Friday, October 12, 2012

keepin' it real in chicago

And one day you find yourself on the other side of the Chicago Marathon. 

Earlier this year, I had to make a very tough decision: Chicago or TransRockies.  This opportunity first presented itself when my friend James Brooks won two entries to the sold-out Chicago Marathon in a live auction at a Hall Steps Foundation fundraiser last spring.  I immediately approached him. "Best friend..."  He smiled.  "You can have one."

That was long before the thought "Where did summer go?" would enter my mind.  Six out of every seven days over the next four months would be spent training.  Sometimes running more than once/day.  Sometimes with a hundred others at a Team Run Flagstaff Tuesday night track session.  Sometimes with friends like Bob Tusso, Roger Bounds, Dirk deHeer, Scott Bajer, Ian Torrence, and even Zoroaster the wound-licking wonder dog accompanying me on specific workouts.  Sometimes it was just me, my shadow, and the sunflowers along Lake Mary Road.  Sometimes at the starting line of yet another race.  Often as the sun was coming up.  A couple of times in the rain.  Many times in the dark.  Did I mention I was tired?  Somehow I never even made it to some of my favorite spots, like to see the giant ferns of the Kachina Trail, or the aspens of the Inner Basin Trail.  I was on pavement or forest service roads more than usual.  

It was definitely before "Where did my coach go?" would enter my thoughts.  My second-to-none, amazing, wonderful, better-than-you-can-ever-hope-for coach was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and poof, he was gone.

Later, as the race approached, "Where did my butt go?" became a prevailing thought.  All of my pants were loose.  I was no longer intimidated by workouts.  I felt comfortable in workouts.  I could do hilly ones, in the heat, at 7,000'!  I finally hit the pace.  

I had never felt so ready.  In the days leading up the race, I found myself 20 floors up, in a simple corner room of the Palmer House Hilton, a slice of Lake Michigan visible between tall buildings that had weathered lots of time.  I did a few fun things like pop into the Readhead Piano Bar just long enough to hear "I Got You Babe" being sung to a very jovial crowd, had a heavenly facial at a spa aptly named "Balance," and ate yummy Italian food.

Finally the morning of my first-ever fall marathon dawned.  There were sooo many people milling about, I barely got a warm up in (was easier not to).  I was surprisingly relaxed as I lined up in the A Corral.  I found my NIKE pace group, a few men who'd be carrying placards throughout the race to help us achieve our time goal.  My race plan was simple: run my heart out.

A horn went off.  We spilled across the starting line to "In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream..." Bruce Springsteen's voice pelted the chilly, grey morning.  Oooh, an unexpected smile!

We'd soon discover that bridge grates had been covered in pretty purples and blues (making it easier for runners to cross) and that people were screaming so loudly from spots arcing over the road in those initial miles that you thought they might actually know you, these colorful strangers, all bundled up, who became part of the blur along both sides of every street.

It was one of those times in life when you're part of something much, much bigger than yourself, when everything conspires to bring a tremendous variety of people together who may not have otherwise mingled, full of moments when you realize there are tons of people all over the place who were also getting training runs in all summer, based upon how effortlessly they seemed to be moving along ahead of you.  

"Yeah three hour pace group!"  I heard these words over and over and over again.  I had high hopes for this race, as it was the first time I had done a true marathon buildup.  I ran with my pace group for as long as I could, well into the 18th mile.  These guys in bright blue NIKE singlets heralded who we were and what we were aiming for.  They'd wave their "3:00" signs like they were flags as we'd round corners, rallying the crowd even more.  One guy in particular, Rich, became my buddy and I stuck to him like glue (well, as best you can when 37,476 of you are vying for the same stretch of road!).  He looked out for me and I started believing it was possible that I’d be able to hang on the entire way.  The course had what were known as “cheer zones” in several spots, where extra efforts were made to boost the runners.  It was awesome.  Even more awesome were the two racers we saw wearing prosthetics, as well as the blind runner and his or her entourage.   I especially loved the places where there’d be music blaring.
Rich is the second one in blue beside me
It’s such a powerful feeling to claim the roads, to be pulled along by a force much stronger than you.  Thrilling.  There’s something wonderful about venturing out into the unknown, about not knowing a course but trusting that it’s where you want to be, that it will be great.  These streets toured us through all kinds of areas.  Affluent.  Poor.  Full of humanity.  Scents of sweet treats and breakfasts being prepared.  People living life.  Waste flowing beneath the city.

Things got challenging out there for a while, but the final miles came.  As we approached the downtown area, I found myself back on Lake Mary Road.  Those training runs had become so familiar.  In the last mile I imagined just having to run past the country store, to the mailboxes...Next I was catching the last female wheelchair racer (this never happens!).  Saw an 800m sign.  Finally, we were rounding the corner onto the stretch where the crowd was roaring.  A slight uphill.  I was so aware of everyone yet saw no one.  And suddenly there it was, the final push.  The final turn.  The finish line.  I was sprinting.

While my final placings keep changing (as official results are corrected), I seem to be holding steady at 999th overall, 87th for women, and 10th female 40-44!  My time was 3:02:52, a PR by 13 minutes.  There were a record number of finishers this year.   

It's kind of surreal to think about it now.  We were so happy upon finishing that many of us were high-fiving...why not?  We had just run this amazing race together, never alone, not even till the very last second.  I eventually made my way to a grassy area and there were both of my parents, visiting and drinking coffee.  So nice to have moments like these!  The lake wind had kicked up, but only after giving us an absolutely perfect race day.

Now the only question that remains is, "What else have I been missing out on?"


  1. Awesome Sara. You rock. Congrats on a great run!

  2. Sara, after my back injury stopped my 50 years of running last December and bicycling replaced my fitness regimen, I thought I was finally over the grieving of not being able to run any longer. Until I read this piece about the Chicago Marathon. Until I lived the thrill of being at peace in my body and on my feet. Until I remembered why life was so good on the trail--through your words. Thank you, my friend. You've made an older guy very happy. It was worth all of it. This is brilliant writing.
    Jim Hill


Live the way you run. Run happy.

Live the way you run. Run happy.
Thanks to Kevin Riley at Action in Solitude for this Buffalo Park (Flagstaff, Arizona) photo