11 min read

My First Marathon

I heard a story once about a woman who had lost something like 100 pounds, decided to run a marathon, and finished with a time over 6:00. After the race she encounters the Kenyan man who won first place with a time of 2:05. She tells him her story and says, “You are such an inspiration to me.” He replies, “No ma’am, it is you who inspires me… I can’t imagine running for six hours.”

I ran the Chicago marathon today. It took me over five hours, but I finished, and it was amazing.

I’ve wanted to run a marathon for a while. My guess is that it got put on the bucket list primarily because “I ran a marathon” is a cool thing to drop into conversation for the rest of my life. But there was more to it than that. I’ve never been that good at setting and achieving goals. For a bunch of my life I was all hare and no tortoise. Short bursts of productivity, but not a lot of sustained effort. I’m better today. Much better. But it’s still not my strong suit, making a consistent measured effort across a sustained period of time.

I also wanted to be strong when our daughter arrives. Rachel’s been going through a bit of a marathon of her own for the last eight months. We feel like we’ve been traveling on parallel journeys. Months of preparation and discomfort culminating in an arduous event of endurance that dumps a ton of endorphins into your system and then leaves you immobile for a few days. I clearly got the better deal, but training for a marathon has given me more empathy for what she’s going through than I would have been otherwise capable.

When signed up back in April, my goal was:

  1. Finish the marathon
  2. Run faster than a 4:00
  3. Lose ten pounds.

A friend put me onto the Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer based off “The Marathon Class” at University of Northern Iowa. 98% of the students who have taken the class have passed the final by finishing a marathon at the end of the semester despite a prerequisite of having never run a distance greater than five miles.

The book argued that finishing a marathon has the potential to be one of the greatest accomplishments of your life, and that attaching ancillary goals runs the risk of turning that victory into a defeat by, say, missing your entirely arbitrary target time by five minutes. “Finish your first marathon. Worry about time in your second.” I dug that advice, dropped the two other goals, and set my sites on simply finishing.

Nine years ago, a year after I moved to Chicago, I ran the Shamrock Shuffle. It’s a five mile race through downtown that kicks off the running season. Amazing race. Great for first time runners. Gives you a reason to exercise in the last weeks of winter. When I started training for the Shamrock I could barely run two miles, and it had taken me months to get there. I still smoked half-a-pack a day back then.

But I finished the race. It was one of the first things to go right for me after I failed out of school. My journal entry on that day just says, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you…” forty times over. But when I crossed the finish line, I couldn’t fathom doing that distance 2.5 more times for a half marathon. And when I ran my first half with Rachel, I couldn’t fathom turning around and doing it all over again for the full.

The lesson I’ve learned most from running is that the secret to getting good at anything is to do it consistently, and to do a little more each week. That’s it. I spent my 20s looking for shortcuts and ways to hack to the system. And in my 30s I’ve come to accept that that’s the hack – work hard, get better slowly over time.

The only reason I was able to run 26.2 miles today is because of the hundreds of miles I ran over the last five months. It’s amazing what your body and mind adapt to. The “short” runs at the end of my training were the same distance as the “long” runs in the beginning. “I won’t be gone long, I only have to do five miles today” is not something I ever expected to say.

Thanks to a vacation, a job that lets me travel, and five months of training, I’ve run to the World Trade Center in NYC, the White House in D.C., and the Colosseum in Rome. I’ve run the Bay in San Francisco, Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, the Niagara River in Buffalo, the desert in Phoenix, and the hills of the Italian countryside. And most of all, I’ve run over 300 miles in Chicago, the city I love, from Logan Square to the Lake, Wrigley Field to US Cellular.

Things were going great. I had stuck to my training plan for over four months which itself was an incredible accomplishment. Then I got hurt. After my second 16 mile run, I felt a lot of pain in my left shin that persisted over five days. I’d had a lot of aches and pains, but nothing like this.

I saw my chiropractor, Tracy Ford at Active Body who has run six marathons herself. She said best possible thing I could do was rest as soon as I noticed the injury. Three weeks later, the pain had subsided but it was still there. The concern wasn’t so much “it hurts too much to run” as “what kind of damage will I do by keeping on?”

I saw Dr. Lynsey Schlotzer (Stewart) at US Healthworks where Rachel used to work. On initial exam, she thought it might be a stress fracture but she ordered a CT scan that said it wasn’t. She put me on steroids to reduce the swelling (also, my bench-press went up by 20%) and told me I could start to ramp up my running. Dr. Ford reminded me to ease into it – that it would be better to show up on race day fully healed than to relapse by trying to cram in one more long run.

It’s been a bunch of emotional ups and downs for me the last month, training four months to then miss the three longest runs due to injury. Doing practically nothing while the other runners I know come back from their 20 mile runs. I came into today having only run 26 miles in the previous six weeks. I came in without the confidence that comes from putting in all the miles. I came in wondering if something was going to pop because I pushed it too hard.

I got cocky as I trained. The book recommends you come up with a mantra to remind yourself why you’re running and why you can do it. Something to get you through when things get hard. It’s hokey, but I did it anyway. Mine included something like, “My legs are strong. My heart is strong. My lungs are strong. My mind is strong. They are strong because I’ve trained them to be strong.” Which is mostly true, but there’s a whole bunch of other reasons why I can run this race that don’t have much to do with me. I haven’t suffered a spinal cord injury. I can afford the entry fee. My job and life situation offer the flexibility to train for 12 hours a week.

