Well... I managed to write the title and now I have writer's block. I've been staring at the blinky cursor thingy for about 10 minutes now...
Where does one start when trying to describe running their first Marathon?
The day before? The night before? The Expo? The beginning?
How about at the end?
Yeah - the end sounds good. Because it's at the end that I finally get to say:
I AM A MARATHONER!!!
And this is the story of the one weekend in my life that took me from being "just a runner" to "a runner who has officially completed a marathon". This is the culmination of the last 9 months of training, 26 weeks of blogging about it, and the who, what, where, when and how that got me over that finish line and earned me this:
My parents arrived in town on Friday night with a boatload of mac and cheese from Costco, fresh bread and beer. It was a carb-loader's paradise! I was happy to see them after a little bit of an earlier-in-the-day scheduling snafu with my massage appointment. Long story short, I was scheduled for 3pm, when they called to confirm they confirmed me for 3:30pm, and then I was late and missed half of my (most important) massage before race day. Thankfully, my massage therapist felt so bad about it, he stayed overtime to get me back on the table after all his other appointments and gave me a full 35 minutes in addition to the previous 15, so I was good and worked out!
Friday night was a fairly regular night for me - I had to do tech for my show, which was actually really great at keeping my mind occupied. By the time I went home I fell into bed for a really good night's sleep, and was told to wake up the next morning only when I felt I'd had enough sleep to go fetch my parents for lunch and a trip to the Expo.
So on Saturday afternoon around noon, I meandered downtown to the condo that I had booked for mom & dad to a spread of bacon and eggs and English muffins that they had prepared for me in their little kitchen. We worked out some of the game plan for the day and then headed over to the shuttle buses taking runners to and from the Convention Center. It took quite a while to get there, but once in the hall the excitement was pretty fierce. We were greeting by the huge branding signage:
Once up the escalators, I went straight to the pick-up area to get my bib and race packet. Number 50121!!!
We spent some time browsing the Expo, checking out all the fun gear and cool t-shirts. I couldn't really decide on anything specific that I wanted even though I went in with getting a pair of compression socks and a new sports bra in mind. I think my brain was just on overload at that point and I wasn't really capable of making a decision about anything. We dropped off 2 pairs of my used shoes to send to Haiti (something that I really wanted to do since I didn't end up running for a charity this time around), and I had to stand in line for a little while to change the size of my race shirt. I had ordered a medium, which is the size I wear in all my running gear, but the Nike tops were REALLY small in the women's sizes, so since everyone was changing their mediums to larges, I had to wait in a line of women who were all waiting for someone to come turn one in since they were all out of large and extra-large. But I finally got one! After which we went to visit the NikeTown store to peruse their official race wear.
The theme this year was "Own Chicago"
If you scanned your race bib, your name came up on a screen for a pretty cool photo op!
And guess who I found?
The "Grandfather" of the Marathon himself, Hal Higdon. It was more than my hand that was shaking when I reached out to shake his. I think my whole body was in tremors I was so nervous! Although, I do have to say, he wasn't exactly "nice". He took the picture, and I know it was the end of Day 2 of standing in the Expo hall, but he didn't exactly have a lot of "bedside manner" at that point in the day. Maybe it's because I didn't have my copy of "Marathon" to sign - although I wish that I had thought to bring it.
The one thing I DO regret, is not buying the Marathonfoto Exhibition deal of $100 worth of photos for $65. I know I am going to want stuff from them, and I should have bought it, but by the time we came across their booth, I was tired, my feet were starting to hurt from walking around on the concrete floors, and I just wanted to get out of there and go home to rest. Hal warns about the danger of the Expo in his book, and after meeting him, it's hard not to take him seriously - "WHY are you on your feet walking around when you should be at home resting your legs?"
