Nothing in the real world is as beautiful as the illusions of a person about to lose consciousness.
– Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
I was at mile 10 when I realized my body wasn’t accepting any nutrition. No gels. No water. Nothing. The morning had been warmer than expected and race officials had been warning all runners for a week to be sure to take in plenty of fluids. At mile 6, I started feeling the heat of the day and decided to take a cup of Gatorade at an aid station. I never drink it, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. At mile 8, I took another. It would be the last thing I kept down for many miles.
Chicago is my hometown. When I moved to Portland and started running longer distances, I harbored a dream that I would one day return to Chicago, blast through the marathon, and lay down a personal record in front of all my friends and family. Fireworks would explode overhead, millions of spectators would cheer, and Deena Kastor would lay a kiss on my cheek at the finish line and tell me how inspired my race was. The course is flat, the weather is generally conducive to fast running, and the excitement of the crowd propels runners to greatness. When I got into the race via the lottery, I was stoked. This was going to be a glorious day.
I arrived in town several days before the race. I still work remotely for an office in Chicago, so it was nice to work amongst people for a few days. I enjoyed a couple of group runs with office friends and felt that my taper was going well. I didn’t sleep well leading up to the race, but I still felt relatively well-rested. Staying at other people’s homes, you never know what to expect. I was able to relax and enjoy my time back in Chicago during the week. The Cubs were in the playoffs, the weather was great, and it was fun to see so many familiar faces.
The morning of the race, I wasn’t hungry. I had some water and a gel, but no coffee or anything of real substance. My wife accompanied me to the starting line where I handed off my jacket and separated for the day, confident that we would be celebrating a great success together in a few short hours. She would be corralling our family and friends and organizing places to cheer and meet up afterward. I would be running the race of my life.
I found my corral easily and approached the 3:45 pace group. I was confident that I would run a sub-4 hour marathon. I had been training well, I was feeling fast, and I was totally healthy. Slowly but surely, the race started and each corral inched closer to the starting line. I was keeping my emotions in check; feeling very cool, calm, and ready.
I found myself cruising through the first mile. I was taking it easy and settling into my pace. Around 1 mile in, I spotted my wife and her friend cheering me on. I’m still not sure how I managed to see them. In the sea of millions of people, they stuck out and I was elated to spot them so quickly. Enjoying my pace and tooling around the city, I felt relaxed and comfortable. Eventually, I realized that I had outpaced the 3:45 crew and I had jumped to the 3:40 pace group. I wasn’t concerned yet. I wasn’t breathing heavy, I felt totally comfortable, and I have a history of going out quickly and trying to hold on in these races. I promised myself that I would walk a couple of aid stations down the stretch and that would allow the 3:45 group to catch up to me eventually. Still feeling great, I put the first hour behind with a smile.
Then, the Gatorade. I had convinced myself at some point in the first 6 miles that I would do well to combat the coming heat with some electrolytes. Never mind that the Gu gels I brought along had electrolytes and that I was still moving comfortably. I thought that if I hydrated with this stuff early, I could just sip water down the stretch. I was mistaken.
At the mile 12 aid station, I rushed to a portable toilet off to the side of the course. Everything I had ingested for the last hour was coming back up. I barely made it into the toilet. I don’t enjoy throwing up. I rarely do it. I never puke while running. This was an uncomfortable, rare occurrence that I couldn’t explain. I got it together, calmed myself down, and headed for the aid station. A man there refilled my handheld water bottle for me and I looked up just in time to see the 3:45 pace group turning the corner about 100 feet in front of me. For a split second, I felt relief that I was still on pace to hit my goal.
Then a funny thing happened. I tried to accelerate to rejoin my pace group, but my body wouldn’t do it. The adventure in the portable toilet had taken so much out of me, that my energy was totally sapped. I wasn’t about to try eating anything just yet, but I had to try something. I took a sip off my water bottle and realized it was coming right back up. I had no choice. I started walking. Every time I tried to run, the water was trying to rise up out of my stomach again. After about 100 steps, I was able to get moving again. I turned the corner and heard a mess of people screaming my name. I looked over to see more than half a dozen friends cheering me on. I mustered a wave and a half smile. I was determined to press on, but my dreams of the day were fading fast.
I was still tailing my original pace group when I crossed the halfway checkpoint. My friend back in Portland was following along with my race. I recently bought a Garmin watch that syncs with my phone. A text came through from my friend saying, “Wow 3:45! good job!” That was followed by another text that said, “oh, that’s your estimated time. keep going!” Despite the well wishes and good intentions, I knew I was in trouble. I had hit a new kind of wall. I had slammed into it at full speed and without the ability to take on nutrition of any kind, I had no way to recover.
I went through my options in my head while I headed west toward the United Center area turnaround. I could quit. “Sure, that’s always an option,” I thought. “Fly 2,000 miles just to quit the race you’ve been training all year for.” I could fire up the Jeff Galloway method. Wouldn’t that be a fun way to move for the next 13 miles? Just walk a mile, run a mile, walk a mile, run a mile. “With any luck, you’ll finish around 4pm.” Not an option. So then, shuffle to the finish? “Shuffle to the finish.”
