Running Stories -- 2003
26th Chicago Marathon - October 12 2003 - "Seebo" Steve M.
It was a beautiful sunny day as the bus pulled into Hopkinton. All the runners groaned. In contrast to ideal marathon weather, which is heavy cloud cover and forty degree temperatures, the pre-Boston Marathon temperature was sunny and on its way into the seventies. Runners reached for sunscreen and started to speculate about how this unexpected development would affect race times.
Hopkinton, 26 or so miles west of Boston, is a town of about 12,000 that has the dubious distinction of being the starting point of the Boston Marathon. Runners started arriving from Boston at about nine, and soon there were 17,000 of them nervously milling about. The scene is reminiscent of a music festival, with a quiet town inundated by a strange horde of oddly dressed people united by a common obsession and engaging in strange rituals – stretching, adjusting their gear, writing their names on their shirts and arms (so that people can call them by name during the race), lining up for port-a-potties or behind a convenient tree, and mostly just killing time until the race starts. Slowly, as the noon starting time approached, everyone headed toward the town square where the runners lined up in starting “corrals” that stretched down the main street, turned right down another street, and finally ended about a half a mile from the start. Local politicians and notables gave sendoffs, the Star Spangled Banner was performed as two jets flew overhead, the wheelchair racers started, and at the crack of noon so did everyone else.
Having a low seed number, it only took me about 20 seconds to pass through the start (the last runners will wait 20 minutes before they officially start the race). People lined the downhill stretch out of Hopkinton and backed up onto lawns to wish the runners Godspeed (or good riddance). I contained my exhilaration and took care to pace myself for the first miles, which are downhill. My primary goal was to finish under two hours and forty five minutes and my backup goal was to break 2:50, which would give me a personal best time. The former goal meant running miles at a 6:15 pace, requiring restraint early on and effort later in the race. With this in mind the first mile passed in a perfect 6:14, and the realization that this amounted to about 4% of the race shut up my mental babble for a bit as I looked around. The runners around me reflected exuberance, as many slapped hands with children along the course and whooped it up in response to the cheers. For the 107th time, the road from Hopkinton rolled into Ashland and then into Framingham, where at 5 miles my split time read 31:12, still right on schedule.
The race headed on. In Natick there was a billboard announcing that we are running “at a comfortable speed of 20,000 spectators per mile”. Crowds lined the streets, live bands played amongst the cheers and barbeque smoke filled the air. At ten miles I was still on pace at 62:40 and I was far enough into the race where this felt encouraging. However here my mouth started to feel dry and I made a note to take in more fluids. At the next water stop half the cup of Gatorade that I aimed towards my mouth landed on my singlet. The sticky green wet stuff felt cool on my chest; another reminder of how damn hot it was. Between miles 10 and 12 my steady pace felt deceptively fast as I passed a stream of people, including two women I knew from Philly. This suggested that people, experienced marathoners, were having trouble relatively early in the race – another sign this would be a long day.
I brushed off such thoughts of gloom in anticipation of reaching Wellesley and its noted “scream tunnel.” Each year university co-eds line the course and scream like the runners were some collective boy band. I smiled at this call of the sirens, slapped a few hands and the noise faded behind me. The halfway mark came soon after at 1:22.02. This would prove to be a siren call of a different sort, but the 6:16 pace was right where I wanted to be. At mile 15 I’m slowing a little, but I made up the time as gravity took me through the downhill mile 16 in 6:03 and into Lower Newton Falls.
At this point the course went uphill and my split times went downhill. As I hit the notorious Newton Hills, I felt myself slowing and could do nothing about it. Split times for miles 17 through 19 dropped to 6:20, then 6:34; and 6:45. I passed Cindy and the rest of the Bryn Mawr Running Club spectators as they yelled encouragement in my face. This mental boost did not make it down to my legs, as my next mile split was an even 7 minutes. Damn. The hills seemed a helluva lot harder than they were last year; and Heartbreak Hill was still to come. I plodded up Heartbreak staring at the ground and repeating to myself to let the crowd carry me, let the crowd carry me. This mantra worked in that I didn’t get any slower, but I felt really beat up.
