Tackling 26.2 (and my nerves) in Windy


Weaving my way around chest high tables covered in bananas, bagels, apples and donuts (yes, donuts), sidestepping fellow runners who were picking food off those tables, I started to think I wasn’t going to make it to the starting line. A year of thought and preparation, training and planning was going to get flushed down the shitter because my nerves couldn’t handle it.

This was about 6:45 a.m. Sunday morning. Chicago Marathon morning. I’ve joked a bunch of times before races, while waiting in corrals, that I felt like I was going to puke. That statement is usually an exaggeration of how I feel as my anxiety disorder kicks in.

Sunday, it was the God’s honest truth.

As I walked around the “Race Resort” I had access to as a member of the fundraising team supporting the Children’s Tumor Foundation my stomach started to crawl. I felt my throat start to close up and started looking for the nearest trash can. I was about 10 seconds away from puking and I was having a full blown panic attack.

Instead of finding a trash can, I found an empty space on the floor next to the wall and took a seat. I buried my head in my hands and tried to calm myself down. I convinced myself if I threw up now, I may as well tuck my tail between my legs and leave because I was pretty sure if I threw up what little food I had in my stomach, there was no way I would have enough fuel to race 26.2 miles.

Sitting against that wall for a few minutes, focusing on settling my nerves, I was able to calm down a little bit and that awful feeling in my stomach passed. Able to breathe comfortably again, I made my second trip to the bathroom since I arrived at the race resort 20 minutes ago (it wasn’t enough) and then decided to get it over with and head to the starting corrals.

Those horrible nerves never came back to the degree I felt I was going to puke again, but they played awful tricks on my bladder. That second trip to the bathroom was followed by a third as soon as I entered Grant Park. Another 20 minute wait and finally it was my turn. Relief. However it wasn’t enough.

As I left the porta pottie line and made my way to the start corral, I was blown away at the mass of humanity gathered in the park for the race. It was a sea of technical fabrics, running shoes, funny socks, fanny packs, hand-held water bottles and snot rockets. My claustrophobia started to kick in.

And this is where I made my first mistake of the day.

My goal for this race was to run a 3:47. In order to do so, I was going to stick with the 3:50 pace group for the first 10K to 13 miles of the race, then try to finish strong. Well, I couldn’t make my way close enough to the 3:50 group and was on my own. When the race started, I looked for people wearing “3:50” bibs given to them by the pace group leaders on their backs and tried to stick with them, but it was a failed mission. I was setting my own pace for this race, and I suck at pacing.

Most of what happened after the race started was a blur. Everyone talks about how a big-city marathon is a great way to check out that city, but I felt like I didn’t see much of the city at all. I read a lot of signs (about 100 that read: “WTF: Where’s the Finish,” another 100 that read, “Touch here for power,” and my personal favorite near the end of the race “Free beer and sex at the finish, hurry up), saw flashes of big buildings and even U.S. Cellular Field, but I was too focused on what I was doing and a little overwhelmed by all the spectators to actually see the city.

I have a hundred reasons why the race didn’t go exactly the way I wanted — from failing to get with the pace group, to having to take a piss break at the 5K mark (fucking nerves), to not doing a good enough job fueling during the weekend of the race, to the two asshole spectators who, at different points of the race, ran across the street and forced me to slam on the breaks, once almost tearing my knee to shreds— but those are excuses. What it comes down to is the marathon is a big beast and its No. 1 goal is to humble you. I learned a lot this weekend and will continue to learn from this race as I think more and more about it. The biggest lessons: The marathon is a big bad ass just dying to knock you down a notch.

I’ll think a lot about that last 10K and how badly it hurt. I wanted to run kind of conservative in the first 15-20 miles of the race, then push in that final 10K. Unfortunately, I knew long before that final 10K that I wasn’t going to have much left to push. I had a hard time early in the race getting into a rhythm pace-wise and was kind of stuck around 8:50 miles for much of the first half to 16 miles or so. I started to doubt myself around mile 7, then told myself to shut the fuck up and run. At mile 10 I started to hurt a little bit. At mile 16, my left calf was tight and my right quad felt like someone punched it. At mile 20, when I wanted to take off, my legs just didn’t want to go. They hurt, but more than anything, they were tired.

I’m horrible at math, but it was around mile 20 I started to get an idea that 3:47 wasn’t happening. When we reached 5K left, I knew it wasn’t happening and my focus became sub 4. I was too tired to do that math to figure out exactly what I need to finish sub 4 in terms of pace per mile, but knew if I went under 30 minutes for that final 5K I would be OK.

As the miles ticked down and I saw the mile 25 marker, I got pissed off. Like I said, the marathon humbles you. I was pissed because I wanted that 3:47. I had worked all summer for that 3:47. I knew I wasn’t going to get that 3:47.

Fighting off the urge to start balling like a hungry infant with a wet diaper, I reminded myself of that sub 4 and kept going. At this point, I was walking through all the water stops to give my legs a break and to make sure I was actually getting fuel and not just pouring it up my nose and down my shirt. Around mile 22 I started getting a tinge of that dehydration headache and didn’t want to end up in the medical tent.

The crowd of spectators, which was big all day, was enormous as we hit the 1-mile to go marker and that adrenaline helped me fight off fatigue a little bit. An even bigger help was seeing the markers that read “800 meters to go” and “400 meters to go.” I just reminded myself of those track workouts in the blistering heat this summer and pushed to the finish line.

To see that big finish chute was a sweet relief, but I couldn’t help but be a little angry. I crossed the finish line with my traditional “Big Papi” salute, though my heart wasn’t really into it, and shouted some expletive or another before getting wrapped in a heat blanket and having a race medal slipped around my neck. The time on my Garmin (which was a pain in the ass all day) read 3:56:55.

It was also in that finish chute, between a few more expletives because I couldn’t find the exit and my claustrophobia started to get the best of me again that I allowed myself to consider what I had just accomplished. I did not reach my goal of 3:47, but I am now a sub-4 hour marathoner. Three and a half years ago, I couldn’t run a mile. A year and a week ago, I ran a 4:47 marathon. Now, I have a sub-4 marathon on my resume. That is an accomplishment I will carry proudly as I train my ass off for that 3:47 and beyond. There were times during that race I told myself “Never again,” but my goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon by the time I’m 50 is set in stone now more than ever.

I’ll take what I learned Sunday and become a better runner, a better marathoner.

Hopefully one who doesn’t feel the urge to puke before a race.

5 thoughts on “Tackling 26.2 (and my nerves) in Windy

  1. Joe

    Good job on the sub 4!

    Good to have perspective on that four years ago couldn’t have done that or as you said let alone even run a mile w/o stopping.

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