I realized this as I sat huddled in a ball on a step in the lobby of the Chicago Hilton on Sunday morning. I was trying to make myself as small as possible due to the utter chaos erupting around me. I had stumbled into the lobby, desperate to get out of the nerve-wracking silence of my room, only to find the exact opposite happening. It was still too cold to line up in our corrals, so runners were nervously chattering, stretching, eating bananas, and just about climbing the walls in those early pre-race hours. Not knowing anyone and not really interested in meeting a new friend, I found six inches of space on a step in the lobby and listened to the cacophony around me. Once again, similar to the start of the ultra, I found myself pondering, "How the hell did I end up here?" Seventeen hundred miles from home surrounded by ten thousand strangers. The tiny pancake I managed to choke down forty-five minutes earlier churned uncomfortably in my stomach. I realized in that moment I had NO IDEA what to do next. Stay? Go? Drink water? Find a bathroom? Why don't marathons comes with instruction manuals?
And then, like a beacon from God, I saw my salvation.
They came in the form of the Ethiopian running team.
A group of the tiniest people I've ever seen, clad in bright yellow track suits with green lettering paraded confidently through the masses to the doors. If they think it's time to line up, well, I'm guessing they know what they are doing. So I sprinted off my perch and joined the official Ethiopian running team for exactly six minutes. We walked across the street together, all 5'6" of blond me, towering next to their 5'0" frames. They looked like little birds. I smiled, they smiled back. Friends!
And that's essentially how my Chicago Marathon started.
It was one of those days when everything just kind of fell into place. I had read a book on the plane ("Finding Your Zone" by Dr. Michael Lardon) that strongly advocated to turn off your brain and trust your instincts. "Those who think do not know. Those who know do not think," the chapter starts, baffling me to no end. This is counterintuitive to everything I've been taught, believing our brains can wrestle through any situation. C'mon! We are the apex predator out there. Our supercomputer brains made it possible. But Dr. Lardon's advice was eerily similar to what Reinier has been telling me for years, which is in running, overthinking the situation results in disaster. I was determined to put this odd advice into practice - now or never - and finally trust my body over my brain. For someone with an incredibly limited sports background but a highly educated brain, this was the least comfortable thing ever.
My new friends broke off to head to the Elite corrals while I joined my midpackers in Corral F. Lining up with FIVE THOUSAND people, knowing this is only one of nine corrals, is indescribable. Inching forward as we waited for our wave to be called, runners started ripping off layers. Thousands of sweatshirts flew over my head to the other side of the fence. People shook out body parts nervously. I noted some tears (mine included). Now or never.
Now or never.
In our pre-race phone call, Reiner shocked me with some pacing strategy. "Keep it between 9:30 and 10 minute miles for the first half," he said. "Then pick it up for the next six or so, dropping down between 9:30 and nine minutes. And then just go all out for the last. I want to see a negative split [running the second half of the race faster than the first.] This will give you a finish of around 4:10, 4:20, which is a very respectable finish." This, again, was totally opposite than what I was planning to do. I wanted to start with 9:00/miles, and then try as hard as I could after mile 20, knowing it was going to be horrifically painful. I like the idea of banking time early in the race to make up for the slowness that happens in the later miles. Be proactive, my brain yelled! Bank time! Ignore him! it shouted. Do I listen? Do I do my own thing? This argument waged in my brain for 48 hours pre-race, leaving me to jot down several different race scenario splits until I got frustrated and overwhelmed and crumpled up the paper in disgust.
I will tell you, it is VERY hard running slower than you want. Well, after the first mile. In that first one, I could not get over how tired my legs felt. What? Dead. Lead. Heavy. Despite my tapering, I had been walking -- too much -- in the last few days. Into Chicago, through the expo, around the hotel. And the crowds - holy cow! I was elbow-to-elbow with other runners for that first mile. We had to squeeze together to get through Lower Wacker and people were tripping over each other, stepping on heels, etc. It was an incredible amount of energy to expend in the first mile, all of which yielded no good results. Men had already stopped to pee against the concrete pillars down there, making me shake my head. It's mile 1, dudes. Maybe having external genitalia is just too tempting? As in, the need to pee on everything?
My watch read 10:02 after that first mile. And then my brain promptly burst into flames.
Mile 2: 8:48. Talk about overcompensation.
And then, I put my body to use and turned off my brain. I settled into the most comfortable pace I could manage, averaging between 9:20 and 9:33 for the next ten miles. I leaned back, pushed my shoulders down, and tried to relax. Let it go, channeling my inner Kerry.
By the time I got the West Loop around mile 13, I felt like I could run forever. Had a friend been there, we could have easily been chatting this whole time. This pace wasn't my idea, but it seemed to be working. And even though my brain was screaming at me to "Run FASTER!" I simply ignored it. Body first. At mile 14, I will pick it up.