All in - we spent more time at the Expo than I should have, but it's hard to leave when it's your first invitation to the dance. But since it took us more time to get home after that than expected as well, all of sudden my nerves came crashing down on me and I started to panic a little bit about how much I had left to do that night. Once we got home, my parents thankfully took over the dinner-making duties while I threw my running clothes in the wash and started laying out and packing my bags for the next day. I had made lists of everything I didn't want to forget in advance, but running around my house that late in the game was not exactly "getting off my feet" so you could say that I was more than just a little stressed. I also got it in my mind that I HAD to watch "Spirit of the Marathon" before the next morning. A number of my friends who have run before recommended it to me highly and said it was definitely the thing to watch to get me in the mood. WRONG. We eventually DID sit down to watch it after dinner and it did nothing but give me nightmares. As any good movie should, the first half sets up all the challenges of training and the situations that all the profiled runners have to overcome to get to race day - but unfortunately, it spends a lot of time on detailing the horrible injuries associated with running and the possible things that can go wrong on race day (including death), and that was just not the thing that I wanted to be thinking about right before bed. I have been nursing a bad hip and knee for a couple of weeks, and I was already worried enough that they were going to slow me up, or possibly prevent me from finishing, so seeing a movie that detailed all the things that could go wrong only made me more nervous. I ended up stopping it mid-way through after a section about the power of female runners. At least we ended it on a good-enough note. But I should have followed my own advice from last week about not reading anything, which also should include WATCHING anything, right before the race. Information shut-down. It's all about YOU and nothing but YOU before the race.
My choice of pre-race fuel for dinner was a traditional one for me - steak and a baked potato. Most runners will choose to eat the pasta dinner the night before, but I like to super-carb up 2 nights before with the heavy pasta, and then make sure I have AMPLE amounts of protein in my system the night before to sustain that. The baked potato provides a ton of potassium (more than a banana) and lots of dense carbs as well. And I always pair the above with a dark green of some sort - broccoli, steamed spinach, or in this case, an arugula salad with tomatoes and mozzarella did the trick nicely. My parents picked up these gorgeous 12oz steaks from Costco, cooked medium rare (YUM), and I topped off the whole thing with some buttered bread and a nice, dark beer. Some people are against the consumption of alcohol the day before, but I find that one beer with my dinner relaxes me in addition to providing an extra carb boost, and I can usually sleep for at least a couple hours after a dinner like that.
So then it was to bed for a fitful night's "sleep" - can't say I wasn't prepared for that though. Here's my gear set-up all laid out for the next morning:
I have another pre-race tradition of doing an extended version of my daily stretching routine with my foam roller right before bed. Most of it involves standard stretches and yoga poses that I can cycle through in about 8 minutes every morning, but the extended version allows a full 5 deep breaths (or more) in each pose and a full-body roll-out of all my major muscle groups, also while deep breathing. It takes about 30 minutes to do, relaxes me as much as possible, and gets the oxygen flowing so that I can have a restful sleep and optimal muscles the next day.
I woke up every hour on the hour to check my alarm clock...
5am. The alarm finally goes off. And I practically BOLTED out of bed. I padded into the bathroom for a warm-up shower to get my muscles moving (something that I don't usually do on race mornings, but because the temperature had dipped outside so much overnight, I wanted to make sure this time that I left time for to give myself every opportunity not to seize from the cold). Since I was staying with Nikhil, I left him to another hour of sleep while I choked down the "super breakfast" that I had packed for myself the night before - loaded oatmeal (which I could only get through half of), a banana, black tea, a caffeinated coconut water latte drink (new on the market and TOTALLY effective, I really like them), a cheese string, and a large glass of water.
6am. Already on my 3rd trip to the bathroom to attempt to "vacate myself" before heading to the start line. Every runner that I know fears tummy issues during the race, and so I wanted to make sure that I was good and empty. No issues there - my nervous bladder determined that for me. And finally into my running gear, trying to take big, calming breaths through the whole thing, while honestly feeling like I might vomit. By this point, Nikhil was awake and getting ready as well, and trying to keep me as calm as possible. He is very good at talking me through my game plan and alleviated some of the nerves.
