I. Ran. The. Chicago. Marathon.
It’s been a week since the Chicago Marathon and I still can’t believe that I ran a marathon (all 26.2 miles). Going into the race, I had a lot of doubts about my ability to complete it. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a good idea to train for a marathon during my first year at Google (hindsight is always 20/20). Even though I’ve trained for and ran 5 half marathons before Chicago, the training cycle leading up to Chicago was probably the hardest. Every long run past 12 miles was hard, really really hard. Heat was a consistent issue throughout the summer and I hit my breaking point a few times. I wanted to cry during at least one run and I hit a wall at mile 18 during our 20 mile run, our last and longest run before the marathon. I was starting to dread the long runs and running wasn’t fun anymore. Running and completing the marathon felt like yet another stressor in my life, as opposed to the thing that melted my stress away.
The week before the race I tried to really focus on managing my stress, getting enough sleep, hydrating, dialing in my nutrition, and stretching & foam rolling. And I think doing so really helped focus my priorities. I stopped caring so much about what my time might be and more about making sure that I did everything I could so that I wouldn’t hit a wall during the marathon. And to really enjoy the experience and celebrate how far I’ve come. By the time I got on the plane to Chicago, I was feeling excited (albeit a bit nervous) and joyous. Marathon weekend was finally here and I really was going to run my first marathon. A large number of people on our plane were heading to Chicago for the marathon so that also helped set the mood.
Once we got to Chicago, checked into our hotel (which was an awesome hotel for marathon weekend — yay to free stays thanks to my Starpoints!), and had lunch, we headed to McCormick Place for the expo. And what an expo it was! It was HUGE! Every possible running product you could possibly think of was represented, as were all the major athletic brands. Nike had the best selection of Chicago Marathon shirts so I picked up one of their Chicago Marathon Milers.
As we were walking around the expo, I got emotional a few times. I kept thinking about where I’ve been and how far I’ve come. And not just with my body or weight loss but my whole life story. From my family losing everything literally overnight to me winding up in a classroom surrounded by a language I don’t understand to managing to get paid to go to college to finding my way to the University of Michigan and Silicon Valley, what an amazing and incredible life I’ve been blessed with. In those dark dark days of the 1990s, the only thing that kept me going were my dreams. And in my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have imagined any of this.
After the expo, we headed back to the hotel. Other than a crazy awesome cab driver (he played for us several rap songs he had composed and performed, all while pimping his YouTube channel), we had a pretty uneventful evening of room service pasta, stretching, and foam rolling. Saturday was equally chill — we ran a quick 2 mile shakeout run, checked out the bean, got some race day shopping done (bananas, bagels, Gatorade, water), stretched, foam rolled, ice bathed, and ate more pasta at Osteria Via Stato (which by the way is worth a trip to Chicago by itself — so good that we ate there the next night to celebrate finishing the marathon!). Throughout the day, I made sure to drink a lot of water (I think I had about 200 oz, which is about double what I usually drink in a day). I was really worried about getting dehydrated and I really didn’t want a repeat of San Diego.
I managed to get some sleep Saturday night, more so than I usually do the night before a big race. As I was getting ready, I was also pretty relaxed. I was planning on eating a bagel, banana, and a cup of cereal for breakfast but I could only stomach the bagel and half a banana. I got a little bit of Diet Pepsi for caffeine and some Gatorade and water for hydration. We left the hotel a little later than I would have liked and by the time we got through security and found our corral, I really needed to use the bathroom again (perhaps drinking 200 oz of water the night before wasn’t such a great idea) and the line to the port-a-potties was super super long. Chicago has this policy of closing the corrals 15 minutes before the wave is supposed to start so because we had to wait about 30 minutes for the port-a-potties, we ended up missing our corral and having to start the marathon all the way in the back. This was pretty annoying because we now had to weave through all the walkers and all the people who were even slower than us. I was pretty mad at this point but I managed to let it go after a few minutes. Since we were all the way in the back, it took a really long time before we got to the start line. But before we knew it, we were off!
