Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pudgy Me 17: The Big Six

Okay, so who doesn’t contemplate running a half-marathon on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  Clearly I had gone over the edge and was living in an alternative universe. 

Why else would I be standing in drizzling rain with a group of two hundred local runners in the sleepy village of Pinehurst, North Carolina, waiting for the race to start and watching technicians put the starting line electronics into place.  Eight minutes before the race and they still are arranging the black mats on the street.  I can see the wires from under the pads stretch to a white van parked along the curb.  Okay, so this arrangement either will track our times or electrocute us as we run across the starting line in the early morning rain.

Ten minutes earlier no one was on this street at all; cars were driving back and forth unimpeded, simply Pinehurst retirees beginning their Saturday, like every Saturday, driving to the drug store for their meds or to one of several golf courses encasing the town.  Except for runners milling about looking as mystified as me, I would have said I was in the wrong spot, wrong town, wrong sport altogether – that is, if the golf played around here by eighty-year-olds can be called a sport...

What the hell am I doing here?

Once again, my dastardly daughter Helen instigated my dire situation; she got me into this debacle back when I was at my most vulnerable....  

It was about six weeks earlier in mid-October and we were in the celebration area of the Chicago Marathon, enjoying the post-race festivities in Grant Park: I was sitting on the grass recovering nicely from running 26.2 miles, drinking my first beer in weeks, and listening to a live rock band on the festival stage.  In truth, I was focusing my attention and remaining energy on taking off my shoes, peeling down my socks, and putting my sore feet into the soft, comfortable sandals my wife Karen brought from the hotel.

“Hey, Dad,” Helen said, standing beside me, pointing to the blue and white banner above the stage across the way.  “Look at that.  There’s the list of the six major marathons in the world.  Chicago is one of them.” 

“Very cool,” I responded, not looking up at the stage.

“Say, Dad, I was thinking… now that you have run the Chicago and your time qualifies you for Boston – why not run them all?” 

What?  Wait a minute… 

Did I mention, until then, I was focused serenely on my sore sixty-year-old feet and whether or not one of my toes was leaking my very life’s blood into my skanky socks?

With toe in hand, I squinted at the list of cities: Boston, Chicago, New York, Berlin, London, and Tokyo.   You have got to be kidding me…

“Why not, Dad!  Think about it!  After Boston, we can go with you to Berlin and Tokyo, and London would be great to see again too!  We could do them all!”    

Wait a minute, who said I was running the Boston Marathon?

Insanity.  There is a type of insanity known as “post-marathon euphoria.”  My wife Karen, the psychologist, says it’s a form of psychosis common to runners when they are at their weakest: after a race, resting their bloody toes in cool blades of grass, and drinking cold beers on empty stomachs; she says it’s especially known to hit sixty-year-old men suffering from years of dementia and the more recent phenomenon: exercise-related memory loss. 

Where am I anyway?  Why am I holding my toe, gasping in pain?

Helen was on her phone googling the other major races. 

“Look, Dad,” she said, “I swear, you can do the five remaining races over the next two years.  What a great goal and we can be with you!” 

Hmmm…  Isn’t she in college?  Clearly the gods of racing had passed me over to the gargoyles of insanity.

Okay, okay, so it turns out, ACTUALLY you CAN do these things, but you have to plan them CAREFULLY – spontaneity is NOT the operative word in running the six major marathons of the world. 

That night in the hotel room, looking further into this with Helen on her laptop, we discovered quickly how long it takes to participate in such races.  The application period for the Boston Marathon, for instance, was closed already for the upcoming race in April; no new applications were being accepted and, certainly, not as late as October.  If I wanted to run in Boston, it would have to be 18 months from now. 

However, as Helen pointed out, if it simply is a matter of applying sometime after April when the window opens and if it simply is a matter of paying the fee, and, of course, waiting to see if I am selected (as Boston has many more applicants than they can accommodate), well then, what the heck, no sweat.

That seemed easy enough; Helen was right.  If I didn’t get selected, not a problem, I never wanted to run the Boston Marathon anyway.  

But, wait, what if I did get selected?  Was I seriously thinking of running 26 miles in Boston a year and a half from now?  Were we all flying to Boston?  All of us?  Karen, Helen and me?  Our friends?  Were we really that crazy? 

Clearly this was a case of group-instigated, post-marathon eu-fucking-phoria.    

Even crazier was sitting with my daughter that October night contemplating what major races I ACTUALLY could run next year, given Boston was not available to me. 

Of the Big Six, all of the spring marathons were closed (London, Boston, Tokyo), leaving only the fall races (New York, Berlin and Chicago) to consider.  Turns out, looking into this further, Berlin, an early September race, was closed, too, for the year ahead.  This meant, next year, either I could repeat Chicago or focus, instead, on New York in November.

“New York could be fun,” Helen said perusing the New York site on her computer.  Karen added, lying across the bed reading a women’s magazine, “We could go Christmas shopping.”       

Jeez, I could see the cost climbing exponentially! 

Wait a minute… in reviewing the qualifying times for my age group, I realized in a wave of stomach-churning angst, my time earlier that day didn’t meet the minimum standard: I actually needed to complete the Chicago Marathon four minutes faster to qualify for New York!  Oh my god!  

“Not only that,” Helen said, pointing to the fine print, “but look, the window to qualify closes December 31st.”

Oh no. (Thank god, I thought, shoving my head under a pillow.)

“Dad,” Helen suggested, slowly, encouragingly, “Just find a local race and lower your time by four minutes.  That’s all.  That shouldn’t be too hard.  After all, races are scheduled all the time, and, once entered, you’ve got twenty-six miles to do it.” 

