“I will run with perseverance the race set before me…”
The day had finally arrived. I had dreamed of this day, off and on, for almost 12 years, had been preparing for it since early January, and had been training extensively for 16 weeks. It was October 11, 2009, the day of the 32nd Chicago Marathon. A 33 degree temperature greeted the 45,000 runners in the gray early morning. Meredith — my sister-in law, dear friend & training buddy — and I were wearing the fashionable black trash bags as our warm up gear. I was delightfully surprised that there were many trash-bag-clad runners in the crowd that morning. Black was definitely the color of choice for the two of us.
The crowd was immense, massed in ordered ranks behind the Grant Park starting line from fastest to slowest-paced runners. We found a spot in the crowd in between her 12 minute mile pace and my 15 minute mile pace. Starting the race together was important to us as we knew that we would not be running together for long. We had trained “together” in separate states, so this needed to be a shared moment, a time to physically be there with each other as we met the call to this challenge. The crowd was swelling, cold but jovial. Tears once again formed in my eyes as I thought of how hard I had trained, of the runs I had done with my 2 daughters; of my three sons, husband, dad, sister and niece who would be cheering for me along the route; of the prayers my church had offered for me the week before; of Julie from Run Happy Tees and the beautiful t-shirt gifts she had given me, just to honor a fellow mom. This was it. So many lessons and so many miles to make it to this day. I was part of the 2009 Chicago Marathon! I was nervous. I was excited. I was ready to run!
The starting gun went off at 7:30 a.m., and the crowd surged forward. Mer and I crossed the start line at 7:57a.m. I was amazed at the sea of runners ahead of me and thrilled that I was joining this throng. We ran together for about 5 minutes. Then, I kissed her goodbye. As Meredith disappeared into the crowd I turned around. The number of people behind me was despairingly thin. And about 2 blocks away was a police car bringing up the rear, like the sad end of a parade.
I looked at the woman running next to me and said, “I cant believe that I am going to spend the next 26.2 miles being chased at a SLOW speed by the Chicago Police.” She responded, “Don’t look in front or behind…just run your own race.” And I was prepared to do just that.
Within minutes I saw the lights on the squad car and the officer driving began to tell the runners in the road to move to the sidewalks, because they were opening the roads. If there was any time during the 26.2 miles that I encountered a wall, it was right then. I had only been running for about 15 minutes, all of my training had advised to start slowly on marathon day. It takes a while to get your pace… and now I needed to move to the sidewalk!? I obeyed. But I was angry and felt like quitting. I tried hard to remember “run your own race.”
I then hit the first water station. Paper cups were stacked five or six layers deep, hundreds of them on each of sixteen folding tables, each cup filled with water for thirsty runners. As I arrived and drank a cup, the volunteer in charge told the swarms of volunteers that they could empty their water and Gatorade as the last runners were coming through the line.
I must say it was an amazing sight. The volunteers tipped over their tables, sending thousands of cups of liquid flowing into the streets of Chicago. My heart fell a bit more — here I was at mile two, it was only 8:30 a.m. and I was realizing that I would be running this race on the sidewalk and perhaps with little support. The people I was navigating around on the sidewalk were rude, telling me I was in the way. I decided I would take advantage of the bathroom at the 5k, then dig deep and pull ahead of that annoying pace car. But when I came out I was following garbage trucks and the pacing car was at least 6 blocks ahead of me. Despair!1 I honestly could not believe it. I had trained so hard. I was so looking forward to running my race in the city I had called home for 14 years. Now my dream of doing a marathon was here, and I would have to follow the garbage trucks.
I then remembered that some one in my church as they prayed had said something about courage to run. They had physically held up my arms in prayer as a sign of endurance and victory. And someone else had said, “God has a surprise for you in Chicago — watch for it!” So I started over. I decided that my goal had been to finish. I had worked hard, and even if I did not get a medal my family would be there at the finish line to validate and celebrate this victory. I pulled up every ounce of courage that I could muster. I put on my earbuds, delighted in the encouragement of the Marathon Cheering Team of The Moody Church and mentally prepared to chase those garbage trucks for 26.2 miles. The 2009 Chicago Marathon began for me a second time.
