“I have a good feeling about tomorrow. I feel really good.” That’s what I told my husband André the night before running the Chicago Marathon. My training leading up to the race had gone as well as I could have asked for. The 60, 70, and 80+ mile weeks had been logged. I could run six minute and 40 second miles in my sleep. I flew to Chicago a few days early to adjust to the time change. I did my little shakeout run and strides that morning to stay loose. I had the perfect pre-race pasta dinner and had my race day spandos laid out. My breakfast of two stroopwafels and a banana was perched on my hotel desk next to the coffeemaker, prepped to brew at the flick of a switch. I felt calm and excited. I was ready.

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Taken during one of my last easy runs in Wheaton, IL

While I ate my breakfast race morning, I picked up where I left off in The First Ladies of Running, a book profiling pioneer women in the sport of running by Amby Burfoot. I was particularly inspired by a quote from Julia Chase, the first woman road racer who did so at a time when women were not permitted by the Amateur Athletic Union to run more than 1.25 miles. This was in 1961.

“Running puts you in touch with your primal self and your deepest resolve. You learn how to deal with pain and other obstacles. You realize that it’s not important to do conventional things. You can do whatever feels worthwhile to you.”

That really said it all. I’ve never known why I’ve felt the need to run. It’s always been in me. It’s shaped who I am and how I live my life and solve problems. I wanted how I raced in Chicago to be an expression of that.

I warmed up by running from my hotel to the starting area of the race. I had qualified for Chicago Marathon’s American Development Program, which allows faster amateur runners a chance to start right behind the professionals, plus amenities like a private warm up area, tent, restrooms, and gear check. After passing through security, I took a second to take in the scenery. Dawn was about to break, the hum of news choppers could be heard in the distance, groups of elite athletes from various countries jogged laps around the warm up area, and solo runners like me were just milling about. It hit me that I had been at that exact spot before, when I played Lollapalooza Music Festival with RAC just two years prior. Worlds collide!

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Around 15 minutes or so before the race, the American Development runners including myself were shepherded to our own separate entrance into the first race corral. We formed into a line to make way for the elite athletes going in ahead of us. At one point a very petite Florence Kiplagat breezed by- she would be the defending champion that day. Once they had entered, we were allowed in the corral but had to stand back and squeeze in tight together to allow room for the elites to continue warming up and striding out. It was cold and I could sense the runners around me getting antsy to move. Minutes later, we were finally allowed to jog forward and tuck in as close as we could to the start line. One catch of being in that corral was that you were eligible for top placement and prize money, meaning only your gun time would be recorded. Every second would count! The top male and female contenders were announced for the crowds and television broadcast alike. I could see them waving from where I stood. It was a very “20 feet from stardom” moment. The national anthem was sung. The gun went off.

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Can you spot me?

The beginning of the race played out just as I had imagined it would. I had watched a course preview on video, so I knew I’d be running through a large tunnel right away and I anticipated all of the quick turns within the first few miles. What I didn’t expect was just how many participants would be filling the street in a matter of seconds into the race. If I thought I was anything special for my 2:55 time goal, there were literally hundreds and hundreds of men and women flooding around me. I didn’t allow myself to get swept away and kept at a pace that felt comfortable and easy.

Mile 1 – 6:53

Mile 2 – 7:00

Mile 3 – 6:51

5K – 21:27

The next ten miles or so were completely methodical. The water and Gatorade stations came in steady waves every couple of miles. I kept an eye on my watch to make sure I was keeping at a steady, conservative pace. I took my GU gels filled with sugar and electrolytes exactly as I planned. I smiled and waved every time I saw my husband and parents-in-law, who had strategically planned out how to see me at as many points of the course as possible.

Mile 4 – 6:45

Mile 5 – 6:45

Mile 6 – 6:39

10K – 20:57

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Mile 7 – 6:34

Mile 8 – 6:42

Mile 9 – 6:41

15K – 20:48

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Mile 10 – 6:48

Mile 11 – 6:44

Mile 12 – 6:51

20K – 21:18

Mile 13 – 6:49

Halfway at 13.1 – 1:29:09

As I went past the eleven mile mark, I did a quick check-in with myself. I was feeling good and the pace was still comfortable. My average mile split was somewhere in the 6:40s. If I could maintain that for the rest of the race, I would be in the 2:57-58 range which I would have been very happy with. If I could drop it down even more, I wanted to wait until later on, when I was positive I had the reserves to hold on. I deliberately eased up the pace through miles twelve and thirteen and cruised through the half in 1:29:09. Side note: En route to running a 2:59 in the 2014 Philadelphia Marathon, I had gone through the halfway point in 1:30:30 which included a 60 second pit stop. When I attempted a 2:55 in Berlin 2015, I went through the half a smidge under 1:28 then crashed and burned with a 3:08 finish.

