Illinois Marathon Recap: Mother Nature Won

Well, guys, it truly does seem the 26.2 distance is a big old jinx for this running mama. About three hours into the race — nearly 18 cold, windy and wet miles for me — runners of the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon yesterday were told to exit the course and take shelter because lightning had been sighted. So why, you may wonder, am I smiling in the picture below, which my hubby took right after I learned the race had been canceled? Because I kicked some serious butt for those 18 miles. I maintained a consistent pace, I felt great, and I absolutely, positively know I would have finished strong and met my time goal. It was a huge disappointment to not have the opportunity to cross the finish line, but the race officials made the choice they had to make to keep us all safe. 


The bright spot in all this, for me anyway, is the next picture, taken by one of my awesome running buddies (who drove two hours and stood in the rain to cheer me on). Look how happy I was during the race. And, really, isn’t that the point? I may not have earned a medal or scored the PR I have been chasing so desperately for the past year, but my victory is knowing I did my best.


Thank you so much for all your support during my training, for both Illinois and Portland. It has meant so much to me. I’m still super bummed about how yesterday turned out, but I know there will be other races. In fact, I’m figuring out my next one right now. Stay tuned.

How NOT to Run a Marathon

I met Karen shortly after the start of the race, both of us desperately bobbing and weaving to try to follow the pace group for a 4:40 finish time. It was difficult to talk as we struggled to keep sight of the red, lizard-shaped pace group sign above the sea of runners. But once the crowd thinned, we chatted easily. Karen, a thin, wiry, athletic woman with a weathered face and broad smile, told me this was her 18th marathon and then mentioned in passing that she would be 60 in three months. She immediately became my hero. As we settled into our pace, I learned she was battling a lingering cold and had chosen the 4:40 group because she wanted to start out slow (she finished the race in 4:12 the previous year), which had been my reasoning as well. I told her about the stomach issues plaguing me for the past three days and my fear they would prevent me from even reaching the start line, and we commiserated about the expected high of 80 degrees, a fluke for Portland, Oregon, which is known for cool, rainy Octobers. Unlike me, however, Karen seemed unfazed by any factors that might hinder her performance. “Every race has a story,” she said breezily.

Karen and I ran together for the first 10 miles or so, including most of a long, hot and tedious out and back through an industrial area. Around mile 11, though, the seemingly endless miles of direct sun brought me to what felt like a “mini-wall.” I struggled over another unexpected hill and began to worry about the terrain ahead. Although the race organizers bill the course as flat, that term, as I painfully learned, is relative. What a Pacific Northwesterner deems flat feels more like a constant stream of small to medium elevation changes to a Midwesterner like me. As I watched the red lizard sign disappear up ahead, I wondered if Karen, who lives in Seattle and is used to running hills, would remain with the 4:40 group. Unfortunately for me, the pace I thought would provide the easy, slow start I needed was now too fast for me to maintain.

With Karen gone and no friendly chatter to distract me, the dark thoughts began to set in. I only saw my husband four times on the course, despite his valiant efforts to reach me at other points (that should be a whole other post). During the first two sightings, in the early miles when the temperature was mild and I was still with Karen, I smiled happily, waved and told him I loved him. But when I saw him at mile 12 or so, alone, in pain and doubting myself, I burst into exhausted, panicky tears. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I told him. “There are so many hills. The heat – it’s killing me.” After a teary, sweaty hug and some reassuring words, he helped me exchange the empty bottles of Gatorade on my fuel belt for the full ones in his backpack and I was on my way. Seeing him grounded me enough to continue. Even if I have to walk, I thought, I will cross that finish line.

Over the next four boring, nondescript miles (at least they were pretty flat by my standards), I tried to focus on running a steady pace, but I knew what was coming. I could see it in the distance: the 2,067-foot steel suspension bridge that had been the bane of my existence for the past 20 weeks. The cramps in my feet, ankles and calves from all the elevation changes were already forcing me to stop to stretch or walk at times. St. John’s Bridge and the dramatic incline leading up to it seemed like almost insurmountable hurdles. As I approached the on ramp leading to the bridge, I noticed many runners stepping off to the side to walk. I summoned whatever shreds of stubborn pride I could and ran the incline without stopping. I thought about Karen. I wondered how her race was going, as I watched the 5:00 pace group pass me on the bridge. I barely noticed the view of fog-blanketed Mt. Hood as I plodded forward, all hopes of what I perceived as a decent finish dashed. This damn bridge is not going to take me down, I thought.

Oh, how wrong I was. The mini-wall I hit at mile 11 felt like cardboard compared with the concrete mega-wall I crashed into at the 30K mark. After my heroically stupid conquering of St. John’s Bridge, any uphill or downhill running – or walking – produced stabbing pains in my inner quadriceps. My shins and the fronts of my ankles burned, but I could stretch and walk it off. I could keep running. That didn’t work for the quad pain, and I was terrified. I began to seriously wonder if I would reach the finish line.