Cresting Heartbreak Hill and feeling half past dead is perhaps the quintessential Boston Marathon experience. I managed to recover a little on the next 5 downhill miles, but the gains were modest. Miles 21 and 22, going by Boston College and Cleveland Circle, went by in 6:50 and 6:46. At this point I just wanted the race to end. The last few miles of a marathon always put me in my own bubble, and now it was a bubble of pain. My legs felt sorer than they ever had; with each step reverberating through my body and an acute disappointment accompanying the realization that a 2:45 finishing time wasn’t going to happen. Miles 23 and 24 ground by in 6:43 and 6:45. The crowds got thicker and suddenly seemed menacing, as if their presence wouldn’t let me stop. I told myself to let the cheering fill my bubble. Another billboard which read “hang on as long as you can, and then hang on a little longer” seemed nauseatingly trite. Miragelike the large Citgo sign by Fenway Park emerged in the distance, which marks one more mile left to the finish. But I still had mile 25 to finish first, and it clocked in at a miserable 7:07.
Now the terrifying thought entered my glycogen depleted brain that if I didn’t shift into a sub-7 minute pace for the remaining 1.2 miles I wouldn’t make my 2:50 finishing goal. That . . . would . . . really . . . suck. But dredging deep, I located one last kick. Now everything around me was a blur as I turned right from Commonwealth Avenue onto Hereford Street and then left onto Boylston Street. This was the final straightaway, all coming down to beating the clock that was ticking towards 2:50. I made it across the finish line with a final time of 2:49:30 – leaving me with a little over a second per mile to spare in attaining my backup goal. And a personal best time to boot!
As a postscript, the more I talked to people the happier I became with my race. To show how the heat slowed everyone down, last year I finished approximately 800th, this year I ran only about 5 minutes faster and landed in 196th place. The irony of running on such a hot day was having trained for it in the cold, snowy winter of ’03.
And last but not least, I thank all of you who followed me online, as I got a lift when I crossed the mats laid outevery 5 kilometers knowing there were folks out there rooting for me.
108th Boston Marathon - April 21, 2003 - "Seebo" Steve M.
Here is my story from Chicago and the marathon last weekend. I’ll warn y’all that this will be long, so if this isn’t your thing don’t consider it to be required reading. I give enough of that to my students now.
It was a wonderful weekend to be in Chicago. We stayed at the Best Western on the north side of Chicago, about a half mile from Wrigley Field and the whole city was alive with excitement over the Cubs. The Cubbies won both the Friday and Saturday nights we were there and everyone was hopeful, I dare say even confident, that this would be theyear they would break the curse. The weather was warm and sunny on Saturday and we spent the day downtown – shopping, eating deep dish pizza and going to the Convention Center for the marathon expo, where a different excitement was brewing over the next day’s marathon. The critical mass of runners overflowed all over downtown. That evening we had dinner with two friends from college, Jacques and Steve, and their families, and breaking marathon tradition by eating barbequed chicken instead of pasta. Bedtime came that night right after the Cubs victory.
5:30 the next morning I was up before the alarm and by 6:00 Cindy and I were out the door. We walked in the dark to the el, joined by various other runners as we got closer to the Addison stop. This stop was far enough norths so that we got a seat on the train. As we got closer to downtown the train became packed and it took five minutes to unload into the Jackson stop. The sun was up and it was still chilly as we joined the stream of people heading over to Grant Park. The staging ground was huge, and if anybody is considering ever running Chicago, learn from my experience and remember to give yourself more than an hour to drop off gear and use the facilities before the race starts.
My warm up consisted of pushing through the crowd and getting to the “corral” in the front reserved for the “competitive” start. Only a few minutes after I got lined up the horn sounded. It took thirteen seconds to get to the start line; thirteen dragged out seconds of adrenaline and butterflies. I wished that I had shoved and wriggled closer to the start, for even though I was in front of probably 35,000 people, the few hundred who were still in front of me (Kenyans included) were still moving too slow. Calm down, I told myself, in ten minutes this will be forgotten and trivial.
The first mile, while relatively inconsequential, is the most boisterous. The runners started with a burst of energy and enthusiasm that was fed by the crowd. As we headed out of Grant Park and into the Chicago Loop, spectators lined the course twenty deep and cheered from overpasses and anywhere else that provided a good vantage point to see the race. Concrete canyons full of people and devoid of cars. However fun (if that adjective can be applied to a marathon) the first mile was, it was also tricky establishing a pace amidst adrenaline, noise, and having to weave around and past the still tightly packed runners. My race plan was to start a bit slower than goal pace, shooting to run the first three miles in nineteen minutes. Despite any sense of perspective on how I was running, the first mile marker passed in 6:23, only three seconds off of my goal time.