Helen paused, as she contemplated what that meant.  “Just cut fifteen seconds off each mile and you’ll lower your time six and a half minutes.  Perfect!”

I swear, there is something wrong with that girl.

I thought about the race earlier in the day and how hard it was to stay at the eight-minute-per-mile pace.  Now she was saying I should cut an additional fifteen seconds off of every mile for twenty-six miles?  Ack…  

The gargoyles of insanity had just passed me over to the Angel of Death. 

There’s got to be an easier way!  Maybe we could bribe someone?

Clearly, I needed to go to bed.  It had been a long day.  I was delusional.  Somehow I had fallen into a nightmare and was contemplating marathons all over the world. 

The one thought that kept occurring to me over and over later that night:  How the hell would I have enough time to recover from Chicago and still run a stellar twenty-six mile race to meet New York’s standards before the end of the year?  

A race that would require an all-time personal best…

Clearly, Helen was trying to kill me.  I had told her there was no inheritance in the vault; I had spent whatever I had on running shoes.  She obviously didn’t believe me.
Returning to North Carolina a day later, I sought my gym instructor at the Health and Fitness Center and explained my dilemma: either my daughter and wife were in collusion to get me out of the picture, or they wanted to go shopping in the six major cities of the world and were using this as an excuse to get me to tag along. 

Luckily, Hannah, the physiologist at the Center, was used to working with crazy old men and, she could tell, dementia was running rampant throughout my mind and body. 

She asked if I had ever heard of post-marathon euphoria…


Thank god, Hannah ran in college.  She agreed that a marathon at this late date was out of the question.  Thank god.  

But, wait, what was she saying:

"With so little time left to prepare," she suggested with an innocent smile, "why not qualify with a half-marathon instead."  

Oh no...

Slowly we walked over to her computer and pulled up New York’s requirements for runners qualifying with a half-marathon.  I peaked at the screen between my fingers.  

Oh no...

Turned out, this too was crazy:  for a half marathon, I would need to come in under 1:40 (one hour and forty minutes) – the half-marathon I had run earlier, back in the spring, I came in at 1:49. 

In other words, I would need to shave nine minutes off of my best time.

What did this mean essentially?

"Run faster," Hannah advised earnestly.    

She thought for a second longer, "Oh and find a flat course."

So here I am, standing with a bunch of local runners in Pinehurst, North Carolina, on the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving, watching race officials hide exposed wires under the starting mats.  If I didn’t trip over those wires, it would be a miracle. 

Am I crazy?  After weeks of deliberation, is this really the nationally sanctioned half-marathon I have chosen to qualify for New York? 

The weather is downright chilly and now a drizzly rain is falling.  Perfect.  Perfect for my demeanor: cold, cranky, and completely over it. 

What the hell am I doing here?  

To be clear, I needed to average a 7:30 per-mile-pace to come in under 1:40.  The previous half-marathon, back in the spring, I had run at an 8:16 pace; I would have to drop that time by forty-five seconds-per-mile to qualify for NYC.

To say I was a little concerned would be an understatement.  

In fact, a week earlier I drove down to Pinehurst and checked out the course.  In slowly driving over and assessing the entire 13.1 mile-layout, I nearly lost it: my stomach, once again, churning up a storm.  

It wasn’t long before I was slamming the car to a stop at a local gas station and sprinting to the bathroom: I had one bad case of diarrhea, along with a much larger case of foreboding.

The course I drove was much hillier than I ever in my wildest dreams imagined, and some of the hills were hills on top of hills, and some of the hills that were not hills on top of hills were hills that still entailed significant mountain climbing equipment.  This was not good.  Not good at all.  

This was not the flat course I had envisioned and definitely not the course for sixty-year-old men to qualify for New York.

What the hell was I doing here?    

I decided, right then and there, in that men’s bathroom with an open hole for a lock, right there in that greaser of a gas station selling boxes of ammunition like bubble gum, sitting there seeing symbolism in the old condom machine stuck on the men’s room wall with “this machine sucks” scratched on the front, I had had enough:  the six major marathons be damned.  

I could qualify for New York anytime next year and run it two years from now, along with Boston – if that was what the gods of racing wanted me to do, then so be it.  I yield completely to their desires.  Let them explain it to Helen.  

So, there remains just one question:  

Why, the hell, am I standing in the drizzling rain behind the starting line one week later in Pinehurst, North Carolina?

Clearly, I have fallen into an alternate universe.

A man, likely the race director, but maybe a good old boy coming in from the field, steps from the van and stands in front of us.  He yells something to the effect that his microphone isn’t working, but we should, “Listen up!” 

“Watch out for cars on the route,” he yells.  (Cars?)  He hopes we have a good run and, “don’t get hit.”  (Cars?) 

“Oh, and follow the signs,” he yells to everyone, “or, if that fails, follow the runner in front of you, hopefully that guy knows where he is going.”  

(Jeez, you’ve got to be kidding me.) 

Lemmings to the sea, I am thinking, here in the middle of nowhere in the Sand Hills of North Carolina…

It continues to drizzle as he raises an air horn above his head and presses down on the trigger, laughing and wincing at the loud blast piercing the thick air.  Fifteen or so people watching the start cheer, but I am back in the pack and I miss that magical moment.  

The spectators are quiet, holding their umbrellas and looking bored, when I run past. 

Luckily when I run across the starting line, I don’t catch on fire and burn to a crisp, so I decide this is a good sign.  Hopefully, the race officials, tucked away in the white van peering into their green-tinted screens, are now tracking me.  If I don’t get run-over by a F-150 truck or a golf cart, I actually might survive this half-a-marathon-racing-fiasco. 

