♪♫♪ Lady running down to the riptide / Taken away to the dark side / I wanna be your left hand man…
The Night Before
My phone buzzes quietly, the alarm lighting up the screen display: 10:00 PM. It’s Saturday night, I’m knee deep in a middle of the physics problem, and I can feel the heavy starches of Joy Yee’s chicken Pad Thai sitting like a stone in my stomach. And with my mind racing all around me and energy still kicking in my veins, I click off the bedtime alarm on my phone – time to sleep. Even though I’ll assuredly roll around bed for an hour two with sleep eluding me, I’ll have to drag myself out of bed and out the door in just a handful of hours for the day I’ve been training for almost four months and counting. Week after week, increasing my mileage gradually, and then pulling back at the hint of injury – and then pushing myself all the more…running infinite circles around the track, hypnotized with the film in my head picturing myself crossing the finish line. Tomorrow morning is the dawn of my very first marathon, the most arduous physical task I’ve ever taken upon. It’s twice the distance I’ve ever run – a half marathon – and would span distances in Chicago that I’ve never even bothered to explore before.
My running playlist has been updated with brand new songs, throwback songs, blood-pumping songs, and even a couple of mellow Radiolab podcasts. I’ve been carbo-loading for the whole week, stuffing myself with pastas, bagels, grains, and many more self-indulgent sweets and snacks than usual. If only one good thing comes from this in the end, it was the self-satisfying license to eat I’d taken the liberty of the past week, filling my stomach with treats to its content. I’m dressed in my running outfit for the morning already – so I can roll out, grab my bag, and go – and I’m already armed with a “disposable”, worn down long-sleeved shirt (Be prepared to start the race warm. Ditch your sweatshirt once you feel the heat, said the first-time-marathoners blog).
With everything in order, I settle down under my covers and pray for a restful night’s sleep that I know won’t come – and it’s only after a couple episodes of Arrow on Netflix before I feel my eyelids finally get heavy…
The Morning Of
The tempestuous chorus of the Offspring song that serves as my most raucous alarm blares in my ears and I fumble to shut it off before I disturb my clustermates at such an unholy time of morning to wake up. With sleep in my eyes, I snap up and feel my autopilot turn on. It doesn’t take long for me to brush my teeth, eat the bagels and bananas I left out the night before for breakfast, and head out the door. The morning air chills me to the bone, and I’m grateful that I checked the forecast to wear several layers. In my clear plastic bag for gear check is more water, more food, a change of clothing, a towel, and just my essentials—iCard, Ventra, keys, phone, and headphones. I dawdle at the UIC blue line stop, waiting for the El to take me to Grant Park. Checking my phone again—now flashing 5:45 AM—I notice a slow but ever increasing gathering of runners dressed similarly as me, all bundled up, holding the same gear check bag. Thank goodness, I think, because at least now I have people to follow to even get to the race.
Before long, the train makes its stop at Jackson, and by now, a good group of a dozen or so runners have congregated, making small talk while munching on energy bars or sipping Gatorade. The air is cold when we make our way toward the race with countless volunteers and officers guiding us on the roads that have been blocked off from traffic. It takes a while to make it through security because everyone’s bag needs to be checked, but eventually I have gear check in sight, located right next to the Buckingham Fountain. The sun is just creeping up and it’s really quite a lovely sight to behold. I realize I have just over an hour to spare to stretch, warm up, take another preemptive bathroom trip, and get into my corral. By now I can feel my nerves coming on, wondering how I would fare today. It’s both terrifying and reassuring thinking that, with some luck, it would be over in just a handful of hours.
Someone is belting out an incredible rendition of the Star Spangled Banner over the intercom and moments later Wave 1 is well on its way – which is the cue for Wave 2 to get in place. Taking one last sip of water – and hoping I don’t regret it later – I hustle to my corral, still shivering wearing my long sleeved shirt that was hardly adequate for keeping me warm. The corrals seem to fill up in mere minutes and I’m taken aback by just how many people there are. I’ve never run a race with so many people before…I could only imagine how crowded it would be and how long it would take to get to the start line.
It begins! Of course I’m still stationary, waiting with everyone around me to shuffle on up slowly to the start line to even start running. But still, there’s a sense of adrenaline in the air, with thousands upon thousands of runners all amped up and ready to do what they do best. As we move up, I marvel at the ground – there must be hundreds of sweatshirts, jackets, sweaters, long sleeve shirts, ponchos, heat sheets…everything that was being used for warmth. I had read that it was common to just ditch a sweatshirt near the start line in order to stay warm before running, but I had never imagined just how many people would do so. Following suit, I strip off my long sleeve shirt and immediately shiver in my running tank top…it would take me a while to feel remotely warm. Absentmindedly I wondered who would be cleaning up all of the clothing, stray bottles, and food wrappers – it couldn’t be a fun job because there were remnants scattered from corrals A through K. Although, some of those sweatshirts did look really nice…I couldn’t imagine just tossing it away!
