by Sean Laude
My recounting of this year's Chicago marathon begins four years ago, after I crossed the finish line at the 2012 edition of the race. The three hours and twenty-six minutes it took to run my first marathon did a number on my legs. I could not stand up under my own power, so a very helpful volunteer had to cart me the half-mile or so back to bag check. I was in a world of pain, but I felt ecstatic. I was filled with the idea that anything is possible. Less than two months later, I moved to Brooklyn.
Many of you know that I grew up in Chicagoland and repeatedly espouse the virtues of the CTA, the serene beauty of running along Lake Michigan, and why deep-dish is the ultimate form of pizza. As one of the weirdo kids who “played” cross-country and track, the mythos of marathon distance was embodied in that local event that ran every second Sunday in October. I hung posters of Khalid Khannouchi and Paula Radcliffe from their record-breaking runs on my bedroom wall, no less than 26.2 miles from where they broke the tape in Grant Park. As far as I knew, it was THE marathon - no other race compared in my youthful imagination.
In 2013, I ran it again, proudly sporting the emblem of our favorite bridge. I made the trip the last two years to cheer on my friends and wave high the NBR flag. A sense of hometown pride overcame me at the end of a 20-mile run before last year's race, and I declared that If I failed to run a BQ in the upcoming NYC marathon, I would sign up to run Chicago again. Unfortunately, (or very fortunately) the twin forces of unseasonably warm weather and an ungraceful shuffle up Fifth Avenue made that declaration binding. The clock started ticking the moment my post-race haze cleared - while donning the $250 poncho and trundling down the subway stairs at 72nd street.
I have worked with a coach for the past two seasons to help me improve my triathlon game. This year I let him sketch out my marathon season as well (I had only a scant nine weeks to turn around all my cycling and swimming fitness and focus it exclusively on the run). For the greater part of the last two years, I instructed him to leave holes in my schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays for me to fill in with tempo and track, respectively. Part of working with a coach is putting your trust in his schedule and letting him fill those days with unorthodox workouts. Up through the end of successful tri season, I had also run massive PRs in the 5k, 10k, and half. Gaining that elusive marathon PR after my disastrous NYC attempt last year would be a fitting conclusion to this season. I was willing to give it a shot and really commit to structured long-distance training for once.
Race morning I felt as ready as I have ever been, that is to say: full of excitement, doubt, and carbs. Our Chicago crew had done a fantastic job tucking into Midwestern-sized piles of food the days before the race - four of my meals yielded another meal-sized bag of leftovers. Josh Hatcher and I travelled to the race together, meeting up with Evan, Daeha, and Lavar on the train. The trip to Grant Park was pleasant compared to the rigamarole of getting to Fort Wadsworth, and we had a moment to enjoy the sunrise before hitting the streets in the crisp autumn morning. Josh, Evan, and I met up with Joe and Crow in the corrals and we positioned ourselves in the crowd, near one of two large three-hour pace groups. They announced the elites and it seemed like the starting horn went off without much fanfare.
Words cannot describe what it feels like to push yourself at a pace for longer than you ever have before, the metaphor of wheels about to fall off a race car notwithstanding. Chicago is obscenely flat, the scenery interesting and the crowds incredible and loud. All of that fed a newfound focus that drowned out a mounting fatigue that ebbed and flowed in the terra incognita between miles 13 through 19. On a lonely stretch of road before Pilsen, I caught up to Evan Cooper and gave him the best-but-probably-incoherent encouragement I could muster (we're now 1-1 at the distance after he passed me in Harlem last year).
I very literally threw down the gantlet at mile 20, tossing my gloves at some unsuspecting spectators. They say the “race” doesn't begin until 10k remains, but I'm inclined to call it an "exercise in sheer will to get your legs to move". I was so intensely focused that I missed Emily, Tom, and Sara cheering around mile 23, but heard, dream-like, Chris and Magda screaming my name along Michigan Avenue. The pace group I glommed onto most of the race slipped away and the other one blew by shortly thereafter, but I was intent on finishing the race on my own.
The course has a gentle incline in the last 400 meters before turning into the finishing chute, but this joke of a hill turned cruel by a stiff headwind off the lake. A Dashing Whippet dropped the hammer in this final stretch and I somehow summoned the kicking power to match his stride. All the emotions of finishing hit me long before I even crossed the line, bursting out as a simultaneous cry of joy and roar of pain past the timing mat:
THREE HOURS, TWO MINUTES, ELEVEN SECONDS
Nearly a four-minute PR. An eleven-minute improvement over my last Chicago effort. A Boston Qualifier. I stopped, landed stiff-legged, and felt my right glute collapse. I could not keep moving under my own power, so a very, very nice volunteer helped walk me through the finish line area to collect all my post-race survival needs (special thanks to Joe Chan for fetching me extra Gatorade). I was stiff and getting cold, but I felt ecstatic. I grabbed a beer and the celebration really began.
Marathons are unreasonably difficult; I will not be disappointed if my time doesn't make the cut-off for Boston. I’m still searching for bigger reasons to dedicate myself to the distance other than a jacket with a questionable color palette or to rise to the expectation that you should be good at this distance because you can run a fraction of the distance very fast. I get the magic of running to Boylston Street. I can imagine the sense of accomplishment finishing a marathon or ultra every other weekend. My own reasons will find me at some point. Until then, I will be there, cheering for you at the side of the road, you mighty, galloping mares and stallions racing towards the finish line.
I'm touched by the number of people who tracked me and offered encouragement and congratulations from afar - your support meant the world to me. I would not have had such a great experience without my Chicago crew - I sincerely hope you enjoyed all my long, pizza-themed emails.
Finally, to NBR: you are my running family - keep being incredible. Thank you all and I'll see you on the run soon!