An Amazing Experience at the Chicago Marathon

An Amazing Experience at the Chicago Marathon

by Elliott L.

Today I arrived at what I consider the halfway point of a dream that was born in April of this year. Before April I never swam, biked or ran. I played basketball occasionally and lifted weights, but I did little in the way of endurance workouts. On a fateful day in April, however, this changed. My Mom asked me if I wanted to run a 5K with her the following weekend. For whatever reason I liked the idea and I agreed. I had about a week to train for the event so I started to run. At first I couldn’t even run 2 miles without stopping to walk. But I ran every day that week, with one off day in the middle. While I was enjoying one of those runs, I had a life changing idea. I wanted to find a way to challenge myself and see what I was really made of. I decided I was going to complete an Ironman.

I realized quickly that there would be a few milestone events to complete to go from where I was – never running, biking or swimming – to completing an Ironman (haha). I decided that the big event for this year was going to be the Chicago Marathon. If I could train for the marathon in six months and complete it successfully, then I knew I could train to complete an Ironman in a year and a half. So the dream was born: complete the Chicago Marathon this year and complete Ironman Arizona next year (I only picked Arizona because I read in Triathlete Magazine that it was a good first Ironman to do and it was in November so it gave me the most amount of time to train).

Up until completing the marathon today, I viewed the event as the halfway point to my ultimate goal of finishing an Ironman. After crossing that finish line today, it will stand alone as one of the most amazing experiences of my life so far. Coach Joe gave me some great advice before the race and that was to really enjoy the experience and take it all in because it was my first one. And I must say what an experience! People lining the streets from start to finish cheering everyone on, running through the great city of Chicago and having people there to share it all with – I will never forget this day!

I had four major goals for the race going in. 1. Finish the race. 2. Run the whole time; don’t walk (apart from aid stations). 3. Finish the race as fast as I possibly can. 4. Give it everything I have; leave it all out there on the streets of Chicago. I also had some super optimistic ideas in my head about how fast I could finish the race, but Coach Joe helped me get a realistic and sound plan in place that all I needed to do was execute. I just wanted to feel like I gave it my all at the end of the day.

The day started at 4:30 in the morning with a bowl of Wheaties and two Clif Bars on the way into Chicago. My Mom and Step Dad came out to cheer me on and support me during the race. The temperature showed around 45 degrees which was a nice surprise (Saturday morning it was 34 degrees!) My best friend Nathan met us at the parking lot at 7am. It meant so much for all of them to be there. As I made my way over to the start corrals I was calm, cool and collected. But as soon as we started to move towards the start line, I thought to myself, “This is it! No turning back now, it’s marathon time!” I crossed the start line, hit my watch and I was off!

For the first 11 miles, everything was going great. I was taking in all the sights and sounds of the thousands of people cheering everyone on. I loved seeing all the different types of people that came to support their loved ones (and some that just came to support everyone)! I think I laughed out loud probably 30 times on the course reading some of the signs people made to give everyone a lift. “20 miles to beer!” “Where are you guys going!?” “Real men last 4 hours!” It was very entertaining. It was also great to see the Experience Triathlon Cheer Crew out there! It’s little boosts like that, that get you through the day.

I was pacing correctly and there wasn’t too much pain or fatigue built up in my legs. Shortly after mile 12 however, I started to feel the pain building. I remember thinking at the halfway point, “Yes, half way! But dang if I already hurt, how am I going to make it another 13.1!?” I remember miles 12-17 as a mental battle of convincing myself I had what it took to get to the finish line without walking, even though there was a significant amount left. At mile 16, I remembered a training run I had done at my Michigan lake house that was 16 miles long. I thought to myself, “In that run, I was done after 16 miles, but now I still have 10 to go!” I love the mental battles you have with yourself during a race. Overcoming them makes you stronger and you grow as a person each time you do.

At mile 17, my family was supposed to be there to cheer me on, but I didn’t see them. I didn’t realize how much it meant to have people there to keep you going until I thought they would be there and then they weren’t! So I had to soldier on to mile 20 where we had agreed they would be next. Miles 17-20 were getting tough. I had to consciously push myself to stay at the race pace I was aiming for. My ankles were starting to hurt and my legs were getting fatigued. Each aid station became a much needed quick walk break as I took on some hydration. As I was approaching mile 20 I was really hoping to see my family there. As I got up to the mile 20 marker, there they were! I stopped to say hi for two seconds and grabbed two more electrolyte water bottles to finish the race with.