Right around the halfway mark was my very favorite part of the course. After the runners were taken way up north beyond Lincoln Park and back, we were once again in the heart of the city. The crowds were enormous and they were LOUD.  I loved it. How often do you get to run through one of the biggest cities in the US with massive amounts of people lining the streets and cheering for you? That part I will always remember.

Mile 14 – 6:42

Mile 15 – 6:43

25K – 21:19

After the high of running through the city, it was back to business in mile 14 and 15. Mile 14 took us out directly west, then I was in for a rude awakening as we took two quick left turns to head directly east toward Lake Michigan, which happened to be directly into a headwind. I tried to find small packs of people to draft off of, but I never like running in the back. I compromised by running with a pack for a few seconds, then picking another pack a few steps ahead to work my way up to, then another, and so on. I was surprised when I looked down at my watch to see I was still on pace, but targeting little groups of people to chase must have helped to keep up the tempo.

Mile 16 – 6:47

Now this is when things started to get a little hairy. That mile into the headwind was when I began to notice little signs of fatigue. I was working a little harder to maintain pace and I could feel just a little twinge in my ankle. One of my goals for the race was to stay relaxed and comfortable through at least mile 17, if for no other reason than knowing a big group of my teammates from the Oiselle Volée team would be there. Leading up to the race I had even mentally envisioned myself running by my team with ease, smiling and waving, feeling amazing. Presently, I was unsure of how I was feeling. I felt okay, but I was nervous. My ankle didn’t feel great, and each step was a little more painful. Then little by little, another point of pain began to creep into my knee on the same side. Efff.

Mile 17 – 6:52

I spotted André, Arménio, and Elizabeth for what I knew would be the last time I’d see them before the finish. I wanted them to know I was still doing okay so I perked up, waved, maybe gave a thumbs up. I ran by my team. They had all kinds of hand painted signs and were cheering their hearts out. They were awesome. Megan Murray tweeted out that I had just gone by their cheer squad “at a SPICY pace!” I smiled, waved, and ran with ease… or at least pretended to. My knee ached even more. Not fifty meters later it became too much to bear and I stopped off to the side to stretch my leg out, just for a few seconds.

Mile 18 – 6:52

30K – 21:09

Mile 19 – 6:54

My leg was not getting better. In fact, it was rapidly getting worse. I stopped somewhere in mile 20 to stretch out again, and I knew then it was a losing battle. My ankle was throbbing, my knee was wonky, and my hip was getting tighter and tighter, as if there was a taut wire running down the right side of my body and someone was pulling the crank.

Mile 20 – 7:48

I jogged until I arrived at a water station just past mile 21. I stopped and asked a volunteer if a medical tent was nearby and she directed me across the street. I checked in with the course medics. They logged my bib number and offered me Gatorade. I told them I was in pain and I wasn’t sure what to do. They offered me ice, but I didn’t take it because I didn’t want to freeze up my muscles if I was to continue running. They offered me a ride to the finish. I debated about whether I should take it. A DNF would be devastating. But what could I do? Hobble it in for five miles? A volunteer was kind enough to let me use her personal cell phone. I called André but it went to voicemail. As it was ringing, a volunteer told me there would be a medical tent at every mile from there to the finish line, so I could get a ride to the finish from any of those points if I needed to stop. I saw the three hour pace group run by and my heart sank a little bit. I left André a message saying that I hurt my leg, that I was okay. I was going to keep going, but would take a ride to the finish if it was too much. I ended the call, stretched out one more time, took one more swig of Gatorade, thanked the volunteers, and went on my way.

Mile 21 – 11:17

35K – 27:02

The next few miles were a little better. My leg felt okay after stretching it out, and it was more manageable to run with at an easier pace. I could see the three hour pace group not too far ahead and tried to go with them.