Finally, the start line is in sight. Already there is a nice horde of photographers snapping away as runners begin their 26.2 mile journey, and I give a small (very awkward, I’m sure) smile as I cross the start line, taking a mental note of the time…
1 Hour In
Breathe. In. Out. In. Out. My body is a machine, gears spinning on autopilot, legs chugging without a thought. I had settled into a very comfortable pace, likely just under a 10 minute mile…but would I be able to maintain it? Some doubt and apprehension tell me to slow it down further, and I force my body to obey my mind and ignore anybody passing me up. They don’t exist, I whisper, they’re not running with you – keep to your pace.
My music playlist has served me well, and I haven’t skipped a song yet. I was careful to craft it with songs I knew would keep me either motivated, excited, or distracted—and at the moment, they are certainly serving their purpose. However, it turns out that I didn’t even need the music for adrenaline – the crowd alone is enough. The sheer number of volunteers is overwhelming – and in a very good way. I never felt more energized before, I’m sure. Around every corner, there are new faces and posters and cheers, and there isn’t a single dull moment between seeing strange costumes, reading witty posters, and getting high fives and fist bumps from complete strangers.
One hour down? I think I can do this. I can.
2-3 Hours In
I’m ecstatic! Not long ago I passed Brandon, who met me on Belmont Avenue. I suppose that’s one of the perks of running a marathon – you’ll make your way through nearly every crevice of the city. I had slowed my pace to look for him with no luck, but then I heard my name yelled by a familiar voice. I’m still going stringing, so I passed him without much pausing, but it was rejuvenating just to see the face of a friend.
I pause for my water and Gatorade at an aid station and high five some more adorable children before I pick up my pace again. Truly, the volunteers are making the race the best experience possible. I’ve run by offers of paper towels (infinitely useful since my perspiration is out of control), pretzels, Gatorade chews, gel packs…even Vaseline on cardboard! And as anyone who is running a race and chafing knows, Vaseline is truly a godsend.
But as more of a reality check…
All that water is catching up to me…and I need to find a Porta-Potty soon. Luckily the race is so well organized that there are lines of them not far from each aid station, which there are an abundance of as well. It might take a hit on my final time but hey, my one goal today is just to finish. I’ll worry about timing and personal records in the future. The bathroom was pretty much as gross as I expected, but for better or worse, I hit the course with a swift jog to escape the odor. By the time I cross the next time tracking line, I get a text on my phone with my pace, noting that I had slowed down a bit. Not a big deal, I tell myself, at least I’m still feeling strong. (Also, is it pathetic that I signed up for text alerts on myself? Oh well.)
At Mile 17…I’m home. It’s UIC, my land and territory! Suddenly I’m by the familiar residence hall autocourts, just footsteps away from where I go home to every single day. I spot my best friends Ray and Demola cheering me on, and I am again filled with an unstoppable energy. I have 9 miles to go and I’m still feeling okay. Not as strong as before, but I’m okay. I would be okay, right?
4 Hours In
It hurts, everything hurts, legs are burning, I’m panting but there’s not enough air to fill me, my entire lower body is sore…but it’s not over yet?!
By now, I’ve had to slow to a walk more than a couple times. I feel a dangerous pressure on my knees that keeps building, and while I want to push myself, I can’t shake off the advice from my mother: no finish time is worth lasting damage. I’ve injured my knees in the past with not enough rest days, and I don’t want it to happen again. I drop all concerns about my finish time and just focus on finishing.
Trying to stretch but finding every muscle fiber crying in pain, I’m surprised that even my backside is so sore. Every single footstep down pains me. And there’s an awful, awful chafing on my chest and below my right arm that’s dangerously escalating…not even the Vaseline I swipe from volunteers seems to help. But I suppose this is what I get for not following the training routine properly. Although I was dutiful about following the long run schedule through the summer and into the school year, work and classes took their toll on my time, and I lost much of my training regimen to study time. At the moment, I sorely regret not making it past 18 miles in my long run…because somehow adrenaline will have to carry me another 8 miles to the finish.
