Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I finished Chicago! So wait. Why am I so damned disappointed?

Okay, first my apologies on the late post-mortem. I didn't want to post this until I had proper pictures to represent this crazy October morning, which meant waiting nearly two weeks for the official photos. Um, hello? Marathon people? Don't you know I have a blog to update?

But about that. I’ve spent the week or so oscillating between euphoria over finishing my second marathon and dejection in not finishing it in the time I had hoped - and trained - for.

Okay, first the good: Yes, I did it!

I loved the course, loved the crowd even more. I will undoubtedly be back to run Chicago again, I loved it so much. The good citizens of Chicago are my new BFFs for sure.

And really, the whole weekend was fairly awesome.

Mike and I hit the expo on Friday. Mike is My Biggest Cheerleader, which means he must take pictures of me. Every. Nine. Minutes.

I loved this. I tried to bribe the kid on the 0 to move, but alas, 3-year-olds don’t seem to want to be paid off in Gu.

Ryan Hall was there greeting the crowd:

“Who?” you ask? Yeah, really, unless you’re a runner or someone who doesn’t run but follows running (really, who are you? That’s just weird) you might not know who he is. Um, only the biggest rock star in marathoning, duh!

Turns out Ryan had dropped out of Chicago just a week earlier due to what he said was being undertrained. Slacker.

Friday night Mike and I met Andrew and Leslie for dinner near the hotel, and in keeping with my plan to eat bland carb-loading food before Sunday, we chose a Latin-Indian joint known for its spicy dishes. Nothing says marathon training like sweating your ass off through chicken korma and lamb chimichurri.

Saturday morning I took a short run to Navy Pier ...

... and Mike and I carb-loaded. Yes, Mike carb loads, too. Do you know how much effort it takes to follow someone running a marathon so you can take endless pictures of her?

Anyway, I felt the omelet wasn’t going to be enough, so to be safe I also ordered pancakes, potatoes, an English muffin and blueberries. Nope, Michael Phelps was not with us.

And then, we just took in some of Chicago’s beautiful sights.

Super cute shirt, right? Any other weekend, I would have been stoked to be wandering around in just a t-shirt and shorts in mid-October. But not a day before a marathon. I was getting nervous. It was too hot. And Sunday was on tap to be hotter.

Saturday night we met Andrew and Leslie and their friend Rachel for drinks on the terrace of our hotel before heading to Osteria Via Stato for pasta. Highly recommended, btw.

4:30 AM Sunday. I’m up!

Doesn't it look like I should be singing "Here I come to save the daaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!"?

Oh, and do you know how friggin’ hard it is to get a “C” in electrician’s tape onto a shirt? But my name? Was one of the smartest things I did for the marathon. That in a moment.

In keeping with Mike's mandate of documenting my every move:

I was off.

Working my way to Grant Park was very exciting. This really was my first big race. Nike was big, but Chicago? We had Kenyans. And they run for money.

One snafu to share. Since this year I was on my own – no Team in Training, there were little details that I had to figure out for myself, like oh, I don't know, where the Port-O-Johns were located, for example? I got to the corrals at 6:30 AM so I could get as close as possible to the start. But after stretching for a bit, nature called and it turned out the Port-O-Johns were on the other end of the corrals. Not knowing what time the corrals finally fill up, I was nervous to leave and lose my place. So I stayed put. And obsessed for 45 minutes about not being able to empty my bladder.

And then it was too late and the corrals closed.

So I hoped that adrenaline and excitement and the fact that I was totally money and pushed up enough in the corral that I crossed the start at a measly 9 minutes after the gun – would all override the nagging feeling that I now had to pee like a race horse. Not so much. (Thank god the toilets at mile 6 were still not totally a crime scene when I hit them. Relief.) Lesson here? Hmmm ... pretty self-explanatory. Pee before the race starts.

As soon as you cross the start in Chicago, you hear – and see – one of the biggest crowds of spectators ever. And it never dies. You go under overpasses and people are hanging down from above screaming your name. You feel like a total rockstar.

So am I glad I slapped “CINDY” in black tape across my tank?

As my new Midwestern BFFs would say ... you betcha. It would take just one person to scream my name to start a chain reaction. I’d pump my arm or flash a “V” when someone yelled for me. Someone else would see that and join in. And then the next group would pick it up. And since there are virtually no gaps in the crowd in this race, I’d hear my name screamed for an entire block. This crowd was intense and awesome and I will never forget them. Ever. In fact, next time I come back to Chicago for business or otherwise, I may just paste my name on my shirt again in hopes that these kindly Midwesterners will give me a shout-out at like gas stations and stuff.

I saw Mike early – at mile 2. Turns out it was just steps from our hotel and when I realized where I was, I looked for him – and sure enough, like a beacon, there was My Cheerleader.

Oh, I was happy here. Like blowing kisses happy. At mile 2.

I was so happy that I effed with every official photographer I saw on the course.

