After one last turn from East Roosevelt Road onto Columbus Drive, finally, I saw the finish line. About 30 seconds earlier, I would have expected it to be much further down, closer to the starting line. This would have meant that this torture would have dragged on for another 30 seconds, possibly even a minute. But here it was, just a stone’s throw away, the finish line of the 35th Chicago Marathon. Many people were lined up behind the barricades on each side, multiple levels deep, cheering for the runners, like they had done so the last 26 miles. I raised both arms in the air, signaling the crowd to make even more noise to carry us over the line, and then, finally, after 3 hours 45 minutes and 58 seconds to be exact, it was done. My first marathon.


About 5 hours earlier, I had found myself walking from my hotel to the starting area in Grant Park, in chilly mid 30 degrees temperatures. A stark contrast to previous years, when athletes had to suffer under significant heat during the day. The thermometer only made it up to the high 50s this Sunday in early October of 2012 and turned it into almost perfect running conditions.

Of course, in the early morning, having just crawled out of the warmth of the immensely comfy hotel bed, the conditions did not resemble anything remotely related to the word “perfect.” It was just cold, and I longed to wrap myself in the blanket in the hotel room and enjoy a lazy Sunday in the Windy City. But quite to the contrary, this Sunday was anything but lazy. And the thousands of other runners making their way down to Grant Park with me were the perfect proof. “Who are these people? Where are they going?” could have been the questions passersby could have asked while spotting the crowds descending into the park.

“Almost like a Woodstock for runners,” I thought to myself.

After dropping the last bits of layers that kept me warm at the gear check and a last pit stop to empty the bladder before the race, I found myself in my start corral. Right next to me, a guy wearing Vibram FiveFingers. They seemed worn out, so I figured he must have some experience doing long-distance runs in those…shoes, if you can call them that. It turned out that this was his fourth marathon, and he was hoping to beat his 3:44 time from the previous year. The US anthem sounded through the PA and then, preceded by Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, at 7:30, it was time to go. I wished my partner in crime next to me good luck, and we went on our journey through Chicago with about 38,000 other like-minded individuals. Or crazy people. Depends on the perspective.

On the way

“The course is like a plus sign, with the right part cut off because of Lake Michigan. It’s kinda hard to run on water”, one of the speakers on stage at the marathon expo on Saturday noted.

The Chicago Marathon is one of the five World Marathon Majors, together with Boston and New York in the US, as well as London and Berlin in Europe, but what makes it most attractive to runners are 2 things: 1) You don’t have to qualify for it, register early, and you are in and 2) A very flat course. The only indications of something like a hill come about when crossing one of the 7 bridges over the Chicago River along the route.

But what makes this event even more extraordinary are the spectators. And they were out there. Thousands of them, cheering for a family member or a friend participating, but also for the complete strangers that took on this challenge. There was the guy offering free cups of beer, the guys with the foam hands for high-fiving, the people who brought a box of water bottles to hand out to runners, an Elvis impersonator, a military group doing rifle acrobatics and people with signs like “You have a lot of stamina. Call me.”, “Run if you are horny,” “You inspire me,” and “I am proud of you, complete stranger.” Combined with the random high-fiving, the loud music at certain spots along the way, the aid stations (which were well staffed, stocked, and organized), and the occasional “you got this” from somewhere in the crowd was exactly what was needed to carry one through moments of pain and giving up and questioning your sanity.

The crowd was a mixed bunch, and the runners were even more so. “Runs on plants,” I read on the back of a shirt of a small-built woman. “There will come a day when you can’t do this anymore. Today is not that day”, was the inspirational statement on another. I encountered runners from Brazil, overheard a German chatting with a Dutch guy behind me, runners from Mexico and France, and even blind runners, supported by at least 2 guides, directing them through the course.

Digging deep

It was tough. Oh my god, it was tough. Especially after 20 miles, when lots of runners hit the wall, people find it very hard to continue. In my case, the hamstrings and quad muscles tightened up more and more until every step was painful. I slowed down, and my splits over the last 4 miles are proof of that. I passed a few people who decided to walk and/or stop and stretch. I was hoping to avoid muscle cramps or any similar pain so severe that it would keep me from finishing now that I was so close.

The last 2 miles felt like 10, an insurmountable distance. But getting closer to the finish line, there were even more people on the sidelines; it was the point where you had to dig deep for one last time. The sun was up. One last right turn onto Roosevelt Road. A slight uphill and a pat on a fellow runner’s back, who had trouble with his hamstrings and was walking. The last left turn onto Columbus Drive. Oh my god, there is the finish line. Come on, people, make some noise. And…done!

Apart from the thrill of finishing, I don’t even recall my first thoughts afterward. I believe they gravitated towards “food,” “drink,” and “medal”, not necessarily in that order. After collecting the finishers medal, which it turned out I was lucky to get, and being handed a space blanket for warmth, I had to sit down for a while and bath in both the sunlight and the joy of having just completed my first marathon. Physically and mentally very challenging, but oh so rewarding when you make it across that finish line.

Happiness…with a pinch of pain

As with many other runners who weren’t from the Chicago area, I had to make my way to the airport later that day, and because I can be frugal sometimes, I chose the CTA Blue Line to O’Hare ($2.25 one way beats every cab ride, plus it’s environmentally friendly). On the subway and then later on the plane, I remember having this unusual boost of confidence, being proud that I had accomplished something that, a couple of years ago, I could not imagine ever undertaking. “I just ran a marathon today. What did you do?” I wanted to shout out to people, which I didn’t.

Taking off from O’Hare later that night, I was sitting in my window seat; looking out into the darkness, I felt delighted, happy, and grateful for what was a lifetime experience. And despite, or maybe because, of all the soreness and pain I felt at that moment all over my legs, it made me feel very much…alive.