Finding My Surprise Gift
Midway through mile five I met Pat, an African American woman from Connecticut. By this time the garbage trucks were no longer visible,2 but neither were there any crowds cheering on the sidelines. There were maybe twenty Marathoners visible; the people on the sidelines — apart from local residents and the occasional die-hard fan — were those who had been watching a race, but now they were going home to get warm. Paper cups, poster-board signs, hats, gloves & warm-up clothing littered the streets.3 Pat was walking, and I slowed my pace to greet her. We chatted a bit and I asked if she would run with me. As we ran into the 6.4 mile water station we were greeted by cold but friendly volunteers who still had some water and Gatorade. I was excited because the tracking mat was still on the ground and connected, though the service truck was there to pick it up. I told the driver he’d better not touch that mat until Pat and I went over it! At least my family would know where I was. (Little did I know that it would not track me — nor did it track thousands of other runners, because of a problem with the tracking system software.)
I think when we crossed that tracking station we were glad that we had found each other. We were still getting to know one another, sharing our stories about our journey to the marathon and our training details. We were running as much as possible. Pat had trained for walking, not doing a lot of running; I had trained cautiously, running for 11 miles continuously at my longest stretch, and mixing walking & running when my training took me on a 14, 16, or 18 mile trek. We were both in shock that they were cleaning up so early in the morning. We were determined to finish but wondering what this was going to look like. I noticed a building clock said 9:40. I told Pat how my church had prayed for me the previous week and that they had committed to pray for me each step of the way on marathon day. Church would be starting soon. I had a new resolve that this day would turn out okay.
At mile 8 or so Pat and I threw our empty cups into the road. The road had not been swept yet and I felt that should at least be able to do that, as all the runners before me had been able to do. We’d been taking encouragement from cheers of those few die-hard fans who love to support the least, who would brave the cold until the last runners left their neighborhood. But what stabbed my heart was the woman who yelled at us. Didn’t we know that we were littering her street, her neighborhood? People lived here and you need to be respectful of that! Didn’t she know that I loved that city, too? And not just Lincoln Park where we were, or Rogers Park where I got married and lived a block off of Devon Street, but also Stony Island Park on the South Side, where my husband had his first full time teaching job, the New Eastside where we both had worked at the Chicago Children’s Museum, and Lawndale on the West Side, where college students and I had lived, worked and worshiped as part of InterVarsity’s Chicago Urban Project. I had fallen in love with Chicago as a senior in college, when I took the L to Operation PUSH on the first day of a semester there. I had prayed for this city. Wept over this city. Lived, worked, explored and played in this city. And this woman was accusing us of disrespect?!? I looked at Pat and said, “We have a right to be here. Let’s run and STOMP on injustice!”
There were more lingering spectators in the next stretch, though even as they cheered the clean up crews were working diligently to make the streets sparkle. We were running in the street, since here in Lincoln Park, police officers were sill keeping the streets closed to traffic. I was enjoying my marathon. I was feeling pretty good. Around mile 9, we ran into the wild and crazy cheers & hugs of my family, who had staked out a place to wait for Meredith & me in front of the Weiner’s Circle.4 We were behind the final pace car, but ahead of this neighborhood’s cleaning crew. My husband gave me two power bars and some bottles of water, thank goodness! We would need these. It was about this time that I realized that Pat was my surprise. My gift from God. And underneath my conscious effort to just keep moving forward, I unconsciously made the decision to carry on with her, come what may.
Half Way There
Pat and I had been pushing ourselves to pass other runners, taking the race one short push at a time. Around mile twelve we were met by Pat’s husband. He told us the Marathon was over — were we planning to finish the course? We responded simply and in unison, “YES!!”