My husband magically appeared on the sidelines soon after I hit Wall No. 2, and I started to cry with relief the moment I saw him. “I’m really afraid I won’t finish,” I told him. “The bridge … the heat … the pain.” Once again he was my beacon, guiding me away from my fear and helping me believe in myself. “You have to think positive thoughts, Kath,” he said, hugging me tightly. I knew he was right, so I kept moving.

I don’t remember much of the last seven miles of the race. Marathon running is like childbirth in that respect: You block out the unpleasant parts afterward. My routine the rest of the way was pretty much to just run until the stabbing pain in my inner quads and the cramps in my shins, ankles and feet overwhelmed me, stop briefly to walk or stretch, and then push onward. The hills kept coming; there was even another damn bridge toward the end; and when I finally saw the finish line, my exact words were, “It’s about f—— time!” Yes, I said that out loud. Somehow I managed a negative split in the last mile. I think it was just because I wanted it to be over so badly.

I cried yet again when I saw my husband searching the crowd for me in the reunion area, happy to find him and overjoyed to be done. “You would have hated that race,” I told him. I wasn’t just trying to make him feel better about not being able to run it due to an injury. At that point, I did hate the race. It was nothing like what I expected: the decidedly not flat terrain, the brutal heat, the boring course. Even the smattering of crowd support hadn’t helped. A stranger half-heartedly yelling, “Go, Kathleen,” doesn’t do much to bolster your morale when your legs are searing with pain and you’re afraid you may not make it to the finish line – at least it didn’t for me.

When I started to tell him about Karen, whom I never saw again unfortunately, I began to view things differently. She was right: Every race does have a story. While mine was not pretty, it did teach me some valuable lessons about what not to do when training for a marathon. For one thing, don’t go into the race without a true understanding of the terrain (again, “flat” is a relative term depending on where you live). Also, don’t discount the importance of hill work (I have since vowed to incorporate a hill run into my schedule every week). And finally, the most important thing I learned: Don’t have rigid expectations (if 4:40 was my planned starting pace for a cool race, 5:00 may have been a better place to begin on such a hot day).


Best beer I ever tasted. I have never been so happy to finish a race.

After spending Monday shopping, eating and drinking our way through Portland (what a great city!), we headed back to Chicago on Tuesday. Despite my relatively good spirits after the race, the post-marathon depression hit me pretty hard the following morning as I prepared to go home and back to reality. Nothing had gone as planned, and I felt defeated and demoralized. After 20 weeks of hard work – I missed only one run and that was during the taper because of hamstring pain – I knew I was capable of so much more. My 20-miler had been so strong: 10:26 pace, mostly negative splits. I felt great afterward and even ran five miles the next day. Why had everything gone so miserably wrong during the actual race?

On the flight home, I wound up sitting next to another Portland Marathon finisher. After noticing his marathon shirt, I told him I had run it as well and asked how his race went. He told an all-too-familiar tale: The heat and hills exhausted him, he felt pain in muscles he didn’t know he had, his time was way off his goal, and he struggled just to finish. I am an almost 47-year-old mom with a beyond non-athletic build who never participated in sports and could not even run around the block until I was almost 40. He, meanwhile, is an incredibly fit 28-year-old who played college and professional basketball in France. But somehow, as crazy as it may seem, we shared the same story. You have no idea how much better that made me feel. Thank you, serendipity. I needed that.

In the five days since the race, I have run the gamut of emotions about my marathon experience finally coming to an end: joy, sadness, denial and acceptance. I seriously contemplated running another marathon in a month (that would be the denial phase) to prove to myself that I could improve my time, and I even managed to get my husband on board with the plan. Thankfully, I came to my senses, and the words of veteran marathoner Karen helped me. There will be other races. I have more stories to tell. The important thing is that I finished my second marathon and even eked out a tiny PR. I can view it as a failure because I didn’t meet the expectations I set for myself, or I can treat it as a lesson and do some things differently next time. I choose the latter. In fact, I’m already planning next year’s race schedule.


Thank you to everyone who followed my training journey over the past five months, listened to my ceaseless and obsessive ramblings, and lent me support along the way. You all made me feel like a winner.

Away We Go

Well, folks, the big day is almost here. My husband and I fly to Portland, Oregon, today, and on Sunday I will run the Portland Marathon. If – make that when – I get to mile 17, I will cross St. John’s Bridge, a 2,067-foot steel suspension bridge that spans the Willamette River. Here it is.

St. John's Bridge, Portland, Oregon (Source: The Fulton House)

St. John’s Bridge, Portland, Oregon (Source: The Fulton House)

This, meanwhile, is Arrowhead Bridge, the tiny suspension bridge I run across regularly in the small town where I live.

photo (26)

My daughter on our town’s teeny, tiny Arrowhead Bridge

As you might imagine, this Midwestern girl, who is used to pancake-flat terrain, is more than slightly intimidated by the idea of running St. John’s Bridge – especially at mile 17 of a marathon. I have thought about it constantly during the past 20 weeks of training, worrying that I won’t be able to handle the elevation, wondering if I will be forced to walk it as many marathon participants apparently do. My fear is if I walk at that point, I won’t be able to raise the momentum to start running again.

