astounding. Have you ever seen a sign with a big picture of Christopher Walken with the message “Keep running, no walken!” on it? Didn’t think so. The number of volunteers handing water and bananas was incredible. Not once did I have to wait for a volunteer to turn back around from the table (like I have before in past races even if the wait was for a millisecond) because there were just so many volunteers. It was great!

I was also overwhelmed by pain. I have never had to train and race through an injury before. The past two to three weeks before the race, my IT band had been acting better (as in, no extreme pain,) so I went into this marathon hoping it would not act up. I thought if I was lucky enough for it to “be normal,” I could maybe even come away with a sub-4 hour time. That didn’t happen. I was hurting — a lot.

But, let me start at the beginning.

The start — Runners helping runners

Leah and I woke up at 5 a.m. so that we could catch a 5:40 a.m. bus to a nearby train station. (The station was not within walking distance). As we waited in the cold dark at the bus stop with our clear plastic gear-check bags, a car turned the corner and drove by. The driver had his neck craned and looked directly at us. He drove on. Then the next thing we notice, the same car is now driving pretty fast in reverse. “I’m scared,” I whispered to Leah. (OK, I wasn’t really scared, it was just odd that this car was now coming toward us — backwards).

The driver rolled down his window and asked us if we were going to the race. We answered ‘yes’ and he offered to give us a ride to the train station. He said he is volunteering at the race but isn’t going to the start area. Without directly talking it over to one another, Leah and I knew that this man was actually kind-hearted and wasn’t going to kidnap us (he was wearing Ironman gear and his elementary-school aged son was sitting in the backseat sipping hot chocolate).

Because of our free ride, we arrived to the start area much earlier than we had expected. We didn’t want to check our gear right away so we found a spot on the curb along-side other runners who eagerly anticipated the start of the marathon. It was kind of windy (hello, Chicago!) and we were sleepy. The stranger next to us started chatting with us. (Where were we from? How many marathons had we done?) We soon learned that this was this man’s first marathon ever. I suddenly got a hinge of excitement. I remembered how excited I was before my first race.

The sun started to come out and it wasn’t dark anymore just before 7 a.m. The race started at 7:30 so Leah and I did out gear check thing and took care of business in the porta-potties. (Note for the future: Do not wait in the extremely long porta-potty lines by gear check because there will literally be no lines for the porta-potties right next to the race start!) Once we funneled our way into Corral C, I started to feel warmer since I was standing so close to all the other runners. We noticed several helicopters above scanning the area. I’m sure one of them was a news station chopper but the rest were for “security purposes” as stated in all the marathon info pamphlets. I wasn’t concerned for my safety. I was just concerned about my IT band.

Leah and I started the race out way too fast. The first mile we zipped through in 8:25 but it didn’t feel like 8:25. Everything was just so exciting! We were running in Chicago! This is one of the World Majors races! I tried to slow us down but really didn’t do a good job at it. We did sub-9s through the first five miles. The two of us didn’t talk a whole lot. Just ran side by side, taking it all in. I felt good the first few miles. The sun was out. The atmosphere was spirited and fun (in addition to the Christopher Walken sign, I saw one that read, “You’re running better than Congress” and numerous big head signs). Even though I didn’t have my family or friends out there cheering for me, whenever a group of spectators started yelling and screaming when they saw their runner come by, it would make me feel really happy. The warm spirit was infectious.

Around mile 5, one runner asked the runner next to him “how much it would cost to buy an energy gel off of him.” Yes, that is how he phrased it. The man with all the gels — he had an entire fuel belt adorned with at least 6 gels! — denied him saying “at this point it would cost $20.” I didn’t pay too much attention as to which runner it was. Leah and I kept at our too-fast pace. But then it kind of bothered me. The gel-less man had mentioned that his gear check bag had a hole and he had lost all his gels before the race. If that had happened to me, I would hope that someone would help me out! It’s not like we were doing a 5K, this was a freakin’ marathon!

