My clothes were set out like a fireman’s. My favorite pink shorts, faithful grey tank top, a pair of well-worn socks, and my running shoes. We pinned 29594 to the front of my shirt and looped the timing chip through the laces of my shoes. I wanted to minimize any surprises in the morning. The alarm was set for 4.30, but I lay awake a good part of the night, just waiting for morning, waiting to run. Four and a half months and 581 miles of training were stored up in these legs. It was still dark when we arrived in downtown Chicago, but the sidewalks already were teeming with people. When the sun arose, 45,000 runners were corralled into the starting area like cattle going to market, so tightly jammed together that there were people as far as I could see in front of me and behind, too close together to even lean over and re-tie my shoes. The gun went off, but it was a full eleven minutes before I even reached the starting line. It was like being caught in the current of a fast moving river.
A marathon is a grueling endeavor which takes you to your limits, and sometimes beyond that. It is a surreal journey through a canyon of cheering crowds and on roads sticky with Gatorade. In Chicago,the pavement rolls through an endless tour of ethnic communities vying for attention: China Town, Little Italy, the Polish neighborhood, and the Hispanic barrios, people shouting, singing, and cheering absolute strangers. People came out of their houses with little cups of water and dripping bags of ice. One man handed out popsicles from a plastic bag, a woman and child offered fig newtons on a paper plate, and an old man joyously sprayed water on the sweaty runners out of his green garden hose. The last six miles was littered with runners who struggled even to walk to the finish. This time, that was me.
My excitement surged when I realized near the half-way point that I was on pace for a Boston qualifying time. And then, within another few miles, the wheels began to fall off my wagon. I began to slow down, a couple of blocks at a time, gradually to a walk. My legs had cramped up to a point that I struggled to run at all. I walked a little and ran a little. I tricked myself to keep going, “Just run until the next corner…or the next traffic light…or the next water stop.” There came a time when I thought it was over. I stopped altogether at the aid station at mile 20. I lay face-down on a cot drenched in the sweat of other runners and I did not even flinch. A volunteer placed large bags of ice on my legs. She offered me some water. Minutes passed. “Well, we can get you on the transport bus back to the finish,” she said. And I lifted my head. I was down, but I wasn’t out.
That old familiar voice of stubbornness that has pushed me into a lot of trouble through the years shouted at me, “You came 20 miles just to ride a bus back????” I gulped down the water, limped back on the course, and shuffled and ran the last six miles. I finished. Pathetically, to be sure, but I finished. And when I crossed the finish line, I raised my arms as if I won a gold medal in the Olympics.
I came home with a finisher’s medal and a few more lessons in marathon running.
Problems: As in life, I should have admitted earlier when I needed help. Most problems don’t just go away on their own or dissolve with pride. A big glass of water earlier in the race would have kept me going.
People: A running buddy in a race (or life) makes a significant difference. At mile 10, one of my daughters jumped in to run with me for a few miles. Because I was having problems, she ended up encouraging me for 16 miles. She wore a hand-lettered tank top that said, “Cheer for Karen,” with an arrow pointing toward me. And total strangers became my personal cheering squad.
Pressure: As in your teenage years, peer pressure runs rampant in a race. I started out too fast, and it caught up with me. Always run YOUR pace, no matter what others are doing.
Perspective: One of the sights that kept me running that day was seeing a teenage boy in a wheelchair with a microphone and loud speaker, cheering on runners he didn’t even know.
Prize: Keep your eyes on what really counts. Years ago, a friend of ours went to Europe to race bicycles. He didn’t do well against the other cyclists. But he learned one thing far more valuable: “God doesn’t need us to win to bring Him glory.”
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,
let not the mighty man glory in his might,
let not the rich man glory in his riches,
but let him who glories
glory in this,
that he understands and knows Me,
that I am the LORD…