What I Learned from Quitting the Chicago Marathon

As I am on the road, today’s post is brought to you by Maggie. Hope you enjoy!

A little over a year ago, in the throes of finishing graduate school, leaving my long time corporate job, finding myself at a crossroads in life, and general “Fuck I’m in My Twenties” angst, I decided to run the Chicago Marathon. “How hard could this be?” I thought. “I just successfully completed a half marathon, I don’t have a job, or a boyfriend—I should have plenty of time to train.”

Well, it turns out that one doesn’t actually need a job or a boyfriend to find plenty of activities that are more appealing than marathon training. Concerts, weekends away, going to the movies just to be in the air conditioning…the days were just packed. I knew I was in trouble when, early on in training, I was scheduled to run 9 miles, which in my then-state of post-half marathon relative fitness, should not have been a make-or-break distance. 9 miles was a fun distance—an accomplishment but not a back-breaker. What, then was the problem? The problem was that on 9 mile Saturday, I wasn’t at home in nice flat Chicago, but rather I was in Begur, Spain — a small town in the Costa Brava. Narrow streets, heavy traffic, unforgiving hills…it wasn’t a locale conducive to long-distance running. “Oh well!” I thought, “I’ll eat tapas and look out at this Mediterranean sunset  instead of running this week, but next week I’ll be back in Chicago, I’ll do 10 and I’ll be back on track.”

Spoiler alert: that’s just really not how training for a marathon works.

Not that I’m complaining about having been in Begur, one of the most gorgeous spots on the surface of Planet Earth; I’m just saying that forces conspired against me.

As the summer wore on and my near-total failure to stick with my training program because more and more apparent, my guilt, angst, and embarrassment turned even short runs into nightmarish sessions of sweat and self-recrimination. There were still the occasional moments of transcendence—gorgeous views of Chicago from the lake path, miles that slip by unnoticed when you’re in “the zone”—that got me excited about running in the first place, but the experience overall had been tainted by the fact that I was about to Fail at the Marathon.

When the day came, I decided I was going to go out there and do my best. I’ve always loved the marathon as a spectator, found it to be one of the most joyful days to live in the community of Chicago, and I decided to let my love of the event carry me through as many miles as I could muster. At the starting line, I still carried some of my guilt at being unprepared—felt a bit of a fraud. Once we got started, though, that was forgotten. I was fully taken up in the spirit of the day, the spectators, and the gleeful energy of my fellow runners. Training got me through the first 8 miles, the support of spectators got me through the next 4, and previously-untapped stores of gumption got me through 3 more. At mile 15, I thought “well, this was a lot further than I expected to make it, I think it’s time to go.”

So what happens when you quit the marathon? For one thing, everyone is incredibly nice to you. You approach a medical tent, where you are greeted by medical professionals who are volunteering their time (which is so wonderful of them). They make sure you’re ok. You assure them that you’re fine, you’re just ready to quit now. They tell you that you did a great job and made it further than they could have. You are grateful for this validation but still feel sad that you’ve so totally botched your first (only? That’s a question for another post) marathon.

The other quitters and I were put on a school bus to take us back to Grant Park. The mood on the bus is subdued, some people are clearly physically hurting. Others are hurting in spirit. A woman behind me talked about how she hadn’t gotten enough sleep, how she knew when she started the race that she wasn’t going to make it. Her voice was emotional. I wanted to get up in the front of the bus and shout to everyone “Hey! Don’t be sad about this! We did something great! Celebrate the miles you did finish! This bus should be a party right now! YO THE FIRST DUDE TO DO THIS DIED, LET’S TRY TO PUT THIS IN PERSPECTIVE.”

But serious runners tend to be pretty serious people. Maybe THAT’S where I went wrong, way before that Saturday in Begur; I’m just not serious enough for the marathon. Not yet, anyway.

In spite of falling short, I’m still glad I went out to race that day. That 15 miles deepened love for my city, for my fellow runners, and most especially for the kind, capable, volunteers and staff who made me feel like my accomplishment mattered. They (the inspirational memes that collect on “fitness” Pinterest boards) say that in racing, the only person you’re really trying to beat is the voice inside that says you can’t do it. They’re right.


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Filed under Chicago, Reflections, Running

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