Quickly I pass runners of all shapes and sizes and soon am running at a pace to have a chance at qualifying for New York.  I know from driving the course the week earlier that the first two miles are relatively flat, and, sure enough, after the second mile, my time is under fifteen minutes.  

The soft feminine voice on my running app confirms it.  "Keep it up, you fabulous hunk of man meat," I think I hear her say.  (Updating that app sure made a difference!)

As I start up the first of several small climbs heading for the first significant mountain at Mile Five, I decide to see how long I can continue at this pace.  The runners in front of me have thinned out and no one is on the streets cheering us, which, I decide, would have been a distraction to the golfers; it is just a matter of staying motivated, picking off runners, and avoiding oncoming cars!  

By Mile Four, I am still on pace, and, a mile later begin climbing the first big hill of the race, passing runners who aren't prepared for the steep climb.  One guy, in particular, I have been following for several miles; he looks like he is my age, maybe older.  Just like that, on the first big hill, I am past him.  (Take that you old geezer!) 

I join up with another runner, by chance, and we climb the steep part of the hill together, neither one of us getting in front of the other.  He looks to be in his mid-forties, Irish, and wearing a faded, dark green tee-shirt promoting Guinness Stout or some such.  He is a heavy-set fellow, and I can’t help but wonder how long he can maintain this pace.           

At Mile Six, I am surprised to see I am still on pace, and, even, my new Irish friend is hanging close by me: every time I push to get in front of him, he passes me right back.  (Who is this guy?)  Still, I focus on getting my breathing under control, especially for the second half of the race, when, for the next several miles, the hills will test us. 

The tough sequence of stiff hills between Miles Seven and Ten are too much, and my newly-found Irish friend falls back; soon I no longer hear him behind me.  Instead, I am tracking a younger guy in his mid-thirties several hundred yards ahead.  He appears to be a wild man, running with abandon, like this is a first race for him.  His arms seem to be everywhere at once.  No discipline in his form.  I focused on catching him.  

Climbing these hills is the hardest part of the race and my wild man and I are passing people who have slowed due to the difficulty.  Though I too am struggling, by Mile Nine we are side by side, my wild man and me, when suddenly, out of the blue, my former Irish friend, the guy with the Guinness shirt, races by us.

What the hell!  Where did he come from? 

He is putting distance between us, but there is nothing I can do about it here in this sequence, and I wonder how long it can last.  As my wild man and I climb the last major hill, slowly but surely we reel Mr. Guinness in and pass him for the final time.  (Nice try, oh Stout Warrior!  See you in the fields of green!) 

My thirty-year-old wild man, by this time, is now in front of me.  I decide, he hates to think a sixty-year-old man is keeping up with him and now is forcing himself to stay ahead.  I don’t see how that can last.  His feet are pounding the pavement way too hard; his arms and hands are like an orchestra conductor's, all over the place, like he is leading a large symphony on an opening night; he is expending too much energy.       

Most amazingly, I realize, remembering my own goals, I am still under the overall time needed to complete the course.  

At this point, with three miles remaining and the route becoming flatter, it dawns on me: I ACTUALL HAVE A SHOT at this thing.  

I will kill myself – I mean, absolutely commit hari-kari – if I lose it now, here in the end after pushing through all those mean Appalachian Mountains.  

Mile Eleven and I am right behind my wild man, running on his heels; I know he knows I am there; he can hear me close by, feel my breath.  He wants to turn around and look at me (Who am I anyway?), but we are too close.  He can’t pull away. 

By the time we reached Mile Twelve, my watch indicates I have ten minutes to run the last 1.1 miles.  I know, though, up ahead on the course there is one last, large dip down a hill and a tough climb immediately on the other side to get to the final sprint.  My wild man moves out on the downward leg, using the slope to separate from me, but I catch him coming up the backside where he is sucking air.  My friend doesn’t have a chance.  I zoom past him and never look back.  (Good-bye, my young Leonard Bernstein, so full of talent, yet so much to learn!) 

Picking up the pace at the top of the hill and through the final half mile, it is like a pack of wild dogs are chasing me.  Ahhhhhhhhhh.... 

The same fifteen people who watched the start of the race are now at the finish, but none of them look at me.  I am like a ghost runner in their midst, or, perhaps, I am sprinting so fast, they only feel the breeze as I sweep past.  Yes, I am Flash and running faster than their heads can turn.  No one will pass me on this final straight-a-way: NO ONE!

My wife Karen sees me!  She came for the finish, and she takes my picture for Helen.  I know I look like a crazy man: I have on my “Indian death mask” face and am huffing and puffing, sending out wicked spells to ward off any last-minute sprinters.  With a wild-eye glint and a cock-sure resolve, I have conquered this course. 

At least, that’s what I think. 

Karen says, “You sure looked crazy.”  She is less certain about the Indian death mask. 

Luckily, for my family’s sake and mine, I cross the finish line at 1:38:32 and am a minute and a half under the qualifying time needed for New York, ten-and-a-half minutes faster than when I ran the half-marathon back in March.

Motherfucker!  Take that, you fucking course!

Karen and I don't stick around for the post-race festivities taking place under a hospitality tent on a muddy field in the drizzling rain.  We have what I came for and will not be back.  Instead we spend the afternoon shopping in Pinehurst.  Thank god I am not a golfer. 

