Barbara’s first marathon- Chicago 10-10-10
Pre race- a petit preamble
This whole running thing has always been a part of my life. I ran at school all the way from first grade to sixth form. We competed in inter house and interschool sports. I ran and won certificates. I ran relays and jumped hurdles. I ran sprints and longer 800-1000m races.
When I left home in 1990, I ran some more. When I first got to Germany and my taste buds delighted and revelled in the sweet, smooth, creamy taste of German chocolate, German cakes, German bread, German Kattofel Knodel (potato dumplings, with gravy!), snitzel und spetzle (pork and home made noodles, with gravy!), German potato salad and bratwurst and of course, German BEEER! My body’s adipose tissue was ecstatic as it gorged on the fatty acid chains and sugar molecules. The more I ate the bigger I grew and the bigger I grew the more I wanted to eat. My solution to this problem of “ see food eat it”, was to run, mile after mile after mile of mindless running. In my early twenties body aesthetics was of paramount importance to me ( it still is important, but to a lesser degree now and for different reasons), and so to keep ‘in shape” I had to balance my “scoffing” with some form of physical activity that I could do consistently. That was running.
I got to Glasgow in 1992. I ran. I worked out at the university gym, but my ultimate form of exercise was running. I tried running on the streets of Glasgow, but resorted to the treadmill after a couple of “dog poop on sneaker” and “puke on the pavement” incidents. I have to say the British binge drinking then throw up on your way home on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday night and leaving their pet’s poopi where it was deposited was something I couldn’t stand!
When I got to America in 1997, boy was I in for a shock. Not only were there amazing culinary delights and beautiful looking drinks with little umbrellas, the sizes of the food portions and the glasses of drinks were huge beyond anything I had ever seen or could imagine. And it was cheap! Of course I fed my face and drank my fill and yes it went straight through my lips and down to my hips. I had to run. I joined a gym and worked out regularly, just so I could eat regularly (which to me means having something in my mouth every hour on the hour- I am a food addict and I don’t want a twelve step program either!).
My pregnancies were all an excuse to EAT anything I wanted at anytime I wanted it. I ate everything because for the most part I had no morning sickness and if I felt queasy, I ate and felt better! Six years of back to back breeding like a rabbit, changing diapers or nursing took their toll and once again running was my friend. However as I ran, I realized that it was no longer only for the physical benefits that I was doing it, it was for the mental health benefits as well. I was a nicer, calmer, more relaxed mom of four crazy, highly energetic girls aged 8,6 and three. I began to schedule my running as I would all my other “things to do”. I made running appointments with myself, on the roads where I do my best thinking and praying and working out of stuff that is bothering and threatening to choke me. I stomp the pavement pounding all the junk out of me and into the asphalt. I return home unfettered and unencumbered, with a renewed sense of purpose and a quiet fierceness that whispers “bring it”!
The challenge I have always wanted to conquer was the 26.2mile marathon. I have been running with my two older girls for the last two years and competing in 5k and the odd 10k race. The girls love running and so it has become one of those things that we girls do together. They love the atmosphere at the races and they are both fierce competitors, who relish the fact that they fly past all these adults puffing and panting at a 14minute mile pace while they do an 8 minute mile without breaking a sweat.
Here I am at the starting corral for the Chicago marathon. The date is October 10, 2010 or 10-10-10! There is something about those numbers that gives me the feeling that I will be OK. Maybe its superstitious, however I sense it and despite my frayed nerves and pounding heart, I feel confident that I am able do this.
My training has been really inconsistent despite my best efforts. However, I feel strong, am uninjured and my mind is in the right place. I have had to sit out one race due to an injury April 2010 but I will run this one. I have thrown out my Garmin GPS and my training plan so I am not interested in time or pace. I have only one goal and one goal only-to subdue the demon that this 26.2mile distance has become. I dream of it, it howls in the recesses of my mind as I cook, do laundry, bathe the girls, write my papers, eat and sleep.
“How is that marathon training going”? Ask my neighbors, friends, my kids’ teachers, and the servers at my local coffee shop!!! It is an obsession and I have to wrestle it to the ground and free myself.
However long it takes me I am catching that MegaBus back to Ann Arbor with a marathon medal round my neck. It has taken the mentoring, nagging and threatening of a friend to get me here. Thenji is waiting with a sledge hammer to knock me out if I continue to whine and wring my hands like a three year old. My husband has sent me off with lots of love and my girls have told me that I will bring home the medal. I have foolishly posted what I am about to do on my Face Book wall and I have left myself very little room to wriggle out of this one.
There is a sea of humanity as far as my eyes can see. People of all shapes and sizes and wearing all kinds of gear. Some are pacing, some are chanting mantras out loud, others are stretching, doing moves that I have never seen. One guy in his 50’s is lying on the ground and tilting is pelvis back and forth in a rather disturbing manner. Others still, are standing at attention like soldiers, gazing into space, eyes glazed over. It dawns on me in this moment, that every human being who has come here today, has come to run this race for their own personal reasons. While we will all run together we are really running alone, propelled forward by some deeply personal inner drive. The marathon is not a race that you run to win against anyone. With 45, 000 participants, it’s a race about the self. It is a race that forces you, challenges you to dig deep within and figure out why you are who you are and what you are made of. It’s a race that is physically painful and demands that you surmount that pain. It tests your mental fortitude, your self- discipline and courage.
