My wide eyes tell you everything you need to know about how I was feeling before April’s races. Tired. Overwhelmed. Undertrained. In need of a hug, a pep talk, and a lucky charm.
I already told you about my race plan for the CB10. I stuck to it for the most part, though the sun didn’t cooperate with #14, and there were no space blankets (#18) on offer. Instead, I shaved five minutes off last year’s time, even with stopping for an Oreo and 2 oz of Yuengling, even with cold weather, even with the the wall I hit between 8.5 and 9, just like last year. Jeff brought us sweatshirts, and Tina’s friends provided a sun-drenched brunch. And I logged a new PR: 1:33:56. Two days later, I moved into my new apartment in Chicago.
A couple of weeks and a new job later, I drove down to Champaign for 24 hours of races – the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon weekend, with races ranging from a 1K fun run up to the full marathon. I was registered for the Half I-Challenge – a 5K Friday night, and the half marathon Saturday morning.
My feelings for Champaign are complicated, as I’ve explored here before. It felt like home from the time that I first moved there, and no place has quite replaced it in my heart. Between the race expo and the 5K, I went to Kopi and worked on my laptop at one of the small tables just like I did for years and years, with the same people ordering the same drinks as they have for years and years, and the same music on the stereo as has been playing for years and years.
When I moved to Champaign, it was on the heels of the end of my first marriage. I was alone for the first time in my adult life, making choices that would establish my new life independent of the person on whom I’d based my world. It was scary and overwhelming, but also so full of possibility. It got easier than in those first days, and what made it easier – and what made Champaign feel like home – were those anchors – like Kopi, like the regular customers, like the park at night, like the family of friends that surrounded me.
I mention this because when I queued up for the 5K in the cold and the wind, totally alone in the crowd of thousands south of campus, I looked to my right and saw one of my favorite regulars from the years I worked at Aroma. I don’t know his name or anything about him beyond his regular order – a small coffee and a brownie – but every time he came in, he made me smile and think of my dad. I have no idea if he remembered me – hell, I lost him in the crowd almost as soon as I spotted him – but it was a moment of grace, and gave me energy for the cold, rainy, windy race ahead.
We went down First past the Stadium, turned right on Green, and then up Sixth, where I blew a kiss in the direction of GSLIS. The rain started as we turned right to head past the art museum, but it hardly mattered at that point. Down into Memorial Stadium and onto the field, where Jill spotted me and yelled out a cheer that pushed me to the finish line with my last burst of energy. Another PR, this one by 20 seconds: 25:58.
Dinner with Erin and Jadon, one of the last of my GSLIS crew still left in town. We had pizza – maybe not the best race fuel, but damn, was it delicious – and I slept fitfully on their very comfortable couch, concerned about oversleeping, concerned about the race, concerned about the weather, concerned about everything.
Up at 5, and out the door by 5:30 because I was anxious about road closures for the race. I sat in my car and listened to music and blasted the heat and prayed for the rain to stop. I dug out a permanent marker and wrote Keem’s cheer on my hand: YOU’RE DOING IT. I stretched at Assembly Hall, then hopped in ahead of my designated wave, hoping to pace at 9:15 and beat my Detroit time.
I can’t really explain the race – I couldn’t then, and I can’t really now, a few weeks later. The course was easier but the run more demanding than in Detroit in October. It was cold and windy. It never seemed to end. We ran through campus, past Hendrick House, where Mark lived for years. Maybe I took too much water. Maybe I didn’t have enough water. My nose wouldn’t stop running, but my legs felt like a million bucks. We pushed on through Urbana, passing the street where Amy and Adam lived, past the turn to go to Sarah and Hannah’s house. We hit the edge of town, turned south, and ran through Meadowbrook Park. I hung with a couple of guys, laughed as others challenged each other and ran off the edge of the path to get around slower runners. I felt strong and steady. I had no problem hitting my pace.
We turned north to head back toward campus, and I hit a wall. 10.5 miles and I felt like I couldn’t possibly go any further – and then, on the sidewalk, just walking, not paying attention to the race, I saw Rick Powers. I used to see him occasionally when I was dating Shawn and going to English department events – and then once in a while around town – but hadn’t seen him in years. That little burst of happiness helped, though not enough to get me through the side cramp a mile later, or the complete and total exhaustion to come. The latter would come in the form of two marathoners who came up beside me near the Meat Science lab and stayed with me for a few blocks, encouraging me about my time, telling me that I was lucky that I was almost done.
A hairpin turn, and around the corner into the Stadium. I looked down at my watch, and poured everything I had into the last minutes. As in the Cherry Blossom race, I repeated over and over: All the pain. All the sadness. All the hurt. Burn it up. Use it as fuel.
I crossed the finish line, hit the stop button, and saw this:
Under two hours. 1:59:09. A PR by almost six minutes. I got my medals, sat down, and immediately lost it, crying hard enough that another runner came over to check on me. No, I didn’t need help – I was just overwhelmed. Overwhelmed to finish, much less PR, much less break two hours. So very thankful for every person and emotion and thing that had carried me through the miles and through the last few months. So very much, all in those miles, in those medals, in my aching body and heart.
I fucking did it.