The window for the New York City Marathon opens the Monday after Thanksgiving.  My qualifying time will be substantiated on the Pinehurst website.  Of course, my application is bound to sink to the bottom of a large pool of approximately 80,000 runners from which 50,000 names will be drawn, which makes the selection process more of a miss than hit, so… 

Will Pudge Man, Jet Giles, the Man in Black, Thor, and, now, the man known as Flash run the Big Six?  Will he make his daughter and wife happy shopping in the most exotic cities of the world, or, more likely, die of old age and sore feet in some North Carolina town in the middle of nowhere?  Stay tuned.  The saga continues.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Pudgy Me 16: The Chicago Marathon

Not a Cloud in the Sky.  Seven-thirty Sunday morning and it was time to get started.  Thousands of runners had converged on Grant Park in the city of Chicago and were ready to go, shaking their legs and rubbing their arms, waiting patiently as the Mayor said a few encouraging words and the elite runners were introduced along with a brief list of their most recent accomplishments.  Now, they too were in place at the very front of the race.  We were ready: 45,000 runners tight together in our respective corrals waiting for the horn to sound.  Minutes earlier we had stood for a moment of silence commemorating the victims of the Boston Marathon the previous spring.  It was a sad moment in a cool morning with flags flapping in a light breeze.  The only thing remaining was the National Anthem.  The singer began, but something was wrong: the song coming through the speakers was a mesh-mash of disjointed phrases.  Then, quickly, as if helping a fellow runner who had fallen, the participants started singing spontaneously along with the singer.  The idea raced throughout the crowd and, in the widening of an eye, 45,000 voices were singing the song together – for Boston, for Chicago, for ourselves, for the endless runs throughout the long, hot summer.  In the Chicago Marathon, the largest public, participatory, sporting event held in the city, it was the participants, who, it turned out, had earned the right to sing the National Anthem.  With running hats pulled and hands on thin, sleeveless-tees, we stood as one staring up at the beautiful, metallic skyscrapers embracing a baby-blue, cloudless sky and sang and sang, and, when the song ended, a long, heart-felt cheer rose to the heavens.  I knew, then, we were good to go, the moment had arrived.

Call Me Crazy.  I was in the third corral of a line of cordoned-off areas full of marathon participants.  Only a few thousand runners stood in the two higher corrals between the starting line and me.  My running time from earlier in the spring (back in the half marathon in March) or, more likely, my advanced age (turning sixty in July) must have placed me ahead of 40,000 or so other runners.  I knew, deep down, I didn't deserved the honor, but I wasn’t complaining.  Call me crazy, but my immediate motivation was to avoid the masses behind me.  I figured, running with the fleet-of-foot had to be a hell of a lot easier than being trampled by the thundering-horde.  

Easy.  Earlier that morning I had walked the mile from my hotel to Grant Park in my gray sweats, stretching my legs and passing through a long maze of runners slowly making their way to the park.  Once through security and into the start area, I sat on a curb and relaxed, eating a banana and a small loaf of French bread, going over the route one more time: two miles through the downtown area, five miles up to Lincoln Park, five miles back downtown before making a sharp turn to the right, four miles west, then, turning back for seven miles of zigzags, ending south of town and the final three-mile push up to Grant Park.  Twenty-six miles total. Easy.  Of course, for all to go well, the gods of racing would need to smile down on me, and, of course, that didn't account for the likely heart attack or brain aneurism I would incur running the course.  For that, I would need trained medical personnel.  Days earlier I memorized the locations of all twenty-one aid stations, just in case.     

Countdown.  An hour-and-a-half before the race, the park was filling with runners.  I could see I was the only one eating, but putting solid food in my stomach would help when, for the next four hours, I would be drinking gator aid from the aid stations and slugging down high-energy goo from six gel packs tuck away in the pouch on my running belt.  An hour before the race I got up and began my routine of slowly walking back-and-forth in the pre-race area, warming my legs, reviewing my strategy:  run as far as I could for as long as I could; if I was lucky, qualify for the Boston Marathon; if not, die in the attempt.  A half-an-hour before the race, I took off my sweat pants and slowly, carefully retied and double-knotted my running shoes.  (If I go down, I go down with my boots on.)  The pants I dumped into a barrel for the homeless as I entered my corral.  Five minutes before the race, I took off my sweatshirt and threw it over to the side, another gift for the homeless.  From the shirts and jackets filling the air like colorful kites crashing to earth, I wasn't the only one taking this approach.  I had learned my lessons well: this time my stomach would not be empty, my legs would be ready, and no coat would slow me down.  For once, I wasn’t shivering.  More like, focused; finally focused on the moment.

The Start.  The horn, signally the start of the race, blared across the park and was followed by an equally loud, window-rattling cheer.  Like the hundreds of runners around me, the overwhelming urge to start running was stymied quickly by the tight mass of bodies in front of us.  There was nothing we could do but wait.  Slowly we shuffled forward, trying not to step on the back of runners' legs, then, tentatively taking larger steps, until finally, we were loosely jogging toward the actual start of the race:  a black, metallic, catwalk-like structure crossing above the street with colorful flags, flashing lights, and large speakers playing up-beat rock music.  Three minutes after the horn had buffeted the boats on Lake Michigan, the third corral and I ran under the temporary structure and across the electronic pads at the starting line.  As we headed out of the park, the race organizers and hundreds of volunteers cheered us onward.  Of course, runners of all shapes and sizes were in front of me and on either side of me, but mostly I could feel the overwhelming presence of thousands of runners, just like me, waiting behind me to start.