A good omen. I upped my pace, only slightly I thought. Cindy yelled encouragement to me from the crowd and then dashed off to undertake her own race to the subway in an effort to see me again with the kids by our hotel near mile 8. The mile 2 split came in at an even 6:00. This was dangerous, as later miles of marathons become littered with the carcasses of those who start out too fast. I backed down during mile 3, still in downtown Chicago and still running through thick crowds as well as through a thick odor of hot fudge that made my stomach turn. Mile 3 came in at a slower 6:16. So far the total elapsed time was 18:40 – still a little fast but also leaving me a twenty-second cushion. Taking a quick inventory, everything was going well.
For the next twelve miles, the plan called for a steady 6:10 pace. Mile 4, heading up the North Side into Lincoln Park, passed in 6:08, but then mile 5 passed in 6:14. These split times were too uneven, and belied my usual ability to rhythmically crank out the middle miles of the marathon. During mile 6 I stopped to water a tree, and this slowed me down to 6:30. Like the fabled hare, I knew it was still early enough in the race to make up the lost time, but this spent the seconds I had put “in the bank” against my goal pace. I renewed my resolve to adopt a steady pace as the course headed up Sheridan and Lake Shore Drives. This part of the course was familiar to me, as I covered it on my run the day before. Mile 7 passed in 6:09 and I was reminded why Chicago is called the Windy City. A steady headwind hit and the people around me fell into single file so as to use the person in front to “draft” off of and cut down wind resistance.
From Lake Shore Drive it was a left onto Addison and another quick left and I was running down Broadway, past our hotel. I had obviously beat Cindy up here as she and the kids were not in the crowd. Mile 8 passed by in 6:05, and we were deep in Chicago’s gay neighborhood, with a water stop was replete with a group of cross-dressing cheerleaders and people in costume to the sounds of “Ease on Down the Road.” Heading into the heart of Lincoln Park and into Old Town, miles 9 and 10 passed in 6:19 and 6:08 respectively, and the uneven pacing starts to worry me. At the ten-mile point my accumulated time, at 62:17, is only seven seconds off of goal pace, but I’m starting to wonder how long I can maintain this.
Miles 11 and 12, as we again approached downtown, went by in 6:15 and 6:22. I knew I wasn’t fading, but was losing my grip on maintaining a 6:10 pace. We skirted by the western part of downtown and the hot fudge smell returned. Pushing through visions of thick brown syrup I managed to nail a 6:11 mile. Thirty-seven seconds later it was half-time: 13.1 miles in 1:21:44. Already I was having trouble with simple arithmetic, and it was the best I could do to figure that doubling this would give me a sub 2:44 finishing time. In reality however, a marathon never works that way, as the back half is always an entirely different race.
Now, in the heart of the race, the first signs of weariness and fatigue set in. By now I was enough of a veteran to expect this and to dig in. Bands and other entertainment were now situated every few miles. I welcomed the opportunity to lose myself in the music for the thirty or so seconds until it faded away behind me. An Elvis impersonator contributed some surreal moments. As we headed west the crowds became more sparse. In the Polish section of town a handful of supportive spectators played some polkas to urge us along, holding a banner in support of the “Polish Marathon Club.” I passed someone running barefoot. The headwind started to pick up again. I had fallen into a group of at least four other runners and, like geese migrating south, we resumed drafting positions, taking the lead and subsequently got reeled back in by the others. One guy must have had “Hammer” written on his shirt, as the crowds greeted him with “Go Hammer”, one guy had “Rock On” written on the back of his singlet, and one guy in a red singlet was very conscious of not wasting any steps to the point of jostling me a few times to get the inside position, like we were running a track race. Miles 14 and 15 passed like this in 6:18 and 6:17, and now it was again reckoning time.
My plan had me crossing mile 15 at as close to a 1:33 as possible, trying to get this time but not to beat it. Instead I crossed in 1:33:42, about 3 seconds a mile off pace. In hindsight it was clear I was not meant to run 6:10s that day, and should have backed down to a slower, steadier pace. However, I was not yet ready to accept that and still aimed for 6:10’s. But this was moot as my legs said otherwise. It was all I could do to manage 6:15 and 6:14 for miles 16 and 17. We turned around headed back east, and as the wind subsided I became aware of a strong sun beating down. I turned my backwards Phillies cap around so at least the visor kept the sun out of my eyes. The absence of people created a hush that foretold the last part of marathon where all my consciousness would slowly get sucked inward into an increasingly self-contained bubble.
