Two days after the Chicago Marathon a strawberry fruit bar and a browning banana were the only edible post-race items left. I ripped open the wrapper and in two bites the mushy, crumbly bar was gone. I sipped some freshly brewed green tea and picked up the banana. The snap of the peel signaled the end of my marathon experience. It hadn’t gone as well as I hoped but it was fun anyway.
I looked at the clock and slowly rolled out of bed. The sight of the achiral, palindromic 5:15 time made me smile. Marathon #25 was only a few hours away.
I put on the pieces of running gear I had laid on the floor: Blue shirt, grey Adidas shorts, running socks, Polar watch, Nike shoes and a blue Nike cap. “If only I could get a sponsorship out of one of these companies”, I thought.
Outside a slight breeze kept the temperature down. But you could tell when the sun came up, things would get much hotter.
I listened to music on my walk to the train station. ELO – Mr. Blue Sky. I just love the line “Hey you with the pretty face, welcome to the human race” and sang it out loud. When a bus pulled alongside, I hopped in. No sense wasting precious energy walking.
On the El platform I stood in the dark waiting for the train. To calm my nerves, I pulled out my Gballz and juggled. Juggling focuses your attention and it’s difficult to think of much else while you’re doing it. This is why it’s good for calming your nerves. When I stopped, I heard a smattering of applause. “Are you going to do that in the marathon?” asked a woman who was steeped in her running gear. “Yup. It’s my thing”, I replied.
A 25 minute train ride later, I was downtown and quickly made my way to gear check. No matter how early you are, until you’re in the starting corral you always have an uneasy feeling you’ll miss the start.
At the gear check, I stripped to my joggling outfit. I packed my headphones, deciding to run sound free. I hadn’t done a marathon without headphones since 2003, but this time I wanted to hear the crowd.
I gulped down some plain black tea brewed the night before. Caffeine should improve my performance. I just hoped it didn’t cause me to have to piss.
I met up with members from my running tribe including John Kelly, Brandon, Brian, Shannon, and Michelle. We stood outside the corrals and waited for about 15 minutes. We made small talk and laughed a little but you could tell, everyone was nervous.
As I walked to the start, it occurred to me, I forgot to eat. Drinking extra Gatorade during the race would be required. The temperature was warm but not terrible. There was a slight breeze off the lake and the low sun painted everything orange.
Since 3:15 was my dream goal, I tried to start with that pace group. Unfortunately, there was no 3:15 pace group. So, I started with the 3:10 group. This set up a classic Perry race. Start fast and burn out. Just once I’d like to do a negative split in the marathon.
Marathon Early Moments
The first few miles of a marathon are a breeze. You’re flush with a feeling of euphoria. Chilled waves run from your ears to your toes leaving goose bumps in their wake. Your stomach gets queasy and you feel like you’ve just seen the object of your infatuation.
And the crowds are energized too. At the start the spectators are most boisterous. They’ve been waiting, building up their excitement. A little energy is expended for the pros but they run by so fast, it’s like a volcano letting off a little steam. But when the mass of seeded and open runners come out, the crowd explodes like Nevado del Huila. They cheer louder and louder. Screaming, yelling, arms waving. It’s amazing.
I always joggle on the right side and look at the faces of the crowd. To most people, I pass unnoticed. There are a lot of runners and watching them go by is like looking at a Monet. But many do see the joggling. We lock eyes and people usually have one of the following reactions.
1.They smile – Often a big grin. 2.Their eyes open wide and look shocked and surprised 3.They point and yell – “Hey that guys juggling!” 4.The look confused – “Was that guy just juggling?”
Early on in the race, I lap this attention up like a cat licking a McDonalds ice cream cone. I ham it up for the crowd throwing the Gballz high in the air and slapping people’s hands or winking and smiling. I take wide turns where the crowds are bigger practically joggling sideways to elicit louder cheers. (And I wonder where my energy goes). Before you know it, 6 miles have passed and you’re a mere 20-mile training run away from the finish. Yeah right.
As I made my way south, I continued to do joggling tricks. At mile 8 there was a big balloon banner going across the street. I threw a bean bag high over the banner, looked into the crowd, pointed, winked and then caught the bag off my chest. The crowd went wild. A half mile later there was a group of spectators holding cans of Bud Light beer saying “free beer for runners.” When they saw me, they said “No beer for you juggler”. I threw a ball up high, faked like I was trying to take a beer and quipped “Aw come on!”
But despite my good spirits, this was going to be a tough run. Cramps at mile 7 felt like someone stabbing me in the kneecaps. At mile 11, there were almost no 3:10 pace groupers around. I was now surrounded by 3:20s. Boston was slipping away.
Marathon’s Second Half
The half-way point of the Chicago Marathon is downtown in the shadow of the tallest building in the United States, the Sears Tower. It’s conveniently located by a few train stations so the crowds are some of the biggest you’ll find in the whole marathon. Inspiring.