Quiet.  The sound of our shoes on the pavement and steady breathing; we filled all eight lanes of an empty freeway running alongside the park.  Quiet, as we left the secured area, crossed over a small bridge and down into a short tunnel that ran under several of Chicago streets and buildings north of the park.  Quiet: our feet echoing in the tunnel a half-mile into the race.  But here you could hear it.  You knew the moment was coming.  It was building louder and louder until you almost could see it: a phantasmagorical wall of shimmering sound.  Coming out of the tunnel, we burst into the world of spectators and their joyous celebration.  Entering the downtown area, we thrust ourselves headlong into a massive swell of people lining both sides of the street.  Spectators, five-to-ten people deep, cheering loudly, creating a delirious cacophony of noise with their voices, bells, horns, and noisemakers.  It was like, we were in a crazy ‘running of the bulls,’ sandwiched between two, screaming, human hedgerows, and, if we came too close, we would be grabbed, sucked in, and eaten alive.  

Safe.  The next couple of miles, I stayed safely in the middle of the pack, adjusting to the masses, calming down, and accepting the lack of cohesion with so many people everywhere, breathing in and out the sights and sounds of the occasion and realizing the reality of what was about to unfold.  Was I really going to do this – attempt 26.2 miles?  I had only managed such a distance twice before: once two weeks earlier in a practice run and once back more than twenty years ago at the Marine Corp Marathon in Washington, DC.  On that earlier occasion, I finished the race just under four hours and was sick as a dog for hours afterwards.  In fact, another marathon a month or so later ended in disaster with me walking the final eight miles.  Never again, I thought back then, and that was when I was in my mid-thirties, supposedly in the prime of life as a runner.  Even the run two weeks ago had been less than stellar, the realities of being sixty readily apparent: hobbling to the end, my time horrible, desperately needing fluids.  Sitting in my car afterward, I thoroughly realized the insanity of what I had gotten myself into, once again; the overwhelming sensation of being trapped: flights booked, hotels arranged, family and friends joining me for the special occasion – well, there was nothing to be done, but play it out; learn from my runs over the past two years, plan for everything, and, most importantly, stay in the moment.  Two weeks later, here I was in the Chicago Marathon and, I realized, for the moment, I was okay: safely packed away running with proven runners.  A turn or two, three, four, through various streets and across the Chicago River, and, just like that, I was free of the downtown and, hidden amongst real runners, heading north, working our way to Lincoln Park. 
Electric-Green Poster.  In the hotel hallway the night before, my daughter Helen had written on an electric-green poster board a message for me in huge letters with black magic marker.  She said, she chose electric-green because she was sure I would see it, but, I realized, in the race people everywhere were thrusting electric-green posters at the runners, along with every other color, and it would be much harder than I ever imagined to spot my wife Karen, Helen, and our friends.  We agreed, though, that I would search for them along the fourth mile, as this was when the race came closest to our hotel.  Sure enough, out of the helter-skelter of thousands of spectators, I spotted them on the right side of the street with Helen’s huge, green sign clutched in her hands.  They were laughing and talking to each other as I veered over to them, cheering loudly amongst them and giving them all quick high-fives.  They hadn’t expected me so soon but cheered and cheered – Helen, that moment, no longer my college-age daughter, but the little girl I remembered, pumping her sign up and down: “Go Jet Giles!” it wiggled.  I laughed as I ran on.  Go Jet Giles – right.     

That Girl Ahead.  She looked uncomfortable in amongst the runners as the route narrowed at the entrance to Lincoln Park.  What was it?  Why had I noticed her?  Why did she keep looking back at us?  Wait a minute – I could see her more clearly as I came up on her – my god, she had a stainless-steel prong instead of a left foot.  Perhaps she was worried about the tightness of the runners being pushed so close together entering the park.  I wondered if I should say something, offer her encouragement... but what would I say?  I decided, seeing she had found her space within the throng of runners in the park, she would want to be treated normal – with the same expectation we all had, that if we entered the race, we could deal with the issues encountered along the way, that we would finish one or another.  I ran by her and didn’t say a word.  Instead, to myself, heading six miles into the run, I used the moment to wish her luck.  Perhaps the racing gods would give her strength too.   

Man in Black.  The crowd was yelling, “Go Kate!”  “You can do this, Kate!”  “Kate, you are looking great!” as I made the block-long turn heading back to the city.  What is going on? I wondered.  Then I realized a girl was coming up on my right side.  When she was beside me, I could see she was focused on the street ahead, waving to the crowd.  “You must be Kate,” I said to her.  She looked over, laughed quickly without interrupting her rhythm, and pointed to the front of her shirt: the word “Kate” tapped above her running bib.  “Cool idea,” I said, realizing this helped the spectators see her out of the thousand runners running by and the tens of thousands more to come.  Maybe I should have taped “Man in Black” across my chest.  I was wearing black running shorts and a black t-shirt, with dark sunglasses and a black runner’s cap.  “Go Man in Black.” I would hear people say.  I could imagine a child in the crowd: “Who is that man?” he asks his parents behind him.  “That’s Pudge Man,” the mother replies, looking me over.  The father interrupting as I run by, “No, not the Pudge Man any longer.  That’s the Man in Black.” The girls at the fire hydrant, “Oooo!  Man in Black, you’re looking fine.”

Spotted.  They spotted me coming back downtown from circling through Lincoln Park.  I was focused on the miles ahead and their screams jolted me back into the present.  They were cheering wildly, happy to have found me again.  Helen, with her electric-green sign in one hand, came running into the street.  “Dad, you look great, you look great!” she shouted, running beside me.  “Thanks, Helen.” I said, aware that I had zoned out.  I had eight miles finished, but a “…Long way to go!”  “Don’t worry, Dad, you’ll be great!  You’ll be great!” she responded.  “Hang in there, Dad,” she said as she slowed down and fell back in the crowd.  “Love you,” I said, though I wasn’t sure she heard me.     

