On race day, I got up at 3:30 a.m. I was in Evanston and needed to be at the starting line at McCormick Place before six, and I didn't have a car. I got my stuff together -- shoes, Clif Bars, industrial-strength anti-bounce sports bra -- and was out the door by four. The sky was just beginning to lighten.
Under normal circumstances, I would have made it with time to spare. However, in a stunning display of organizational prowess, I had forgotten that the Purple Line wasn't running yet. I probably should have taken a cab at that point, but I'm cheap, so I walked down to Howard. The walk took an hour, and the sky was pink by the time I got there. Fortunately, the Red Line runs pretty fast at five in the morning, and I was at Cermak/Chinatown at 5:40, where, thank goodness, there happened to be a cab waiting. (I'm okay with cab rides in emergencies, and besides, it was only $5.) I arrived at McCormick just in time and hurried to the starting line, where the first group of runners was just taking off. I had about fifteen minutes before my group went, during which I frantically went around checking my belongings, getting dressed, devouring two Clif Bars, and joining my group, which was already moving up to the starting line.
There was no big push at the start, since everyone was wearing a nifty timing chip on their shoe. The chip started timing each individual as they went across the starting line. Each person's results were updated in real time as they crossed the 10K, half, 20-mile, and finish points. It was very cool.
As soon as I started running, the stress of the previous few hours melted away as I realized that I had finally gotten through all of the other stuff, and all that was left for me to do was actually run the marathon. (That might seem like a strange way to feel about it, but I had really been afraid that I would oversleep, or forget to bring my shoes, or break my leg getting out of the cab, or that they wouldn't be able to find my registration, or any of a million other things. But it all worked out, and that was a huge weight off my mind.)
Near the beginning, the route was congested with marathoners and half-marathoners and hemmed in with spectators, but the half-marathoners turned after the six-mile point, the crowd thinned, and everyone became a lot more spread out. So spread out, in fact, that I was sometimes afraid I would lose sight of the people ahead of me and lose the route. (We were mostly running on bike paths along the lake, with a few detours here and there. I think that the route was well-marked to start with, but some of the signs blew away or got turned around in the wind or something, and so there was a bit of confusion.)
I began to set little goals for myself. I'd choose someone up ahead, like "guy in the orange shirt" or "girl in the blue shorts", gradually work on passing them, and when I did pass them, choose someone else and repeat. That's what I did for the first half of the race or so. I took walking breaks at the three-, six-, and nine-mile points, just as I had done in training. The people whom I'd passed sometimes overtook me again when I took my walking breaks. In particular, there was this blonde girl in white whom I passed four times, and every time I took a walking break, she passed me again. By the fifth time I caught up with her, we kind of realized that we were running at each other's pace, just taking breaks at different times, and we started talking. She was very nice. It was also her first marathon, though she had done half-marathons before. Since we were both somewhat paranoid about losing the route, we made a deal that whoever was in the lead wouldn't lead the other astray. (Blind leading the blind, but at least it made us feel more confident, heh.)
There were a lot of very interesting people in the race. I was particularly impressed by the older folks -- there were a number of women and men in their 60s and even a few in their 70s. There were also groups running together. One group had matching shirts that said "Ridiculously Low Standards" -- I liked that. Then there was an older man who had a checklist on his shirt of all the marathons he'd been in. That was cool. There were couples running together. There was a guy who was talking on his cell phone during the race. The funniest was a woman who was very concerned about finishing the race on time, so that she could go home and take a roast out of the oven. "I hope my roast is okay", she kept saying. I noticed that although the runners came in a variety of ages, shapes, and sizes, they all had muscular legs. (Well, duh, I suppose.)
There were lots of water stations, but they unfortunately didn't coincide with the places where I wanted to take walking breaks, so I had to run through them and drink water as I ran. That proved difficult. I spilled a lot. There were bathrooms here and there, but again, they didn't coincide with the places where I wanted to take walking breaks, so I didn't want to stop, even though I had to go. I ended up not peeing for the entire race. That was probably kind of dumb, but I really wanted to run the race the way I had trained for it and only stop at three-mile intervals.
Yeah, so anyway. I had taken my first three walking breaks, and I was running along, planning to take another break at mile 12. Well, I ran and ran, and the sign for mile 12 just wasn't showing up. For that matter, neither was the sign for mile 11. I knew I was running in the right place, because at this point in the race, the path was clearly marked. Only the mile markers were missing. I slogged along, wondering why I was so tired, and all of a sudden I came upon the sign for mile 13! That was exciting. I had run four miles without even realizing it. I took my break, started running again, and crossed the halfway point at 13.1 miles, which was decorated with balloons and a large sign declaring, "YOU'RE HALFWAY DONE!" Woohoo!
