Why do all the epic stories hide their beginnings from me? Too many divine moments? Too much bliss? Too great a life altering experience?
And so I begin from the middle. An exchange from somewhere in the midst of the 2018 Chicago Marathon, that race with which I’ve had a bone to pick for two incredibly introspective years:
‘I’m feeling really good right now. I feel so much better than the last time I got to this point. Then again I’m a different person than I was last time.
‘You’re a different runner than you were last time.’
And if there were no rest of the story you will still know what the whole story is. This is what relentless forward progress looks like. This is how it plays out.
I am this runner now.
And so that faux beginning takes us where?
Maybe to 'much ado about nothing' re the shovel issue of my last blog. Or maybe 'veni vidi vici redux'. With extra flair and a splash of hot Pilsen salsa on top.
How about not bronze, not silver, not gold, but platinum goal crushed? How about not 6:26:45 in agony but 5:29:08 grinning with a sprint finish? Yes THAT. That sounds about right. That was the payback alright. Every gym session, every mile run and limped, every sore calf and strained hip flexor, every therapist thumb jammed into my psoas, every session at running school, every muddy hill and full toe blister and twinged back from opening a window and shifting a table all boiled down to five hours, twenty nine minutes and eight seconds of the most blissful run I've ever completed. Bar none.
A 21 minute PB (and the irony of the precise 21 certainly not lost on me) before receiving my medal from The Paula and retrieving my collectible Goose Island. Run with my Chicago friend Dave (and what IS it about you people called Dave and epic support?!) we (as he coined it later) the mutual aid society, him needing me to keep on the brakes at the start to help manage a knee injury for the duration, me needing him and his 30 years worth of marathon experience to drag me out of the depths and spur me onward to that epic finish. And he politely requested and secured from the volunteers that beer I missed out on two years ago. Two beers. So many bananas. The back of the pack, true, but...further forward.
In the thick of it.
Oh man, I love the thick of it. This thickness I need to see more often, there's a party up in there.
I had the absolute time of my life. Who knew that running a marathon could be this much fun? Maybe in the grand scheme of things, this running lark is no lark at all, maybe it's the actual flame beneath me, boiling the blood in my veins. Because how many times during that (under!!!!) five and a half hours did I think, and speak aloud the words 'Gah! I love running', and 'this is AWESOME' and danced and laughed and felt bliss the very same way in which bliss was invented to be felt. This. This is why we do this thing. This is why I will never ever stop, until time or age or whatever decides I've had enough, and insists that I do.
This is what I came for.
But it all started at the start, and to the start is where I will go next. A four am start, mind. I'm no fan of four but there I awoke with hair akimbo, grinning, dressed in the Samurai shirt I wear before every big race and ready to get my revenge on that now distant 6:26:45 and a PB of 5:50:08 just waiting to go down.
I wasn't staying anywhere near the transportation I'd planned to take downtown - the local train had been Plan A but there was such a limited supply of return times I swapped over to Chicago's tube: the L, Rosemont Station to be precise. Easily a 20 minute drive but somehow (yeah, right) I left late and, following a few wrong turns, I didn't board as soon as I wanted to.
But board I did and eventually tumbled out at Jackson station, letting the swarm carry me to Grant Park. The air was absolutely electric, and despite the weather being overcast, puddles everywhere and more rain on the way I couldn't spot a negative vibe anywhere in the vicinity. This was the Chicago Marathon after all! After a brief live Facebook post as I walked to the entrance, I made my way through the security queue, trying to explain the wifi dongle in my pocket but couldn't remember the American term (they call it a personal hot spot over there, lesson learned!) and moved on to ask where the hospitality tent was. She told me I went in the wrong entrance and I should go in the next entrance over. Or I could try to go through but they were closing things up as the race was starting.
