Fight Till The Finish: My Experience Running the 2021 Chicago Marathon

Last spring, I penned a reported personal essay about my experience training for the Chicago Marathon, from the moment I got the fateful acceptance email to the end of my training in June. 

Plenty has happened since then — not least of which, the marathon itself — and it’s about time for an update. My original essay featured the background of the race, my motivations and the eccentricities of training for a long distance race during a pandemic. Here is what happened next.

Summer Build-up

Technically, my spring training wasn’t part of my actual race preparation plan, but rather a steady stream of miles to keep me in shape. June was when the fun actually began, when each new week brought its own ramp-up and the occasional workout. The transition to dedicated mileage also coincided with a transition from Chicago back to my home in Maryland, where my mornings were more free but the terrain was infinitely hillier.

Given the seven months between the acceptance email and the actual race date of Oct. 10, lapses in focus would have been understandable. Instead, my summer schedule actually turned out to boost my training. My summer job as a camp counselor required me to be at the community center by 11 AM, and since I’d fall asleep as soon as I got back home in the evening from the fatigue of chasing elementary schoolers around all day, the cool early mornings worked well as road run time. With familiar routes and rousing soundtracks playing through my newly acquired AirPods, I enjoyed every run, and the early activity helped wake me up for the hectic camp schedule.

With a few exceptions, training stayed smooth as my mileage increased. I hit 40 miles per week repeatedly in July and boosted my long run distance from its previous high of 13 miles to 16 miles — at a brisk 7:10 pace — by month’s end. I couldn’t envision making another jump of 10 miles to the full race distance just yet, but I trusted the training and felt that I was right where I needed to be. 

The bumps in the road came in August, when my training became more erratic and the long runs upped their distance. I decided to rest the week of my family’s beach trip, and while I did not regret the decision, I only managed 14 miles that week and then had to gradually work my way back up the following weeks.

But the most turbulence came on the road runs, where I quite literally brushed up against my limits. After my 16 mile run in early August, I couldn’t keep up and finish the entirety of my long runs, oblivious to the benefits of mid-run energy boosts. For one run, I called my dad to pick me up, and on a couple others I just decided to “play it safe” and cut the run short by two, three or four miles. I’d arrive back at the house exhausted, needing a whole hour to recover enough to get off the couch.

In early September, I was fed up after a 20-mile run that I cut short to 14. The pace was fine at 7:33, but I did not feel safe challenging my health this drastically and being on the verge of passing out by the end. So I posed the question — should I even run the marathon? My schedule would only fill up further with the start of school, and I’d already reaped tremendous physical and mental health benefits from my training. Ultimately, I decided to take it step by step and give it one more week, then reassess.

Transitioning back to Chicago for my final month of training worked wonders. The cooler climate and flat terrain boosted my confidence, and my integration of Gatorade chews and mid-run hydration in my weekly long run helped me complete a 21-mile run into the city. The route was breathtaking: four miles south to Loyola-Chicago, a couple miles along the Lakefront Trail and a winding path through North Chicago and turnaround at Wrigley Field, then the same route back. That 55-mile week, on Week No. 25 of training, assured me that I could go all the way and was both a physical and mental peak in my summer regimen.

Tapering for the Big Day

The two weeks afterward required me to taper for the race — to cut my mileage drastically to keep me fresh for the marathon. I dropped from 55 to 38 miles in one week, then 38 to 22 the week before. By the race week, I only ran every couple days and just for five or six miles on those days. 

I could certainly feel the pressure of race day in the weeks leading up to it. I did not have a hard race goal other than finish the race, and part of me just wanted to complete the whole thing and move on. Physically, I felt great and ready to go, and my biggest point of emphasis was to hold myself back in the first quarter of the race so I didn’t go out too fast from my excitement. 

On the days immediately leading up to the marathon, my composure and conservative approach broke down. My hydration took a hit when I spent two hours stranded in line for my race day packet in downtown Chicago, and my nutrition didn’t do much better as I turned to dining hall pizza in search of carbohydrates. A fire alarm the morning of the race did no favors to my sleep schedule.

The more pressing issue came when I was invited to play touch football on a field next to my dorm, and I simply couldn’t resist. What I planned to be a restrained effort devolved into an all-out, energized performance — I was having too much fun and couldn’t lose. Then my team lost 49-42 on a walk-off touchdown, and the realization that I had spent my reserves of energy hit me. The next morning, I was extremely sore in my thighs and calves, evidence of a hard-fought battle the day before. Still, touch football was admittedly my favorite sport and my Kryptonite when it came to taking it easy before race day, and spending some juice on football took the nerves away.

At five A.M. on Sunday, October 10, I changed into my super suit of my compression Under Armour tank and navy blue shorts and walked over to the CTA train stop for the big day. Runners packed onto the train at each stop, and I started getting nervous I’d even make the 8 A.M. start time with all of the traffic and delays. In that calm before the storm, I sat on one of the blue plastic seats and relaxed.

