I ran my 20th marathon on October 7, 2018, in my hometown of Chicago. It was 21 years after running my first.
My previous marathon was also in Chicago, in 2015. Two events happened since then that taught me nothing was guaranteed, that we can’t take anything for granted. One was tearing my ACL on a freak bike accident. I remember after falling, face against the pavement on Kent Avenue, not knowing the severity of what had happened, staring down into the distance, wondering if I would run Tigerwolves in two days, and that, if not, I would certainly to able to run Doves in three days. I had been training for the New York Marathon. In reality, it was eight months until my next run. The other event was a boat that my wife and I owned and operated as a dinner boat, The Revolution, was hit by a tug and was damaged beyond repair. Our business ended because a Captain wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings. My running came to a halt because my bike wheel grazed another’s while riding, I lost my balance and fell, a block from my house.
You hear these annoying cliches, all of the time:
“Treat each moment as if it could be your last.”
“Be grateful for the opportunities that you have.”
But it’s impossible to truly and fully understand what they all mean until some event shows them to be true–specifically to you and to your life.
Surgery came–the operation required tendons being taken from my hamstring, magically turned into a new ACL, and then attached to place in my knee. Physical therapy and rehab ensued and continued. Eight months after my ACL injury, I ran outside for 2 clunky miles. I limped. I had lost the ability to jump on my leg that was operated on. My quad had shrunken with atrophy, despite my hours rehabbing.
Several months and miles later, I entered the lottery for the Chicago Marathon in 2018. It was a total lark. At that point, I had been able to run 35-40 miles a week and had run a half marathon. But maybe that was all I could do, now. I didn’t know. More miles were run, hours spent in the gym, visits to The Finish Line continued.
Chicago training started in June. I would think of each week as it’s own goal. I’ll just go week-by-week and see what happens. It’s an experiment. Everything is an experiment. Maybe what’s possible is bigger than I know. The weeks went by, mileage increased, new friends were made training, I told people I would know if I were running the marathon once I was at the starting line.
Two weeks before the race, I had actually booked my ticket to Chicago. The possibility was becoming more real. One week out, my IT band hurt without any warning. Stairs were hard, I tried to remain calm and do everything to recover.
My wife and I drove downtown, in the warm rain, from my parent’s house. I was meeting Matt and Aaron. I got out of the car on Michigan Avenue, the sight of runners flocking to the start. Their smiles, nervous laughter, foreign accents, mindless chit-chat. I’ve been in this scene before, but today it felt new. I cried a few tears, feeling such gratitude to witness this and believe I, too, belonged here on this day. I was about to take on this same journey as everyone here. If this was the end of the day for me, it would be enough. Just these few minutes of being here. The rain camouflaged my tears, I saw Matt and we hugged. He made fun of me, and everything felt right.
My goal for the race was to smile from mile 24 to the end. It was totally separate from any time goal, like that was for people in another universe to be concerned with. I had trained to run probably something between 3:35 and 3:40. Not my fastest, but that was irrelevant. Aaron and I would start the race together with the 3:35 pace group. I couldn’t believe this was happening. The last minute sorting out of yourself: gear check, waiting in line for porta-potties. The walk to the start line. The views of skyline. The pre-marathon music. The hope that each and every runner surrounding me has, in order to get to this point. My own story...one star in the galaxy of 44,571 others. My story here is just a speck. We are all little specks.
The early miles go by and Aaron and I try to settle into a pace. It is raining harder. I miss seeing my wife at mile 3. Our GPS splits are incomprehensible. We go by the Lakefront–where my friends and I would drive to during high school, in the darkness of summer nights in our parent’s cars.
Mile 7, mile 8. I still can’t quite grasp this is happening–I’m feeling as if this experience, in this race, after so many components of recovery and so many doubts, was opening a door to brand new landscape of meaning–one of gratitude. One that words don’t quite capture. It is the opposite of the pressure and the punishment we can put on ourselves as runners. Opposite of the feeling when we miss a PR by seconds, when our time doesn’t show what we believe we are capable of. When someone beat us who we thought we deserved to beat. I have, of course, thought those thoughts in races before, but it feels distant and fuzzy, as if they were from another person.
Miles 10, 11, heading back downtown. Aaron and I both miss our wives at the half-way point. Rain is pouring down. We are still in the beginning. It feels both ordinary and extraordinary.
Mile 18, and with it, Deirdre and her red hair and her bandana and her stride that is utterly and completely her own. My IT band has been hurting throughout the race when I’ve moved laterally, to water stops and back. At mile 20, someone jostles me and it flares up. I start to slow down, Aaron continues on at our previous pace. Deirdre tells me that each mile I am getting stronger, and I thank her for saying that, knowing each mile is slower than the last at this point. But it doesn’t matter. I am quiet and happy. We keep moving along. My family is waiting for me at mile 23, where they have seen me many times, so many versions of myself, at ages 18, 23, 28, 35, now 39. I search for them, we shout and smile when our eyes meet. A euphoric celebration in the span of seconds. I stop and walk for a bit to rub out my IT band. It’s almost mile 24. My only goal–smile from mile 24 to the end. There is wind, and here I am with everyone else, getting closer to the finish line. I don’t want it to end.
Mile 25 comes. The race officials spot everyone without a bib and Deirdre and I hug, saying goodbye. The right on Roosevelt, then the little hill. I used to watch the Fourth of July fireworks here when I was 15. I try to speed up, only as a formality. I can’t stop smiling. I don’t allow myself to cry until I’m done. 200 meters to go. I don’t want it to end.
I think of Kelli, my wife, who has been with me through all kinds of moments in order to get here. I think of thousands of leg lifts, squats, jumps, planks, glute activations and of my physical therapist, Carly. I think of Aaron, hoping he has met his time. Hoping he is happy. I think of Matt, hoping he is also happy. I wonder if Lauren qualified for the trials. I think of my Mom and Dad, my sister, my brother-in-law, my nephew–who may one day run this race. I think of my beloved friends who I’ve made from the running team. I am so lucky. I can’t stop crying. My smile wants to break free from the frame of my face. It’s over. It has happened. I have finished my first marathon with my new knee. The sky is gray. The shimmering sea of the metallic sheets. My heart is big and full. I take some photos with the staged backdrops, just like new marathoners do. It is new for me now, too.
This is the space where I want to live.
The contours of humanity around me, the spectators cheering for strangers, the runners persevering on when the final miles feel truly impossible. The beauty of dreaming. The time between the start and the finish, getting more mysterious and unknown as each mile goes on–in it the capacity for pain, suffering, joy, hope, despair but always an absolute and total requirement of belief. A possibility to astonish oneself. The elasticity of meaning for each and every runner. Each and every speck.
I never want to forget this day, I tell myself. Allow yourself to be proud. Allow yourself to dream. Keep this feeling with you, as long as you can, despite your memory’s attempts to distort and diminish it. Write about it, if only to understand it, if only to preserve it.