chapter five - race

We crossed the starting line and were finally on the course. The official course description - "The LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon begins in Grant Park near Buckingham Fountain and travels north through River North, Old Town, Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville, before heading back downtown. The race continues south through some of Chicago's most historic and diverse neighborhoods, including Greektown, Little Italy's Taylor Street, the Hispanic Pilsen area, Chinatown, Bridgeport, the Gap District and South Commons. Runners return downtown along picturesque Lake Shore Drive, the Museum Campus, Soldier Field and Lake Michigan, with a spectacular finish back in Grant Park."

As we headed beneath the first underpass, I noticed people peeling out of the pack to relieve themselves against the wall when it occurred to me that I had to pee again. My Hal calculation of taking twelve ounces of fluids within thirty minutes of the start of the race did not include the nineteen minutes it took to get the starting line. Too early, I thought, I'll deal with this down the road.

Stefan pounding it outWe were running on air, our feet never touching the ground, part of a brotherhood of adventurers setting out to conquer the world. Positive energy and smiles were all around us. Each time I looked over at Stefan he was grinning from ear to ear and I know I was, as well. We rounded a corner near Le Meridien and saw Hollis and Kate holding chartreuse posters and cheering the three of us on. We all made eye contact, then waved like we had been separated for weeks. As we passed we could hear their voices and it was another boost of emotional rocket fuel as we began our trek. Matt stayed with Stefan and me until a little after the one mile mark and we parted ways, watching his star-spangled do-rag weave through the bobbing heads of the runners ahead of us.

We had decided to take fluids from each of the aid stations. At the 1.5 mile mark, I grabbed my first cup of Gatorade, drank it, and proudly crumpled the cup and dropped it into the street. I had always wanted to do that and, for some reason, I now really felt like a marathon runner! Following another piece of Hal's advice, I poured a cup of cool water on my head as I left each station. It took a couple of times to get my system down - glasses off and in left hand, water cup in right hand, hold glasses away from body, pour water over head, drop cup, run right hand through hair, put glasses on without getting water all over them, repeat at next aid station.

Loren and Stefan round the turnWe continued on through The Loop in downtown Chicago with the impossible feeling of defying gravity for about three miles before the smiles finally faded a bit and we settled in for the task at hand. By this time my bladder was screaming for relief and I felt uncomfortable pressure all the way up in my side. We passed a row of Port-A-Johns with people standing twenty deep and I just couldn't stop and give up a half hour. Just around the corner, I thought, something will present itself. A mile later I saw two men coming from an alley and, as we ran past, was surprised to see several others relieving themselves. The neighboring alley was full of women doing the same. The next time I see someone peeing, I thought, I'm there. Within minutes we passed a library with well-trimmed hedgerows and the tell-tale backs of male runners. I told Stefan to keep going, I had to pee, and I would catch up as soon as I could. He exclaimed his need, as well, and we peeled off, ran to the hedges, and peed the most satisfying pee one can imagine. We wrapped up our business with great synchronicity, laughed, and headed back to the street as the next wave of runners came in to the hedgerow. Now, and finally, we were set to run.

Loren pounding it outThe course took us into Lincoln Park, perhaps the prettiest part of the run. Although I had taken fluids from each of the three preceding aid stations, my body was ready for a good drink at the station just past the 10k mark. Shortly afterward the bands started appearing. It became normal to round a corner to the sound of music, either a live band, a PA system, or a percussion ensemble willing the runners forward on the waves of their music.

We ran into Boys Town, the most famous gay section of Chicago, to a raucous, rowdy, and supportive crowd. Stefan pointed out a precision military unit executing a rifle routine but was a little confused as to why they were drilling to the sounds of "YMCA" by The Village People. Once I explained where we were, all was clear. Next we ran past a stage that was full of what can only be described as a parody of can-can dancers, all male, of course, discretely lifting their skirts to "flash" their shorts at the passing runners. In another block we were greeted by another stage with a group of gyrating lip-syncers working their way through choreographed dance-steps to a throbbing dance club beat. All in good fun.

Loren and Stefan run through a checkpointWe continued to work our way south back toward The Loop. Somewhere around the ten mile mark we were joined by a fellow runner bedecked in an Elvis costume with a www.marathonelvis.com sign on his back. Beside him was a "handler" with my favorite t-shirt of the day - "I'm Running With The King". We ran together for a mile or so when we came upon a stage with another Elvis singing to the passing runners. In a moment of pure cosmic alignment the Elvis on stage stopped singing, pointed to the running Elvis, and exclaimed to the crowd, "Look everyone, there's Elvis!" It was sublime.