I’m terrified because I’ve reached that 20 mile barrier that I read so much about. After 20 miles, supposedly the body reaches its physical limit. But I’ve still got a ways to go, and I can’t give in yet. This isn’t just physical anymore—it’s a mental game as well. And I’m surprised at myself at how quickly my inner morale is failing me…although I think it’s just because I’m feeling highly emotional. My mind is racing in all directions…I want to give in and just sit down for a rest, but that’s not an option. I know I wouldn’t get back up. I’m alarmed at how hopeless I can feel, how drastic my mood can flip in the matter of hours. There’s still another five miles at least, and I feel like my body is breaking down.
Perhaps seeing my battered morale, some volunteers start cheering for me, reassuring me and calling me a champion, a hero…silly emotional me takes it so seriously I want to tear up. I don’t know if it’s the adrenaline or the endorphins or just sheer exhaustion, but emotionally I’m a wreck from the slightest encouragement, and I actually find myself picking up the pace again, somehow squeezing the last vestiges of will power from my veins. Is that sweat or tears?..probably both…either way I think I’m losing my mind as I regain my speed. Their words have made all the difference, like a shot of ketamine in my veins to get me pumping again. I’m running again. I can do this, I can finish these last few miles…
At the finish
It’s there, it’s in sight…I’m put an unbelievable strain on my body at this point, and I can’t even fathom how much time I’ve spent on the last couple of miles…but none of that matters because I’m going to make it. The crowd has picked up near the end of the course, and over here the cheers are deafening. With one last final push, I somehow sprint the last short distance to cross the line, bursting in a sudden energy. The wild exhilaration is only masked by the exhausting pain that I can’t ignore much longer, and I stumble at first, trying to catch my footing and learn how to walk again. Not only have my knees been suffering for almost 8 miles now, but there’s been a severe toll on my ankles as well. For a few perilous moments, I’m petrified that I’ll fall over and need EMS to bring a stretch or a wheelchair—I saw some injured people on the course and it was a terrifying sight, an even more shuddering thought to think of my mother’s reaction if I actually pushed myself to that extent.
I realize someone is putting a medal around my neck. Despite all the pain and needing to focus even to put one foot in front of the other…I’m smiling. Something is being taped around my shoulders and I’m confused—it’s a heat sheet, someone explains. A what? But its necessity and use very quickly become apparent in the next couple minutes when my entire body starts shaking from cold sweat, and I clutch the sheet closer to my body, childishly musing that it resembles a superhero cape.
The time comes in—4:52:21 in all. Not a stellar time…but it’s under 5 hours, so I really I can’t complain. I made it to the end, and right now that’s the only thing on my mind right now…other than trying to stumble my way to the Runner Reunite and Post Race Party. Seriously, why is this path so long? In the meantime, all sort of goodies are being thrust in my hands by eager volunteers. By the time I make it back to the gear check area, I have a couple Gatorade protein shakes, water, bananas, pretzels, and a slew of other tasty treats…well they would be tasty if I could stomach them at the moment. I’m pretty sure I would upchuck if I tried to ingest anything. All I really want to do is sit down and stay immobile for an indefinite amount of time…but clearly that isn’t an option, as I note officers ushering all the weary finishers along to prevent a roadblock.
Feeling delirious from the high and the pain, I somehow manage to collect my things from gear check and make my way toward to Runner’s Reunite, where I meet with Brandon, who surprises me with a lovely bouquet of flowers—which again crumbles my fragile emotional state right now. Finally, I relax onto the grass, stretching myself out like the countless other runners. Without a doubt, the coming days would be filled with soreness, but I don’t feel the full intensity of it yet, so I’m just going to enjoy myself. Something as simple as laying down in the cool grass fills me with utter contentment.
It’s funny how the echo in my head earlier—I am never doing this again, never ever—has now switched to what am I going to do differently next time?
This time—my first time—I ran for nobody but myself. To prove I could do it. To see if I would make it through to the end and how it would feel. Next time? Perhaps I could look into running for a charity or fundraiser…right now the prospect of it is a little overwhelming in the face of my current state (as in not being able to stand up without help). But the mere thought of doing this again…it’s exciting in a way that I don’t know how to put in words. And even drenched in sweat and dirt, unable to twitch without pain, feeling the edge of sleep, I can feel it—that time will come.
I love you when you’re singing that song and I got a lump in my throat / ‘Cause you’re going to sing the words wrong ♪♫♪
(Riptide – Vance Joy)
Sarah Lee is a junior studying neuroscience and Russian in the GPPA Medicine program at UIC. She’s still trying to figure out exactly what she wants to do, but some of life goals include running a marathon, exploring Eastern Europe and becoming fluent in Russian. In her free time, she loves running, playing piano and guitar, and reading. A Naperville native, Sarah is a peer mentor in the Courtyard residence hall.