The Second 8.  You have to break it down.  Have to.  Twenty-six miles is too much to contemplate.  For me, the marathon consisted of two eight-mile segments combined with shorter, five-mile segments at the end.  The first eight-mile segment flew by easily; it usually does.  The trick is to do it quickly and without expending too much energy.  The second 8, in many ways, would be the first significant test of the race.  I was about to enter the second segment where my endurance, stamina, and determination would be tested, once again.  How bad do I want this? – Always the question the Second 8 poses.  I had searched for the answer throughout the summer, but it wasn’t until September, when the temperatures dropped and the pressure increased, that I knew.  Now, the test of the Second 8 would be for real.

Pain.  He sat in his wheelchair angled into the curb.  Hands in padded, black gloves holding his sides, head slumped over, breathing hard, black hair disarrayed, soaked in perspiration.  He looked exhausted.  I remember thinking: it’s only ten miles.  Ten miles.  We still had such a long way to go; to be stopped at this moment was not good, not good at all.  Wheelchair racers made it appear so easy.  He looked in pain.

My Cluster.  I could see a number of runners had pinned estimated finish times onto the back of their shirts.  Clearly, it was all about the finish, even from the beginning:  How long would it take to finish?  With whom did I want to finish?  With so much focus on the finish, I contemplated less stressful signs:  Pinch Me if this is Real, Pass at Your own Risk, Cough if You Love Jesus, that sort of thing.  But, now, in the throes of the race, I realized, reading the times on the back of the runners in front of me helped me to stay focused.  Just like running with the organized pace groups, each leader carrying a flag that proudly displayed the finish time for his or her cluster, sticking with a similar group of runners kept me from speeding up by mistake or slowing down without realizing it.  Perhaps, too, in the thousands of runners, it provided a temporary band-of-brothers to face the world, the grueling ordeal together.  Finishing somewhere below 3:55 (three hours and fifty-five minutes) was my goal.  It would qualify me for the Boston Marathon – not that running the Boston Marathon was of interest; the qualifying time, though, was a standard to which many runners aspire and one that some sixty-year-old men needed to rationalize killing themselves for no real reason.     

Math.  It was all about the math.  I knew my pace and from the endless days of training for this race, I knew, too, exactly where I would be at any given point.  Do the math, I said to my family and friends, and you will know where I am on the course.  If I am running too slow, something is wrong.  If I am running too fast, I'll die before the end.  Yet, from the start, the pace group for the 3:50s was running too slow.  What was their problem?  I could stay with them but slowing down to accommodate them didn’t make sense.  Yet, I understood the risk of running ahead, of running into uncharted territory, especially while in the midst of the dreaded Second 8, but I decided to push myself (was it the excitement?) and was soon three pace groups ahead.  Running behind the 3:20s, I couldn't help but wonder:  how long could I maintain this pace?  Would I end up walking, exhausted, long before I reached the finish line?

Amazing.  Crossing over the Chicago River into downtown Chicago, I could see ahead for several blocks before the runners turned to the right and headed west and out of the downtown area.  Between here and there, the street was thick with spectators and thousands and thousands of runners: a wide, multi-colored quilt, alive with wave-after-wave of bobbing heads.  I turned to a runner beside me at that brief moment. “Look at that,” I said.  “Isn’t that incredible!”  He looked up, as if seeing the spectacle for the first time.  “Amazing,” he said.  “Amazing.”    

The gift.  I reminded myself, no matter where I was in the race, with the endless sea of runners, the crowd cheering heartily on both sides of the street, it was imperative not to forget the gift the gods had given me.

Enjoy the Moment.  While I could, I decided. 

Survival.  Taking the right turn heading out of the city, now the second half of the race would begin: 13.1 miles nearly finished, 13.1 miles more to go.  From studying the route, we would run through the ethnic neighborhoods on the west side of the city, then, work our way south of the downtown area before turning back to the city one last time and finishing in Grant Park.  Now the crowds would get thinner; now the endurance part of the race would begin.  Survival would be key. 

The Great Tide.  The crowds lining the streets, though less deep, were every bit as vocal as earlier in the race.  I was surprised.  We were running through Chicago’s famous Greek neighborhood, heading west toward the city campus of the University of Illinois.  I wondered if the spectators had a clue as to how many runners were behind me.  I remember thinking I should shout, “Save your energy, your voices, you’ll be exhausted long before the great tide of runners has subsided.”  But how many times could I warn them of the approaching horde, coming like a tsunami behind me, before I too ran out of energy?

Mirror.  I knew we were coming up to the big turn, and I could see runners a block over on my left heading back to the city.  It appeared as though I was staring into a large mirror reflecting the hundreds of runners running beside me.  I really was part of a long graffiti wall, wildly and wonderfully painted; a street artist’s depiction of runners caught at a moment-in-time, fourteen miles into the run.  I refused the urge to stop and stare into the mirror and, instead, turned my eyes to the street ahead and focused on reaching the turn.     

The Winner.  The woman on the loudspeaker was full of life, vivacious, energizing the crowd and runners. She exhorted the spectators: “We’re mile 16,” she announced with a Spanish accent.  “Let’s show the runners we’re the best, let’s cheer for these runners!’ – and the spectators on both sides of the street responded with a swell of horns and bells and whistles.  But, for me, it was all blending together, getting harder and harder to be aware of the moment.  Still, as I ran by, heading back to the city, I caught her enthusiastic announcement to the crowd: “The winner of the Chicago Marathon has crossed the finish line!”  Someone from somewhere had finished the race while I still had ten miles to go.  “Okay, okay,” I thought.  “Good for him, good for them.”  I had completed the Second 8 and had passed my first major test of the race.  I wasn’t hurting too much and hadn’t fallen back.  Onward to the next five miles; these would be critical miles zigzagging through the streets of Chicago.  Did it matter the winner had been decided?  Did it make a difference out on the course, motivate me one way or the other?  The elite runners, captured live on television, running their own race way beyond mine, I decided, had no bearing on me. 