A few minutes had passed since overhearing the plea-for-gel conversation. I motioned to a man a few paces in front of Leah and I and asked her if that was the guy who was looking for gels. She wasn’t sure. “I’m going to go check,” I said to Leah. I sprinted a few strides to catch up to the runner. “Were you the one looking for gel?” I asked him. He was. I asked him if he wanted a Gu. He said yes but also added that he didn’t want to deprive me of mine. “Oh, I tend to over pack!” I said to him as I reached into my back pocket, strategically giving him one of my gels that didn’t contain caffeine. (I mean, I’m nice but I’m not that nice that I was going to give him one of my favorite flavors!) He thanked me more than once and went on his way.

All by myself

I ran with Leah until about mile 7. She told me to go on but I felt bad to leave her. Also, I was kind of scared. “What if I start hurting and I’m all alone?” I thought to myself. But, onward I went. I started “to feel” my IT band around mile 6. It wasn’t hurting, but I could tell it was there.

Since I had never been to Chicago, I had no idea what was where and where was what but since it was marked so well, I knew every mile that passed. And, that was my mantra for the race: Just one more mile, Kristin. Just one more mile.

At the half-way point, I was running 8:35 pace!  It’s weird because I didn’t feel really strong but I was going at a faster pace than what I felt like I was doing. I think all the surrounding crowd energy just pushed me through the streets of the windy city faster than I wanted to go.

I ran into my “old friend” (the stranger I gave my Gu to) somewhere around the 13.1-mile mark. He recognized me and shouted out to me. “I hope you’re not regretting giving me that Gu, thanks again!” I replied that it’ll all be fine as long as he PRs.

Around mile 15/16, my IT band was hurting. I kept running though. But, I was in P-A-I-N.

I figuratively had to climb over a wall at mile 18. I came to the aid station and grabbed a Gatorade. I couldn’t even say “thank you” to the volunteer like I had at the past stations. I just mouthed the words. And, unlike the past aid stations, where I pinched the sides of the paper cup and drank the water or Gatorade while jogging, this time I walked.

I sipped the Gatorade and realized that my IT band hurt just as much while walking as it did while running.

Then, it happened and I didn’t realize it was happening until the tear was rolling down my cheek.

I was crying.

Climbing over the walls

The tears were flowing and I didn’t know what to do. A small part of me  — like 3 percent — wanted to keep walking. I was mad that my IT band was severely “acting up.” I was kind of mad at myself for not trying to slow down the pace the first half of the race.

Other runners passed by me as I continued to walk by the water station tables. The crowd cheered but I felt like they were cheering for everyone else except for me. I felt kind of invisible.

The end of the aid area was nearing and I knew I had to decide what I wanted to do. I needed a game plan.

The first step was to get myself to stop crying.

“Kristin, you didn’t come all the way to Chicago just to cry.” “You didn’t give up your Saturdays just to do long training runs for nothing.” “You didn’t spend all that airfare money to walk half of the marathon.”

These thoughts miraculously got me to stop crying. Next was to start running again.

Once I passed the last volunteer handing out water, I knew I had to run again. I started moving my feet faster and the IT band pain increased. But, I kept pushing through. Long gone were the thoughts to get a sub-4 hour marathon time. I wasn’t even thinking about PR-ing at all. I just wanted to finish. I did mile 19 at 9:41 pace, by far the slowest mile (so far) of the race.

I was getting slower as the miles went by. The pain was increasing as the time went by.

Around mile 21 I hit “another bad spot.” I didn’t walk but was in the 10s pace-wise now. I stopped looking at my Garmin. I was just trudging along. I don’t know what I was even thinking about anymore. I turned a corner and it was loud again (or, louder since it was pretty loud all throughout the course). There were a group of spectators to the right of me waving Korean flags. “That’s nice, they must be cheering on their runners from Korea,” I thought. As I approached them, a recognizable tune was blasting through their speaker system. It was Gangnam Style. And, a few men were dancing to the song as if they were K-pop singer, Psy.

I smiled. And then I said aloud to no one in particular, “I really needed that right now.”

As I continued I was in a better mood. I still hurt, but at least I was somewhat happier.

A little help from my friend

With only five miles away, I knew I was going to finish. But, I was drained. I was pretty much done.

“One more mile, one more mile …”

I took water and Gatorade at nearly every station thinking maybe more liquids “will help” my IT band.

Maybe my good sportsmanship to that stranger by giving my Gu will come around and reward me. I could really use something, anything, I thought. It was around mile 23 when it happened. Someone gently tapped at my elbow and said, “Kristin.”

