Chicago Marathon, October, 2004

My only previous marathon had been in Chicago, 1999. I was a not-quite lithe 205 lb. I ran-walked it in 5 hours and 33 minutes, atrociously slow by marathon standards and by some peculiar internal standard, that internal metronome that no one else hears but me. The medal still hangs in my study here, right by family pictures and the bookshelves groaning under the weight of too many physics texts. I have looked at it occasionally over the years, hefted its weight in my hand. It is a medal not for placing, but for finishing. I can honestly say I am proud to have run a marathon and finished it.

It was pretty easy, really, once the training was out of the way. Enjoyable hours on the bike trail close to home, impossibly early morning runs begun at 4:30 a.m., sometimes at 4:00 a.m, just to beat the summertime heat, and to see the sun come up halfway through the run. The sounds of silent running, when all I could hear was my breathing, three quarters of an hour before the first bird began chirping. The vigor of early morning life. The smell of deer nesting in the tall grass alongside the bike trail.

It was all good. Every shower was exhiliarating. Every day my pants grew a little looser, while my thighs and calves became tough like iron. I enjoyed sprinting up stairs at work, two at a time, six floors at a time, without being out of breath at the top of the staircase. I felt so good. I tore through lunch. I had to keep eating just to be ready for tomorrow's run.

The race? The race was fantastic. That will be the subject for another time. When we runners hit the pavement it was 29 windy degrees. Only someone who's lived in the Windy City and worn runner's shorts in late fall can appreciate this. We started with an arch of multicolored balloons over our heads. It was one big moving party. The end was as good as the beginning. We FINISHED FINISHED FINISHED. An hour later I was stiff and sore, chapped raw between my thighs, but we still got over to the Union Club to eat dinner with medals around our necks, and it was incredibly satisfying.

My nieces and nephews are now taking up the challenge. They are asking themselves the same question I asked five years ago: is it in me to do this? They will answer the same way I did. The answer comes one step at a time, one minute at a time, until all the minutes add up to hours and all the steps add up to miles and tens of miles and all the training runs done in solitude climax in the cheering of friends at the end of a very public, very noisy run. The answer comes crossing that finish line, the pain behind, the medal ahead.

They have asked some of their older uncles and aunts to join them. They're now old enough to feel a sense of kinship with their family members. They saw how we did it back then. Three of us trained in three separate cities, calling each other up: how many miles did you do this week? How are you feeling? It was a game of chicken, and no one wanted to be the first to back down. We flew in and ran together, cheering each other on, talking throughout the race, bearing each others' burdens. We wanted to finish together. We all made it. The younger kids want that now too, that feeling of unity and togetherness. So, sure, I'd join them. I did it back then, but I honestly don't know if I can do it again.

My training challenges will be different than theirs. The bodies of twenty year olds are not the same as their uncle's. My left knee is developing arthritis. The lower back is susceptible to sudden moments of piercing pain, brought on by a too-heavy upper torso. My back muscles, injured in a high school wrestling match, will randomly flare up and remind me of that season of discomfort when the latissimus dorsi were torn and I cried in pain such as I've never felt since. Even kidney stones weren't that bad. I'm overweight by at least 20 pounds. I have almost no deep breathing abilities any more, due to laziness and lack of consistent cardiovascular workout. I lift weights but this only succeeds in making my upper body heavier.

Training will be an act of redemption and purification. I look forward to the spartan lifestyle that a marathon demands. Early mornings, early evenings, uncomplicated training. Time to think. Perhaps this latter is the single biggest reason to get back into distance running again. Running affords me the time to clear the clutter away and to plan the day ahead. I like when the noise level goes down. Life is reduced to its absolute starkest simplicity: running, breathing, running, breathing. It's pure zen. It's pure joy.

I don't know if I can do this, frankly. This and the next few daylogs will be a running journal of sorts. Can I overcome the knee pain and keep running? What thoughts will be thought on that trail? Can I keep everything in equilibrium -- all of life's competing stresses -- and keep the goal of finishing the marathon uppermost in mind?

I don't know. But I'll find out.

If you've ever thought about doing something big, consider doing it and beginning today. Perhaps one of us will succeed.

The future ahead is like this marathon run: it's long and daunting, but if I don't begin to take small steps, I'll never ever finish it. The road of ten thousand miles begins with the first step.