I am a marathon runner! On October 11, 2016 I took my first steps as a runner. 362 days later, I ran my first marathon. In between there were 1097 miles – some domestic, some international, some in oppressive heat, some in freezing cold, some in the rain, some that boosted confidence and some that filled me with doubt. There were 3 half marathons, 2 ten milers, 4 10Ks, 3 5Ks and my first race, a Turkey Trot. In the end, each and every one of those steps led me to that Start line yesterday and more importantly to that Finish line at the end.
As I watched my husband run and complete his first Chicago Marathon last year, I was inspired. Nearly 2 million people come out to watch the marathon. Chicago may not be able to balance its budget, but one thing it does well is sports. Watching both the runners, in their silent camaraderie and the spectators cheering on friends and strangers, moved me. Something triggered and I started to think, “I’d like to be a part of this excitement. But not from the sidelines.”
I had not run since the age of 12 after being humiliated by a teacher who shamed me with “You run like a girl!” while running alongside me during a softball game; an epithet that might as well have called me a fag. This, on top of the challenges of “starting to look gay” with peer-shaming, wounded me for many years to come. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how offensive this was to girls, too. There are still many girls who I wish I could run like. Feel free to give me pointers, ladies!
Today, I’m a well-adjusted, very out, confident man who thinks nothing of carrying a man bag, sporting a scarf or garnishing my blazer with a lapel pin. But the five second movie-in-my-head of that event nearly thirty-seven years ago continued to play incessantly in my head, holding me back. Until that October morning last year when I chose to squelch that sense of shame. I laced up a pair of running shoes and started to run – for the challenge, for the health benefits and for my pride.
Running has changed my life. It has helped me to become a better version of me. Joe 2.0, if you will. Before the race, in my motivational speech, my coach, Andrew told me, “The man who crosses that finish line is different from the man who is at the start.” His words were true. Running a first marathon is something that you don’t really know you will be able to do until you are there. The training mantra is “trust the plan” or “trust the training.” This is all valid because as long as you have put in the work, many people before have followed these same methodologies. The parts you don’t know are: what will the weather bring?, what will my mind do in those last miles?, will my body let me go the distance? Most of it is mental. Some of it hurts. You need a good mental game to push past what hurts. You need inspiration.
Part of what has changed me and inspired me has been running with my team – Team to End AIDS. We are a motley crew of men and women who all unite in a dedicated way to raise money for a cause we believe in. Together we raised nearly a quarter million dollars. I am proud to have raised $5000 of that through the generosity of my donors. Every Saturday morning from June to October, this group of dedicated coaches, team managers and athletes met on the Chicago lakefront and worked towards our goal of running our marathon. We shared stories, laughed, cried, boosted each other when there were injuries or doubt. And we ran – a lot. Through all of these miles, friendships developed. My experience of this race would have been very different if I did it alone. The men and women I have met and who have become my friends are all truly special people. I am grateful to have shared this experience with them.
Yesterday was a magical day for me. If I had to script how I would have liked my first marathon to be, I don’t think I could have written a better screenplay with one exception. I would have made the day partly cloudy, in the fifties with a gentle, yet consistent breeze. Instead it was sunny and warmer than ideal (mid to high 70s) with almost no cloud cover. Part of how I knew that I was ready for the challenge was that I was still way more excited to run than nervous, even up to the day before. My nerves first kicked in a little when Graham and I got in the car to drive to the race. I had that feeling one gets when you go on a rollercoaster. The cart is clicking up the hill and you know you’ve committed. This is happening!
We met my team at our Race Headquarters. The first tears came shortly after when one of my teammates gave a moving inspirational speech. The next ones came when Graham left to go to his corral to start. Now this really was happening. I was moved to be doing this with my husband. Sharing a moment that neither of us would have envisioned when we met or even last year. My steps would follow his on that course. And in the end, we would meet both having completed something relatively few people in the world do.
Soon after, it was time for my group to leave as runners in the second wave. The jitters were manageable. I just wanted to start. Waiting to start a marathon in which 44,500 people are running feels interminable. The excitement is pent up and one just wants to run. It was great to have some of my teammates around me to laugh with and be distracted. Soon after, the gun went off, and we had started that long road around the city.