But despite our best efforts, a second bathroom stop had put us behind the cleaning crews again. One thing that struck me as we turned onto Adams Street toward the West side was the clean up. As we’d come down through Old Town along Sedgwick and Wells, following the crews, there was not a cup on the street. There was NO evidence that 45, 000 runners and 1.5 million people had been in there just a short time before. Honestly, I have never seen city streets looks SO clean on a blustery fall day. But here on Adams heading into the West Loop, there were still cups and banana peels littering the road. There was evidence that there had been a party. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly was not pristine — not the showpiece street of the city. My desire was to stop, pick up the trash, and give some respect to this neighborhood where people lived.
Somewhere before mile 16, Pat and I saw some water bottles in cases that were unattended alongside the course. We ran to grab one, and heard someone yell, “Stop!” The woman who had reprimanded us apologized as she got closer. She had not realized we were marathoners and thought we were stealing the water. We must have been an unexpected sight — one African American woman and one White woman, pushing on through the North, West, and South Sides together after the tourists had gone. As I moved through the streets of Chicago with with this new friend, I realized how much of a statement we were making in this hyper-segregated city. Was just our very presence together on this chilly October day stamping out just a bit of injustice? I hope so.
There were some ladies in green shirts with the name of a church (I think) at a bus stop. One said that she had run the 2007 Chicago Marathon and was so glad for the people that had helped her along the way. They had oranges for us. Such a gift, since we had missed the bananas. We had eaten the power bars and were sharing the water. I had some little electrolyte gummies made by Powerbar, so Pat and I shared those. The water stations had closed — at some of them, volunteers lingered, without water to give; others were deserted entirely. We moved quickly as streets were still closed to traffic, but officers were telling us that streets would be open soon. It was still early, perhaps noon, and I was under the impression that the course was open until 3:00 p.m.
Meanwhile at mile sixteen, my family was getting worried. They had waited there a long time, as the band stopped playing and the Gatorade was poured out on the pavement. Despite the race being quite obviously “over,” with all the official support shut down, there were still runners coming, a small but steady stream. My husband walked a mile along Jackson Avenue cheering on the lonely runners as they came by ones and twos through the deserted streets. When he’d nearly reached the end of the marathon course’s westward loop, he gave up and walked back, thinking he must somehow have missed us. But my sister Nadine wouldn’t let him leave — which is good, because as the cleaning crew came finally down the street, so did we. He gave us a bagel, and the last banana from the packed-up supplies of some more green-shirted church people. My family would meet us again at 35th & Michigan and run the last three miles with me. Wow! my Dad, who had open heart surgery less than 2 years ago, was going to do the last three miles with me! My boys, who were born in Chicago, were going to do the last three miles with me! And my sister, too! My heart swelled. I felt a new certainty: I will keep going.
In Need of Direction
We hit the 18 mile mark. We were counting down single digits now — only eight miles to go! Pat and I were refusing to talk about aches and pains, but we were getting tired. I had two ibuprofen, and we each took one with the little water we had left. Our marathon had now completely moved to the sidewalk. There were no course markers, so we asked directions. We were told, “Turn left at the corner…” Half a mile later we met some early finishers, strolling along & reveling in finishing their race. They gave us the thumbs up, and we told them that we were still “racing.” Horror filled their faces and they told us we were headed the wrong way. We had no map. There were no signs. There were not any people associated with the marathon anywhere. Thankfully, we had retrieved Pat’s cell phone from her husband. We spent the next hour trying to get back on course. We were in Pilsen on Halsted, and I knew that we had to go through Chinatown. We called my husband several times, and he would give us the next few streets we would need to cross. Somewhere along the line as we got back on course, we met another African American woman who was running alone and was very discouraged, hurting and ready to give up. Her name was Lisa. She asked if we were going to finish, and we both said, “You bet!” As we came down Halsted, a shuttle bus came by and asked if we needed a ride to the finish line. There was NO way I was going to drop out with only 6 or 7 miles left to go! Lisa hung on to our determination, and stayed in the race.