I notice long lines formed outside these blue rectangular units-Ah!! The porter potties!!! Suddenly I need to pee and I dash over to join a line while my companions “du jour”, Nancy and Maggie also join a line. It is my turn and I stride up to the innocuous –looking blue box and yank the door open. My face is slapped by an overwhelming putrid stench of human excrement so forceful that I take an involuntary step backwards. I have to make a split second decision as to whether I go in there or not. If I don’t, chances are I will pee on myself and not want to run the race in wet gear. If I do go in, chances are I will suffocate or dissolve, bones and all, in the acidic sulphurous fumes trapped in that blue box. The decision is made and I go in. Having never used one of these before at the shorter races I have been to, I am sickened by what my eyes have to, are forced to, are compelled to look at. If I close them the worst could happen, which is that I might slip and fall into….
You see, unlike the more ‘civilized’ pit latrine or Blair toilet (LOL!), you see everything that the 1900 people before you have deposited in the potty!!! YES my friends, it is a nauseating concoction that could be used as an interrogation method (forget waterboarding), and even the most hardened terrorist will buckle, cave and crumble and reveal all state and family secrets if dangled from a tree by the foot, head directly over the pungent potty!!!
So I look and I force myself to do what I gotta do and get out. After applying oodles of hand sanitizer and wiping my hands raw with baby wipes, I wait for my sister and Maggie to emerge from their hell holes. “Hmmmm” Nancy mumbles through clenched teeth “If this is what one has to go through at these races then I don’t think I can do this! Siss man!!!!”
It’s almost 7.30am and time to say bye to my companions and head to the starting corral. The way this works is that the elite runners who stomp out the distance in oh, say 2hr 5minutes!!!! are placed at the very front of the 45,000 runners. So by the time we the plebian, no money- winning, wanna -conquer -the -distance runners get to the start line, those elite athletes, a.k.a poetry in fluid motion, are halfway done.
The experience of moving as part of an ocean of people is phenomenal. It’s difficult to describe the sensation, save to say it is like sailing on a calm ocean and being on a roller coaster at the same time. The adrenalin rush is enough for you to hear your blood thumping in your ears and your heart knocking against your rib cage. This is just being among the other runners. There are thousands of spectators cheering from the sidelines, and holding up signs. One of the ones I remember is “MARATHONERS DO IT LONGER”! That gets a laugh out of me just before I start running, putting one foot in front of the other. I don’t turn on my music yet because there is U2’s “It’s a beautiful day”, the theme song for the Chicago marathon 2010, blasted from mega speakers all along the first part of the course. Then it’s off we go in the tunnel, to emerge on the other side. The first couple of miles are great, the crowd is enthusiastically cheering us on and I am doing by usual thumbs up with a big old smile on my face. I am loving these strangers who root for us as though we are the most talented courageous, athletic runners ever! My mind harkens to Sam Wanjiru and as I look up at the 10 mile marker and the time I cannot help myself: Sam is nearing the finish line very soon. He will roll in way ahead of 44,000 other runners. Love Sam. Sam is one of the most humble people I have ever seen. His running takes my breath away and I feel honored to be running along the same course he has just hurtled through with lightning speed.
My running is going super. I have found my stride and a comfortable pace so I am enjoying the moment. I enjoy going through the various Chicago neighborhoods, where spectators are out in full. There is a band blasting rhythm and blues tunes and a few miles later there is a group of men doing a routine to Madonna’s “ Vogue”. My salacious mind and eyes wonder as I take in these gorgeous hunks in nothing but white loin cloths and black boots, gyrating and prancing to the music. I am tempted to squeeze a tight tush or two, then I remember what I am supposed to be doing. Besides they probably don’t care for such moves from people of my gender…
The weather at this point is just perfect. Clear blue skies, fall colors of brown, gold, yellows and burnt orange swirl through my eyes as I run . I am filled with a sense of gratitude at being able to do this. I am thankful that my body is not rebelling and at this point I am sure that if I hold my pace and do not get over excited I will be able to finish. I am stopping at the aid stations and taking in those fluids. I am amazed at the thousands of crushed paper cups that form a blanket around the stations and gradually thin out as I leave the station and its drinks behind, careful not to slip on them and lose my footing.
