My Marathon Year

When you’ve been running long enough, or have run enough races, people start asking when you’re going to do a marathon. For me, the questions started after I ran my second half, in the fall of 2011. Riding high on the euphoria of finishing Detroit, I decided I wanted to run a marathon.

13.1! Space Blanket! Medal!
Detroit half marathon finisher, October 2011

So I registered for Chicago in 2012. And then I thought about it, and then I thought better of it. I sold my bib, and then I broke my arm, so running the marathon became a moot point – though I did end up running a portion of the marathon with a dear friend as she finished her second. The experience of running her through the hardest 8 miles of the race was so powerful – and the rush of the finish so intoxicating – that I decided (again) that I wanted to run a marathon.

And then I thought about it again, and decided it wasn’t for me again. And so it went for another year, where I ran seven half marathons in four cities and two states. I joined an informal running group. I started doing speedwork. I got more serious about my diet. I got fast(er). And then the marathon bug bit again, and I started telling people: this is my marathon year.

And literally the next day, I found out I was pregnant. I watched the 2014 Chicago marathon from my chair, nursing my two week old baby as the elite runners passed through our neighborhood. Not my marathon year – not that kind of marathon, anyway.

And then 2015 wasn’t my year either. The baby continued to breastfeed enthusiastically and sleep erratically, both of which wreaked havoc on my well-being. I agreed to wait a year, and then made sure I was out of town on marathon day.

So in March of this year, I entered the Chicago marathon lottery, and in April, I got in. A week after I received my acceptance, I ran one of the most difficult races I’ve completed and wondered what in the world I’d gotten myself into.

Post-race face
Portrait of the artist as a water-logged half marathoner, April 2016

And so the summer passed with nearly every lunch hour spent on increasingly sweaty runs, and with nearly every weekend seeing me nudging my “longest run ever” record a little bit further. The last five miles of my 14 miler featured thunder and lightning, a torrential downpour, and standing water on the trail. It was so humid for my 15 miler that by mile 11, my shoes and socks were squishing with every step. My 16 miler was a dream. My 17 miler was painful at every turn. My 20 miler was spontaneously pushed to a Friday morning and culminated in a freak storm.

I ran before dawn. I ran most of the Lakefront Path, and literally all around Antwerp. I listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts. I didn’t do as much strength or cross training as I should have. I was constantly hungry. I got to a point where I was just so sick of running that I couldn’t wait for it to be done.

View from mile 3/17 at 6am.
Sunrise at Navy Pier

All of this prepared me for the marathon itself – and none of it prepared me for the marathon itself.

I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming feelings that I experienced in the week leading up to the race. Everything felt incredibly emotional especially – my last long run, walking into the race expo, and picking up my bib.

I'm not crying; you're crying.
Race expo

I felt stressed and anxious when people asked me how I was expecting to do, or what time I expected to be by a certain location – as if I was going to let them down if I wasn’t there on time. I experienced a lot of impostor syndrome – I’m not a marathoner, I’m not an athlete. I felt the need to downplay what I was about to do, and wished I hadn’t told as many people – even as I couldn’t stop talking about it.

I worried about food all week – what should I eat? What shouldn’t I eat? What should I eat the day of? What is going to work with my stomach? And then an infected insect bite sent me to the emergency room three days out, and massive doses of antibiotics gave me all new worries.

I spent the night before the race at my parents’ hotel, where my mom’s mention of the race when making her reservation resulted in a surprise package waiting for me in the room.

Happy marathon eve to me.
Happy marathon eve to me

The morning of the race was everything I expected it to be. I jogged to the course, the streets filling up around me with marathoners and their loved ones. I watched the sun rise over Buckingham Fountain as I stretched. I ran into members of my running group – all first time marathoners – with enough time to snap a photo before we had to head to our corrals.

Team Noon Recess All Stars is ready to go!
Team Noon Recess All Stars

And then it was go time.

Here we go!
This view!