6:45am. Out the door and on our way to the first checkpoint on my plan to meet up with my parents and other folks who were there to cheer me on. At this point, seeing all the other runners actually helped a lot. Having been through many race starts at this point in my running career, it was like an old, familiar feeling, and there was a sense of calm that came over me knowing that I was in the company of so many other people from all different walks of life.
At the meet-up point with Nikhil - wearing THREE layers of clothing cause it was SO cold outside! 42 degrees when we started running.
7:30am. One last chance to get rid of anything you don't want to take with you :)
7:45am. In the Start Corrals! I was all the way back in M, but there were still hundreds of people behind me!
8:20am. Almost like clockwork, we were off and running. My parent's first checkpoint was the Randolph Street Bridge that overlooks the start line. They just made it in time to see me cross under and wave at them. I was only about 300 meters in at that point, but it was the perfect set-up for the rest of the race. They were so excited and I was so excited and I just KNEW that THIS was going to be a great day.
Mile 1-3 - The standard Chicago Race start-point, heading north on Columbus Drive to Grand Ave and then west to make a turn south on State Street to run by the famous Chicago Theater, continuing south to Jackson and the rounding north again on LaSalle to start the longer trek to the Lincoln Park Zoo. After seeing my parents at the first stop, I wasn't expecting anyone for the next couple of miles, so I set my sights on determining my pace, making sure I wasn't going out too fast, and just getting my race legs under me. I have to be honest that after a 2-week taper, you kind of feel a bit like Bambi out there. But once the legs remember how to work and warm up a bit, things felt pretty darn good all round. My hip was behaving and I was able to keep a decent 12 to 12:30 pace which is exactly where I wanted to be. My parents surprised me by making the second checkpoint along the way and called out to me around Mile 2. At that point I decided that this was going to be pretty darn fun finding them in the crowds, and I immediately started dividing up my race by where people were going to be located, which worked great for inspiration. Right on schedule, a group of my running friends were at Mile 3 right before crossing the bridge at Wacker, and I don't know who was more excited to see who! I got a high five from my friend Maureen that on a cold hand literally stayed with me for the next mile! Yowza!
Mile 3.5-7.5 - The first rest stop after the 5K mark, the long run up LaSalle Drive, through Lincoln Park Zoo and to the furthest north point on the route at Addison and Broadway - right next to Wrigley Field where the Cubs play. I did opt to walk halfway through this stop just to get a cup of COLD water in me and to conserve some of my energy even though I wasn't feeling like I needed a break at all. I was FREEZING, having shed my hoodie and gloves at this point for just my race tank. This was one of the windiest sections of the route and we were definitely fighting cold head-winds at some points which was slightly unpleasant, but far better than the alternative, so it was here that I adopted my mantra that took me through the rest of the race - "Relax & Focus" became the phrase that reminded me to breath, make sure my shoulders were down, my head was up, and my gaze was focused at least 3 stoplights in the distance to keep running towards that end point. Since I was scheduled to see Kathy (LOTUSFLOWER) and her family at the Zoo, I started looking for them around Mile 5, but unfortunately missed them at this point. Thankfully it was early enough in the race, and the excitement of the start was still with me enough to fuel me forward. I had already canned one hour of running and didn't feel at all like it! This is also the point in the race that "Bacon" became my running-mate (a guy dressed as a slice of bacon), so it was entertaining to say the least to be running in a pack of people that was greeted by all the spectators with a "GO BACON!" - hahaha! Both my parents and my running friends made it to the furthest north point and I saw them both within 200 meters of each other. Another huge boost of energy from that siting made for a very speedy couple of miles.