My goals for the race were to finish (ideally around 5:30), not hit a wall, not get injured, and have fun. I knew if I kept us running around a 12/12:30 minute/mile pace that we’d be able to finish the race. I was worried that if we ran any faster than that we wouldn’t be able to finish. As we were running, I also tried really really hard not to think about how far we’ve gone or how many more miles we had to run. I knew thinking that way would be counterproductive — I really just wanted to enjoy the atmosphere, the city, and its people. I knew I was going to be out there for at least 5 or 6 hours so I might as well enjoy it. I planned to Gu every 4 miles and make sure that I drank some water and Gatorade every mile. We kept pace with the 5:45 pace group, even though they started before us. Around the 3.5 mile mark, I needed to use the bathroom again (over-hydrating the night before was starting to catch up with me). We found some port-a-potties but the line was yet again really really long and we ended up waiting around 10 minutes. After our break, I tried to run as fast as I could. When we hit the four mile mark, I looked down at my watch and our pace for that mile was a little over 19 minutes – so despite running my hardest for that half mile after the break, we still lost 7 minutes. I continued to run mile 5 pretty hard, trying to figure out if it was worth trying to make up those lost 7 minutes. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it would be pretty risky. Trying to recover those 7 minutes meant running 11/11:30 minute miles for the next 7 miles. That’s the sort of pace I’m pretty comfortable with for a half marathon but I really didn’t want to blow my legs, hit a wall, or do anything so early to risk finishing the marathon. After finishing mile 5, I decided to let it go and go back to my planned 12/12:30 pace. We ended up taking another potty break around the half marathon point but that one was much faster (no line!). Overall, I felt great running most of the marathon. My Gu/hydration plan worked really well – I didn’t hit a wall at all (even after 20 miles). For the most part, I didn’t really walk much (mostly towards the last few miles and usually around the water stops). The last 3 miles were the hardest. My legs and feet were pretty spent, although I was feeling pretty good in terms of my cardiovascular fitness and emotional state. It was a bit frustrating since some of that was beyond my control (if I only I had been born with longer, speedier legs! Or a not so wonky gait!).
It didn’t take long into the race to realize why so many people love the Chicago Marathon and run it every single year. The people of Chicago really come out in droves for the marathon. We had cheering crowds supporting us almost 100% of the course. It was an amazing, incredible experience. I’ve never run a race where so many people were out there cheering you on. And these folks were genuinely excited for you and they weren’t there just for the elites. They could have easily gone home after a couple of hours but no, Chicago was out supporting you six hours into the race. The course itself was awesome, weaving you through all of Chicago’s major neighborhoods. It was neat to run through all the different ethnic neighborhoods and see people of every ethnicity cheering you on. The entire marathon was a celebration of humanity and that human spirit that brings us all together – that drive that makes us do what seems impossible. Even though these people didn’t know you and didn’t look like you, they were cheering you on because you were just as human as them. At one point, we saw some Palestinians cheering runners while waving a Palestinian flag. At another point, we saw some South Koreans waving South Korean flags with Gangnam Style blaring. In another neighborhood, a woman stood in the middle of the course high-fiveing runners and declaring at the top of her lungs, “YOU A CHAMPION! YOU A CHAMPION! YOU A CHAMPION!” to every runner that passed by her. Chinatown was probably my favorite neighborhood to run through. We were past 20 miles into the race and the energy was incredible. They were playing Applause and I couldn’t help myself from singing along and that’s when I knew I was feeling great and having a great time.
There was a point a few miles past the half marathon point (it might have been mile 15 or 16) where I thought, “I don’t know that I need to run another marathon again,” but that all changed when I ran across the finish line. Even though the last 3 miles were tough, I really committed to myself to run them (even if I was running pretty slowly) and not stop or walk. Once I got to the last mile, I was able to push a bit harder and once I saw that finish line, I sprinted as fast as I could. Nothing, nothing beats that feeling of running through that finish line and of finishing what once seemed absolutely impossible. I got pretty emotional at that point (and I still get emotional every now and then when I think about the marathon). I DID IT! And it was fun! What an amazing, incredible experience – what an amazing, incredible life I’ve been blessed with.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget where I once was and where I am today. Running the Chicago Marathon was a great reminder. I’ve been on a high since then. It’s rekindled my passion for running and being healthy. In some ways, I almost feel reborn.
She is tossed by the waves but does not sink.