I had pretty much given up any hope of getting a medal, but there were still bystanders who supported us. One guy along the way told us, “Everyone gets a medal who crosses the finish line before dark.” A little marathon folklore, I thought; it seemed clear to me that the Marathon had ended in the official sense when runners were told to move to the sidewalk at 8:30 in the morning! This Chicagoan was convinced that we would make it to the finish line before dark. I was pretty sure that we would as well. Another guy called out to whoever would listen, “These women are the real champions of the day!” So I want to send out sincere thanks to the dear people of Chicago, many from churches, who prayed, encouraged, blessed and provided support to ALL of the marathoners who were chasing garbage trucks on October 11, 2009. They lasted as long as we needed them.
I knew when I hit Wentworth Ave in Chinatown that I was going to finish the race. A woman with a green church shirt prayed for us as we moved along. She prayed that we would be protected. She prayed that we would not have any physical injuries. By this time three other women — fellow elite slow runners — had caught up with us. They had been running the race together, and we had passed them earlier, before we got lost. Pat & I were confident, but Lisa looked rough, as if she were being dragged along in our wake. My heart was very concerned for her, but I knew if my body slowed again I would not cross the finish line. And that was my goal.
The End in Sight
As Pat and I crossed over the expressway on the 33rd street bridge I turned to the left and there was that beautiful sky line. I slowed just enough and forced a determined Pat to take the time to look. She had come a long way to see that, farther than me! We needed to savor the moment. We also knew that in a few minutes our journey would turn North, and that we would be heading into the skyline and towards the finish line, our ultimate destination.
We finally connected with my family for the last three miles, and also saw someone who was connected with the marathon. He said that we would get our medals if we finished. This marathon worker in a yellow shirt had Advil for us and offered water. It was amazing — we had not had any marathon support for hours. Some IIT students cheered us on. We moved ever closer to the finish. My sister called my husband, who was waiting at the finish line, and told him that we were at 18th Street and that he should lie down across the finish line until I crossed it.5 They were not to take it down! Meredith and her husband David met me at the corner of Michigan and Roosevelt, mile 26. I burst into tears, hugging Mer, and telling her that I almost quit at mile two and now I was so close to finishing. I RAN as I rounded the corner of Roosevelt and Columbus — here it was…the FINISH! It was obscured by cleaning crews and service trucks, the stands were being disassembled, and the FINISH sign which had been suspended over the end of the course had been taken down from its scaffold and was resting on the ground. But it was there. My marathon day was almost over.
First Pat and then I crossed the finish line to the cheers of my husband and niece. My sister in law and brother in law, sons, dad and sister, were behind me cheering. The race officials had gone, but one of the crew members went to find us the person with the medals. Lisa crossed the finish line about 5 minutes after us, picking her way around the scaffolding from which the word FINISH had just been removed. I don’t know if I will ever hear her story, but she too had finished her race. Mer found her a blanket and tried to tell her that she had accomplished what only 1% of the population will ever even attempt. My finishing time was 8 hours, 25 minutes, but my experience was more: memories to last a lifetime, a new friend and a journey across the city of Chicago which seemed somehow to embrace the meaning of my name, victory for the people. And I have the courage to run, whatever the race that is set before me in the future.
I got a standing ovation at my church the following Sunday. My people, who had stood with me as Aaron & Hur, praying for me as I persevered and ran the race set before me. The crowds and hype of the marathon had passed me by. There were spectators, but never the 1.5 million that many other runners had experienced. But to come home and be celebrated in such a way by the people that God has placed me with — this was a gift that was profoundly better than 1.5 million people. I am honored to be journeying with them.
- And a brief, irrational desire to give up and go shopping. ↩
- they’d taken a different route, and showed up later ↩
- Much of this discarded clothing was collected by a Chicago Marathon crew and donated to the Pacific Garden Mission homeless shelter. ↩
- A Chicago landmark with it’s own story of race, place, community, and conflict, once featured on This American Life. ↩
- This posed a problem, given how the thing was constructed. He took a picture instead. ↩