Mile 8-12.5 - Probably one of my favorite chunks of the race. At this point I was still feeling really good, I was right on schedule, and we were running down Broadway through Boystown, Park West and Old Town (some of my favorite Chicago neighbourhoods). The crowd support and entertainment here were amazing! In Boystown (one of our LGBT neighbourhoods), there was a stage performance of Drag Queens and the rainbow flags were flying. It was colourful and exciting and definitely took your mind off what you were doing and how far you had left to go, if only momentarily. Park West is a gorgeous section of town with beautiful tree-lined streets all changing colours this time of year, and the Native Indian Drum Circle came out to play for us with almost a full city block of drummers - so cool! My friend Chris was standing at the corner of Webster & Sedgwick and he spotted me coming from about a block away. He announced my arrival with a booming "JENN KINCAID! YOU ARE KILLING THIS KINCAID! I'LL SEE YOU FURTHER DOWN THE LINE!" And not a block later, a surprise siting by my custodian from work who had come out to see if he could spot me and just happened to get lucky! He called to me and waved and took a picture of me as I ran by. Into Old Town and straight down Wells Street - I know I recall being there, but my focus on getting to the next rest stop and the Half was SO strong at this point that I honestly don't remember much of it. We even had breakfast on Wells this morning and I said to my parents, "I know I ran here, but it's all a blur right now." But I did make it to the 12.5 mile aid station and my second GU of the day. My stomach was actually growling at this point, so I knew I was going to need something solid later on in the race. The GU would have to do for now.
Mile 13 - Round the corner on Adams and over the bridge for the 5th of 6 Chicago River crossings and I had made it to 13.1! This was supposed to be a big rendezvous point for all of my teams, but the only ones who made it were the girls (my running buddies) since I was SO close to my projected schedule that mom, dad and Nikhil just could make it with the train schedule. My projected Half time was 2:45 and I made it in 2:49 (with a running clock, so that accounts for Aid Station breaks as well at this point). But the girls gave me another boost of energy, more cheers and high-fives, and sent me on my way for the second half of the marathon!
Mile 14-19 - Not gonna lie, this part of the race is where it started to suck just a little. This is the west leg of the route that goes all the way out to Damen Ave just south of the United Center. While the neighbourhoods are pretty, and the view running back towards the Sears Tower (it will never be Willis in my book!) is pretty awesome, the end seems FAR away at this point and the miles don't tick my nearly as fast as you want them to. My body was genuinely starting to slow down at this point and when I slowed to walk at the Aid Station just past mile 16, my left knee gave in and I succumbed to a limp that I held for the rest of the race. I knew to look for another set of friends just past mile 14.5 and thankfully they found me which was awesome because I was absolutely needing the boost at that point. They were holding a big sign with "GO JENN!" on it. I have such GREAT people in my life! I hobbled through Greektown and Little Italy, testing out my knee to see how far I could push it. I knew it was nothing super serious and just due to my IT band and upper calf muscles tightening too much, but the pain was pretty real and every time I would start running after that point I would have to drag my left leg for a few steps until my muscles remembered how to bend and flex properly. I stopped a couple of times to stretch out my leg, do a couple of lateral squats, and massage my IT band and hamstring which seemed to help enough to keep me going. My friend Chris appeared again right before mile 19 (BLESS HIM to trek all the way out to that furthest southwest point on the route) and managed to spur me on again calling after me: "I'LL SEE YOU AT THE FINISH LINE KINCAID!!!" This was also the point in the race that I saw the "Super Team" - a group of runners in Avengers costumes - and I thought, well, if they can do this, so can I!