Advice that I had heard a number of times, particularly for a first marathon, is to take it all in, really enjoy the moments. You never get another first marathon. I did this from the beginning and kept it with me all the way through. “Smile. Thank spectators. High five people.” All of this helps the psyche. Having my name on my shirt was phenomenal. I can’t tell you how many people called my name. I gave a thanks, a high five or a thumbs up to them all. I smiled as much as I could. I laughed at signs. I kept on moving. Also, along the way there were friends and family. Some that I knew were coming to see me and others that I just ran into. Seeing a loved one’s face when you are running for hours is like having a triple espresso. The boost that it brings is incredible.
The first miles of the race require restraint. One of the biggest mistakes many make is not holding back on the enthusiasm and start running too quickly. When you have 26.2 miles, this can be a problem at the end. I kept checking my watch to be sure my pace was ok. I also kept “pinching” myself thinking, “Man, I am running a freaking marathon. I am on these streets with throngs of people who are doing something big.” I had the “advantage” of a few other distractions – my headset wouldn’t pair with my phone even though I’ve used it forever, I had to pee even though I had peed before we left and when I crossed the 10 mile marker my watch said 10.72 miles. Eventually, the first two worked out. The last one stuck. Somehow I had run over the mileage even paying attention as best I could to “the tangents” which are the painted blue lines in the road indicating where the precise mileage comes from. If you run “wide” you will add mileage. I did pay close attention to where they were, particularly around corners. I think my high-fiving made me miss a few of them. But do you know what? The energy that I got from those people was worth the extra bit. In the end for me, I ran 27.1 miles. Now I know maybe an ultra is possible. LOL
Mile fifteen the sun was pretty much directly overhead and there was no cloud cover. At that point, I had a moment of “Seriously?! We still have 11.2 miles?!” I wouldn’t call it a wall as much as just a feeling of “I’m sort of done with this right now.” I used the techniques that I practiced and pulled myself out of it. Mantras, breathing, focusing on the moment, interacting with the crowd, music. Every bit helped. It also helped to think of all the tremendous support I had in friends and family around the world. Knowing the vast amounts of encouragement that I have received nourished me and kept me going.
The one downside to running in a city you know is you know where you are. So when I passed the United Center, even without mile markers, I knew we were nowhere near Grant Park and the finish line. And when I was still running south towards White Sox Stadium, I didn’t want to be running away from the city anymore. But around that time, something else was also key for me – I think it was mile 22 or so. I was tired but still felt strong. I could still run though many were walking more than the occasional walk break that many runners take. At that time, I knew I was going to finish. I was going to finish a marathon. If I had to, I knew that I could walk the rest at that point.
I got myself to keep running with the idea that the faster I went the sooner I would finish. If I had to walk, at least it wouldn’t be as far of a walk. Around mile 23, one of the team coaches who has been amazing ran with me for a bit. It gave me another boost of energy to hear him say I looked strong and validate that I was doing great. Soon after I turned onto Michigan Avenue which was key because it is when you start running north back into the city and into the home stretch. It still feels like an eternity away. But at least I could see the buildings and they were getting closer, however slowly that may be.
At mile 24, I saw a woman running with a Mystic Runners shirt. My friend Michelle who I have known since kindergarten and was also running the marathon also runs with the Mystic Runners. I ran up to the women and asked if she knew Michelle. She, of course, did and we ran together. She thanked me for running with her because she had been struggling from mile 14. One of the things with running is the camaraderie we share is what sometimes keeps us moving. As much as I helped her, she was helping me too. Knowing that I could help someone else keep moving also kept me moving.
At mile 25, the tears of joy began to stream down my cheeks as I realized, “I am going to finish a marathon. I am going to achieve what I set out to do. And I am going to finish it strong.” Soon after, I saw my family around 25.8 and that gave me the final boost I needed to get to the finish line. The tears continued as I worked my way there but my smile widened. And I began to teem with pride. This was the moment that I worked so hard to accomplish. I ran over the mats at the finish line, head held high and proud, my arms in a victory pose. The moment of crossing the finish line that I had imagined in so many runs as a visual to get me to that point was now my reality. The mental movie of the teacher running next to me saying “You run like a girl” has been replaced with one of me crossing the finish line of a marathon. Her words don’t get to define me anymore. I am an athlete. I am a marathoner.
My mantra now is “I define who I am and who I will be.” My running work isn’t done. I actually already look forward to my next marathon, not that I have one planned. As I sit here typing this with my medal around my neck, it feels phenomenal to know that though I have just achieved something huge, I can still do better. I have not hit my peak yet. I define who I am. I define who I will be. The best is yet to come.