2011 Chicago Marathon: Making the best of a bad situation

For eight miles, everything was perfect. For the next 18.2 miles, nothing went right.

I came through the first mile marker of the 2011 Chicago Marathon at about 8:05 and comfortably held a steady pace for the next seven, soaking in the energy from the incredible crowd, taking in the view of the city and thoroughly enjoying the start of my first marathon. It was a pristine morning, with the race’s 45,000 participants treated to 64-degree temperatures and a gorgeous blue sky, and my goal of savoring the moment early on instead of obsessing about my time had thus far unfolded as planned.

I crossed the eight-mile marker in just about 64 minutes and prepared to settle in for the next 12 miles, hoping to start shaving some time off my pace before hitting the final six-mile stretch. I knew I’d need to have something left in the tank to finish strong, having topped out four weeks earlier with a 21.5-mile training run, so I was planning on listening to my body to see just how much I could safely push the pace.

I didn’t like what my body had to say.

The good news? My shoulder felt fine. Actually, it felt great. I had a case of subscapular bursitis crop up the previous weekend (NOTE: the injury has since been diagnosed as nerve compression), and while it was a painful injury, I learned during a six-mile run on Thursday and a slow two miler Saturday morning that it actually felt better while running. Hoping to prevent any late-race soreness, I slapped Icy Hot medicated strips onto three different spots of my back, just to be safe. That may very well have been my first mistake of the day.

The bad news? My legs weren’t feeling nearly as good as my shoulder. At a time when I should have been finding a mid-race groove, my legs were tired. Too tired. Certainly too tired for mile 8 of a 26.2-mile race. I knew I would be pushing my body to an extreme that day, but I wasn’t ready to do it yet. Okay, I thought, I’ll just maintain pace for now and hope my legs recover in time for a strong finish. They didn’t.

One of the last times I liked what I saw when glancing at my watch.

Like most competitive runners, I’ve been in plenty of races where, as the saying goes, I just didn’t have it. It’s no fun. After all that training, to reach a point in the race when you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you just can’t run as well that day as you had hoped is deflating and utterly frustrating. I “just didn’t have it” a month ago when I ran the Virginia Beach half marathon, going out a little fast in my first mile before losing steam midway and sputtering through the back half. I finished about four minutes slower than my target time that day. In Chicago, I finished more than an hour after my goal.

I have theories but no definitive answers as to what happened last weekend. I expected to hit the wall at 20 or 22 miles, but instead it happened 12 miles earlier. While the shoulder injury wiped out my final 10-mile training run the weekend prior to the race, I still managed to get a six miler in later that week while logging nearly every other mile on my training schedule before to the injury. I had my mileage in and my training had gone very well. As far as I was concerned, 3:30 was in the bag and 3:20 was within reach, at least before the shoulder issue.

Even after my realization at mile 8, I assumed I could get a 3:45 or 4:00 finishing time comfortably enough if I just pulled back on my pace. Well, I pulled…and pulled…and pulled some more. Wait, I thought, am I really going to have to walk?

Every runner has different philosophies and strategies. For me, walking is an option only under extreme or unusual circumstances. At about the half-marathon mark, it was clear that my circumstances were both extreme and unusual. I knew I wouldn’t be able to run the whole race – my legs were toast already and I still had 13 or 14 miles to go. I didn’t know why I felt so crummy, but it obviously was time for me to accept the situation and adjust accordingly. It was time to walk. Shit.

At this point, I still held out hope that my legs would rebound once I started walking and I could finish with a respectable time. I began drinking more water and some Gatorade at the hydration stations to aid in my potential recovery, and then I started eating some of the food being offered throughout, including bananas and oranges, pretzels (for salt) and even some licorice and a couple Tootsie Rolls. I had never before eaten solid food during a run, but I was desperate to rescue my race. Of course, nothing worked and I trudged along with heavy legs and an achy back, with the frequency and length of my walks increasing, determined now just to finish no matter my time.

Still running, though probably not for much longer.

The one-word review of my first marathon: humbling. I worked my tail off for eight months to prepare for this one Sunday morning in October only to fall victim to…to what, exactly? I think the medication I was on – pain meds for my shoulder to help me sleep and the Icy Hot medicated strips to alleviate any soreness during the race – threw my body’s chemistry out of whack, but it’s just a theory. Temperatures that rose into the low-80s also didn’t help matters. Either way, this wasn’t just a disappointing race; on the day I needed my body running at full capacity, I came in with a third of a tank and suffered a blowout at mile 12. It feels more like a missed opportunity than anything else, and it’s frustrating.

During my run/walk, I gained even more respect for marathoners and every other endurance athlete who competes for several hours at a time. It takes a certain kind of nutjob to beat your body up like this. Complicating everything is the fact that, no matter how well you prepare for a race, you have no control over the unknown. You wake up expecting to feel great when the gun goes off, but you don’t know until you’re out there doing it. On a good day, you’ll feel normal; on a lucky day, you’ll feel great.

