The Chicago Marathon

I woke up a number of times in the night nervous like I was taking a big exam and excited like it was my first outdoor picnic. I wonder why I even bother setting an alarms for such events since I woke up at 5am before the alarms went off. I purposely did not turn the multiple alarms off since it was chiefly for the benefit of my support team who really needed to be roused from their slumber. The weather did not look too good - it was raining, the temperatures were just above freezing and it was not going to get better.

By 6:30am when we managed to reach downtown(without getting lost), the place was already milling with people. For each of the 40,000 or so runners there would be about two to three other people who would be lining up at parts of the course to cheer them on. My friends dropped me off at the Millenium Park and after that I was on my own. Thanks to all the road blocks and fences around the course it took me about thirty minutes to get to the Asha tent in the Charity Village. The Charity Village, thanks to the rain, was a complete mess and the last thing I wanted was to slip and fall in the muck and sprain an ankle. I met the other Asha runners and almost all of them were first-timers and were equally nervous and excited. I tried to stretch but I did it half-heartedly. The chilly air was numbing and added to the tension in the air.
At about 7:45am, I lined up wearing a trash bag which was my modified rain-jacket. In the 37F weather I was really glad to have the $2 gloves. Crammed like cattle in that enclosure we all waited. As I waited, I thought about all the months of training and all the different runs - in the heat, in the rain, on dull cloudy days, on chilly autumn mornings and the accompanying aches and pains. Then I thought about the runs that should have been, runs abandoned midway because it hurt too much. Would I pay for those sins? Would I hit the wall at Mile 21? Would I fail to finish? As the time for the eight-o'clock-start approached people started throwing their jackets, gloves and sweats to the curbside. At five minutes before eight, the butterflies in my stomach disappeared and I felt ready. The horn went off exactly at 8 am, but it took me another 8 minutes to make it to the start. As my foot hit the mat, I broke into a jog and it took me a few seconds to realise - that the marathon had begun. I would be back at the Buckingham fountain after 26 miles and 385 yards.

Route Map

Mile 1-7
It was drizzling when the race started and I was glad to have that trash bag. The first part of the course would go north after crossing the river twice. There was a nasty wind and I tried to tuck behind a group of runners, but that did not help much. For the first two miles the road was packed and I could not speed up to my target pace which was a good thing. My problem while running is controlling my urge to speed up early in the race. One of the unique experiences of Chicago is running on the steel bridges. Running along the bridge between the great skyscrapers I could see the green Chicago river below my feet through the grating. Between Mile 3 and 4 I saw my support team - Sumedha, Darshan, Siddharth and Sreeja and it felt really nice to hear them screaming my name. I was warming up while running and I wondered how they were holding up in the cold. Today, the cold weather would not only test the runners but also the supporters. I learnt later, that my friends had to throw away the placards from the expo as their fingers went numb from the cold.

Mile 7-13.1
It was nice to get back between the buildings after the stretch on Lake Shore Drive.
A little before Mile 8 the loop turned around and went south passing through the gay district where the guys were immensely entertaining. Throughout this leg there was lovely music - folk music, rock music and even an Elvis look-alike. Around Mile 9, I felt a stabbing pain in my chest, the kind you get when you are close to the finish. I wondered, 'Was this the beginning of the end?'. It passed. Before getting back into Downtown, the route passed through the Scandinavian neighbourhood and there were people with Swedish and Danish flags. People bring all kinds of things that make noise - whistles, bells, old horns, drums. I don't know why but noise makes you keep going. We went pass the famous Chicago theater where a blues band was so energetic that we all got a rush. Again for a brief few seconds, just before the halfway point, I looked forward to meeting my my support team. This time Sumedha and Darshan ran bit and that felt really good.

Mile 13.1 - 20
As I passed under the green banner that read 'Halfway' I felt great. It wasn't long ago when the half-marathon distance felt like a lot. Now that distance was not special at all - it was just a statistic. The runner next to me and I high-fived and I said, 'Let's do this!'. He smiled - I would never see him again. In long races like these, you form instant and temporary friendships on basis of 'we-in-this-together'. I don't think the marathon distance would be that enjoyable or even achievable if it weren't for all the people. You encourage, support and smile at people you don't know and will never meet again. It is so much easier when 'I can do this!' becomes 'We can do this!'.

At Mile 15, I felt that my bladder would burst. It had been about two and a half hours after starting and I had a lot of water and Gatorade. While there are port-a-johns scattered throught the course, the lines are often long and in the interest of time runners urinate wherever they feel like. Most simply pick the nearest wall and even women who seem to have super-human self-control when it comes to such matters show that at least on the marathon course they are just as human and not too finicky about location. I was scanning the course for an appropriate wall to bless, when a set of blue port-a-johns appeared. I felt almost obliged to use them and I knew I was throwing away a fine opportunity to urinate with impunity. There was a line and it cost me two minutes and the extended stop made my legs feel heavy. But again, in a few minutes I felt okay.