“Did Leah catch up to me?” was my first thought.

It was my friend, Devon, who was also running Chicago from Seattle! Since I knew we were about the same pace, I thought that maybe I would see her among the thousands of other runners. She asked me how I was doing in which I mumbled something about hurting. She looked really strong. I wanted to keep running with her but it just wasn’t going to happen. She went on but then I thought if I am going to be running in pain, I may as well run with her (in pain) for as long as possible.

I mustered up everything I had left in me, sprinting to catch up to her. “We just have one loop around Green Lake,” she said to me, referring to our ‘ol stomping grounds back home in Seattle.

One loop (3.1 miles) sounded so easy. But, at the end of a marathon with an excruciatingly painful IT band? Well, it seemed so far and the finish so far away.

I was only able to keep up with Devon for about a mile (or just short of one mile). Now not only was my IT band feeling horrible, all my other muscles in my legs were throbbing with every step I took. I was afraid my calves were going to cramp. I was also developing a huge blister on the bottom of my right foot. I have never gotten a blister from running but I think because of my IT band pain, I was unknowingly changing my running gait to attempt to alleviate pain! (After all, it was my right IT band, and this was my right foot!)

I told Devon to go catch her sub-4 hour time and she told me to finish strong.

At mile 23 (pre-seeing Devon) I ran at an 11:31 pace — my slowest mile of the 26 miles. The next mile, 24, I ran at 9:45 pace — when I was mostly running with her. If anything is evident, if it was not for Devon, I probably would not have finished strong — or PR’d at all. (So, I owe her, big time!)

The End

The last two miles are a blur. I really do not remember much. The “slight incline” right before the finish line nearly killed me. I usually have a great kick at the end of races but this time one barely made an appearance.

I kicked as best as I could the last 100 meters and passed several others. When I crossed the line I looked down at my watch and was surprised that I had a PR. I’m notorious for being “one of those runners” who doesn’t keep walking through the chute after they cross the finish. I sort of just stand there, trying to catch my breath. Or, I lean over because I am so tired. This time was no different. I couldn’t walk another step.

I moved myself to the side so I wouldn’t block other runners who were finishing. One of the volunteers kindly told me to keep walking. I said I just needed a moment.

Behind one of the tables I saw a box of unopened water bottles. I needed one and I needed it now. A teenage volunteer walked by me and I asked him if I could have one of the water bottles. “Ummm, those aren’t mine. I don’t know who they belong to,” he replied. I couldn’t believe this kid was denying me water! Don’t they train these volunteers? I asked kindly again but he gave the same response.

Then I started to cry. I was in so much pain and I couldn’t believe he wasn’t going to give me water. (Yes, yes, I know there was ample water bottles being distributed a few yards down, but I was really loopy and in a ton of pain at this point). I kept thinking, “The customer is always right! The customer is always right! And I am the customer!” I asked another volunteer who saw my sorry-state and gave me one of those water bottles.

I’m not sure what the take-away message is for this race. I trained as best and as smart as I could. I had more rest days than usual. I didn’t do any track workouts. And, I blame it all on the IT band. I don’t really know what I could have done better. I foam-rolled like crazy. I stretched every day. I iced after every run. I guess race-wise, I probably shouldn’t have been running 8:30 pace the first half.

But, I am going to my doctor tomorrow to hopefully be referred to physical therapy. I can’t have my IT band hindering me in future races or my running in general.

No more crying in marathons!

I will get that sub-4 hours, some day. (Portland 2014, anyone?)

For now, I’ll take my 4 hours 5 minutes and 26 second-marathon time. In fact, I won’t just take it. I am very proud of it. This has been the hardest (mentally) that I have ever had to fight for during a race. And, it was a 2-minute PR (that I set five months ago!)

And, despite not having my fan-base along the course in Chicago, my phone was flooded with texts of support and congratulations. A few of Leah’s friends who live in Chicago who we had lunch with prior to race day even saw me toward the end and cheered (but I was too delirious to notice).

Thank you, Chicago for your flat flat roads and your boisterous crowds. If I were to run any race with an injury, Chicago was the place to do it!


7 thoughts on “Chicago Marathon — Overwhelming in every sense

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