Mile 20: new territory – each step I took was one step longer than I had ever run before. At around mile 21 I got a stomach cramp (or abdominal cramp – I can’t be sure). This presented a new challenge, because in addition to my legs being very fatigued, I was now dealing with something that had never happened in training. I wasn’t sure if I had been eating too much or too little or if I had been drinking too much or too little. The pain got to the point where I thought I might have to stop and walk for a minute, but the determination side of my brain took over and said stick to your goals and never give up. I made it to the next aid station and walked for a few seconds while I took on some water. The pain was still there for the next couple miles, but it slowly subsided. There will be a great photo from the marathon photography staff of me clutching my stomach, slightly hobbled over while still trying to run and giving the photographer a thumbs up (haha).

I had always pushed myself in training and pushed through long runs until the end without walking, but the last 3-4 miles of the marathon were like nothing I have experienced. All of my goals were coming into play at the end of the race. No matter what, I wanted to finish the race without walking outside of an aid station. Doing this would accomplish goal number 4, giving it everything I had and leaving it all out there. At the aid station at mile 24 I walked for a few seconds and grabbed some water. When I started running again I had to make this face and noise to get myself moving. It must have looked and sounded like a medieval warrior charging into battle. The pain in my feet and ankles was intense! I didn’t accelerate very fast either – 13min mile pace… 12min mile pace… 11min mile pace… 10min mile pace… Slowly I got back up to speed and pressed on. I had thought that the aid station at mile 24 was the last one and I had no idea how I was going to keep running all the way to the end. I knew I was going to see the ET team at mile 25.2 so maybe I could sneak a short break to say hi and it wouldn’t count as walking. Of course it would count! Luckily there was a miracle aid station at mile 25.1 so I got a last final short walk break before taking on the last mile.

The last mile stands as the single most difficult thing I have done physically and mentally. Every part of my legs hurt. Almost all of my muscles felt like they were on the verge of cramping. I remember seeing a red sign at the end of the street and I just thought, “Just make it to that red sign!!” Every step I took, my brain was screaming at me to walk, but I wouldn’t listen. As I made it to the sign at the end of the street I heard someone say there was only 3 tenths left – OK, I could do that! As we turned the corner, of course, there is that last uphill bit – no problem at this point.  Nothing was going to stop me (I hoped). Then there is that magical last turn where you see the finish line! 300m, 200m, last 100m! I saw my family and best friend cheering me on and it gave me just enough boost to finish strong. I tried to pick up the pace ever so slightly, but felt my calf and inner thigh cramping so I had to finish however I could!

When I crossed the finish line I was so overwhelmed with emotion I began to tear up (I never thought I would say that!). I had literally given it everything I possibly could have. But that’s what life is all about, right? Pushing through those tough moments when everything in your head is telling you that you can’t do it. I must say I will never forget this day and I encourage everyone to really go after that big event you have been thinking about, because although it will be hard, there are few more rewarding feelings than the feeling I had today crossing the finish line at the Chicago Marathon.

Thank you, Coach Joe, for all your help in preparing me for this and thank you to the ET Cheer Crew for coming out and supporting us!

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  • Outstanding Elliott! Great job on setting the right goals AND following them. It’s was the perfect setup for an amazing experience and you got it!! I’m really proud of what you’ve accomplished here and looking forward to supporting your journey toward the Ironman. Thanks for sharing your story with us!

  • Jim R

    Awesome story Elliott and what a great accomplishment. Congrats on your Chicago Marathon finish and enjoy the training for Arizona Ironman, look forward to that story when you accomplish your next challenge.

  • Sarah F.

    Really cool story, Elliott! I have to tell you that the parts that stick out to me the most, are 1) your mom planted the seed for you to start running (yay, mom!!), and 2) your determination to really push yourself past & beyond your known limits to finish the marathon without walking — a huge, heartfelt congratulations to you!!! So glad you found Coach Joe, and welcome to ET! =)

  • Jeff P

    Great Story Elliott! You are well on your way to that Ironman goal. Keep the same mindset of pushing through those barriers and I know you’ll see the Ironman finish. Good Luck!

  • Nancy Haines

    Congratulations, Elliott! I wasn’t with the ET Cheer Crew, but I saw you – that neon green shirt was hard to miss. I must have been near them, because people around me were cheering for you. I saw you at the 2 and 13 mile marks. You didn’t look tired to me at 13! If you were tired, you faked me out.