I crossed the start line. I crossed the finish line. 04:41:59 elapsed between those two.
For the last 24 hours, I’ve been trying to tell myself that I finished a marathon, and that I should be proud of that fact. Yet all I can really come up with is disappointment. As I went to lunch, today, I walked down LaSalle St. Yesterday morning, the street was closed off and I was running right down the middle of it with 40,000 other people, being cheered on by a mass of spectators with nothing better to do than scream at those of us too crazy to think this was a bad idea. Today, it is just another Monday in the city, and I’m just a guy in the way of a speeding cabby. Yesterday, friends and family, and even random strangers, were congratulating me on completing the marathon. Today, it is just another Monday in the city, and I’m just a guy limping around. It’s a surreal experience that I don’t quite know how to describe.
Obviously, I met my first and second goals. I really did everything according to plan, too. My first two miles were in the 9:15 range; I started out going at a very comfortable pace, making sure I didn’t get swept up in the excitement of the event and burst onto the course too fast. I would grab a Gatorade at the early point in each hydration station, take two long walking steps to gulp it down, get right back into my stride, then do the same for the water. My gel plan of taking one at 5, 12, and 19 miles worked great. For the 16 miles after the opening two, I held a fairly steady 8:55. That meant miles three through eight were gradually making up those first two miles, and the next eight miles were banking time. My fitness was holding steady and strong. However, nagging me from around mile 2 was a strain that I’ve been having with my left IT band for the last 5 weeks or so. I knew that it was going to bother me the whole race, the question was just how far I could go before it shut down.
I started suffering around mile 18, which forced me to drastically reduce my pace. At mile 22, it completely shut down, and I was reduced to a limping walk for the next 4 miles. I tried getting back into stride at various points, but each time the pain was absolutely torturous. Goal number three was completely out the window by that point, and now I knew that finishing was the only priority. It’s amazing how much more time there is for introspection while walking than there is during running. There’s so much more to occupy the brain while running: breath pattern (In.. 2.. 3.. Out.. 2.. In.. 2.. 3..), stride (foot strike, knee and hip all in a vertical line), posture (chest up, shoulders relaxed, arms loose), path (keep a straight, clear line). But when walking, especially while injured, the breath pattern, stride, and posture just completely fall away. Suddenly I have time to think about the pain, and the disappointment, and all the time I sacrificed for training, and how I really just want to give my wife and kid a giant hug at the end of this. It was terrible.
So, I started setting little goals – anything to keep myself out of my own head. Just keep walking… just keep going… only three more miles to go, only two and a half, only two, just a mile and a half. Oh look, they even have a nice “1 mile to go sign”. Just keep walking. I had to finish this. It wasn’t a question of whether I was going to finish, just when. The 800 meters to go sign was the hardest for me. I could see it a half mile or so before I got to it. I’d decided, somewhere along while limping, that no matter how much it hurt, I was going to cross the finish line running. Even if it was just the last ten feet… I was going to run across it.
When I finally saw the 800 meters sign, I decided that’s where I was going to start running. What’s 800 meters? That’s just twice around a track. Anyone can run 800 meters. One last hydration station, two city blocks, and then an 800 meter run. And that’s what I did. 400 meters north on Michigan Ave., turn east and go up the dreaded hill on Roosevelt to pass mile marker 26, then turn north for the final stretch on Columbus Dr. Run across the finish, with a smile to the camera, then it’s over. Only it wasn’t over. The pain didn’t leave itself on the course. The dehydration, hunger, and cold didn’t go away by passing through that magical portal. I don’t think I’ve ever hurt that much, and I’ve certainly never felt that much emotion well up all at once.
Now, I’m officially a marathoner. I still can’t bring myself to say that I’ve run a marathon, because I haven’t. I ran 22 miles, and walked another 4. But this is what happened at my first half-marathon. I ran 12 miles, and walked the last one. Then I came back a year later, and destroyed my goal time. I’m not downtrodden, I’m not depressed, just disappointed. I’ll be back next year. I may not run in the Chicago Marathon, but I’ll do another Fall marathon. I’m disappointed in my finish, but I’m not finished just yet.