Piffle and balderdash I wasn't about to endure that queue again so zipped around the corner and without any further issue checked in and stepped inside. I'd booked it remembering the lengthy toilet queues near the corrals last time and so glad I did, it was warm, lots of food, broadcast of the race's start, very quiet private gear check and not a loo queue in sight. Well worth the cost IMO. So I got settled in and in keeping with the unhealthy fuelling theme I'd adopted during the week (Giordano's pizza followed by all the crap in Chicago that I miss, followed by Lou Malnati's deep dish for two days) I found a can of Mountain Dew and ingested half of it for the caffeine buzz. Few pieces of fruit and before I knew it they were calling corral L out to the start area.
To my great delight I'd felt that my Pops was very much with me since I arrived in Chicago. One of the pitstops I wanted to make when in town but never had time to do was to go to the old softball diamond where I used to play. I called it a wash and didn’t expect to get there, so imagine my delight to see a baseball diamond to my left on exiting the tent. First of many looks upward yesterday with a grin and a nod. I hear you, Pops. I always do.
I had planned to meet my old boss and today’s running mate Dave in the corral and to ensure we found each other in case the dongle didn't work I bought a fake flower and fixed it to the fence. No sooner did I text my whereabouts than I heard him calling out my old nickname 'Queen Maxine!!' and shortly thereafter we began the shuffle towards the start. The rain was pretty persistent so the bin bag went on in haste. The usual feeling of needing the loo before hand and we made a dash out and back to the corral somehow positioning ourselves in the 4:55 pacer area! Um thatwouldbeno, so we stayed to the side as the throngs went by. The buildings made it impossible to get a signal on Garmin (which would be screwy all day as expected) but his phone worked so on it went and so we started to ride on this fantastic voyage.
I had debated bringing my Pops the flower afterwards but decided I'd rather not hold it for the duration so started looking for an appropriate 'kid on shoulders' to give it to. Didn't take long and the grin she and her Dad gave me set the tone for the day. A celebration of a beautiful city, everyone coming together with shared purpose, no animosity, no politics other than some great signs (one saying 'run like Kavanaugh is behind you' - I sprinted a bit of course, one saying 'Trump is a c---', and the ever popular 'wave if you're not wearing underwear') Bonkers. Exuberant. Chicago, I love you, you beauty.
Dave got rolling thanking the police along the route for the security, the volunteers for their work, and the epic crowds for their support, and I joined in. As the miles went on and the rain cleared up the crowds grew and grew. I couldn't believe how many people were around but then too I'd never been that far along in a marathon before in that amount of time! I’ve never been privy to seeing the party up there.
With every turn I recounted how I was feeling far better than 'the last time I came through here'. We exchanged a fair few stories and caught up throughout, run-walk-running 5:1 which was the first time I tried that for a full marathon. And by God it worked like a charm. Of course as the mileage went up we started to see people over the side of the road, stretching, easing cramps, tight muscles, strains, all those back of the pack ailments. I saw them, but didn't join in. Not this time. I had no need. And we kept going. My greatly feared back pain simply never showed up, and despite my left leg sort of aching for the duration by the halfway point I was feeling pretty good. Knowing this was the precise point I was forced to start walking in 2016, this time I had other plans. I looked over at Dave and said 'two words for you...' He said 'half way?' I shook my head.
And so with an exchange of grins the gauntlet was set and we charged on and on and on. Laughing, dancing, high fiving, now into Pilsen at 20 miles and I was blown away by the festival atmosphere, so different from the ghost town my last go around, those two long and painful years ago. Every few paces another song, another mini party, more smiles, immeasurable joy. This. THIS is what I came for. I went live on Facebook to share it with you. I wanted you all there. By God you all WERE there. James Brown didn't have a thing on me. I felt better than he could even sing about.