Mile 20-22 - Mile 19-20 took us through Pilsen - my second favorite part of the race. It is known that Pilsen always puts on a GREAT show for the marathoners and they definitely didn't disappoint this year. Huge Spanish puppet costumes, a man and a woman, that almost looked like giant pinatas were dancing through the streets and the crowd support yelling and dancing to the oompa oompa tuba music was sensational! It looked like the entire neighbourhood was out on the streets, handing out orange slices and candy to the runners. The energy came right where I needed it and I managed to run pretty much the entire next 2 miles to the banana stop! Thank god. I absolutely needed some solid food. Though my stomach was starting to lurch a little through the last couple of miles at this point, the banana sat very well with me and gave me the fuel my body was looking for. The tummy grumbles and discomfort went away almost immediately. I followed that up with a couple of pretzels from a supporter who was handing them out, although I needed another water stop so badly at that point, it took me almost a full city block to chew and swallow ONE pretzel! Although they looked amazing, I opted not to go for the orange slices in Pilsen because I didn't know what my stomach would do with citrus and it wasn't in my plan, so I was determined to stick to my pre-determined race plan. Unfortunately, this leg of the race was also the scariest for me. This was a record low year because of the cooler temperatures for casualties, but there was one man who had a heart attack and 10 others who were taken to the hospital. Between Mile 20-21, I saw a paramedic running a full-tilt up the street to a man who had collapsed right in front of me. I had to run around him as the paramedics attended to him, checking for his pulse and administering CPR. He was unconscious for sure, but was young, probably my age or just a little older. I knew I was still feeling fine at this point, but the sight is enough to scare you and remind you of what CAN happen, so I made sure to be doubly careful of checking my "internal threshold" for the rest of the race to make sure that I was in tune with how my body was feeling. One I cleared that scene, however, I was on my way to Chinatown and FINALLY saw Kathy and her family near the 21 mile marker. I was ELATED to see them - she had her husband and kids with her and I knew how much effort she had put into coming out to support me, so I was all smiles when I finally saw her. And then I saw my parents again about half a mile later, so that was another stockpile of good energy to keep pushing me forward. Dad even got a good picture from the Cermak Red Line stop coming into Chinatown of the runners en route!
Mile 22-25 - This physically and mentally felt like the LONGEST 3 miles ever. I walked a good portion of this, my estimate is that I walked about half of each mile and ran the rest on and off. I was still using my mantra and focusing into the distance, but I was using it now more for "run to the bridge, or the next stoplight, or that sign post, and then walk" than I was for straight running with the pull to the finish. This was the furthest south leg of the route down Wentworth Ave through Chinatown and south towards US Cellular Field where the Sox play. There's almost an evil trick at the end where you run east for a jaunt over the highway and you THINK you're at the ending point, only to find out that you turn right after the bridge instead of left to continue your jaunt south another full city block. I was on my own for this 3 miles, no energy boosts from friends or family and since we were nearing 6 hours in since the start of the first wave of Elite racers, were getting pretty thin in the crowd support department as well. It got very quiet. And running got VERY painful for me at this point. My knee was threatening to give out all the way, so I had to take it very slow when I was running, and stretch and walk as much as possible. It was during this 3 miles that I added about 30 minutes to my "dream" finish time of 5:15, even though my goal time was really about 5:36. But I could see the 40K sign looming in the distance and I knew what that meant, so I pushed myself to go for it and I wasn't disappointed. Standing between the 40K sign and the 25 mile marker were my girls! Still cheering, still showing strong support to get me into that final mile. I teared up a little at that point, said "I love you guys, thank you SO much for being here, I needed to see you so badly!" and then started a slow jog again with one finger in the air - ONE MORE! ONE MORE MILE.
Mile 26 - Since this is right where Nikhil lives, I was all of a sudden thrust back into home turf territory. I started to recognize the buildings around me and was humbled to run past the Firehouse where a HUGE American flag was hanging from an extended fire truck ladder right out into the middle of the street. I wanted to run the whole final mile, but my knee was just too sore, so I managed a run/walk until I hit the sign that said 800m. From there I could see Roosevelt Drive, I could see the massive crowds waiting to push us up that final hill, and I kicked so hard with everything I had left in me that to my surprise it almost felt easy. There was NO way that I wasn't going to run that final hill. All of it. No more walking, I was running this race home. Michigan Ave, past Nikhil's building, rounding the corner at Roosevelt road and weaving in and out of the other runners and I took the hill in perfect stride. My lungs were almost bursting from the cold air intake at the top, but I knew the final stretch was all downhill from here!