I finally found my way to Jackson Park by 7 A.M., but after checking in my belongings, I realized I needed to use the restroom. The problem was, each of the lines for the porta-potties had at least 30 people in line, and there was no way I would be able to make it through and still make my 7:45 cutoff for my start corral — the division added to make the race more COVID-safe. But running through stomach cramps for 26.2 miles was the absolute worst-case scenario and would derail my race. I chose to stick out the line, praying that each runner would make it a quick trip to the “john.” 

The minutes passed quickly, and the line all too slowly. Five minutes before I had to be at the start corral, I was still waiting behind five or six runners, totally powerless. Then, a glimmer of hope. The waves parted and I miraculously found my way into a porta-potty, with one minute left before I had to check in. I got through that restroom trip quicker than a NASCAR driver in a pit stop, and after washing my hands I booked it right outta that stall. I made a mad dash across Jackson Park and slipped through right as the gate started to close. Relieved, I hunched over, one race done, one more to complete. 

Thankfully, I had plenty of time to recover. It was another 15 minutes before my group actually passed the starting line, and listening to hype songs like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “Gangnam Style” as we walked forward amped me up. The view and atmosphere was excellent, with skyscrapers ahead and runners all geared up to go. Around 8:07, I finally crossed over the start line and my first marathon officially kicked off.

The Race Itself

I hit the play button on my four-hour “Chicago Marathon 2021” Spotify playlist, tapped the start button on my GPS watch and was off to the races. Excitement pulsed through my veins, the epic skyscrapers giving way to a tunnel before returning us into the heart of the city. The brassy “Life’s Incredible Again” theme from the movie The Incredibles played as I ran across a bridge over the Chicago River riverwalk, towers — and runners — all around. I tried to soak in the sights and exhilaration. It felt as if I was at a sporting event, but even more interactive, like I was actually one of the players themselves in a great and historic venue. 

Of course, the marathon start also required some adjustment on my part. I achieved my goal of a modest pace at the start, mostly because the pack was so crowded and I had to weave through traffic to keep up a pace of under eight minutes per mile. My GPS watch also started glitching, showing erratic paces and showing different distances than the actual mile markers. At the same time, I didn’t want to spend excess energy on lateral movement, or even much mental wherewithal considering major moves. I also turned off my awareness of runners passing me — I’d have plenty of time to catch up.

Another obvious and awesome adjustment was the size of the crowds immediately after the bridge. Even outdoors spread across a city, the spectators were the loudest they had ever been and made the environment even more electric. They seemed to be attending for all different sorts of reasons, from cheering for a runner to a running group to just the thrill of it all, and I could see how special this event was to the city after a year apart. To the degree it can in the thick of a race, the experience expanded my perception of running beyond the hyper-competitive atmosphere of high school cross country and track and felt collaborative, even inspiring.

The first three miles, spent coursing down the major downtown Chicago streets, were some of the most fun I’ve ever had racing. When we headed north, I felt better than I had even that morning with the football-inflicted soreness and was confident that I was right on schedule. The temperature was a balmy 70 degrees, and aside from the density of the running pack, conditions were more than ideal for running. 

As the urban cityscape turned to lush parks blooming in the early weeks of autumn, I started to feel some fatigue, but in a good way, like a football player feeling his first hit in a game. I had settled into my pace and adjusted to the marathon field and its quirks, and everything was going to plan. I also kept on pace with my Gatorade chews and alternated water and Gatorade cups for hydration, though getting those liquids down was a struggle itself. For the next seven miles as we looped around north Chicago — even overlapping my long run and breezing by Wrigley Field — I felt relaxed to the point I texted my mom that it was going well and took a video of myself running.

At 10 miles, I still felt pretty good. Any time a kid was holding up a sign that said “speed boost,” I’d veer over and give it a nice push, and a couple of the witty posters and words of encouragement made me laugh pretty hard (“don’t forget to set your fantasy football lineups!”). One major, jarring change that I picked up on was how often runners switched to walking or were dropping out. It was something I’d never experienced in full force in a high school race and not a development I’d exactly expected, but I tried to keep morale high and take in the sights and sounds, as well as my Spotify playlist. 

16 miles brought us by the United Center, home of the Bulls and Blackhawks, and by that point I was laboring a good bit mentally, though still on goal pace of around 7:30. I knew my friends planned to meet me at mile 20, so I told myself if I could just get through to them, I could hand off my phone and run more freely. The promise of refreshment got me through a couple miles and kept me motivated to keep running, but I was drained physically and started planning a backup option in case I didn’t see them.

Mercifully, I reached the 20 mile mark, the endpoint of our detour around the west side of Chicago. But I’d arrived at the point too fast, missing my three friends by just a couple minutes too early. Frustrated, I shifted to a walk. It was the first time I’d ever walked in a race, but the change felt necessary. I needed to regain my composure mentally, and physically I felt extreme tightness in my groin. Walking was a last resort in training, mostly because I knew that if I started walking, it might be almost impossible to recover. I resolved to walk a mile, then switch back to a run.