22 – 7:11

23 – 7:07

Annnnd nope. My leg and my hip did not like that. I shortened my stride which seemed to help. I came up on a guy that was walking and felt for him as he was struggling too. I said, “Hey! Want to run with me?” and to my surprise he said “yes!” then together we were shuffling. We chatted for a bit and he asked me a few questions, but he had just about the thickest Scottish accent I had ever heard and I couldn’t understand a lick of what he was saying. Plus I was practically in some sort of dream state as I was trying to process what was happening to my body and the rapid deterioration of whatever aspirations I had for that day. I could hardly form sentences myself. But even if for a few moments, we were strugglebus buddies.

24 – 7:48

25 – 7:52

I don’t remember a whole lot from the final miles. I thought things like, “Stay in this. You’re still in this. Less than 5K to go. Two more sub-8 minute miles and you’ll beat your Berlin time.” The most tortuous part was how easy the pace felt versus the pain I was in. It was like any other long run on a gorgeous, perfect day. In marathons I’ve run in the past, it has always seemed the last few mile marks would take forever to show themselves. I would desperately be looking for those big flags reading 24, 25, and so on. This time, the mile marks came and went just like that, blips in time. When I envisioned the last mile of Chicago Marathon, I thought seeing the cityscape and Grant Park coming into view would be this huge relief, like this big arrival. But in that moment it came as a shock- I was that close already? How could that be?

26 – 7:35

.2 – 1:47

I was still in shock as I crossed the finish line in 3:07:52, my second fastest marathon finish. I put both hands over my heart in gratitude. I stumbled my way around the many other finishers celebrating around me. A volunteer put a medal around my neck. I started bawling, which was super embarrassing but I couldn’t help it. I was grateful to have made it to that finish line and simultaneously really upset that everything had gone so wrong. Moments later a photographer snapped my picture. It pretty much says it all.

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Is this real life?

Another volunteer wrapped me in a Mylar blanket. I continued to move along, one in a sea of little white capes. It was a looong walk back to the tent where I had left my belongings. At one point I accidentally dropped my water bottle. I had to stop, grab onto a trash can or something, and slowly bend down to grab it without toppling over. The next ordeal was walking down approximately three steps to get to another section of the park. All around me finishers were groaning, “what were they thinking putting stairs here??” Yeah, marathon runners are silly.

Little did I know, Chicago Marathon’s race tracking app stopped recording my splits at the 40K mark, a little over a mile from the finish. No one including my family had any idea that I had finished. When I finally got to my phone, there were a lot of messages from people just wondering if I was okay. Yes! I was more than okay! I had finished the Chicago Marathon!

Another short hobble to the finish party zone and I was reunited with André, Arménio, and Elizabeth. There was much hugging and photo taking. It was the first moment that I really allowed myself to be happy and proud of what I had just accomplished. You can set the loftiest goals you want in the marathon, but at the end of the day there is no better feeling than finishing (relatively) in one piece. Especially when I had come so close to giving up.001-6.jpg

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Cubs fan in the background, little did he know…

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Later we returned to our hotel and I opened up my laptop. The quote that I had posted earlier that morning popped up again. I read it again, a different person than I was just several hours before.

“Running puts you in touch with your primal self and your deepest resolve. You learn how to deal with pain and other obstacles. You realize that it’s not important to do conventional things. You can do whatever feels worthwhile to you.”

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4 thoughts

  1. I feel like such a wimp. I raced only 5K this morning, taking twice as long as Liz’s 5K times. Of course I’m 71 and recovering from a sprained ankle… Maybe running ANY distance tells us what we’re made of. Go Liz Go-o–o, Go Liz Go-o-o, Hey Chicago…..

  2. So funny that you asked if we could find you in the picture! I looked and looked and first thought you must not be in the picture. Then I saw the caption, I did finally find you!! :) So fun!!
    What a race! I’m so glad you didn’t give up and finish what you started!! Did you ask Andre what he would have told you if he had answered the phone when you called him? Do you think if he would have answered you would have taken that ride?
    I can’t wait to see what you can do after you have finished up your PT and figured out your whole leg issue!! :)

    1. I’m there just barely peeking out! I’m not sure what Andre would have said, though I know he worries about me getting hurt! I don’t think it would have taken much convincing for me to stop, but I don’t think he would have pushed me one way or the other. It’s hard to know what would have happened! I’m glad it played out like it did. It’s been a slow recovery but I’m hoping PT & MT will help. It has so far! Thanks Leslie!

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