The Final .2! - My legs were flying and my eyes were scanning the crowd. I had reached the spectator bleachers and I could SEE the Finish Line. My eyes welled up and I had to choke back my emotions as my family screamed my name. They had made it! I had made it! And I threw my arms in the air as my feet hit the timing boards. My Chicago Marathon Finish Time: 5:41:42. I DID IT. I broke immediately into dry sobs as my legs tried to remember how to walk and a volunteer caped me with a heat blanket. I continued my walk down the Finisher's Chute to collect water and snacks and a recovery drink, but not before I was officially medalled and congratulated by a volunteer. I thanked her through tears that had finally found their way to my face after trying to calm myself down enough to breath (I was still trying to catch my breath from running and the emotion of all of it was almost preventing me from doing that). My dad caught this pic of me coming down the chute:
At this point I just wanted to get to the meet-up point to see my family so I bypassed the lines for the official finisher's photo, thinking I could come back later. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and once out of that area, I wasn't allowed back in, so I will not have an "Official" photo on the Marathon backdrop. Oh well. There will be plenty of other photos that surface from the race photogs that I can choose from. I would not have given up seeing my family to stand in line for 10 minutes for the world. I spotted my dad first who took me in his arms, emotion overcoming him as well, and I managed to choke out "I'm a Marathoner!" to which he replied, "You most certainly are, and SO much more than that!" Nikhil was next - pride all over his face, I was just so happy to see him. Mom had gone to invest in some beautiful roses and a Congratulations balloon that she came running back with to more tears and big hugs all around. My legs were killing me but I was just so pumped that it didn't matter. We hugged and posed for some silly pictures before opting to walk a little in search of food.
Who just ran A MARATHON???
THIS GIRL DID!!!
Since getting back over to the post-marathon party would have required walking FURTHER away from home only to have to walk back, I opted not to go. Because I don't know what was there, I honestly don't know what I was or wasn't missing, but I rather enjoyed walking into one of my favorite restaurants on Michigan Ave (Pita Heaven) to a large party of spectators who were also dining. Since I was the only one in the place with a medal, everyone was looking at me and smiling and giving their congrats. I ordered a HUGE plate of chicken gyro and potatoes and pita bread and salad and the four of us enjoyed a much deserved lunch together over phone and text accolades from friends and family members who had been tracking me from all other parts of North America.
After lunch, my mom & dad retired to their condo and Nikhil and I went back to his place for a LONG soak in the tub and a rest. I was too pumped to sleep much, but I was able to lie down and ice my knee and get my compression socks on to start the healing process. Later in the evening, I cabbed it over to mom and dad's place where we reminisced about the day, I heard the tales from their perspective, and we enjoyed some egg rolls from Chinatown that they ended up having to buy so they could use the bathroom! Haha. I relaxed with a couple of rum and cokes that hit the spot and finally knocked me out, and returned home with a smile on my face for a DEEP sleep.
Yesterday was Canadian Thanksgiving and my parents cooked me a full turkey dinner at my place while I dropped off my medal at Fleet Feet to have it engraved. So much to be thankful for this year. And surely a Thanksgiving to remember for years and years to come.
Today I saw off my family and have been slowly trying to return to a normal schedule - catching up on emails and making sure that anything urgent is taken care of before heading back to work tomorrow. For a brief moment in time, I was Super Woman. And although I have to return to mortal life now, I bring with me something really incredible that no one can ever take away from me. From this point on, I am a Marathoner. Something that only a very small fraction of the world can say that they have accomplished. Will I do it again? I don't know yet. But what I do know is that I did it once. And that is an indescribable feeling that changes you forever.
WHO JUST RAN A MARATHON???
THIS GIRL DID!!!