Essay: I’m Taking on the Chicago Marathon in a Pandemic Year and Don’t Regret It (Yet)

The following article is a reported personal essay I developed through my Journalism class this spring. Enjoy!

The opportunity to run the 2021 Bank of America Chicago Marathon was just too enticing to pass up. 

Never mind that I hadn’t run seriously for two years and hadn’t completed even a half marathon. The race’s Oct. 10 start date — my 21st birthday — was all too perfect and the 26.2-mile distance offered an emphatic escape from my post-quarantine malaise. 

I submitted my entry into the lottery still wavering in my confidence, and a brief email early one March morning sealed my fate. I was in.

Two months into training, I’ve realized that 2021 might be the most difficult year to prepare for a marathon to date — with challenges ranging from mask requirements to injury risks to vaccine aftereffects — but one that has the potential to be the most rewarding.

The marathon has caught on as a cultural phenomenon in recent decades, but its history famously dates back to ancient Greece. In one of the myths, messenger Pheidippides ran 150 miles to Sparta to warn of a Persian attack on the city Marathon. The idea of a “marathon” as a competition started in the 1896 Olympic Games with a 25-mile race, and 12 years later the event moved up to its familiar 26.2-mile distance.

Chicago caught onto the marathon craze and established its official race in 1977, fielding 4,200 runners for its inaugural event. The size of the field has increased steadily since, reaching its peak of over 45,000 participants in 2019. As both a World Marathon Major and an event without a qualifying time requirement, the Chicago Marathon has become a go-to event for elite runners and first-timers.

I started my training regimen as a marathon newbie. Still, I competed for my Rockville, Maryland high school’s cross country and track varsity teams for four years and considered joining a college team as a walk-on. Instead, I chose to pursue sports journalism, and when I moved in for my first year at Northwestern, I was eager to forge an identity separate from my running-centric past. 

Still, I couldn’t shake the allure of the marathon, especially with Chicago visible whenever I peered south across Lake Michigan. 

In lieu of a running coach, I scoured training guides from the Evanston Public Library. Even with a plan that mapped out with six-day weeks and intense workouts, marathon training and its significant buildup had its potential pitfalls.

Sports psychologist Kelsey Ruffing says she believes distance running grew in popularity during the pandemic. The quality of that training? Not so much. 

“The issue is injury — training schedules and the way people train got disrupted,” Ruffing says. “We’re seeing an influx of sprains, joint issues, muscle tears, because I don’t think that the training has kept up quality wise.”

In the first weeks, it felt almost impossible to log 30-mile weeks and train consistently. I struggled to carve out time between classes, extracurriculars, work-study hours and, most crucially, meals. Bed-ridden with leg cramps, nausea and a fever the day after receiving the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, I ended my second week of training after just nine miles.

On the runs themselves, COVID became a constant consideration. Coursing through campus meant adhering to the mask regulations, which, while a fantastic way to bolster my cardio levels, left me breathless even after shorter distances. Social distancing also factored in. Out of caution, I trained individually (with my Disney music, of course) and gave extra space on the trails to passersby. 

Especially after the intensity of my high school experience, I worried about competitive burnout and held myself back from setting lofty time goals. For some runners, the pandemic has only exacerbated that pressure.

“Burnout in general is a huge issue because of overtraining and the pressure to perform,” Ruffing says. “When you factor in the pandemic and having to hurry up and get in shape or get this time, you’re being forced to compete really before you’re ready.”

The key, Ruffing suggests, is setting realistic and healthy expectations. For me, that meant a shift from hard time goals to more flexible, week-by-week approach and a focus on the process rather than results.

The Chicago running community is also working its way up to fall marathons, with most spring races held in the suburbs and limited to small field sizes. 

On April 17, the Chicago Area Runners Association held its Wintrust Lakefront 10K & 5K. The size and urban location of the event required organizers to employ new methods to make the race as COVID-safe as possible. Those changes included a reimagined race start — CARA arranged runners into 50-person pods, then sent off five runners at a time. 

CARA executive director Greg Hipp expects to see mass-scale marathons later this year, but he says it may take a couple years for the racing scene to return to normal. In the case of some of the COVID-inspired adaptations, that might be for the better.

“We will probably see some forever changes that come out of this,” Hipp says. “Just giving people more space and their start corrals, and how we deal with bathrooms and hygiene and some of those things that races do, regardless of requirements.”

While the Chicago Marathon is keeping most aspects of race day experience under wraps until August, a June 3 email to entrants provides hints. 

Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test may be required for entrance, and the presence of spectators and non-participants along the sides of the course — a staple of the marathon experience — could be limited. The email also indicates that participants must wear masks when not racing and should expect updated protocols for the race’s start to allow for distancing. 

If all goes to plan, the Chicago Marathon will mark the return of mass-scale distance running to the Windy City. I’m fully planning on celebrating when I cross the finish, but I hope that I’ll also take a moment to soak in the scene of the start line and reflect on the winding, socially distanced journey it took to get there.

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