All through the race, there were spectators cheering us on. I didn't see Maya leadsynth and J-J meterbridge during the race, and they didn't see me either, but that was okay because lots of people I didn't know cheered for me. I thought it was really cool how so many spectators were out cheering for people they didn't even know. It was very encouraging. Runners cheered for each other, too. One guy gave me a "Good job, lookin' strong, keep it up" and a big thumbs-up as he ran past me. The funniest spectators I saw were these two older ladies wearing devil horns and carrying tridents. They had on sweatshirts that said, "Run Like Hell, Friar Bill!" As I ran by, I told them I liked their costumes, and they said, "What costumes?" Too funny.
I'd been near the back of the group, but a lot of my fellow runners took long walking breaks at the halfway point, so I took the opportunity to pass a number of them then. However, I soon realized that if I was going to finish the race without getting too exhausted, I would need to stop my "choose someone and pass them" routine and just concentrate on keeping pace with the people I was already near.
It was strange -- in training I ran the same old route so many times that I barely had to pay attention to where I was going, but the race was more of an adventure -- I had to be very aware of my surroundings, because I never knew what was going to happen next. The water stations seemed to be erratically spaced, and some had plain water while some had sports drinks and some even had this carb gel stuff. I never knew what it would be until they handed it to me. Even the route itself had a few surprises in store. At one point, a small tree had fallen over, blocking the path, and hundreds of runners had detoured around it, churning the grass into mud. (I was glad I was wearing my trail shoes.) At another point, the path was under water, and there were police frantically redirecting us across a field. There were soccer players whose ball rolled in front of us. So it was pretty crazy. All things considered, though, I liked the route. It was relatively flat, and the scenery was great. At one point, the sky was cloudy, but the clouds parted over a lighthouse out in the lake and a few golden rays shone down on it. That part was beautiful and serene.
The hardest part of the race was around miles 20 and 21. The sun was really starting to beat down on us, and we were on a long stretch of concrete right next to the lake with no water stations. I really wanted to walk, but I didn't want to let myself walk until I got to mile 22. It was uncomfortable because I didn't know if mile 22 was marked, so for all I knew I'd passed it already. I was very relieved when I finally saw the sign for it. I was almost done!
For the last 4.2 miles, it seemed like most of the runners were taking more frequent walking breaks than I was. My legs ached, and I hoped that I wasn't doing serious harm to my body by not taking breaks, but I was making myself wait until my scheduled break. I was going more slowly than I had at the beginning, but I wasn't running my slowest. I was just taking it easy. I took a nice, long walking break at mile 25. (Some spectators were confused -- I think they thought I was done running or something. They were like, "Don't give up, you can do it!" I guess it's unusual for someone to take such a long break at that late point in the race -- but again, for me it was all about sticking to my training, for better or worse.)
I made a big kick near the end and passed several people in the last half-mile or so. Earlier in the race, I'd been unsure if I was going to have the energy to kick it in, but when I got that close to the end, I figured what the heck, why not leave it all on the track? So I made a nice strong finish. As soon as I crossed the finish line, things happened very quickly. They put a participation medal around my neck and took the timing chip off of my shoe. Then they took my picture. Finally, they turned me toward the food and water area, where I drank a lot of water. I had read horror stories about people not drinking enough water after marathons and becoming severely dehydrated, so I drank more than I was thirsty for. Then I walked around very, very slowly, ate a couple of apples, and cheered for some of the other runners as they came in. My legs were numb and very stiff. After I had walked around for what seemed like a reasonable amount of time, I went to sit on the grass and stretch. It took, like, 45 seconds to get from a standing position to a sitting position. It didn't hurt; it just took a very long time. Stretching mostly consisted of sitting and feebly reaching in the general direction of my toes. After a while I got up and slowly made my way to the gear check to get my stuff back, then grabbed some more water and apples and some fake beef jerky. (They were handing out all this food for free.) One guy asked me if I was okay, I guess because I was moving so slowly. I assured him that I was fine, but I wondered what I must look like. Having collected all my stuff, I slowly made my way inside to the point where J-J and Maya and I had planned to rendezvous. Then I slowly sat down and slowly pulled off my sweaty, smelly, mud-encrusted shoes. That felt awesome.