Every race is different, and every race teaches us something—something about running, racing, or even life in general.
Sometimes the lessons are fun to learn. And sometimes they are painful.
Sometimes the lessons are easy to discern. And sometimes they are a little less obvious.
Nevertheless: every race is different, and every race teaches us something. And this year’s Chicago Marathon was no exception.
In my last marathon, I had bested my personal record by over 43 minutes. My training had been relatively solid, with paces (even on long runs) that would put me easily under the four-hour mark. I had experienced a persistent pain throughout the training cycle from a lingering hamstring injury—but by the time dawn broke on October 8, the pain had subsided.
Needless to say, I crossed the start line at the 2017 Chicago Marathon with high expectations for my first sub-four-hour marathon.
For the first half of the race, everything was going according to plan. Granted, it was a very warm day. And I jumped out of the gate a little too fast. But overall, my body felt good, my hydration plan was on-point, and I had (for the most part) avoided getting caught in crowds of runners on the course or in aid stations. I felt good about the race I was running.
By the time I crossed the half marathon mark in 2:03:29, I realized that a sub-four hour pace was unlikely given the heat and the lack of shade on the back half of the course. I slowed my pace to target a 4:15 finish, and settled in, waiting for the real race to begin around mile 20.
But in mile 14, everything fell apart. In a crowd of runners and spectators who were crossing the course, I had to suddenly “hit the brakes”, stopping mid-stride. I didn’t realize it in the moment, but in that stop, I put all of my weight on my injured left leg. I re-started, hit my stride, and continued down the course. I thought everything was fine. But in the next few minutes, my entire race would come undone.
Just after crossing into mile 15, I felt a similar pain to the one in my left hamstring throughout the training cycle. I tried to run through it. I tried to slow down and walk it off. I stopped and tried to stretch it out. Nothing was working. And with each step, the pain in my leg continued to worsen. I could walk, but the power necessary for a running stride was gone. On the verge of tears, caused by physical and emotional hurt, I texted Jess and told her my leg was done. She asked if I needed a medic. I replied to tell her I would not be quitting, and I would crawl the last 10 miles to cross the finish line if necessary. And so I pressed on, limping step-by-step toward the finish line.
Fast-forward three hours, to the moment I finally crossed the finish line in a time of 4:58:24. I have rarely been overcome with such emotion as I was in the moment my feet passed over the word “FINISH” on that Chicago street. As I burst into tears, I grabbed a fence to simply stay upright. Using that fence as a crutch all the way through the runner recovery area, I was presented with my finisher medal before heading to find Jess. We went on to celebrate with friends, but it did not feel like a celebration for me in the moment. In addition to the pain of my injury, I was heartbroken over not achieving my goal.
So, if it’s true what I said earlier, that “every race teaches us something”, what did I learn? It has taken a week of reflection to figure out some of the learnings—and I still feel like there are more to come. But here are a few of the things I know so far….
First, as a runner, I am learning to listen to my body. I could tell how my body was reacting to the rising temperature and was paying attention to my heart rate throughout the race, which led me to pull back from my initial pace and goal. I also learned to better analyze a race course itself, watch for what was coming next, and adjust accordingly. Lastly, the first half of this race showed me my goal of a sub-four-hour marathon is within reach. That 2:03 half will serve as motivation and a building block for what is to come.
But more importantly than what I learned about running, I learned a few things about life. I learned about adaptability. For those who know me, I am not always willing to adapt. I struggled to watch, literally, as the seconds ticked away and my goal of a sub-four-hour marathon went unfulfilled. In that moment, it was painful to let go of that goal—but I needed to take a deep breath and adjust. With what was happening to my leg, the goal needed to become finishing, even if that was “a hard pill to swallow”. I adjusted and pressed on toward the new goal. The same can be said of my daily life: when things don’t go as planned, I need to learn to adjust and keep pressing on.
I also learned about the virtue of hope. Despite the physical and emotional pain, I knew that something better was coming. I had to force myself to stay hopeful in these moments, remembering that the (new) goal of a finish was within reach. I remembered the words of a friend: “If you want to quit, don’t. Go slower, but keep going.” Some days it is so hard to keep moving forward—but I need to remind myself that what is to come is greater than the pain I experience now. Keep going.
Lastly, I am learning to celebrate the small things. The whole race did not go as planned, but there are moments to cheer for. A 2:03 first half. A sub-five-hour finish on an injured leg. Completing my third World Major Marathon, when just a few years ago I had never run a mile in my life. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, there is always something to celebrate.
I appreciate the love, care, concern, and support each of you show me through the marathon training process. This has been a life-transforming journey for me, and you are all a part of it. Thank you for helping me press on toward new goals. Here’s to the next step.