My Chicago Marathon journey began with the dream of a Boston qualifying personal record, and ended with me crossing the finish line one hour over my last marathon time (not even close to Boston, or anything I’d like to acknowledge publicly).
In between these extremes, I was injured, slowly rehabbing, vacationing, working, supporting the marathon training of my husband, falling way short on my training goals, experiencing small positive steps forward and mini-victories that gave me hope for my health and Chicago, and then eventually, and very publicly, claiming that I absolutely was not going to complete the Chicago Marathon.
My husband was ready for Chicago, so I couldn’t just bail altogether. And honestly, I was looking forward to a kid-free weekend. We could actually go out to eat, at a restaurant! We could get two night’s sleep without a munchkin sneaking into our bed and waking us up with tiny and surprisingly strong feet striking our backs or faces.
I scouted out the course and reviewed all the aid station options. I knew I could get a ride back to the finish area from multiple locations along the course. Heck, at mile 12, I could even just step into the crowd and walk the few blocks to the finish area myself. Making my scheduled 12-14 miles would be an amazing accomplishment in itself. I’d been fighting a sinus infection the last two weeks, and wasn’t even sure I could run that far.
I had a plan I felt good about. I won’t lie and say I didn’t get a little teary-eyed at the expo, knowing I wouldn’t be a Chicago Marathoner the next day. It is entirely possible that I called my mom crying, looking for comfort, while my husband was in the checkout line purchasing an awesome Chicago Marathon shirt that I wouldn’t allow myself to buy because I wasn’t going to deserve to wear it.
But these were just irrational and emotional moments brought on by the spirit of the marathon and the pulsing energy of the running community sharing a collective space and goal. I did not train for this race. I have three half marathons over the next two months to prepare for. I knew an attempt to complete the Chicago Marathon would be insane, if not impossible, and could lead to injury. I had worked too hard rehabbing my plantar fasciitis and patella femoral syndrome, and would absolutely not risk taking another step backward in my recovery.
Yep, those were all things I was telling myself leading up to the race. I even had Japanese whiskey and several hoppy beverages Friday evening. I didn’t even pack my compression sleeves. And finishing this race would most likely mean a lot of walking, and feeling sorry for myself, and missing out on a post-race shower before our hotel check out time. Umm…no thanks.
Like I said, I had a plan, a good plan, a smart plan.
Hanging out in the start corral, I felt like an impostor. I had promised myself that no matter what, I wanted to have fun running. I tried. I smiled and posed for photos and talked to others in my corral, but it wasn’t the same. My normal nervous energy was missing.
As I crossed the start, I still didn’t feel like myself. I couldn’t hear my music, so just turned it off. I tried to keep my feet light and my stride easy, but something was holding me back.
Within the first mile I saw a group of three spectators with signs cheering on “Erin.” I didn’t know them. They were there for a different “Erin,” but it was seeing them that made me decide to be a part of this event, even if it was only for 13.1 instead of 26.2. I claimed those “Erin” supporters as my own, raising my arms up and shouting out, “Hey, I’m Erin!!!”
They jumped up and waved their “Erin” signs, and cheered for me as if I was their “Erin.” I’m pretty sure I cried a little and smiled a big goofy smile (just like I am now in memory of them). Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Now I was truly running the Chicago Not-Marathon, for the best reason, for me.
I thought I was done at 12 miles, (my legs were so tight and my muscles were burning) but wanted to at least run 13.1. Passing the half marathon mark was a tangible goal I could talk about. It was a relief to get there, but I had to make it to mile 14 for the aid station and a ride back to the finish.
The doctor started asking me questions about how I felt. I didn’t feel like I could just say “I’m done.” I needed a reason to be done. So I answered honestly, “My IT bands, on both legs, are just so tight I can barely run.” He put me on a cot, stretched out my IT bands (ow and wow), and then strapped ice on my legs with cling wrap. A few minutes later he asked how I was feeling. “Cold.” He laughed, took off the ice, and asked again. I stood up and was surprised that my legs felt amazing!
“What happens if I get back out there again and can’t make it?” I asked. He told me that the next aid station was only 1.5 miles, and that his wife was working there, and that she would take great care of me. He never asked if I was done. He smiled and made me feel even more supported. So, I kept going.
I missed the next aid station, but didn’t need it anyway. I paused near mile 17, and lathered on some Bio Freeze (that stuff is pretty cool).
Then, at mile 19 (twice the distance of my longest training run) my legs were shot. I stopped at the next aid station near mile 20. A conversation similar to the one at mile 14 occurred, and a trainer stretched out my IT bands again. To my amazement, my legs once again felt like I could keep running. The trainer could tell I was contemplating something. He raised his eyebrows and said, “Well, it’s only six more miles now. And you could stop at every aid station if you needed to along the way.”
I know it was insanity, or stupidity, or maybe just plain stubbornness, but I decided to stay in the race. From mile 22-25, I did a run/walk combo. It was tough on my body, my mind, and my spirit. I was finishing, but I don’t think I’ve ever struggled more as a runner.
Then at mile 25, I saw a fellow participant wearing a shirt about running for NF. I thought of my cousin Trisha, and her son Connor, recently diagnosed with NF, and just had to thank this woman. I took off to catch up with her, tapped her on the shoulder, and thanked her for running for NF. She thanked me for thanking her, and I was suddenly inspired to pick up my feet! My legs found a hidden reserve of energy, and I ran the last 1.2 with some vibrancy to complete the Chicago Marathon.
Thank you to everyone who believed in me and cheered me on, including all the spectators who fed me and gave me high fives, and the medics who helped my body find its way. I’ve been telling people it was 85% idiocy and 15% training, but I think idiocy is a strange bedfellow with spirit and community when it comes to running.
My legs hurt like hell for a few days. I ended up with a sprained right foot, (no recurrences of old injuries though) and was sidelined for the St. Louis Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon (it’s a good thing I had such awesome friends, family, and strangers to chase around the course and cheer on). But crossing the Chicago Marathon finish line, and even not having access to a shower until late in the evening after the drive back to St. Louis, felt amazing.
I can’t promise I won’t ever do anything stupid while running again (pretty sure I’m signing up for an underwear run in February), but I will be very well trained for my next marathon. After all, completing 26.2 without walking, and eventually qualifying for Boston, are still on my running bucket list.