Not long after the Elvis Incident, and just after we turned west on Adams, we hit a major milestone, the halfway point, 13.1 miles. Stefan and I were both feeling good. I was a little concerned that we were ahead of the five hour pace by three minutes, at a steady pace putting us twenty one minutes ahead of our 5:15 goal. Nothing to do but run, hydrate, take the goo, and see what would happen.

We ran due west out to and past the United Center, a two mile straight stretch that seemed to last forever. This part of the course took us through the Polish section of town, complete with native costumes, a large stage and an oom-pah band. As we ran past I heard the singer exclaim, "You are all Poles!" Somehow, and with no offense meant to my Polish friends, I wanted much more to be a Kenyan. After the Poles the crowd support dwindled as we continued west.

We came back toward downtown on Jackson and turned south on Hubbard into Greektown and the crowd was back. We found the same enthusiasm as we went through Little Italy running west again on Taylor street. Two things of significance happened at this point, somewhere between the seventeen and eighteen mile markers:

  1. I "hit the wall". I had heard this phrase forever but had never experienced the phenomenon, at least not at its fullest. Against my will, the world around me slowed down. Suddenly I was running in molasses, having to force my legs to move, and even then, at what seemed to be a ridiculously slow pace. Once again, I turned to the written wisdom of Hal, remembering his promise that I could run through "the wall". I told Stefan to go ahead if needed to but he told me he was fine. I just kept focusing on moving and, after ten minutes or so, the world sped back up and I was back in the game. It never occurred to me that I would not finish the race, but I do remember wondering how I was going to pull it off with seven-plus miles left to go. It is an amazing contrast between the feeling of "hitting the wall" and that of piercing the other side. I was, relatively speaking, energized.
  2. While still fighting my way through "the wall", I heard Stefan scream. I inquired as to the cause and he yelled, "I got stung!" A yellowjacket had landed on his head and nailed him in the hand as he swatted it away. In some bizarre way I think the distraction was helpful to us both.

We kept our wits and our pace and continued on.

With my legs back under me we ran into the Hispanic section on the Southside. The crowd support and noise level both remained high as we ticked off the miles. At the twenty mile marker I acknowledged to myself that, although there was much work left to be done, we had this in the bag. We were working our way towards Chinatown when Stefan told me to slow down. I was getting excited and increasing our pace without knowing it. Chinatown was awesome with ceremonial dancing dragons and the streets lined with screaming supporters. We left Chinatown focused, determined, and ready to finish this thing we started eighteen weeks earlier. I asked Stefan if he wanted to finish together and he told me that had been his plan all along.

Loren and Stefan running westwardWe passed "The Joan" the local colloquialism for US Cellular Field, the baseball field formerly known as Comiskey Park. Out-of-towners often inquire as to why the field is called "The Joan". Joan Cusack is the spokesperson for US Cellular and the reference is to her - like Joan, the park isn't very attractive and you really don't want to be there alone.

At this point we started seeing the casualties, folks who were near, at, or past their personal limits. We saw one man lying in the street gutter with the paramedics running towards him, another elderly gentlemen dragging his right leg behind him, a young man shouldering a limping young lady, and many more folks struggling to complete the race. We passed a runner with one leg, the artificial leg being one of the springy metal attachments. As we went around him it occurred to me that he had outran us for twenty four miles. At times the scene was surreal, a mixture of smiling faces and faces contorted in agony. As calloused as it may seem, we had to block out the pain of others, and concentrate on finishing our race.

Loren and Stefan at the finish lineAt the last aid station we had about one mile to go. The folks at the station, like all of the others, were unbelievably encouraging to each and every runner that came past, but this time the words carried more weight. One more mile to go, you can do it. I remember thinking that I indeed could. We crossed the twenty six mile mark with only 385 yards to go and turned to run up the only real hill of the course. Not real long and not real steep, but long enough and steep enough after twenty six miles to feel like a long, steep hill. Up the hill we went, then around the corner we ran, for the home stretch, side by side.

The final stretch stays etched in my memory with great clarity but also preserved in a dreamlike haze. The crowd was roaring, the finish line was in sight, and our hearts were pounding with exertion, joy, and adrenalin. Stefan and I stepped across the line together and he reached over to hug me in one of the most magical moments I have ever experienced. Me, forty three and aging by the minute, and my son, ten days shy of his eighteenth birthday, connected in a shared experience that transcends age and lasts forever. I will cherish that embrace and all that it represented for the rest of my life.

Our pace had fallen off from our 5:15 target over the last half of the course and we finished at 5:21. We may not have qualified for the Boston Marathon but we finished what we started and achieved our primary goal, completing a marathon. As a bonus, we ran and completed it together.

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