I had an awful day, for perhaps a couple different yet unknown reasons, but I did the best I could with it. I finished, in the most literal sense of the word. I can’t say I ran a marathon yet, but that day will come, and in fact may come sooner than it otherwise would have since I’m left with this bitter taste in my mouth. I can run better; it’s just a matter of when.

In the meantime, I’m relieved that I eased up during the race instead of pushing through and trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat when I clearly was in trouble out there. No matter your goals, it’s imperative that every runner listen to his or her body during a race, particularly during high endurance events. A marathon pushes your body to its extremes, and sometimes even further, a tragic lesson we learned again Sunday when 35-year-old Will Caviness, a North Carolina firefighter and experienced marathoner, collapsed 500 yards from the finish line and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

Caviness, who left behind a wife and two young children, was running to raise money for the International Association of Fire Fighters Burn Foundation and, according to reports, was on pace to finish with a time of around 3:05, which would have qualified him for the Boston Marathon.

As a 34-year-old father of three who struggled mightily in his first marathon, this news was especially jarring to me. According to Dr. George T. Chiampas, medical director for the Chicago Marathon, the frequency of marathon deaths is one in 100,000 to one in 120,000 runners. Scary numbers, to be sure, but roughly the same probability that a middle-aged man who isn’t running a marathon will die, says Dr. Donald A. Reidelmeier of the University of Toronto. At the risk of being redundant, the lesson for everyone is to listen to your body and be ready to bail on any pre-race goals if you may be putting your health at risk in the process.

To close on a high note, here are just a few quick memories I’ll take from my first – but not my last – marathon.

The Chicago Marathon spectators were awesome. So much enthusiasm, so much energy, so much support. Running can be a lonely activity, but not during a race like this. There were very few quiet stretches of the course, which especially helps during the back half of the race, and while it felt like I was violating the age-old warning by taking all sorts of food from strangers on the course, I’m pleased to report that I wasn’t felled by poisoned gummy bears or a razor blade in my orange slices. Thanks to everyone who came out to cheer us all on.

The Chicago Marathon volunteers are even awesomer. As the race wore on, I began to feel like a regular at the hydration stations, sometimes stopping off to the side to down two or three cups of water before hitting the pavement again. Everyone was tremendously helpful and accommodating, and a race like this – particularly with the higher temperatures – doesn’t happen without a fantastic group of volunteers.

A special shout-out to the mile-24 aid station. I had been fighting some soreness in my right quad and an increasingly achy lower back that made it difficult to breathe as I passed the 24-mile marker. Forced to walk yet again, my quad instantly seized up and made it nearly impossible to walk, let alone start running again. Fortunately, I cramped up right next to one of the race’s 20 aid stations, and one of the medics on hand spent 10 minutes working out my cramp and rubbing down my lower back so I could finish. For that, I’m extremely grateful.

Gotta finish, gotta finish, gotta finish. At around mile 14, I was walking alongside an older gentlemen who told me he was dealing with two painful injuries: one to his foot and another somewhere else on his leg (hip or quad, maybe). The guy, an experienced marathoner, was frustratingly limping along and seemed convinced he wouldn’t be able to finish. I wished him luck and started running again, only to see him again around mile 22 or so. He was moving along at a slow but determined pace, and though he was still limping, I have no doubt he ended up finishing. Talk about making the best of a bad situation.

Familiar faces are a huge boost. A great race crowd can keep you amped up for miles, but it’s even more helpful to have some friends and family along the course to pull you through. Special thanks to my friend and his wife, who let me crash at their downtown apartment Saturday night so I was closer to the race Sunday morning, and who also cheered me on along the way. (In particular, my friend got a laugh from all of the runners around me when he screamed around the 10K mark that I was “a ****ing machine!” Comedic gold, even if he was lying.)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my wife, who enjoys being a spectator at these races almost as much as I enjoy running them. People like my friend and my wife, who jump around to different spots in the course to cheer on their runners, deserve a ton of credit for their support, especially when they also help said runner recover afterward. My wife walked along with me just before my stop at the med tent at mile 24, making sure I was OK and encouraging me to finish. And thanks to my cousin as well, a Chicago native who came downtown to cheer me on while helping my out-of-town wife navigate the course.

Finally…yes, I beat the woman who gave birth shortly after the race. In an unbelievable story with a circle-of-life quality in light of the death of Will Caviness, 27-year-old Amber Miller crossed the finish line, grabbed something to eat, and then headed to the hospital to deliver her second baby. Miller, just days from her due date, started having contractions during the race and went into labor shortly after she finished. An amazing story, but not unique for Miller, who has now completed three marathons while pregnant and eight total. She finished the Chicago Marathon, while walking and running, in 6:25, so yes, I handily beat the woman having labor pains while she ran. Of course, since Miller typically runs around 3:30, she would have smoked me otherwise. Congrats to Miller and her family, and to everyone else who finished the race. With or without contractions.