All of the 20 miles I’d spent passing runners and moving on up now flipped. I was not at all panicked and knew that if I just kept moving forward in some capacity, I still had enough in me to finish the race — that wasn’t in doubt. I drank water and Gatorade at nearly every stop, careful to monitor my breathing and soreness. At the marker, I kept my promise to myself and returned to a jog, though the pace was hardly at my earlier speed.

I kept up the jog for another mile of the South Chicago stretch, but it was too much and my groin started to feel on the verge of a pull once again. I walked over to a BioFreeze station and got the full wind of it across my legs, and to my surprise, it actually worked in staving off the pain. I kept up my stroll, this pace a little faster than the previous mile. Still, the sheer number of runners of all ages passing me was surreal. A particularly crushing blow was when a man in a taco costume, whom I had passed a couple miles earlier, ran right by around 22.5 miles in and disappeared up many runners ahead. 

At the 23 mile marker, I took solace in only having a 5K left. I prayed for the energy to finish this monster of a race off and started to transition back into a jog, each stride gradually transitioning me from the sheer soreness of the race to some semblance of a rhythm and regularity. 

It worked. My pace dropped back down into the sevens, and as the scenery turned from West Chicago and Guaranteed Rate Field (home of the MLB’s Chicago White Sox) to downtown again, I knew I was right back in this. A great thrill came when I passed the Taco Guy once more and left him in the dust, the ovation of the crowd doing little to tilt the scales in his favor in this newly forged rivalry. He would never pass me again.

Around 24 miles to go, I heard my name being called. That was impossible. After all these miles and names being called, I was certain it was someone else. Then I looked to my right and saw an even more impossible sight — my friend and suitemate Harrison sprinting along the sidewalk with a sign reading “Jurassic John.” The surge of adrenaline and gratefulness was a second wind in itself, and while Harrison and my friends Davis and Matthew only continued a couple blocks longer, my other suitemate John, a sprinter in high school, kept pace for a half-mile, dodging spectators while behind the boundary. 

Seeing them was one of the greatest things ever, something I never had much of in my high school career given my lack of awareness in those races. In this environment, I could take it in and use it as fuel. The determination in John’s eyes to keep up while holding a sign made me smile, and while it came to an unfortunate end when he ran into a filled-up city block, the efforts achieved their intended effect. 

Every mile from then on felt like an eternity: two miles to go, 1.5 miles, 1 miles, half a mile. I couldn’t fathom the race actually coming to a close until the quarter mile turn, which equated to a lap around the track. I made a 90 degree turn onto a bridge heading toward the Bears stadium, Soldier Field — a walk I had made two years earlier for a Bears-Cowboys primetime battle — then made one more 90 degree turn and saw the finish line, on the same road as the start, in sight.

I broke into a sprint and felt like Dash from The Incredibles from racing against runners multiple decades older than me. The theme “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky played through my AirPod speakers in that final straightaway, motivating me to pass each runner in my line of vision. In a race where experience and stamina were king, my relative short-distance speed finally gave me an edge and helped me end on a strong note. In my final stride along the right side of the finish line, I leaped and threw a fist pump in the air. My final time was three hours and 41 minutes, with my last three miles as my fastest.

Falling Action

Finishing the marathon did not seem as difficult an achievement to me as my best races of high school. Running in the 4:20s in the mile took my absolute best mentally and physically and hardly felt replicable, but my marathon training had prepared me well enough to where I felt confident I could finish 10 times out of 10 (even if I played touch football the previous day). 

Still, wandering around the finish corral, I was beaming. I didn’t feel particularly proud, but more thankful — of the opportunity, of the organizers and of my friends for giving me a much-needed boost when I needed it most. I gobbled up a banana and a few cups of Gatorade, staying on my feet and advancing further toward the start line.

Once I had gathered my belongings and reunited with my friends, I spent the rest of my 21st birthday in style, and a great deal of pain. I used my ID to cash in on the free beer voucher after the race, then almost spit it out and threw the can away only a couple sips in. But we found great food with a Potbelly Sandwich Shop nearby in downtown Chicago, then capped off the day with deep dish pizza and the newest James Bond movie, “No Time to Die.” I finished the day with 50,000 steps on my watch, a mark I hope to never surpass.

I was insistent that the race was my final one of my competitive career, and it sure felt like going out into the sunset. I came in with minimal expectations or goals and had as much fun traversing and conquering Chicago as I had enjoyed at any point during high school. Hearing the messages from my family, along with the presence of my friends, brightened my day even more, and it took only a couple days to get the photo of the five of us framed on my dorm room sink. 

Aside from the long run scares and the 20th and 22nd miles, the marathon experience exceeded my expectations and allowed me agency over how I run, and the pressure I allowed myself to take on. 

Plus, now when I call something a marathon and not a sprint, I’ll be able to back it up.

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