I’d seen a great quote on the marathon Facebook page a couple of days prior which said ‘remember the marathon is 20 miles of hope and six miles of truth.' Too right it is. As I started to withdraw into my head just to retain focus on keeping it steady, from the side comes 'looking strong QM'. Always a prompt when I needed it. 'Hey they have frozen grapes!' Always upbeat. Just having fun. And so we drove on and on, Dave going out of his way to high five the spectators, me doing terrible maths trying to calculate our pace, laughing at my complete inability to multiply accurately. His phone telling us my 5:30 was in reach. He'd said matter-of-factly earlier if it was doable at the final stretch we would be going for it. Ok. Ok, we’re on track. It’s going down. We pressed on.
I'd been looking forward to the turn down Michigan Avenue we'd taken last time I ran Chicago, and he knew it well so reminded me when it was coming. But as we hooked around we discovered they'd rearranged the course and we turned another way! Arrrrrgh! Fortunately only a brief S curve followed before we eventually made our way around. Michigan Avenue. Straight on. This is where it all ends. To the end, turn right up that little hill and...
... not quite there yet but now we are hitting Parkrun territory, onward, onward, onward. Shoulders back, tight core, push push. (Believe believe.) It's late in the game. Feeling a few blisters, feeling the IT bands threatening. I'd pulled a packet of Biofreeze out earlier and just by holding it the pain has receded. A mental game indeed.
To my left, a sign...in many more ways than one. ‘You’re almost at Oakton.’ Oakton. A street name, the one I grew up in. Nowhere near downtown Chicago. Why else this sign? Now? So says my Pop: ‘you’re almost home. Go.’ I go.
Dave's telling me pace, telling me we are going to get the 5:30, no thirtysomething about it but we are going to get the 5:30. Head down, digging deep now. The shovel is big enough. It's huge. It's been chewing up the terrain since about 15. Jim told me to stand up and fight like hell so I am. I hear the pinging and announce that the Buzzer tribe is urging us on. Go go go. I have to walk for a puff on the inhaler; these intervals are getting longer. We are charging ahead. This hurts like hell.
(I know. Go.)
Dave's shoe unties, he says keep going. I go.
I see to my left a throng of Special Olympics Chicago supporters, and the perfection of timing! There's me applauding them in gratitude for their presence there, then, and I'm searching, searching, searching...there! There is a boy with Down syndrome, smiling and cheering and I HAVE to engage with him. Oh the timing! I have to turn away for a second and when I turn back I see him sending a heart my way with his hands. I grin widely and send one back, no longer looking where I'm going and accidentally manage to crash into a boy at the roadside. I’m so sorry! You ok mate?! He's embarrassed and I see he’s OK. We part, I press on.
Dave's shoe back in action, now we aren't going to stop for a walk again, this is business. I hit the corner at Roosevelt, and that shortest of all hills is Everest. I shout as I did last time 'I'm TURNING! I'm TURNING!' Only it’s nothing at all like last time because there are throngs of people lining the ramp now.
Dave is slightly ahead of me, turning back every so often to see me up the hill. All my body wants to do is stop. Not in life. The mind is in charge now. You just keep moving and never try to understand how you do it.
We round the final corner, and there are people in the bleachers. This is not a ghost town. The party is on and I've made it in time. Around us aren't the silent grimaces of the walking wounded, this is a pack mostly still running. We are still running.
Then Dave is shouting '200 metres!' Onward onward, I see the 100 sign and hear in my head ‘go Maxine, you just bloody GO!!’ and 'minute and thirty seconds!!!' coming from my left.
I knew he’d stay with me so without any warning whatsoever, I put the pedal down. I mean I smashed it. When they say you run with your heart, well...
It was a Libby-in-Snowdonia sprint finish for sure and I wish to hell I had a video because I felt like I was actually flying. I was absolutely legging it and next thing we’re over the line, arms aloft and I hear ‘5:29! We did it!’
We only bloody went and did it.
Here’s me on a plane, full length skins on. I’ve got three weeks to recover for Snowdonia. I’ve never done a marathon as a long run before a marathon but then again I’ve never before hit a race goal so hard between the eyes it exploded.
This is all new. After all, I’m a different runner now.
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