After the first 5K, the idea began floating around my mind like a dandelion seed in the wind, hovering above my brain by not quite sticking. Although the 23:32 split was 5 seconds per mile faster than I needed, the seeds of doubt began to swirl.
At the 10K mark, the mental breezes slowed and one of the seeds planted itself. Above John Fogerty belting out the lyrics from Centerfield, I heard a faint whisper, “You won’t be able to do it.”
I ignored it and looked into the fabulous, cheering crowd. Thousands of people lined the streets yelling, whistling, ringing cowbells and clapping so loud they sounded like they were expending more energy than the runners they encouraged. The sunny weather brought out half the city.
Earlier, while walking to the train to get to the race, I noticed the warm temperature but didn’t give it much thought. I was too busy pondering my finishing time. Could I set a PR? Is today the day I qualify? Is 3:15 possible? Certainly I’ll break 3:30 right? I didn’t know for sure, but knew it would be close.
On the train platform, I looked at all the other runners and smiled. “I’ll finish before almost all of you,” I thought. Confidence before a marathon is good. You need it for when the miles start wearing you down.
As we ran south back towards the skyscrapers, I continued to be fueled by the cheering crowd and surprised by the number of times people yelled “There’s the Joggler”. The term for this sport seems to be catching on. Seeing people I knew in the crowd also gave me a boost. Recognizing some spectators is one of my favorite things about the Chicago marathon.
The trek down Sedwick provided an opportunity for a joggling trick; high-fiving spectators. Often little kids will stand with their hands held out sideways, palms open, facing the runners. As runners go by, they slap the hands and everyone cheers. It’s a great sight. Usually, they see me joggling and pull away their hands to start clapping. But sometimes, they just stand there dumbfounded at the approaching juggler. When this happens, I throw a ball up high, reach out with the beanbag in my right hand, and hit their hand as I go by. Then I listen for the extra cheers as I catch the sky high Gballz before it hits the ground. I love that trick.
I was cruising along, enjoying the moment and trying hard to ignore the pain that started forming in my feet. The music in my ear, crowd on one side, and hundreds of runners on the other inflated my resolve and made the run feel easy. But as I passed the 8 mile mark, the realization that there were over two hours left felt deflating.
Re-entering the downtown area energized me. The crowds were five or six people deep and lined both sides of the street. I imagined this is what it was like if you did the Tour de France.
Just after crossing the bridge over the Chicago River, I saw a shiny penny on the ground. I briefly considered picking it up and adding to the $18.26 I’ve already found while joggling, but I knew that stopping at that moment in the race would make it impossible to prevent myself from walking at mile 22. When you’re doing a marathon, never start walking before the finish line (it feels too good). At least that’s my running philosophy.
When I passed the half way point at 1:41, I had all but given up on a 3:20 finish. Sure, I continued to encourage myself giving positive affirmations and rationalizing how it was possible that I could run a negative split. But I knew that in the history of me I had never done a negative split in a marathon or any other race. Rationality wasn’t buying the cheerleader’s reassurances.
At mile 14, I saw my support crew featuring my wife, her parents, and the Szurgot family complete with their kids and dog. Unfortunately, I had veered to the wrong side and didn’t get close enough to do anything but throw a Gballz high, smile and wave. This sighting gave me a boost and helped me forget the negative-split debate.
Around mile 18, a guy ran along side and asked if my name was Perry. He then went on to explain how he and I had run the Sunburst Marathon together in 2009. He was the guy in the green shirt who I discussed in mile 18 of that write-up. I smiled in remembrance. He further explained how he had qualified for Boston in the Grand Rapids marathon and how he ran it this year. After I congratulated him he steadily ran ahead of me. After half a mile, I lost him in the crowd. There would be no neck and neck battle for the finish like our last meeting.
After the 20th mile, my sub-8 minute miles had ballooned to 9 minute miles. The cheerleader had long given up and a field of dandelions littered my brain. Walking began to seem like a good option. Of course, as a veteran marathoner I know that’s a bad idea. I gulped down Gatorade and water every chance I got. While going under the train tracks on 35th street there was a group of people handing out Dixie cups full of beer. Normally, I’d pass but I was thirsty and just barely keeping myself moving ahead. I splashed the beer into my mouth and joggled on.
I saw my support crew again just after mile 23. I managed a bright smile and did a high throw trick. Shannon had a video camera and I didn’t want to look as pathetic as I felt. At this late stage of a marathon, even generating the energy to smile is a chore.
In the last few miles, my internal calculator began to estimate how much time was left. First, it calculated in time, 2 miles, 16 minutes. Then it displayed it in familiar running routes, a run around the Galileo cow, a run to the Artists Cafe and back, or a run to the El. This distraction kept me occupied until about a half mile before the finish when I heard someone say, “Are you Perry?”
I tilted sideways to look behind me and saw a tall man in a yellow shirt. I smiled and nodded then turned back around not recognizing him. After a few seconds he ran up along side me and introduced himself. He told me his name and explained, “We’re facebook friends.”
“That’s great,” I said vaguely recalling connecting with him a few weeks earlier. He’s a Chicago runner and discovered me through my blog. We chatted briefly. He stayed with me for about a half mile but steadily fell behind.
The final hill of Roosevelt Road was a welcome sight. I knew I wasn’t going to set a PR or qualify or even have a drop-free effort (having had 2 drops already) but I wanted to finish strong. More than anything, I always want to finish strong.
And I did. The massive crowd exploded when I made the turn for the last 200 meters. The announcer called my name and pointed out my juggling prowess. I tapped my final speed reserves, passed a couple dozen people and finished cleanly just after the official clock hit 3:40.
My final chip time for my 30th marathon was 3:38:08.
I was happy to be done and that I didn’t walk. After getting my metal, chugging water and eating food I made my way to the gear check. I quickly changed into dry clothes and sat around reminiscing with other runners. I was tired but happy.
The marathon is a difficult race and I never know how I’m going to do. I started that day thinking a 3:20 was reasonable and a 3:15 was even possible. But it wasn’t and now, a few days later, I’m left to ponder, when’s the next race and how do I get faster ?