At the half way point, I look up and realize that it’s a little over three hours. Sam has long since crossed the finish line, about an hour ago, to be precise. I run on as I wonder whether he beat is own record. Last year he finished in 2.05.24. I wonder what he is doing right now. He has probably changed or showered, getting some food and waiting for his check so he can get on the plane and get back home to the beautiful plains of Kenya. At this point I am tempted to kick up my pace a notch, but I remember my not so well trained body and my singular goal: to go the entire distance. It’s getting hot and to pick up speed means ultimately to explode, crash and burn at mile 20. I reign myself in and I feel like a tightly coiled spring. I turn on my ipod and move and groove to Kofi Olomide, Awilo Longomba, Werra Son, and my girl Yondo Sister. For those who do not know, these are Congolese artists who, as far as I am concerned creat the most danceable or shall I say dance -inducing music in the world. I am a worrior! Kwasa- kwasa, the medal is mine, Kwasa kwasa! The miles fly by as I stride out to rhythmic drums and a mean baseline.
I look up and I see the mile 22 marker. The time on it reads 5.25. Sam has eaten, received his check and his winner’s medal and is probably already at JFK airport in New York or Chicago O’Hare waiting to board an airbus back home. Or maybe he has decided to stay in Chicago and do some shopping on Michigan Avenue. Maybe he is so exhausted he is asleep in his hotel room…
Suddenly, my body rebels. I feel an achiness and all the nerves in my back, legs and feet seem to be firing continuously, sending signals to my brain that enough is enough. My back feels tight and my hamstring muscles are in spasm. I stop and lean forward, hands on my knees. This is it. I cannot do any more. I look up briefly and its carnage at mile 22! People are sitting on the side walks, throwing up, the sirens of ambulances are blaring shrill sounds into the air. The sun is beating down relentlessly, sucking out all moisture from me, mocking me: “So who’s the Warrior now ya big chicken? What, did you really think you could do this? Who do you think you are anyway?” My throat and mouth are dry and I have nothing to swallow. I am looking around for some place to plant my backside and wait for the meat wagon that will cart my carcass to the finish line. I am done!
Someone taps me on the shoulder and asks if I am OK. I manage to nod and he says come on lets go. I tell him that I am done and I am not going any further. He asks me where I am from and I force out Ann Arbor. “Well Ann Arbor, you’ve hit the wall and you will be fine. Lets go.” I am quite baffled by the audacity of this stranger who sounds so sure of himself. I actually stand up right so I can take a good look at him, tell him to mind his own business and be on his merry way! He is an elderly looking Black man, with a bald head and twinkling eyes. He assumes that my standing upright is my assenting to the command “lets go” so he grabs me by the hand and half drags me for about 4oo yards. “That’s right he says, just put one foot in front of the other. Here take this”. He hands me a Gu -gel and I suck on the little pouch loaded with sugar, greedily. He continues to hold my hand and it feels good. He is so sure of himself as he declares “Pretty soon you’ll feel better. You’ll feel so good you’ll start running again so you can cross that finish line and get that medal. There’s no way in hell I’ma let you bail out with less than 4 miles to the finish, uh- uh, Ann Arbor! You got this Ann Arbor, you got this! Just imagine what you’ll feel like tomorrow if you bail out now! You’ll still be sore as hell with nothing to show for it! Now imagine waking up tomorrow, not being able to walk but knowing you did 26.2miles and you got yosef a medal!!! This my 15th marathon and the worst! This here heat’ll suck you dry as a prune!” My stranger- friend keeps this monologue up, dragging me with him at a brisk walk.
As suddenly as I felt like I was dying, I feel strong again. I look at my saving grace, the man who saved my marathon and before I can say thank you he says, “OK Ann Arbor, off you go!!! Run, run and get that medal! See you at the finish line!” The sound of his voice jolts my heart and adrenalin starts pumping and yes I run, slowly but I run all the way up this horrible hill, then down to cross the finish line at 6hrs 45mins 22seconds! I snatch my medal from the official who smiles and says congratulations. I look at it and I burst into tears. Suddenly I have to sit. I am vanquished and I am exhilarated. I look at my medal again and I think of my husband, Cyril, and my daughters, Chichi, Kai, Shami and Tendo, and I cry some more. I think of the cap on my head which has my nephew baby Dennis’ footprints on it and I cry. I look up to see if my stranger- friend to whom I am known as “Ann Arbor” is among the folks crossing the finish line. I do not see him then or ever.
It’s a done deal. I have conquered 26.2 miles with the help and encouragement of family, friends and strangers alike.
I am still euphoric, which is why I am up at 3.am writing this piece. I wear my race t-shirt everyday and I look at my medal at least 5 times a day. I am already preparing to start training after a couple of weeks because I am running another one and another one after that and on and on till ….
By the way, my other hero is a lady by the name of Jeanne Bennet Samuelson, who is such a graceful and fabulous runner at 54. She ran the Chicago marathon and finished in 2hr, 47mins!!! I still wonder what Sam did after his victory on Sunday. Here are a couple of my favorite quotations which I have loved for a long time in an abstract kind of way. I lived through it and now I own these two quotations. They really sum up what I have been trying to say in the last 6 pages!!!!
“I've learned that finishing a marathon isn't just an athletic achievement. It's a state of mind; a state of mind that says anything is possible.”
John Hanc, running writer
John Hanc, running writer
“The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop but the mind must be strong. You always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy...It is not age; it is not diet. It is the will to succeed.Jaqueline Gareau, 1980 Boston Marathon Champ