At 14-mile mark, running with fellow Opportunity Enterprises runners Karen Walker and Michelle Snider, both of Valparaiso.
Updated: November 17, 2013 6:14AM
The sun slowly rose over Lake Michigan on Sunday morning, shining its long-awaited warmth on 40,000 of my fast friends at Grant Park in Chicago.
With a chilled anxiety, I stood in Corral M, the last roundup of runners waiting for the start of the 26.2-mile Chicago Marathon. Along with fellow Opportunity Enterprises runners Karen Walker and Michelle Snider, we were the final remaining participants, followed only by the street-cleaning crews — an ominous observation.
While nervously stretching, I wondered if we would also finish last. Or finish at all? So many runners don’t finish a marathon for a variety of reasons: Cramps, injuries, dehydration, falls, exhaustion or by simply quitting along the route. Would I, too?
Finally, at 8:25 a.m., an hour after the race officially began, we crossed the starting line while dodging remnants from runners ahead of us — discarded sweatshirts, unneeded gloves and empty packets of energy gels. Our plan was simple: Slow and steady.
By the one-mile mark, we already felt the emotional embrace from the first wave of enthusiastic onlookers, well-wishers and cheerleaders who lined the streets. I immediately realized that these spectators — an estimated 2 million strong — would carry us through every step, every mile and every excuse to quit.
“Way to go, Karen!” and “You’re doing great, Michelle!” they yelled repeatedly after seeing the women’s first names on the front of their shirts. Others held up homemade signs of encouragement: “DID YOU THINK IT WAS ‘RUM’ FOR 26 MILES?” “THIS STRANGER IS PROUD OF YOU” and “YOU TRAINED LONGER THAN KIM KARDASHIAN’S MARRIAGE!”
At the six-mile mark, I started feeling a sharp pain on the bottom of my right foot, like I was stepping on a small rock with every step. Only 20 more miles to go, I told myself with a laugh.
At the eight-mile mark, I stopped at a medical tent to reveal a two-inch-long bubble blister on the sole of my foot. A nurse suggested I lather it with Vaseline and hope for the best, so I distracted myself by high-fiving hundreds of spectators through 29 neighborhoods.
“Welcome to Greektown — oompah!” a lady yelled from a stage.
“Why you no run faster!?” someone joked in Chinatown.
“Boystown loves runners!” screamed a drag queen in the city’s gay community.
While running, I thought of all my training miles in recent months. I didn’t train as hard or as long as the other OE runners — I simply don’t enjoy running — but still tallied more than 100 miles.
I also thought about all the expert advice I received from established runners, including Bob Pence, Heather Henderlong and Dr. Paul Sommer, my podiatrist. I went through three pairs of running shoes to find the right one for my troubled feet, including three sets of orthotics, dozens of Band-Aids for blisters and countless tips from others.
Not once in my training did I ever hit that so-called “runner’s high,” elevating my mood to near nirvana-like levels. Instead, I typically got high by daydreaming of my next pizza, my last moment of physical pleasure, or my proximity to the next finish line.
However, I did feel giddy throughout much of the marathon, thrilled to finally take part in it after weeks of trepidation about something that only 1 percent of the population ever finishes, I learned.
Karen, Michelle and I walked through every water station, 20 in all, sipping Gatorade and soaking in more signs of encouragement: “PAIN NOW, BEER LATER” and “WORST PARADE EVER” and “YOU RUN BETTER THAN OUR GOVERNMENT!”
The most poignant scene was passing an assisted living facility and seeing older or disabled residents waving from behind closed windows. We waved back with smiles, thankful to be able to do what we were doing.
By the time we hit the halfway mark at 13.1 miles, we had already passed hundreds of other runners-turned-joggers-turned-walkers who started before us. We also got passed by runners dressed as Wonder Woman, Superman and Captain America.
At the 16-mile mark, I had to stop at another medical tent to treat my blister with more Vaseline. Still, I felt fortunate considering other runners there with more serious problems. “Lace ’em up and good luck,” a medic told me, so that’s what I did.
At that point, the smorgasbord of delicious smells along the route began teasing me. I skipped eating breakfast that morning — a no-no in the running world but not in my world — so I gobbled down scraps of offerings from spectators, everything from candy to pretzels to bananas. They tasted like caviar. Each remaining water station appeared like an oasis in a desert.
We waved to frat boys playing loud rock music. We high-fived small kids with wide eyes. We thanked faceless volunteers who shouted support at every turn, even after doing so to 30,000 other runners before us.
With less than three miles to go, we spotted this funny sign: “DID YOU THINK THE RACE WAS 2.62 MILES?” I laughed out loud and thanked the woman who held it.
At the 25-mile mark, I didn’t feel any more pain. I just wanted to get this thing over with. These signs helped: “WHO NEEDS TOENAILS ANYWAY” and “REMEMBER YOU PAID TO DO THIS” and “YOU ARE MY HERO.”
At the finish line, a public speaker announced my arrival: “Jerry Davich from Portage, Indiana!” Other nearby runners arrived from Valparaiso, Texas and England.
In hindsight, while accepting my medal, I realized I could have shaved off several minutes from my finish time if I didn’t stop at a medical tent, twice, or to walk through breaks.
But this was never about my finishing time, 5:55.
It was only about finishing — upright, upbeat and appreciating the once-in-a-lifetime experience with my lady. This way, if one day we’re stuck inside an assisted living facility while watching a Chicago Marathon, we can unearth our racing bibs, lace up our old running shoes and share a knowing smile.