Perhaps I thought that by flashing the "V" for victory every time, along with an obnoxious pose right into the camera, I'd keep up momentum for the next few hours.

'Cause I kinda did it like every time. Yawn.

Another extremely cool thing happened early on. I saw Ramon. As in the greatest coach ever. He's now head of American Cancer Society's DetermiNation team in New York, and Chicago is a big event for them. But no matter how many hundreds of runners Ramon may be coaching, he never passes up an opportunity to cheer on a former mentee. He screamed like only Ramon can, clanging his freaking cowbell like a crazy person. My heart raced - I loved seeing him.

But it started to turn at about mile 10. Until then, I was totally on pace. Going in, I had broken the race into thirds and was pacing just slightly faster than where I had intended, but I felt good. I had my splits Sharpied on my arm like a tatoo, Gavin (the Garmin) on my left wrist and Nestor (the Nike Sportband) on my right. I was obsessed with time. The plan was to kick it up slightly at mile 11, then again at mile 18. If all went well, I’d just break 4 hours.

But mile 10.

I had been so nervous about the past month. After my foot injury, I basically stopped training. The last run of substance had been the previous weekend with Babs. And it had been just 9 miles. So it made perfect sense that at 10 miles, my body very aptly said, “WTF?”

And that’s when I started losing confidence. I panicked, thinking that if I was already slowing at mile 10, I was in real trouble. Didn’t matter that I wasn’t tired or that I had no aches. Foot was holding up fine, too. But just that little drop in confidence started to do me in. I tried to concentrate on the course. It was so full of life - people hanging from their balconies or on their front stoops. All of them yelling encouragement. I ran through diverse neighborhoods and historic buildings and was getting the best tour Chicago could offer. But damned if I saw any of it. My eyes were glued to Gavin.

Saw Mike and Andrew and Leslie again at the halfway point, and even though I was right on time, I knew very assuredly right then and there by the way my body was responding that I would be hitting no goals in this race.

Do you see me crouching over a bit? I was already working a lot harder.

The teen miles were a bit of a blur. I remember very little shade anywhere. I remember hearing people in the crowd discussing the temperature - nearly 85 at this point. I remember walking through pretty much every water stop – and that despite drinking at every one of those water stops – still being thirsty. I remember getting side cramps from consuming too much water ... and having to then walk again. I remember seeing people on the 3:50 and 4:00 pace teams walking beside me, everyone acutely aware that time goals now meant nothing in this heat.

And I remember never having seen so many people puke in front of me in my life. Seriously, I had to dart at least three times so as not to get backsplash on the Vomeros.

(I later chatted with a woman in my hotel steam room who also ran and upon bringing up the weather, the first thing she said? “Oh my god, people were throwing up everywhere.”)

Things unravelled quickly. Literally. Eventually the “D” started to peel off my sweaty tank and since I had officially entered the BMZ (Bite Me Zone), rather than risk obnoxious comments from a by now-drunk spectator ("GOOOOOOOO Cinyyyyyyyyyy!!!!!") I snatched every letter off my chest, rolled the whole stinking lot of tape into an angry ball and chucked it aside around mile 17.

I tried so hard not to walk, and when I did, I just kept moving as fast as I could. Only once did I stop altogether to stretch my stiffening hamstrings. At that point, a very kind volunteer - an elderly reverend from the nearby community church sponsoring that mile - made his way to me, gently bending over and offering, "There's a medical tent right there if you need it."

And that was all the motivation I needed. No way was I going to be in the med tent. "Move aside, old man!" I yelled, pushing him slightly and burning rubber back onto the course.

As if! I was in the Bite Me Zone, not the Karmically Risky Zone.

During the last few miles, the alert system increased to "red." Any hotter, I understood, and the race would have been called. I was sweating, fatigued and heartbroken. I went through all of the justifications for not making it even close to my goal. The heat. My lack of training in the past weeks. My foot. My confidence. The "D" falling off my chest. But it didn't matter. At this point, I'd be lucky to beat my time from San Francisco. And that race? Had hills.

I kicked myself for ever having told anyone I was running Chicago. Sure, I'd finish. But with zero improvement over my last marathon. After four months of intense training all on my own, where I felt confident I had gotten faster and become a smarter runner. I was ashamed and I was only at mile 24. As my mind raced, I started to hyperventilate. Luckily, I'm still Cindy and thinking of the cold beer on the other side of the finish line calmed me down.

As we entered downtown again and Sears Tower was in my sight, I knew I was almost there. I continued to high-five the still-enthusiastic crowd, and of course, every time I saw a photographer I made my way over so I could pose. Even if I wasn't moving fast, I'd appear so on film. I was tired and sad, but damned if there was going to be a bad picture of me.

(Allow me to make one bitch here about the course: with just 400 meters to go, the throng turned a corner into Grant Park from a beautifully flat course and hit - a freaking 45-degree hill. Really, course organizers? This is where you're putting a hill? Really? There was an audible groan from everyone around me as we rounded the turn to the finish and realized someone was totally effing with us.)

