Columbus Day weekend in Chicago was supposed to be filled with museums, but most of the memories will be about the Chicago marathon and 45,000 people from all over the world running 26.2 miles in the streets of Chicago. That is running from Fairhope to Mobile plus another 6.2 miles, and the marathon winner did this in only in two hours and nine minutes. But the country’s biggest marathon is more than people running fast and far, it is 45,000 people with a dream and a reason to run and the family and friends crossed the streets of downtown Chicago with neon poster signs and big balloons to cheer their runners along the way.
The day begins at dawn as streets are blocked off and cups for Gatorade are stacked in neat rows on tables at drink stations. A woman says this is the first time she has run a race without her husband and she feels like a lost puppy. A homeless man yells over and over: “On your marks. Get Set. Go!” as runners walk towards Grant Park wearing numbered bibs and clear, plastic race backpacks. A photographer climbs on the Columbus Drive Bridge and gets his spot and a few shots before the sun rises.
The Chicago Marathon is the biggest marathon in the country and massive of people surge through State Street, Jackson, Michigan, Wells and LaSalle, but each runner has a story. Men push sons with disabilities in racing strollers. Women (and men) wear tutus and tiaras and eat power bars on the run. A runner juggles three footballs and keeps his pace as runners wave flags from Mexico, Peru, and Ireland. A blind runner is attached to his guide. Runners fall and help one another up, and friends join in to run a few blocks along the way.
There are stories on their T-shirts with their names, where they are from and the reasons they run. Costa Rica. Canada. Mexico. Norway. Dominican Republic. Missouri. Claudia. Brock. Kevin. Joel. Kristen. Kevin.
Shirts that say “He proposed” and “She Said Yes.” “Over the Hill Challenge” and “Running Sucks.” Pictures of people they are in memory of and their causes–breast cancer, autism, animals, domestic violence, and athletes for equality. A father and daughter running together with yellow T-shirts that say “Go Allie” and “I am Allie.”
For the people on the sidewalk, the Chicago Marathon is more of a celebration than a race. It is in the signs held up by friends and family. “Go Mom” in a child’s blue letters. “Emma is Wonder Woman.” “Run Faster. It is time to start drinking” and “Tequila shots at the finish line.” It is a quick hug of kids. It is a husband standing on a fire hydrant for a better view of his wife and mapping out how many places he can go to see her run past. It is family and friends using apps to watch times and know when to search the faces of runners passing by.
It is the people of Chicago who show up with cowbells and noisemakers just to cheer people on. Calling out the names written, taped, or printed on the runners’ shirts and yelling encouragement to keep going. A volunteer who says for hours, “Gatorade first and then water. Drink lots of them” at the drink station at mile three.
As 45,000 runners round the last corner toward the finish line to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” or Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine,” they smiled and celebrated the last 200 meters. Some ran faster, some just hanging on because they had nothing left. Some took selfies and videos. Some waved and cheered to the crowd. Some just said, “I did it.”
Twenty-six point two miles. How does anyone do this? There is the first wave of professional runners built like gazelles who could run another 26.2 miles, followed by the natural athletes, but then there are the ones who look like the rest of us. People of all ages, shapes and sizes. How did they get to the Chicago Marathon? You don’t just show up and run a marathon, even on a perfect October day that could make anyone feel like running.
Runners who are teachers, students, mothers, fathers, youth pastors, and grandparents running 26.2 miles in only a few hours. There must have been something that drove them here, a reason to make a change in their lives or to do something different. Something they didn’t think they could do.
There must have been a time when running a marathon seemed impossible, but they set their minds on doing it anyway. Days, weeks, or months of walking mixed with running slowly became running. Days it was hot, days it was cold, days they hurt, days they had other things to do, and days they wanted to quit. But they didn’t. I have given myself excuses for not running a marathon from knee surgery, and not enough time, to “I don’t like real running,” but thousands of people running had those same reasons not to try and they did it anyway.
After ice baths or hot showers to soothe tired feet and sore knees and a night of walking around Chicago eating carbs and wearing their Marathon medals, the runners will return to their normal lives. Resting for a few weeks before training begins to improve their personal times and do this all over again.
For a few days, some of us will remember them and think about running too.