I want to remember how strong and steady I felt crossing the starting line. I want to remember those first miles, the sidewalks crowded with spectators, excitedly anticipating seeing my parents between miles 3 and 4. I want to remember running through Lincoln Park, a river of people rushing northward. I want to remember turning onto Addison at the northernmost part of the course, scanning the crowd for the previous night’s Lyft driver, whose wife had run the race before and who said he’d keep an eye out for me at that turn.

I want to remember the blinding sunlight through Boystown, and then the wave of emotions as I passed Neo, and then the beautiful scenery on Sedgwick as we headed back south. I want to remember checking my splits, mile after mile, and finding myself exactly on target mile after mile. I want to remember crossing the river back into downtown and texting the friends and family who were waiting for me to the west.

I want to remember the halfway point, my feet sticking to the pavement from all of the energy chews, my heart full of pride at what I’d already accomplished. I want to remember Annette and her family in the West Loop, her running out to join me for a few blocks. I want to remember accepting red licorice from someone in the crowd. I want to remember jumping up and down as I saw Karen at the western most point of the course.

Mile 15
Mile 15, photograph by Karen

I want to remember that it started getting hard after that, and that by the time I saw Alisa on Taylor Street, I was starting to struggle. I want to remember turning south to Pilsen, and wondering if I was going to finish, but holding it together because I knew I’d see my family soon. I want to remember digging into my reserve so that they would see me smiling. I want to remember the hurried hugs and kisses – and the toddler so overwhelmed by everything that he turned away.

And then I want to remember turning the corner at mile 20 and everything falling apart. I want to remember the last 10K taking everything I had – and taking it all out of me. I want to remember crying as I limped down Halsted, pulling it together to run through Chinatown, then falling apart again. I want to remember how sweet that grape popsicle tasted in mile 24. I want to remember counting down the blocks until I saw Michelle who lifted my spirits by running the last few blocks of Michigan along with me.

And then I want to remember the end, pulling out all stops to get up Roosevelt, summoning some secret reserve of energy to call out THIS IS IT as I rounded the corner into Grant Park and saw the finish line.

I ran a fucking marathon
I ran an effing marathon.

And then after – the shuffle through the finisher’s area, getting my medal and my space blanket and my banana. Collapsing on the ground for an ugly cry before I could return any of the texts or emails or social media love that had been blowing up my phone for hours. Finding my way out and meeting Michelle somewhere on Michigan and her getting me home. Painfully climbing the two flights of stairs to my proud family. Sitting on the floor to stretch without any certainty I could get back up. Devouring a caramel apple cupcake despite having no interest in food whatsoever. A celebratory meal with family and dear friends. Walking slowly around the Arboretum the next day rather than sitting at my desk and cramping up. Trying to make sense of the surprising pains and emotions that emerged in the days that followed.

So, I ran a marathon. Maybe someday I’ll run another one. How do I feel about it? I feel everything about it.

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I want to talk about this first.

I ran my first marathon yesterday. And I want to tell you about it, but I want to talk about this first.

I took this photo because I liked my pre-race layers – the Divvy shirt was going to be tossed before the race started – but when I looked at the photo on my phone, I wasn’t happy with it because I didn’t like how my belly looked.

Let that sink in for a minute. I was an hour away from the start of my first marathon, an accomplishment preceded by months of training and hundreds of miles logged on calloused feet and strong legs, all of which was done while working full time and with a toddler who still nurses nearly as much as he did at 9 months. And in that moment, I was upset at the shape of my belly.

I don’t remember when I first internalized that I was bigger, or that my weight was something I needed to be concerned about. Certainly by the time I was 12-13, I believed it to be true. I don’t know when I started understanding that my body had value, or that the value of my body to some might exceed the value of the heart and mind that it contained. But there were certainly long years where that felt true, and unlearning that truth was costly.

Whenever I run a race and see little girls watching and cheering, I think about how important it is for girls in particular to see women of all shapes and sizes doing hard and amazing things that aren’t limited to the traditional confines of gender. Every time I accept a high five from a little girl on the course, I hope that it’s a meaningful moment for her, that my imperfect body will be added to the many many messages she’ll receive about who and what she can be, that she’ll understand that she doesn’t have to have a perfect body to be amazing.