But then ... the finish line was.right.there.

(Mike thought these pictures were funny because it appears I am running right into the back of the ambulance.)

And as soon as it began, it was over.

Well not really that soon. My time was 4:29:59. I beat my Nike time by a scant 42 seconds. But I was 30 whole minutes over what I had set out to do.

I was alone at the finish - Mike and I agreed to meet elsewhere after I had picked up my medal and some food and had regrouped. So in the moments where I knew not a soul surrounding me and I knew I would not be judged, I openly wept. But not for the reason you might think.

It was the end of an epic struggle, from which I emerged completely bedraggled. I wept because I had intended to finish it stronger - and faster. But mostly, I wept because it was over. In these past months, I had discovered what I was really capable of on my own. I pushed myself to get up at 5 a.m. every day to run miles and miles before work. I pushed myself to run hill repeats in 90 degree temperatures. I pushed myself to run a solo 20-miler in the dark. I pushed myself to say no to happy hour with colleagues (give me a break, that was the hardest one).

As cliched as it may sound, I mourned the end of a powerful journey. And I couldn't shake the feeling that I had also totally failed.

Seeing Mike made it all okay, at least for a little while. Being My Cheerleader means constantly telling me how proud of me he is, and he's good at his job. Over Chicago deep dish pizza with Andrew and Leslie, I'd catch him grinning proudly at me.

And when we got back to the hotel, he drew me a bubble bath, put a crappy movie on the bathroom TV and mixed me a mean martini.

Javi had also run Chicago as a TNT mentor and met me for a drink that night. He was in the same funk as I was, as he hadn't made his goal either (But Javi's goal? Would never be on the table for me, even if I shaved 10 years and 25 pounds. He's quite speedy). We comiserated and shared stories from the course over a drink on the terrace before he hit the TNT party.

Mike took me to dinner at the best steakhouse in Chicago, where we gorged on oysters, wine, a couple of ribeyes and a red velvet cake. That night, I slept more soundly than I had in months. Partly because I was drunk. But it counts.

On Monday, after a heavenly and much-needed massage, I proudly donned my finisher's jacket and we wandered Michigan Avenue, stopping at Niketown so I could find my name on the wall.

Do you see me??

But I couldn't stop kicking myself. Every time I'd see someone pass me wearing her medal, I'd wonder what her time was. Moments of pride were quickly replaced by self-criticism.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm proud that I got to Chicago all on my own. I'm thankful for all the support I've gotten along the way, both from Mike and my family - and from all of my running friends who always had a "you can DO this!" at the ready.

I read that nearly 2,000 people didn't finish the marathon, dropping out for a host of reasons, the majority of them heat-related. I will be forever thankful that my body held up and allowed me to cross the finish line. Just two days after the race I was back at the gym, my body healthy and pain-free. And the same foot that forced me to abandon my training was never even an issue in Chicago.

I finished.

But perhaps what kept me from celebrating is exactly what keeps me coming back - the feeling that I'm never really satisfied. So really, there's only one way out of this.

Looks like it's going to be a spring marathon.

Only this time, I might keep it to myself.


  1. Babe I've heard this same story from SO MANY PEOPLE but Chicago was so damn hot. It was really entirely out of your power. Remember the NYC half during the summer we were training? Remember how EVERYONE was minutes upon minutes slower than they thought they were going to be? This was exactly like that.

    And so you should be proud that you didn't puke on the course. Didn't faint from dehydration. Didn't have to sit in a med tent.

    And that you FINISHED STRONG.

    And I can't believe that you saw Ramon. I dream about him sometimes. God I love that man.

    And yes, I'm back. Kind of. Mentoring for TNT's winter season for the Disney half. And registered for Boston. No more injuries hopefully!

  2. Jo!!! I am SO happy to hear you're back and ready to kick it in Boston!

    Thanks for the words ... and you know how that feels. It's just such a letdown after all those weeks/months, etc.

    I'm strongly considering hooking up with Ramon's gang for Mardi Gras in February (shhhh). Maybe it's just so I can be close to him again.

    Can't wait to hear how your training goes ... let's get together for a run soon.

  3. Love reading your story, and wept when you talked about weeping. I SO completely understand the emotions. I relived them all with you as I read! And yet, you are already thinking of the next one. It's like even though some of the emotions you felt totally sucked, you FELT them, truly felt them. Something about running makes us come alive and really experience that life. Here I sit 13 days out from NY, not running, not doing a darn thing to prepare besides reading my 60 page guidebook and stretching. Have I told you how much I hate stretching?? I am as much looking forward to seeing you as the Big Apple! I know this is a Bucket List opportunity and I'm not going to let a little thing like a hamstring mess it up. Thanks for your continued encouragement. Can't wait to hear what race you pick next!!

  4. you're such a wonderful gal! Congrats!! I do love marathon but I am lame. I do marathon since college but right now even if I have to, I can't. An Accident crippled me. But I still have reasons to smile:)TC