On one hand, running has shown me what levers I can pull to move towards achievement. On the other hand, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there’s a ton of “there but by the grace of God go I” in my life. That injury forced me to show up on race day saying to God, “Alright, I’ve done what I can, but if I’m going to get through this, I’m going to need you to help.”

I believe he did. I also believe that Dr. Ford and Dr. Schlotzer were right. My shins don’t hurt today – though, oh boy, do other things – and I don’t seem to be injured. Most importantly, I finished.

I finished.

I left the house before the sun came up this morning. The first twelve miles were great. We snaked through the loop, then made our way north through Lincoln Park to Lakeview. Every neighborhood along the way carried a memory: “There’s the real estate office at North and Clark where I worked during my second year in the city.” “This is the street I’ve run home on ten times coming back from the Lake.” “There’s the auditorium where our church met temporarily while they constructed their own building.” “There’s the Spice House, my favorite client of Table XI’s.”

I cried when we turned south from Webster onto Sedgwick in Lincoln Park. The orange leaves formed an arch over the street of brownstone homes. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I was overcome with gratitude for the privilege of living in this great city for the last decade.

And then there were the spectators. 45,000 people from 50 states and 100 countries converge on the city to run an absurd distance for no other reason than a desire to challenge and better themselves… and a million people come out to encourage them in that pursuit. I wrote my name on my race bib and literally hundreds of strangers shouted it out today. “Looking strong Greg!” “You can do it Greg!” “Alright Greg!”

There’s so much shit on TV and the Internet about how we’re against each other. This one day strangers cheered emphatically for totally non-famous athletes to achieve their goals. Made me wonder if that’s maybe how it is most of the time, we just don’t get everyone all in one place to show it.

In the book a woman told a story about how she knew the last ten miles would be the hardest, so she “ran the last ten first.” That is, once she got to ten miles, she stretched a bit, mentally reset, and then set off to go “on just another 16 mile run.”

Seeing Rachel was that break for me. She was waiting for me at mile 12. The whole first half of the race I didn’t even think about miles 12-26, it was just “X more miles and I get to see Rachel.” She brought me a clean shirt, some pretzels and the other half of my gels. She told me she was getting text messages of my progress which kept me going the rest of the race, knowing that every time I passed a checkpoint she was going to get an alert, and that that alert would make her happy.

The first 12 miles were a breeze. Beautiful, lush North Side neighborhoods where I’ve spent most of my decade in Chicago, packed crowds cheering me on, and my beautiful, pregnant wife waiting for me at the end. The last 14.2 were hard. West Side and South Side, less trees, more concrete, less crowds. Not to mention, I’ve already run 12 miles.

Things got real tough around mile 17. We ran west to Damen, came 1.5 miles back to Halsted, then headed a mile back west to Ashland. It was demoralizing, knowing that the finish line was at our backs again and getting further away. We turned south on Ashland by the Medical District and it’s just concrete and barren and industrial along that stretch. Then right as we’re getting to Costco and turning back east on 18th, the crowd picks up again and I see a sign that says “Welcome to Pilsen!”

I started to cry again. Mariachi bands played in the background – three or four of them. Cheerers stacked three deep against the fence shouting encouragement in Spanish. A dude dressed in full Mariachi costume sprayed water from a hose disguised as a rifle from the Invasion of Mexico, misting anyone who wanted it. I was overwhelmed by all these people from a different culture who don’t know me, but came out as a community to cheer on the people passing through. It made me want to move there.

What got me through the race was breaking it up into smaller distances. After crossing the start line, I just wanted to get to six miles to Boy’s Town where I had heard the boys were especially enthusiastic in their encouragement. (They were.) Then six more miles to see Rachel. After that, four miles til 16 – the distance of my longest run. Anything after that is gravy. Then I just wanted to get to 20 where I read a lot of people hit the wall.

I never hit the wall though. If I understand it right, the wall happens when your body runs out of carbs and switches over to burning fat. A few months ago after reading Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong, I decided that if Lance would risk everything to undergo a meticulous doping regimen so that he could get performance enhancing drugs into his body, then it’d probably make sense for me to pay a modicum of thought as to what I’m putting into mine.

Enter what I call “Performance Enhancing Gels.” 100 calories a pop. Tastes like brown sugar if you want 100mg of caffeine to go with it, vanilla frosting if not. Take gels every forty minutes whether you feel like it or not and your body maintains a steady stream of fast-burning fuel. (The downside is that I have lost zero pounds during my training, though I certainly have traded some fat for muscle.) During those last few miles, my legs hurt, my feet hurt, my lungs hurt, but my engine never stopped pumping.

The last two miles were a straight shot up Michigan avenue. They were physically the toughest, but I just set my eyes on the peak of one of the skyscrapers and kept telling myself “in less than 25 minutes, Rachel will get a text saying that I have just finished a marathon.”

And she did. I’m back at home now, lying on the floor and eating a large bag of potato chips, a box of Triscuits, a few beers, a bowl of chicken tortilla soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and about a pint of ice cream. Things hurt, but the world is pretty amazing. Today was a life-changing accomplishment – maybe not a huge trajectory shift, but worth at least a few points on the compass. The internalization that, with a little bit of incremental effort every week, I can do things that only “other people” do… well there’s gotta be long-term value in that.

Sure takes a lot of gear to go out for a simple run

Once I dropped my arbitrary time goal, I started to enjoy my training a lot more. These are all pictures I’ve taken on a run over the last four months.


Washington, Phoenix, and Minneapolis

Chicago, my favorite