What Pace is This?  I determined to stay at the pace I had set for myself earlier in the race – to remain behind the 3:20 group for as long as I could.  My daughter Helen had been a marathon volunteer the year before and handed out cups of water near the end of the race: she said the number of runners walking to complete the race climbed exponentially from those who had been running at the nine minute pace to those at the ten minute pace. The digital displays throughout the race indicated I was slowing down; I pushed forward again, fighting to get back to the eight-minute pace even if it killed me, which, seriously I was starting to think it was.  

Navigation.  Running through a Chinese neighborhood heading south of the downtown, I realized I was about to collide with an older Chinese couple trying to cross the street in amongst all of the runners.  Oh my god, I thought, swerving to the right, where they had been, while my hands reached for them to protect them and me.  For a second our eyes locked on each other, then, I was passed them and realized, just as quickly, I was about to crash into a throng of runners heading for the gator-aid station on the right side of the street.  I leaped around an oblivious runner and swung back to the left to avoid others bunched up at the block-long station, then, at the last minute, switched back to the right to grab my own cup of gator aid from one of the volunteers.  Running forward with the cup sloshing in my hand, I took one long swig before tossing it to the side and re-establishing myself, for the moment, in the middle of the course. 

Chicken.  Photographers had set up on the edge of the street, photographing one runner after another.  My route was always the shortest distance to the next turn.  By mile 19, I wasn’t getting out of the way for anyone who deliberately put himself in that path.  I was bearing down on a photographer, who had set himself up in the fulcrum of a left turn, but he wasn’t moving out of the way and his camera, with its long zoom lens, remained tight against his face.  A game of chicken, I thought, as I adjusted slightly at the last minute, brushing his side.  He didn’t flinch and just kept shooting the runners coming up the street, daring someone to knock him over.

Walking Wounded.  Soon I was passing scattered runners walking along the route, each of whom looked like they had pulled a hamstring or thigh muscle, who were hobbling to finish the race.  They seemed so embarrassed to be there, trying to fade into the edge of the crowd lining the street.  I knew the feeling from my last marathon twenty years earlier.  It was horrible physically and mentally to be one of the walking wounded.  Was this what it was like going to the front in a battle?  The closer you came to the action, the more refugees and wounded you saw on the sidelines.  A ridiculous analogy, I knew, but the similarities were there.  One final five-mile segment ahead and I would be there too.   

Infinity.  Did I hear someone say it was getting hot?  That’s strange.  I had lost sight of who was beside me and who was passing me or of whom I myself was running past.  Throughout the race it had been an endless stream of individual runners moving forward, falling back, and the latter miles were no different – slower, perhaps, but no different.  I realized my line of sight had narrowed to my shoes and the ten feet of pavement in front of me.  People were cheering, I could hear them, but it was deep and muffled.  My breathing had become the significant sound of the race.  My feet were starting to hurt (could one of my toes be bleeding?) and my stride, I suddenly realized, seemed stiffer than I remembered.  I could hear an imaginary coach admonishing me to stay in the moment, to lift my head, straighten my back, and focus on the horizon, yet it was hard not seeing the endless runners on the never-ending streets – almost unnerving.  Like peering into infinity, yet knowing there was only so much of me remaining.

Who are These People?  Who are these people anyway?  Had I seen any of them earlier?  Were these the runners who had been with me all along?  Maybe the race, in truth, came down to fifty individuals who were running in the range of my pace.  The fifty runners who needed time to identify themselves in the earlier miles but now were moving through the latter stages with me as one large shape-shifting, amebic cluster.  Where were they from?  Had they trained for this race, like me, running on Sundays through the long hot days of the summer?  Had they too broken down on countless occasions when it became too much and walked miles to get home? 

Walk.  No, no.  No negative thoughts. Who said that dreaded word?  Not now.  Not yet.    

Family.  Ahead, not too far off in the distance bobbing above the runners, I could see the red flag of the 3:20 group, but they were strangers.  I could never join their group.  The ones passing me, and the ones I was passing (how many times) were my family now.  We were brothers and sisters in this together. Yet, we were still too large of a group; I couldn’t get a handle on any one person to run beside, or to pursue, or to tow me to the finish line.  My mental processes were becoming too jangled to grasp onto any one person who could take me through the home stretch. 

It Wasn’t that Hot.  Who said that?  Didn’t someone say it was hot earlier?  I ran in much hotter weather all summer.  Definitely.  Back in North Carolina.  The course had us winding around in the neighborhoods south of the downtown area and this was getting old.  I glanced up at the blue sky; not a cloud in the sky; wasn’t that a helicopter in the sky off in the distance?  Say, what was that?  Wasn’t that a helicopter?  Chicago’s weather was perfect.  It wasn’t hot at all.  Wait a minute… my shirt was soaked.  My shorts dripping sweat too.  Weird.  Say, how did the 3:20s get so far ahead?  Well, forget them.  Hey, was I really slowing down that much?  Jeez, it wasn’t hot.  I ran in much hotter weather than this.  Back in… wait, I think my legs are starting to cramp.  Jeez, wouldn’t crossing the finish line be so cool!  Now crossing the finish line: The Man in Black.  Say, it wasn’t hot.  I ran in much hotter weather than this.

