Last week, my wife and I were in Chicago for a brief holiday, leading up to the weekend during which my wife attended a continuing education seminar while I explored the city. It just happened to be the same weekend as the Chicago Marathon and the course wound its way near our hotel twice. I had been training a client to run Chicago as his first marathon and several of our local run club members would be running as well. So, I was excited to be able to see them and yell my support if, in fact, I was able to see them among the 40,000 plus runners. I was also hoping to see the elite runners and the wheelchair athletes, including Paralympian Tatyana McFadden from University of Illinois, my alma mater.
On one end of our hotel's short street was the approximately 6.5-mile mark and the other end was the approximately 8.5-mile mark. So, with a cinnamon roll and coffee in hand, I found a sunny spot on the corner and waited along with a few others. It was a bit chilly for watching, but nearly perfect for running. By listening to the crowd, watching the helicopters overhead, and checking Facebook, I was able to gauge the length of the wait until the fastest racers would be coming by. We first saw the elite male wheelchair racers, followed by the elite females. As a cyclist, I am impressed by the technology of their conveyances--the wheelchairs and the hand bikes. Additionally, I love seeing supposedly "handicapped" people succeed, in fact, excel. Having been a student at U of I during the peak of Jean Driscoll's athletic career and meeting other U of I wheelchair athletes, I became and have remained a fan of the sport. Soon after came the elite male runners. Wow! What a beautiful site! Fast, great form, ease...perfection. The females were not far behind and looked just as good. Impressive and inspiring to me as a runner, trying to go faster.
So, standing in one spot, it is just a parade of people passing by. I saw the wheeled racers and the elite runners. Then the fast age-groupers and experienced marathoners. They gradually got slower. Lots of intense faces, but lots of smiles too. I saw my client as he passed by, smiling and chatting away, looking good after his first 10k. Several people ran in costumes. I saw a lot of tutus and super heroes; one guy with some type of feathered headdress; another in a just a Speedo. I saw a joggler and Dean Karnazes. I have seen signs at races stating "Worst parade ever!" But, I was enjoying it.
I kept looking for my two run club friends, but was beginning to think I had missed them. After a quick visit to the hotel, I moved over to the other end of the street at the 8.5-mile mark and kept watching. I was nearly ready to give up when I looked up and saw them just as they passed me. So, I ran out yelling to them and joined them for about a quarter mile. I told them they looked great--they did!--and just chatted for a bit, wishing them luck as I went back to the crowd. Of course, I had to update our friends on Facebook, letting them know that I had seen them on the course and they looked good.
As I slowly made my way back the several blocks to my hotel, I continued to watch the marathoners go by. At this point, I noticed that the crowd had become much more diverse: more faulty gait patterns--limping even, more walkers, more overweight people, obvious orthopedic problems. Granted, I saw a variety of people throughout the morning, but the groups passing together were very similar earlier. Now, it was like watching the Island of Misfit Toys do a marathon. I do not say that to make fun, just to create an image. They did not look like runners.
My two club friends were running around the five-hour finish group and ultimately finished around 5:15. The people I am describing were behind them, finishing significantly after five hours. That is a long run. Personally, I have no desire to run that long (at this point). That sounds like torture! That is why I like to run fast and be done! I began thinking...these people are the warriors in this race. These are the really strong ones; the ones that have mental toughness. Talk about struggling and overcoming adversity!
The previous day, a friend/colleague/client ran her first 5k. She posted her accomplishment on Facebook, saying that finishing was winning for her. I had heard this before, but Sunday morning watching the race and recalling this, it was more poignant. This is probably what many of these folks were thinking, especially the "misfits."
As I said, I was inspired by the elites, but I expected that--a goal to work toward, striving for perfection, etc. And, I have been inspired by the wheelchair athletes too. However, seeing the tail end of the crowd was the most inspirational experience of the day. Those are the people I want to emulate. I do not pretend to know what they are thinking, but seeing their physical challenges I can guess how each of them might feel. And, they must be tough to overcome that.
I will continue to try to improve my performance--run faster and more efficiently, striving for perfection. I will also, and more importantly, try to be tough as a runner and as a person. I will strive to accomplish my goals even when faced with challenges, because if these back-of-the-pack marathoners can do it, so can I! And, so can you!