It was dark. It was brisk. It was electric. I shivered in the 29-degree air, my teeth chattering as the sun rose over Chicago’s Grant Park. This was it. My stomach rolled over, nervous and uncertain. I stood in the starting corral, packed in with nearly 35,000 other runners huddling like penguins bracing for winter. We moved forward en masse, and then, there we were facing the starting line of the 2009 Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
It was the 6th anniversary of my father’s death, and I was about to literally run down memory lane. The day before at the marathon expo, I watched a video of the course neighborhood by neighborhood—The Loop, Lincoln Park, Old Town, Greektown and on and on. My emotions swelled and I swallowed hard. I had come back to Chicago a prodigal daughter of sorts. This was my homecoming, my triumphant return to the city of my youth.
“This one’s for you, Dad,” I whispered to myself as I crossed the starting line. It took the first few miles for my body to warm, and even then, I still felt the sting of the frigid air. I tried to take in everything around me—the runners, the buildings and the spectators, who to my surprise were out in force. I shouldn’t have been shocked. I’d been to more than enough Bears games in sub-freezing temperatures to know better. I didn’t realize that exuberance extended to 7:30 a.m. on marathon morning. But boy was I glad it did. To the crowds on the streets (my friends and family among them): you were my heroes.
I ran with the 4:30 pace group, hoping for a personal best. I felt strong and healthy as we ran the entire north side and back to the Loop again. As we crossed the Chicago River near the 12-mile marker, we passed the building where my dad once worked. “That’s the Merchandise Mart,” one of the pace team leaders yelled to the group. “It’s the largest office building in the world.” I bowed my head and prayed for strength. Not for me, but for him. At some point during his life, he’d lost the strength he once had; he died of alcoholism at the age of 58.
I’d been running for two hours and felt good. But after 3 hours I started to worry. My inner thigh was terribly cramped and I wasn’t sure if I had pulled something. I was right on target for a 4:30 finish, having clipped along at a 10:15 per mile pace for 17 miles. But as we pulled into a water station I slowed to a walk, trying to massage the cramp out. The 4:30 pace team pressed on and I let them drift away. I didn’t want to risk an injury. My adductors wouldn’t stop screaming and I let them yell.
But I wasn’t about to quit. I knew I had a full half hour in the bank on my previous best time. So even if I took the last 9 miles slowly, I’d still be able to PR (runner speak for personal record). And so, from mile 17 to the finish, I hobbled along at a 12:40 per mile pace in a good amount of pain. My lungs felt great, barely challenged by my slower speed, and I took the race bit by bit.
At mile 22, the reserves were waiting. My friend Tania had proposed hopping on the course for the last few miles to help bring me home. In the words of the late Harry Caray, holy cow! Was I glad to see her. I grunted something about my groin and she stayed by my side the rest of the way.
I shuffled across the finish line in 4:51:02. Amazingly, I had set another personal record despite a nagging cramp that forced me to drastically reduce my speed. I was deliriously happy. A volunteer wrapped me in a space blanket and another put a medal around my neck. Tania helped me grab food, water and my clothes. I limped across Michigan Avenue on Tania’s arm to a bar where my boyfriend and some friends, who had also run, were waiting. We celebrated and feasted, recounting our war stories and smiling from ear to ear.
My dad always said I’d come back to Chicago—that we always return to where we are from. Well, Chicago put me through my paces, but ultimately welcomed me home. And in the process, what might have been a sad run down memory lane became a joyous one. I hope I helped my dad, wherever he is. I know that running for him helped me. Thank you, Dad. I love you.
Karla Bruning is host of On The Run, New York Road Runner’s weekly lifestyle web show about running. She has completed six marathons, two triathlons and trains with the New York Harriers. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.
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