Fraternity.  What college is this?  Was I passing through another college?  A fraternity had brought a keg of beer to the street, and the brothers, casually dressed in their pastel polo shirts, long shorts, and penny loafers, were laughing and jostling with each other and calling out to the runners, offering everyone red plastic cups of beer.  I could see no one was taking them seriously, but, now thinking about it, maybe, stopping for a minute wouldn’t be so bad, better than running to nowhere.  How nice it would be to share a beer with the boys.  Maybe the horde could join us, and we could have a block-long, street party – right here, right now, together.  Maybe this could be a tribute to the gods of racing for runners not focused on their time – wait a minute.  I need my time.  Why?  What was my goal?  There’s a reason.  I remember, there’s a reason.          

Heading Home.  Focus for a moment.  Merging onto Michigan Avenue was the marker for the home stretch.  Three miles up Michigan Avenue and we would be home.  Home for the home stretch.  With each stride, the crowds, once more, getting louder and louder.  I could feel it.  In sight.  Stretching my legs out.  Heading home.  

Blur.  I wondered, was the run up Michigan meant to be a blur?  The crowds were insatiable.  The noise of their cheers and horns jarring – jolting me back into the moment.  Had it been like this previously?  This much noise?  Ahead the final gator aid station; runners grabbing cups for the last mile and a half.  I had taken gator aid at each of the twenty previous stations along the route; I had taken cups of water at several stations too and used the water to wash my hands, my face and neck; I had sucked down the high-energy gels and was thoroughly sick of gels – wasn’t sure I could keep another one down.  “Did I really need one more swig of gator aid?”  I thought, moving to the left to avoid the station on the right side of the street, passing runners slowing down.

The Metal Structure.  I could see the temporary metal structure off in the distance; it crossed above the street and runners were passing underneath it.  Was that the end?  I thought the end was in Grant Park?  The structure, with flashing lights, festive streamers, and rock music blasting from its speakers, had to be the end.  Maybe they moved it up! Get to the structure.  The structure.  My pace quickened.  I can do this.  I know I can do this.  Focus on the structure ahead.  The structure.  People were cheering all around me.  I glanced quickly to my right, looking for my family.  Where was Karen?  Helen?  Why wouldn’t they be here?  Here at the end.  No, no.  They said they would meet me in the celebration area where family and friends were allowed to be with the runners.  But maybe, just maybe, they were here too.  In the crowd.  No, no, they said they would meet me after the race in the celebration area.  No, no, maybe they were here.  Wait, was that Helen.  No, no, get to the structure.  The metal structure.

Don’t Stop.  “Don’t stop,” Race officials were shouting at us as we ran under the metallic catwalk structure.  “This isn’t the end. Don’t stop.  Don’t stop.”  Why are they shouting at us? I wondered.  “You still have two-tenths of a mile to go.  Don’t stop.”  But, wait a moment; I had run twenty-six miles and sprinted to the structure.  What do you mean this isn’t the end?  “Go on.  Go on.”  They shouted.  “Follow the runners!”

Soothing to the Ears.  Runners were taking a sharp turn to the right that had been hidden by the crowd and were running toward a bridge.  What?  Wait.  You want me to run up that bridge?  Oh no!  The steep incline – the silence crossing the empty freeway – the long slope down to the street, then, a quick turn to the left into Grant Park.  We were back, like in the beginning, running in a secured area; the sound of the spectators falling away, tied to the metal structure blasting rock music and the long bridge separating the runners from the crowd.  Now it was just us, the sound of someone’s heavy breathing in my ears, breathing hard, passing volunteers cheering us in single voices, clapping, urging us onward.  So soothing to the ears, yet hard on the feet.

The Little Engine that Could.  Finish.  The finish line was just ahead under another catwalk structure with a big electronic clock displaying the race time in vivid red, bleeding red, electric red so hard on the eyes.  Damn, I had to run if I wanted to come in under 3:30:00.  Run!  Run!  I think I can, I think I can!  Damn!  Crossing the finish line at 3:28: 32 and shuddering to a stop.  Wait.  This was more than thirty minutes faster than when I ran a marathon back in my thirties.  Nearly thirty minutes under qualifying time for the Boston Marathon.  Was that right?  “Don’t stop,” the race officials were shouting, once again, urging me forward.  “Keep moving!  Give other runners room to finish.  Keep moving.” 

Walking On.  Walking on slowly, stiffly away from the finish line.  Girls handing out medals.  Taking off my hat.  One of the girls slipping a medal over my head and around my neck.  Her “Congratulations!  You did it!” went along way.  Walking on slowly, stiffly past a runner on the ground.  Volunteers and medical personnel bending over him.  Runners getting massages, standing in clusters, watching hundreds finish behind me.  People handing out silver space blankets.  Taking one. Putting it around my shoulders.  Walking on slowly, stiffly past a long table with millions of bananas.  Taking a banana.  People handing out recovery drinks and free beer.  Taking a drink.  Walking on slowly, stiffly to the back of the finish area. Tossing the nearly full drink into a garbage container.  Stomach still too queazy. Handing a volunteer my space blanket.  The morning too hot.  Slowly, stiffly leaving the secured area to meet my friends and family.  Standing at the entrance to the celebration area, not knowing what to do, needing to sit down. Then, Karen running up with a big smile and a tight hug, gently leading me forward.  Gladly leaning against her.  My wife, I love her.  Helen joining her, dancing around me, shouting for joy!  "What a time, Dad!  You qualified for Boston!"  But I was thinking not about the race, or the next marathon, but how tired I was and grateful too, to be here, now, in their embrace, sharing this moment.

Alive.  Alive.  Happy and alive.  Not a cloud in the sky.