Sprinting through Hartsfield’s Concourse C, chasing after an unknown individual who had mistakenly taken my luggage wasn’t exactly how I planned for the marathon weekend to begin. Moments before the sprint, I had stood speechless in front of the luggage lift, overwhelmed by a harrowing nauseated feeling. You get that way when you realize the one remaining black bag there on the second shelf from the top doesn’t belong to you. Be it known that I’ve taken untold trips with this black carry on, all around the continental U.S., to Mexico, to England, and even twice to Ghana…but never had this problem. And you’d think that the snappy luggage tag I had applied the day before would help avoid such a mishap. Not so. Regrouping my harrowed, nauseated self, I sprinted down the concourse, grateful that my running shoes were on my feet versus packed in the MIA bag, bound for who-knows-where.
If you didn’t already know it, 99.9% of travelers at the world’s busiest airport have roll-around bags that are identical to mine. I desperately asked all I encountered, “Were you on the flight from Augusta?!?” Eventually, just steps from the escalator to the train, I got a “yes.”
The traveler stopped and propped my roll-around on all four of its spinner wheels. I spotted my beloved pink tag. “Excuse me, but that’s my bag!” I declared.
“If this is yours, then where is mine?” he inquired with a thick German accent, heavy-laden with irritation. I tugged at the bag and he gripped it tighter, refusing to surrender, as if he expected this to be an even exchange.
“I believe it’s still at the plane,” I replied, directing his attention to the pink plaid tag, hoping it would help build my defense. Confused, he loosened his grip a bit and I acted quickly, snatching if from his hands. And that’s how my marathon weekend began.
And so I had to laugh on Sunday morning when I found myself standing in the midst of 45,000 people at the start line next to a runner from….you guessed it…Germany. Whatever frustration I had with the nation melted away as this older man stood towering next to me. He was as delightful as delightful can be. He told me about his goal of running all 5 world major marathons. After having checked off Berlin (his hometown) and London, he had hopped across the pond to tackle Chicago. NYC is on his calendar for next year and he hopes that the older he gets, the easier it will be to qualify for Boston. For me, his “good luck” encouragement was enough to ease the international tension that erupted in Hartsfield. I had made peace with the Germans at the start line of Chicago. Now I’d make peace with 26.2 miles of Chicago pavement. The start gun fired at 7:30 a.m. Perhaps it was a start horn, who knows. I was too far away to hear it. With 45,000 people, it takes 20 minutes to eventually make it to the official start of the race. Eventually you hit it and you’re off and running.
The old saying, “You win some, you lose some,” never applies to marathons. It’s more like, “You win none, you lose all.” And that’s why a slow and steady runner like me will usually set goals such as, “Cross the finish line with a palpable pulse.” My only other marathon experience nearly did me in. Twisting an ankle at mile 3 was bad enough. Then there was the horrific chaffing on my sternum and ribcage resulting from the constant exposure to …hmmm, how can I put this delicately…an undergarment (see arrow). Certainly marathon attempt #2 would be better than #1. And so I set more ambitious goals for Chicago, both of which were modified at mile 20, restructured at mile 23 and then ultimately downsized at mile 24 to the following: “Finish without a bleeding chest or a twisted ankle.” I succeeded.
The course was spectacular. An estimated 1.7 million fans were on hand lining the Chicago streets, sometimes five people deep. I had three favorites…Veronica’s mom, Sarah Giddings and Sarah Mizelle. They traipsed all over Chicago for 5 hours last Sunday morning; catching us at miles 4, 11, and 18; holding impressive signs; cheering their hearts out; and having slices of deep dish Chicago pizza waiting on us at the finish line. Sarah’s sign “May the course be with you,” made me laugh hard. So did the guy who was holding the fluorescent green one that declared, “Worst parade EVER!” A few others suggested, “Tell your legs to shut-up.” Another pleaded, “Hurry-up. My arms are getting tired holding this sign.” I read a prayer on the back of a runner’s shirt that I particularly loved: “Dear God, PLEASE let there be someone behind me to read this.” Another runner’s shirt exclaimed: “I thought I signed up for a 2.62 mile race!?!” A “Welcome back Friday nights!” and the “Sleep in next Saturday morning!” signs were both so refreshing. Another favorite: “This sounded like a great idea 3 months ago, didn’t it?”
We weaved through all the major Chicago neighborhoods and by multiple churches, all of which had cancelled services in lieu of thousands of people running by on foot. Pastors, nuns, priests, etc… all came out to support us, standing on cathedral steps, no doubt pressing us onward with prayers and petitions. This was the encouragement that resonated deeply with me, especially in moments of such exhaustion. Passing by an African-American church with several ladies holding signs was the greatest boost. They read “YOU are anointed to finish!” and “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” All so encouraging. I appreciated the reminder of, “God is a very present help in times of trouble.” Granted, my context was a little off base…not only had I signed up for this “trouble,” I actually paid someone to allow me participate in it. Nevertheless, the encouragement was much-needed and well-received.
Several streets were lined by historic row houses and arched by oak trees in fall hues: peace in the midst of my agony. Sedgwick Street was one of my favorites. Families lined its curbs. Little kids gave you high-fives. And in the distance you could hear the synthesizer intro. Then the bass, followed by the piano. “Chariots of Fire” was booming from enormous arena-like speakers, ushering you into Chinatown. I felt compelled to run in slow motion like the movie…but then again, I was pretty much already in a slow-mo state. So I dug in and ran a little faster. Passing through their gates, countless Chinese well-wishers were beating drums, dressed as dancing dragons and lifting spirits. Made you feel like the most welcomed visitor in all the world. Miles before that I had crossed several bridges over the Chicago River, all of which had purple carpet over the grates to protect our feet. Carpeted grates. Witty signage. Fall foliage. Warm welcomes. Well done, Chicago. Well done.
The course wrapped back around to Grant Park, exactly where we began. And it’s interesting how the last 1.2 miles were easier that the first 25. Throngs of people lined the streets. Adrenaline was through the roof. And I had met Anne at some point between mile 23 and 24. She was a Chicago native and suddenly my new best friend. “Three more long blocks, sharp right onto Roosevelt, up a murderous hill, left onto Columbus Dr and we’re done,” she declares. I ran up the hill, took the left onto Columbus and finished with Anne, who proved to be part angel/part drill sergeant. Volunteers shoved food and water in our hands, medals over our heads, foil blankets around our backs. Walking through the finisher’s corridor, we revelled in the fact that we now had our Friday nights back. We parted, she expressing her regret at the fact that in such a state of mental exhaustion she’d never be able to remember my last name. “If I could,” she said, “I’d drop you a note and tell you thanks for helping me finish.” Marathon minds think alike.
Dropping notes to all who helped me finish would take weeks. Friends and family encouraged me all along the way, patiently bearing with short Friday evenings that accommodated early Saturday morning long runs. Three months of training began during Blakey Beach Week as I ran to the Jacksonville pier and back. And they culminated there on Columbus Drive in Chicago (click here to see more). I think I can speak for everyone on this one...I'm glad they're over. You've got seven months to rest up before we do it again!