At the mile 18 water stop a struggle opening a pack of GU, a carbohydrate replenisher with the consistency and taste of cake frosting, momentarily jolted me back into reality but slowed me to a 6:22 split. A pair of 6:19 mile splits got me through Pilsen, Chicago’s Mexican neighborhood, replete with cheering bystanders and several Mariachi bands, and to mile 20. At mile 20 my watch said 2:05:12, enough off of my 2:04 target time to kick in goal B and do whatever possible to hang on for a sub 2:45 finishing time.
Mile 20 is, in conventional marathon wisdom, where the race begins. The first 20 are a warm-up and the last 6.2 miles – 10 kilometers – is where the race is made or broken. It is also reputed, in marathon lore, to be where “the wall” begins, the point where the body runs out of glycogen and starts feeding on itself for fuel. This means that with each mile pain increases and thoughts become more like jello.
The plan here was to go all out, but my brain thought this idea was really funny. I gamely tried to pick up the pace, and actually passed a group of runners, but mile 21 went by with a 6:18 split. Ironically I was finally getting a rhythm. Mile 22 took me through Chinatown and another great show of neighborhood support, but I was too far gone toappreciate it. The rhythm continued with a 6:19. A blues band appeared along a desolated industrial stretch; I must be in south side Chicago now. Trying to project a finishing time was an exercise in futility; my concentration was shot. I had all but given up trying to pace myself and instead focused on passing people. This was now happening at a regular frequency. This included a trickle of the walking wounded, marathon casualties with cramps and other ailments that have finished them for the day.
Several of these folks had elite, two-digit race numbers. However, I also passed people still very much in the race. I leap frogged past “Rock On” and didn’t see him again. Red Shirt passed me on the inside one last time and I resisted the urge to elbow him into the guardrail. Instead I stuck with him and passed him again, leaving him behind as well. This created the illusion of picking up the pace, but the splits told otherwise. 6:29, then 6:34, and 6:35 past the new White Sox ballpark. Northward for the final stretch. Halsted Street (if I remember right), devoid of cars and with only a sprinkling of spectators, and the damn head wind was back in my face. In the usual marathon end-game. Managing my misery (doing well) and exhortations to go faster (don’t push it). Desperately wanting the race to end. It was a familiar misery. No impending disasters; I will finish. But would I finish under 2:45? I don’t know.
The final turn into Grant Park and people again. Noise. A slight uphill across a bridge and then a ninety degree left and a dash to the finish line. The sight of two runners in striking distance gave me a kick. I overtook one then the other as I pass under the finish banner. Time on my watch says 2:45:25, with the “gun time” adding about 13 seconds to that.
I crossed the finish line and I wanted to collapse. My legs felt like jelly, my breathing came out in big heaving gasps, and my sight started to white out. I retained the wherewithal to prepare myself for the possibility of passing out. But I kept walking past the medical tent. Someone put a finishing medal around me and I shrugged off offers of a mylar blanket. These shiny silver blankets all around reflected the sun and the whiteness worsened. A volunteer took the timing chip off of my shoe and I put my head in my hands. I picked up a plastic bag of post race bagels and bananas, some water and Gatorade, and finally my gear. A cell phone call to Cindy and she said turn around, she’s 25 feet away. I gave her a sweaty hug and we found a grassy, shady spot to sit down.
It’s over. 2:45:25 is a “personal record” (PR) by almost four minutes, making this the seventh straight marathon where I’ve run faster than the last, with a net gain of 39 minutes over these runs. This was good for 322nd place. I also can’t help feeling disappointed, however, in coming so close to breaking 2:45, which has been a goal for my last three marathons now. Still, it wasn’t meant to happen. The weather contributed to that a little bit, but most of it was me. From mile 2 on I just couldn’t get a groove going. The ups and downs in pacing myself never let me get comfortable and could not have helped my time. But I crossed the finish line with everything I had that day. The more time I put between me and the race, the better I feel about the race. It feels good, it feels done, and I’m slowly trying to figure out what to do next as I indulge in the guilty pleasure of multiple days of “DNRs”. . . as in “did not run”.
As having read to this point amounts to a marathon of a different sort; I thank you for bearing with me. The support I’ve gotten from you all has been great, and it made for a virtual cheering section every time I crossed one of those orange rubber mats that picks up a signal from my timing chip and starts a process that uploads my time onto the internet.