Clark’s Tale: Colgate Senior Finishes The Chicago Marathon

Alex Clark

I hated running. I could not stand it. Every semester of high school we were forced to run “the mile” for gym, and I remember those days eliciting more dread and personal agony in me than any number of lectures, finals or root canals ever could. Now I stood with over 33,000 people prepared to run “the mile” 26.2 times. I began to run in college as a means of exercise. Actually, it was sheer laziness in my exercising that drove me to running, as it seemed like the method of calorie-burning involving the least amount of preparation or skill. As I ran more and more, I started to enjoy the process. Running became a challenge, and I pushed myself to go farther, harder and faster. My friends encouraged me to race in 5K events, and the thrill of crossing a finish line and setting personal best times drew me in further. A two-year veteran, I decided to enroll myself in the ultimate challenge: the marathon. My two years of treadmills and mp3-inspired jogs came nowhere near preparing me for the training that commenced 18 weeks before The LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon. Were it not for my novice friend, who trained alongside me throughout most of the summer, I might have surrendered to the 18-mile long runs on Sundays, interval training on Fridays and hills, which made Wednesdays my new least favorite day of the week. Add to that other runs throughout the week and I pumped out about 40 miles every week. My legs and feet were less than pleased. Days were filled with pain and nights with stiffness. Feeling guilt-free about eating whatever I wanted became the only redeeming factor of the constant pushing. Even though I endured so much in over four months of training and despite feeling in the best shape of my life, I still felt overwhelmed by the immense crowd around me and the enormity of the event as I stood on Columbus Drive in downtown Chicago. The cloudless skies and rising sun could not clear up the pit in my stomach or the nervous thoughts in my head. After all, wasn’t this event created based on a Greek myth in which a messenger dropped dead after running this same distance? But a greater fear of letting myself down held me in my place on that crisp October morning, and the sound of a horn indicated there was no turning back on the promise I had made to myself half a year ago. Of course, my race took off well after the starting horn blast. As I quickly (and slowly) discovered, it takes a long time for 35,000 people crowded on one street to move. The first five miles, in fact, were spent shoulder-to-shoulder with racers. Caught up in the magnitude of the masses and the size of the buildings, I hardly believed the seven-mile marker as I passed. My fellow competitors still echoed chants of “USA” against the facades of skyscrapers and the crowds of spectators, often lined up three deep, filled us with confidence and a false sense of ease. Maybe this would not be as difficult as I had imagined. Choosing the Chicago Marathon offered me the benefit of running through a city I had lived near but never really known. As a suburban dweller, I never got to know the various neighborhoods that made up what I had simply considered “the city.” Now I ran through each and every one of them, and all 15 offered a distinct flare that could momentarily shift my focus away from a creeping discomfort that rose through my legs and in my lungs. We passed Wrigleyville and Soldier Field, Chinatown and Greektown, each with throngs of supporters passing out water or yelling out support, telling us what we each were thinking with every step: “Only 10 more miles!!” Soon I began to look forward less to the new sights, sounds and smells of my hometown and more to the various Gatorade stations positioned about every mile and a half apart along the course. These provided me the opportunity to slow to a walk, a pace made even more necessary by the slippery green cups left strewn across the middle of the street. As I saw workers in parkas sweeping the trash into gigantic plastic bags, I realized where my $75 entry fee had gone. After mile 18 and the final sighting of my supportive family, who would return to the finish to await my triumphant arrival, I met a foreboding creature known only to runners as “the wall.” My quadriceps felt like stretched rubber bands that refused to spring. Breathing became an effort in itself, making talking with my friend all but impossible. Looking down at the dashes of the road in front of me, the mantra running through my mind shifted from “one more mile” to “one more step.” As we neared the final 24-mile marker, we recognized that our goal of three hours and 45 minutes would be impossible to meet. I could not have cared less. Reaching the finish line with a smile on my face became my ultimate goal. That and beating the times of Oprah and P. Diddy. The last mile seemed as long as the first 25 combined. The cheers grew louder and louder, the number of spectators larger and larger, but the finish line seemed to drift further and further away. Finally, a final left turn brought me in sight of a big-screen TV and giant yellow banner signaling the finish. My friend and I wanted to cross together, and so we found a final burst of energy from somewhere deep within to speed through the gate as though we had just finished our warm-up. As though wading in an ocean, I felt waves, first of relief, then disbelief, then joy. And then pain. Lots and lots of pain. Crossing at a time of 3:56:32, in 9,382nd place, I joined hundreds of other finishers as we were herded through various stations, picking up blankets and depositing our timing chips that allow the marathon officials to track our times precisely. The process seemed to take forever and my legs buckled, urging my brain to lie down and stop its cruel torture. It took as much will power to walk from the finish line to my family’s car as it had to cover the 26.2-mile loop. But the knowledge that I had finished (ahead of both Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Combs, I should add) afforded me the extra inspiration to find my awaiting supporters. That night I joined my sister, my parents and my new friend BenGay in celebration of the completion not just of 26.2 miles or 18 weeks of training, but of two years of commitment. And despite awaking multiple times in the middle of the night with jarring and excruciating muscle cramps and charley horses, I returned to sleep each time with only one thought: “I cannot wait until next year.”