Mile 20-25
They say that the marathon has two halves. The first 20 miles and then the rest. The longest run in all marathon programs is a long run of 20 miles about 3 weeks before the race and I knew that I would at least make it as far as the 20 mile mark, but what about the rest? After Mile 20 runners bonk or hit the wall and start hearing voices in their head. As I crossed the 20-mile marker, I wondered if I would be able to hold up for another hour for the last 6.2 miles. Frank Shorter at Mile 21 asked his fellow competitor Kenny Moore, "Why did Pheidippides not die at Mile 21?". In this leg I saw more and more runners stop and begin to walk. While you don't feel out of breath and your legs are not tired, you just feel the need to stop a bit. At Mile 22 I heard a voice in my head, "How about a really short walking break?". I knew that would be the beginning of the end. Very soon there would be more walking breaks and soon I would be walking and not running. After we crossed the Dan Ryan Expressway I hit the 23 Mile mark. I told myself, "This will be the last 30 minutes of running for a long, long time." Everything I had done the past 4 months now boiled down to keep those legs moving for the next 5 kilometers. Around me, people looked equally 'dead' and there wasn't much talking going on. The spectators were doing a great job in pushing the runners across the last few bits of the course. In these last few miles everything you hear within and without is prefaced with 'Just' - 'Just, hang on', 'Just 2 miles', 'Just a little bit more'. Even the nasty wind did not matter now. Everything around me seemed to be hazy and floating. I recall everything in the last 3 miles as if it was from a dream - the little children who I high-fived, the faces of the spectators who said "Almost there!", the guy at the water-stop.

The Last Mile
After running more between 25-35 miles a week, running a mile feels like nothing. The last mile in Chicago runs along Michigan Avenue, which a little further along is called the 'Magnificent Mile'. Except there was nothing magnificent about this mile. It was the longest and hardest mile that I have ever run. To make it more bearable I broke it down in four 400m laps. Yet, it seemed like an eternity to see that '800m' sign just before we turned onto Roosevelt. I was about ready to die at that point. It was still not over. There would be no redemption till I had run every inch of the 26 .2 mile course. You grit your teeth and hang on. I cannot get over that feeling of entering that final stretch along the wide Columbus drive where there were massive crowds on either side of the barricades. I felt that they were all cheering me. At this stage I was ready to believe anything. I have never felt a greater joy in my life than to see that large green sign that said "Finish". A few moments ago, I was ready to die and now I had this sudden burst of energy. With 400 meters to go I began to feel my legs turn over faster and faster, like I had no control over them. As I passed dozens of runners and I could hear people cheer my last sprint to the finish. Everyone loves a strong finish. I felt my left foot hit the mat and I may not have taken more than three or four steps before I stopped. I could not run anymore. My legs felt so heavy, that I could not stand. I was totally spent. I had done it. The first thing I did was cry.

(Un)Official Time & Splits


Mangesh said...

Congrats man, thats a heck of a feat, and you mentioned ASHA, so probably for a good cause too!

tejas said...

swell achievement! the writeup, i mean. :)

man i would love to train for one some day, and come to chicago. the RFID chip concept is very interesting, but i suppose it's used in the more prestigious marathons.

you should have coerced reggae to run too.

Siddharth Rege said...

wow ghats, it was really great to actually read through your experience. It is almost surreal that while you were having stabbing pain in the chest around mile 9, your supporters were busy enjoying coffee and donuts at dunkin donuts and marvelling at the Kenyans who had just sprinted by!! That day, you were too tired and probably dazed to really go back through the whole experience. In fact, just seeing the marathon and walking to all the different spots to intercept you was a great experience. There is something in a marathon where as an observer you feel that each person running is running to beat some personal goal hence you feel like cheering on complete strangers.
Anyway, Sreeja and I had aches and pains from just walking 6-8 miles in the cold! So tejas, this is about as close to marathon running as I am ever going to get!!

Kunal Thakar said...

That was a very inspiring account Hirak.
I am seriously thinking of running a marathon now!

Hirak said...

I think everyone should consider running a marathon. Given the toll it takes on the body, I would recommend doing it sooner than later.

Schrodinger said...

Congratulations! I too feel I want to run a marathon but I even shy away from the local 5K race thinking I might look like a fool running at a pace of 10.
The bay area is obsessed with marathons Berkeley more so, I dream to be able to equal your feat someday but till then you are a hero in my eyes!

Ashutosh said...

Bravo! That's quite a feat. You are the Alan Turing of Neuroscience!

Shripriya said...

Congratulations. I've always wanted to run a marathon. Can you do it with bad knees?

Ashutosh said...

... Hirak participates in the 26.2 mile LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon and lives to tell the tale.

Saket said...

Congratulations Hirak! Great stuff. A well-written description of the whole experience as well. Kudos! :)

I've run a 5k and a 10k this year, I am inspired by your feat to start training regularly for a full-scale marathon. Hope to choose a warmer location near by.. Silicon Valley marathon would be easier on me and my supporters if I manage to muster some.

Hirak said...

Shripriya:It depends on bad your knees are. But given that even octogenarians complete the race, with proper training and gradual increase in mileage the target is quite achievable. Choice of shoes also matters.

Saket: Great! Go for it! Sunny California does have a lot more days of that you can run outside. I am jealous!

Samrat said...

Simply awesome. What a feat Hirak, you are the first among all my acquaintances to run one.
I am also motivated now to atleast run 5KM.

John from Grand Haven, MI said...

dude, i ws so pumped up to make that right-hand turn up the little incline prior to the left-hander down to the finish line, i felt like i could have run another 10 miles! hope that extra 6 seconds didn't hurt too much... i was 47 seconds off my goal (4:20) but i'm cutting myself some slack on it!