I was able to keep my sights on the 3:45 pace group for most of the westward section. I think I lost them around mile 15. I was walking through an aid station and considering drinking some water at mile 16 when the 3:50 pace group passed me by. They didn’t just slowly move past me. It felt like they were sprinting. I could feel wind coming off of them as they blew past me. I felt like I was standing still. I found some shade to run in for the next mile or two and was able to keep a close eye on this group. Eventually, I succumbed to my roaring stomach and drank some water.
At mile 17, I saw my family for the first time. They were cheering and screaming my name as I plodded through Greektown. They had made signs and it was like a vision. They’ve never seen me race before and the excitement of that moment carried me the next mile as I finally felt my energy coming back to me.
Each time I drank, I had to walk for almost a quarter of a mile before I was able to safely run again without vomiting. At mile 18, I made the bold choice to drink while I was running. Within 20 steps, I found myself holding on to a dumpster in an alley, throwing up behind it. I didn’t even make it to a portable toilet this time. I felt blackness surrounding me and I could barely stand. It took me a minute to compose myself. I was sure that I would black out at any moment. I slowly walked back to the road, seeing stars. I gradually picked up speed. And soon, I was at a slow trot. Pushing once again for the finish line.
At mile 19, I watched helplessly as the 3:55 pace group whizzed past and disappeared from sight. It took less than 5 minutes for them to sneak past me and vanish. In the next few miles, the 4 hour pace group would catch me and pass me. At this point, I was in a race with myself. My personal best is 4:11 in the marathon. I was losing confidence that I could still beat that number, but I had to try.
At mile 22, I made a deal with myself. No more water. No more nutrition of any kind. I was going to finish this race on guts. I wouldn’t walk again. I wouldn’t let negative thoughts into my head. And I was going to finish this race with some semblance of pride. I picked up my feet, I started driving my quads more, and for the first time in many miles, I started to hear the crowd again. At this point, it was about the experience of running in Chicago. It was about seeing my hometown from different angles; gaining new perspectives.
The crowd was incredible. The volunteers were encouraging and hard-working. The sky was beautiful. The roads were clean and smooth. And as I pushed through these last 4 miles, I felt reinvigorated. It was difficult. I was digging deeper than ever before. I focused on my breathing. “One step at a time” became my everlasting mantra. And as I turned the final corner and hit the last uphill before the finish line, I knew I was in trouble again. I was pushing so hard and so determined, that I had stopped paying any attention to what was happening in my body. At this point, it was impossible to ignore.
I finished the race, I received my medal, I found a shady spot in the grass, and I collapsed.
I’m not sure how long I was there for. I was awakened by my phone vibrating. I answered to hear my wife asking where we could meet up. I thought I was in a public area, but I must have still been in a secure post-race spot. We agreed on a meeting point about 300 yards away and I told her I would need some time to gather myself before meeting them.
Probably 20 minutes later, I started stumbling toward them. Every few steps, I stopped to keep from vomiting. Eventually, I was overcome, but I made it to a portable toilet. I felt a crack in my chest this time. This was the most violent experience I’ve ever had in a port-a-potty and not one I’d like to repeat anytime soon. As I stood there, my phone vibrated again. I answered and said I’d be out shortly. I composed myself, wandered out and started stumbling for the exit. For a second, I saw medical personnel keeping a close eye on me. Just about the time they were starting to move in my direction, a man 25 feet away collapsed and they sprinted to him.
I made it to the exit fine and within 100 feet, I started feeling better. By the time I found my family and friends, I was feeling great. My strength was coming back, my stomach had settled down, and there were no signs of the issues that had plagued me all day. My wife handed me a coconut water, I posed for photos with everyone, and we jumped on the Brown Line to head back to the apartment. The rest of the day was easy. I spent it hanging out in the city, enjoying time with family and friends, eating everything I saw and generally feeling great.
My final time was 4:14:32. Not my best attempt, but better than my worst marathon finish by more than a minute. I was disappointed that I missed all of my goals, but proud of my overall effort. This was the worst adversity I’ve faced during a race. My takeaways are pretty simple. Eat something for breakfast. I wasn’t hungry, but even a handful of cereal would have made a difference. Don’t eat anything on race day you haven’t tried during training. I usually don’t drink electrolyte drinks. The Gatorade was so sweet, I knew almost immediately that it was a bad idea for me. I should have stuck with water. I might still have had nausea issues, but I can’t imagine they would have been that severe.
As for the marathon itself, it was a wonderful time. The expo was great, the city is amazing, the race officials were helpful, and the volunteers were incredible. I doubt that I’ll ever experience another feeling that rivals being cheered on by millions of spectators. Running in front of my friends and family was a special bonus that I didn’t take for granted. As satisfied as I am, I’m excited for my next venture. I’m transitioning to trail and endurance racing. I’ll be toeing the line at my first 50k in less than 24 hours. Writing about Chicago in the lead-up to this next race has been cathartic. I’ve trained well, I’ve worked hard, and now it’s time to correct the mistakes I’ve made previously.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll be eating something for breakfast.