And amazingly, my body responded. Miles 14-18 stayed between 9:04 and 9:33. I still felt good! A slight cramp in my left foot popped up, but I told myself to check it out again in three miles. It mysteriously went away in those 28 minutes. I grabbed water and Gatorade at every station, stayed consistent with my gel intake, and tried not to think too far ahead. By chopping up the race into such manageable goals, I realized it was flying by. Too fast. I was actually having...fun.
The dreaded Mile 20 loomed in front of me but physically I still felt good. This was weird. Mile 18-20 in the Vegas full marathon was torture - and that whole race felt like it lasted forever. I mean, I could write entire novels based on single miles of that race. But today, this race was slipping by. Nothing noteworthy had happened, nothing except that first mile and the guys peeing on the wall. I was just running. And it was fun.
By mile 21, I felt good enough to pick up my speed. That silly ultra, as much as I've complained and cursed it in recent weeks, suddenly made sense. My mental toughness, as painful as it was to develop, kicked in. Five meager miles to go. I'm not wearing a head lamp. It's not uphill. Dude, I can do this in my sleep. Where are the glowing wigs? And that police car I could never reach? Instead, I had thousands of spectators frantically bashing cowbells, screaming and yelling all in broad daylight. I felt like a rock star. One woman's sign read, "I don't know you, but you inspire me." Tears popped into my eyes. I wanted to stop and tell her about "Born to Run" (she can do this too!) but of course, I just kept running.
I'm proud to say mile 21 was 9:39. Just as strong as the first half.
At mile 22, we ran into a situation I did not anticipate.
Remember, I was in the second wave, corral F. Approximately 20,000 runners had already passed through this very spot. That's a lot of Gatorade to hit the pavement, and just as many empty cups to clean up. But inexplicably, the race coordinators thought it was smart to offer food at this station in the form of bananas, still in their peels.
Put that one together.
Runners + banana peels + asphalt = ....no bueno.
That nice zone I had been in for 3+ hours ended abruptly. One slip on a peel reminded myself I did not have my usual coordination and if I wasn't careful, I could really end my race quickly. I tip-toed through those peels, feet sticking to the ground from the Gatorade. Maybe next year they can offer pre-peeled fruit?
At mile 23, we hit wind.
It wasn't significant - just a few miles per hour more than the rest of the race. But running into it at this place in the race hit hard. I tried to tuck in behind several other runners, but the roads opened and people spread out. I put my head down and just kept going.
Mile 22, the banana mile, was a dicey 10:06. Windy Mile 23 was 10:16.
Turning onto Michigan Avenue to mile 24 meant we lost the wind and could practically see the finish. I knew my mom would be at mile 25 wearing a bright pink vest and just knowing that gave me a tremendous boost. Reinier had told me to allow runners to pass in the early miles, stating that I would pass them in the later ones. I didn't really believe him when he said that, drawing up memories of those horrible, horrible leg cramps I experienced in miles 22-25 in the Vegas race, but once again, the dude knows his stuff. I was flying by other runners, almost with annoyance. Get out of my way! Get to the right side of the road! I've still got energy and my body hasn't shut down yet! I am a god among men! Eeeeeee!
Never saw my mom. She, however, did see me, and ran with me for a quarter of a mile screaming, "KIMBERLY!" while waving her sign. (she made me a sign!) Never registered any of this this. I just kept going.
Just after mile 25, I realized the roar of the crowd was louder than my music. In some kind of cosmic happenstance, the last song I heard before I took out my earbuds was "Back Home" by Andy Grammer, a song I was desperate to add to my playlist prior to leaving for the weekend. I texted several friends trying to find the name of it after hearing it on the radio.
As I cruised up Michigan Avenue, gazing at the skyline I had grown up with, I realized my place in this race was not random. I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
No matter we go, we always find our way back home.
Listen, it doesn't take a clinical psychologist to figure out why I started running. Looking at the crowds of people, men with bushy mustaches wearing Cubs gear and sipping coffee from mugs under this beautiful blue October sky, I knew in that moment my dad was really, really proud of me.
800 meters to go.
I think I actually yelled, "I just ran the Chicago Marathon!" as I crossed the finish line. I hobbled to the mylar blanket area. I accepted my medal, said no to a banana (f'ing bananas) and passed on beer as well. Water? Sure. I found my mom in Grant Park and realized all of my toes were still in good shape. A Windy City miracle, indeed.
I grinned like a fool, sipped a Green Line, and realized this was the happiest group of beat-up, mangled individuals I'd ever been a part of.
I was home.
Oh, and Scott Jurek says hi.