I crossed the half around 1:39. “Repeat what you just did and you’ll get your qualifier,” I thought. Then I added, “Yeah right.”
The Chicago marathon is a good one for me because there are lots of familiar faces in the crowd. Along the way I saw and heard lots of friends. This is an advantage of not wearing headphones. My favorite sighting was Shannon and her mom and dad. I saw them in the distance and focused hard to look good despite feeling awful. That’s the thing about doing a marathon. If you know someone will be watching you at a certain point, you’ll get a natural energy boost trying to look good.
The second half was full of pain. Cramps hit my knees, calves and thighs. My shoulders were sore and I felt the formation of a blister on my toe.
Around mile 17, I saw my buddy John Kelly about 100 yards ahead. He’s been training hard and I was prepared (and even hoping) to finish behind him for the second time in a marathon. However, I wanted to finish second to his 3:15 time with my own 3:20 time. Clearly, both of us were struggling. I kept him in my sights for about half a mile then lost him in the crowd. I searched for him the rest of the race but didn’t see him.
In mile 18, I learned what it must feel like for other runners to be next to a joggler. Typically, when I go by the crowds yell something like “Look it’s a juggler”. “We love you joggler” “You’re amazing juggler man”. etc. But as I made a turn into the 18th mile I heard the crowd yelling “Hey Batman & Robin” “Way to go Batman!” “You’re awesome Batman & Robin”. After a couple minutes, two guys dressed in Batman & Robin outfits ran passed. I never saw them again. There’s no shame in losing to costumed runners, as long as you run every race as best you can.
By mile 20, all the 3:20 people were gone and with them my hopes of a Boston Qualifier and a PR. Finishing this damn race was my my focus now. Since joggling doesn’t allow much chance to look at your watch, I couldn’t tell what my pace was. At each mile marker I looked at my time but I didn’t know how far off my time was from the official race clocks. It turns out, about 6 minutes.
The temperature increased significantly and I began to overheat. My routine through the water stations was as follows. Drink 2 Gatorades, drink 1 water, drink half of another water and pour the rest over my head. The cold water down my back woke me up. It was like the instant awareness you feel when jumping in a cold shower.
There is a point in the marathon path where you could easily cut out a couple miles. Just after the half-way point, you could cut down a side street and meet up with the pack saving yourself 20 minutes easily. The way I felt at the time, I briefly considered it. Of course, it’s silly to even think about. What’s the point of doing a marathon if you’re not going to run the whole thing? It’s not like cutting 20 minutes off your time is going to win you any money. You’ll still lose to the elites by over an hour. I did wonder however, if anybody really does cheat. The feeling is certainly understandable.
To make it through the final 10K, I tried my visualization techniques. 6 miles is the same as joggling down North avenue to the beach and back. I watched myself run the sidewalk passed Walgreens. Then passed the laundromat, then to the gas station. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep it up for very long. It’s much easier to do on a treadmill than when you’re outside.
In the last mile, I passed all the walkers. There are a lot of them starting about mile 21. By mile 24, there were more walkers than runners. It gets better in mile 25 because people want to finish strong, but there are still many walkers.
In the final hill you want to finish strong. The crowds roar and you completely focus on the finish line. You can forget about the shooting pains in your muscles and just go for it. As I sprint joggled to the end I heard my name on the speaker. That was cool. In the end my time was 3:39:36. Three seconds off a palindromic time. Darn. Still a respectable marathon time. I was happy.
After the marathon
The end of the race was so warm that there was no need for the silver. I took it anyway so I’d have something to hold my post-race food with. After a marathon you don’t usually feel like eating much. I put an ice pack on my head and walked through the finish area. I grabbed a beer and slowly drank it down. It was really too bitter for my tastes. I prefer a watered down version of my regular American beer.
A few people around me asked if I juggled the whole way and I told them I did. I also asked them how they did. I love to hear marathon stories from other runners. Most people complained about the heat.
I walked over to gear check and got my stuff. Immediately, I changed my clothes. This is a trick I learned over my marathon career. Always bring a change of clothes! You can still wear your medal around your neck so people know you ran but a change of clothes will prevent chaffing and getting the shivers. Also, take some aspirin (or headache medicine). You’ll soon develop a headache so you’ll want to be prepared.
I found John Kelly and we talked about our times. He had a tougher go in the second half then me and finished a few minutes after. Guess we won’t be doing Boston next April.
After the marathon Shannon, her parents and I went out for pizza at Piece. I had another bitter beer, ate a couple pieces of cheese and sausage pizza, and watched the Bears blow another close one. When I got home, I laid down stretched out on the couch and took a nap.
Now that final remnants of the marathon are gone, I’m left to wonder…What next?