Monday, October 13, 2014

Remembering when ...

I've always loved this quote by the great women's distance running pioneer, Kathrine Switzer. Having spent countless hours of my life training for, competing in, and recovering from the beautiful beast that is the marathon, I've never not broken out into tears at a finish. It never fails to humble me, surprise me, make me laugh out loud, hurt me, nurture me, break my confidence, and then fill me with pride - all in the span of just a few hours. I look inward, of course, but I also look around in that finisher's area and see hundreds or thousands of others who were with me on that journey, and am overwhelmed by what we all just accomplished. Just because millions of people run marathons every year doesn't mean that it's not completely amazing.

My first marathon was the San Diego Marathon (today called the Carlsbad Marathon, since it's technically in the city of Carlsbad, and San Diego has since created its own much larger, much more famous, and much louder production). That was nearly 16 years ago, and to date there have been 17 finishes. Seventeen adventures in 17 different cities, with a great cast of characters keeping me company on the course, and on the sidelines. Over time, my recall of the early races has faded. (We didn't have running blogs in the late 90s, and I've never been a faithful running journaler.) I've got the photos, the bibs, and the official times. A few of the tshirts are still around. Each race has its memorable moments - a high or a low, a great meal, a funny anecdote - but on the whole, my catalog of experiences as "a marathoner" is beginning to blend together. I think deeply about running, and talk and write about it often, but in some ways it's become so much a part of who I am that the details are fading from my awareness.

This weekend, I was gifted the opportunity to experience the marathon for the first time, all over again. My brother-in-law Ian completed the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, his first time doing battle with 26.2. I'd helped him as best I knew how through his training (mostly remotely, as about 2,500 miles separate us), cheering him on as he reached new running milestones, and hassling him a little when he needed it. With great excitement, I flew out to Chicago to join him and our family for the weekend. You think I was going to miss this? We had fun at the pre-race expo, and I tried to answer his questions and quell his anxieties. I ran the Chicago Marathon in 2005, but realized as we pored over the course and spectator maps that I had almost no recollection of it, and little to offer in the way of any course-specific advice. I've always remembered it as one of my favorites, but I'd honestly forgotten why.

As I answered his questions about what to expect out there, and doled out advice on wide-ranging topics such as fanny packs, outerwear, and hydration strategy, I tried to remember how I felt the night before my first marathon. The memories have faded, but the one thing I am sure of now is that I most definitely had no idea what I was in for. As we talked, I found myself wanting to try to prepare him in some way that I had not been prepared. But I eventually realized that other than shaking him by the shoulders and yelling "It's going to be reeeally hard!" which didn't seem like it would be terribly helpful, I didn't have much more to offer.

So, we made our way through it together. We mapped out a spectator route that would have us (myself and his parents, a.k.a. my in-laws) perched at strategic points where I thought he'd benefit most. He got all of his gear organized the night before, and we swam through the early-morning sea of 45,000 runners, and got him to his corral. I gave him a hug and a high five, and he was on his own. We got to see him at four points along the course, and it was amazing to watch him going through all of the familiar physical and mental ups and downs, and yet hanging so incredibly tough throughout. In this era of ultra-high security at the Marathon Majors (of which Chicago is one), I couldn't get to the actual start or finish lines, but I had an opportunity to see him as he rounded his final turn, just after the 26-mile mark. He was in his home stretch, in a familiar-looking state of discomfort, but smiling ear-to-ear. Oh, that feeling! Suddenly I could remember finishing my first marathon, with crystal clarity. 

We met him at the runner meet-up area, where I saw the familiar tears of pride and fatigue, the zombie-like gait, and the dazed look of disbelief: did I really just do that? I watched his parents beam with pride, listened as they asked him to recount the details, and remembered how great it was to have my mom there at my own first finish line. We gave him ice and ibuprofen and high-protein snacks, and our permission to lay around and drink beer for the rest of the day if he wanted. I waited for his Facebook posts to appear (again, we didn't have social media "in my day," but you can bet sure I would have been posting from the finish line if I did!), and remembered fondly how much fun it had been to talk to everyone and anyone who asked about it. I was damn proud, and I hope that he is practically bursting at the seams.

Of course, I also remember how I couldn't walk down stairs the next day. I remember that bruised-up second toenail that was never the same. And the chafe. Oh, I remember the chafe! But for now, I'll just keep those memories to myself.

Big, huge, happy congratulations to my new favorite marathoning hero: Ian! And to anyone and everyone who's conquered their first marathon: thank you.



The Chicago Marathon Expo: like nothing I have ever seen.
This race means business, people.

The packet is picked up, and the countdown is on! Sixteen hours 'til go time.

Sunday 7:30 a.m. Perfect racing conditions, and all the
makings of an epic first marathon experience.

We ran for a bit together at mile 12, in the West Loop area. All smiles!

The energy in Chinatown was amazing!
(And so was lunch. Yum!)

My mother-in-law Karen and I did some serious hustling
to get ourselves to the spectator points. She was so proud
to watch her boy in this great endeavor!

Running south from Chinatown, around Mile 22.
Ian was feeling it pretty good right about now, but was tough as nails.

The very picture of marathoning awesomeness!
Recovering in the runner meet-up area.

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