The other thing I have been obsessing about is the weather. When I signed up for the race last winter, the notoriously cool, crisp Portland temps in October were a huge draw. I knew there was a good chance it would be overcast and even rainy, and that didn’t bother me. I love running in the rain. What I do not love is running in hot, humid weather. When I saw the forecast for Sunday of full sun and a high of 81 degrees, let’s just say I was less than pleased. All I could think about was how hard it would be to maintain my goal race pace in those conditions. I have three goals for my finish time. I won’t list them here because I don’t want to jinx it. Let’s just call them “good,” “great” and “awesome.” After looking at that forecast, even “good” seems out of reach.

Here’s the thing, though, and it’s awfully hard to accept: No matter how much I would like to do so, I cannot predict what will happen during my race. There are so many factors over which I have no control: that damn bridge, the weather, potential injury, etc. All I can do is get myself to the start line as healthy and well-rested as possible and believe in my training. Instead of focusing on a goal time, I am going to concentrate on enjoying the experience (I hear the view from that big ol’ bridge is spectacular). When — not if — I cross the finish line, I will know I did my best. That’s all that matters.

Meet You at the Finish Line

I wasn’t one of the 37,455 runners who crossed the finish line of the Chicago Marathon this year. I registered for it. I even started training. But I couldn’t do it. Not this time around.

The year since my husband and I ran the 2011 marathon has been challenging for our family. We lost my aunt, the woman who raised me and was a grandmother to my children, and then I wound up out of a job. After two pivotal life changes within seven months, running another marathon moved to the bottom of my priority list.

My husband, meanwhile, stuck with it and ran the Chicago Marathon a second time. Even if I didn’t have the desire or motivation to run myself, I wouldn’t have missed being there to support him. I even dragged both our puffy-eyed, half-conscious children out of bed at 5:30 a.m. so the four of us could make the 45-minute journey from the South Suburbs to the city together.

I was excited for him as we piled into the car and he did his final gear check. But once we hit I-80, a lump of regret swelled in my throat. Why hadn’t I kept up with the training? Why had I given up so soon? Why had I let myself fail without even trying?

I had lots of excuses for dropping out of the race, some more valid than others. Before I lost my job, we planned two summer vacations, which meant I would miss a total of three weeks’ training and some of the longer, and most crucial, runs. But lots of marathon runners skimp a bit on training and still finish. A bigger problem was my foot, which started nagging me as the training schedule ramped up. After rupturing my plantar fascia 11 weeks into training the previous year, I worried the same or worse would happen again. What if I hurt my foot so badly that I couldn’t run anymore?

If I had truly wanted to run a second marathon, I would have ignored my aching foot with the help of a cortisone shot as I had done the previous year. My primary reason for quitting this time was that I no longer had the energy or the passion. When I lost my job six weeks into training, I knew it was over for me.

The morning of the race, dropping off my husband and watching him and thousands of other runners head toward the start line, was bittersweet. I wanted to be there to see him finish, set a new PR and feel the rush of personal victory. But I also itched to be out there with him, to experience the singular pride and joy of crossing that finish line one more time.

Before the 2011 race, my husband and I signed up for text alerts so we could track each other’s progress. I run much slower than he does normally, but because of my injury we weren’t sure if I would even finish. My longest training run had been the 16-miler when I hurt my foot.

We parted ways shortly after the race started, and I took it slowly and mile by mile. I didn’t have a time goal; I just wanted to finish. Right before mile 20, when I was exhausted and beyond doubting myself, I got a text that my husband had crossed the finish line. It was one of the best moments of the race for me; knowing he had made it carried me through my last six miles. When I crossed the finish line an hour after him, he was right there waiting for me.

This year I was determined to do the same for him.

I signed up for his text alerts so my kids and I could follow his path — or at least trace part of it. We met him with shouts of encouragement and a homemade sign near mile three and again just before the halfway mark. I wanted him to feel our support, but I also enjoyed reliving the thrills of the race.

About 20 minutes before his estimated finish time, we pushed our way through the crowd to the bleachers near the finish line. We needed just the right vantage point, and this was it: The kids could see over the adults in front of them, and my husband would be able to find us in the crowd.

When we spotted him after that final curve, my heart raced as we screamed his name. The look on his face when he saw us was pure joy, and it was as if I were experiencing those last 400 meters — the best part of the race, if you ask me — right by his side.

I wasn’t one of the 37,455 finishers at the Chicago Marathon this year. In fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever cross that or any other finish line again. Sometimes watching the person you love win and sharing in his happiness is enough. This year it was a victory for us both.

That guy in the blue shirt with his arms in the air is my marathon man husband, just before he crossed the finish line and set a new PR of 4:24:32.