A crisp fall morning, the street lights are still glowing, and the birds have just begun to sing their daily melody. The atmosphere is festive, but there is also a feeling of ambiguity as I am completely unfamiliar with this experience. The majority of the people are wearing far too little clothing considering the brisk temperature in the upper 40’s. Some stand still and endure the chilly weather, while others awkwardly jog in place as they attempt to keep warm. One young male is even shirtless already. Over the PA, the announcer proclaims that there are participants who have gathered from all 50 states and over 100 countries.
The day has arrived; this is indeed my first marathon. A carefully mapped course spanning precisely 26.2 miles, this is the path which now stands in-between the finish line and me. Never in my life have I attempted to run such an incredible distance. Even though I am confident with my training, a sense of doubt creeps into the back of my mind.
As I stand at the start line, everything around me feels surreal. I turn to my left and wish my friend a good race; I turn to my right and shake hands with a stranger donning a ‘Mexico’ jersey. The anticipation at this point is overpowering, almost unbearable; seconds begin to feel like minutes and minutes begin to feel like hours. Suddenly the banner is lifted and the race has begun.
Mile 0: The herd of runners spreads out over the eerily empty streets of downtown Chicago and the crowd makes its presence felt. It is estimated that over one million spectators will be in attendance. The energy generated from the combination of enthusiastic shouting and thunderous applause sends chills down my back.
Miles 1-11: I cross through my first mile at a blistering speed of six minutes and fifty-four seconds. I consciously tell myself to slow down, but the adrenaline is in complete control. As the initial excitement slowly begins to fade, I begin to transition into a more conservative pace. I breeze through the first eleven miles smooth and precise like a fine blade carving through a block of cheese.
Mile 13.1: Halfway point. My time of 1:36:28 is quicker than any of my previous training runs when reaching this threshold. As my GPS announces my average mile pace of seven minutes and fifteen seconds, a rush of excitement permeates through me like a shot of whiskey on an empty stomach. I continue a steadfast pace through mile markers fourteen and fifteen.
Mile 16: My body is beginning to rebel against the continued pounding. My pace is slowing, and pain begins to protrude through my feet, upward into my legs and lower back. My brain casts a seed of doubt as the daunting reality that ten miles still remain before the finish.
Mile 18: A spectator hands me a salty pretzel stick, this provides temporary relief. I carefully consume the crunchy treat making sure that I do not slow my pace. The late morning sun has now placed itself directly overheard. The bright and powerful rays feel like daggers penetrating through a delicate leaf.
Mile 20: Many experts say that the real race begins at this point, my body has now completely been depleted of its glucosamine reserves. I am beginning to doubt my ability to last another 6.2 miles.
Mile 21: The distance between mile markers feels exponentially greater. Every step is more miserable than the last, but I refuse to stop, I remind myself that surely the end is near.
Mile 23: I am keeping pace in a cave of pain. Who in the right mind would consciously sign up to run 26.2 miles and think that it is a good idea? My heart sinks as I turn onto Michigan Avenue and can see the outline of the CNA tower, a 44-story high rise which roughly correlates to the mirage of the finish line. Never have I felt so demoralized with how far I have come yet how much further still remains.
Mile 24: I desperately want to stop, but stubbornly refuse to walk. As I gaze into the crowd I see a spectator holding a sign: “Your Only Option is to Finish.” For whatever reason, I remember a friend who was diagnosed with cancer. My friend was forced into a battle for his life in which his only option was to fight. Likewise, I too need to fight. Each and every step is now more painful than the last; despite the pain my only option is to continue onwards.
Mile 26.2: Cruel as it may be, the only hill in the entire course is at the very end. I am numb to the pain as I carry my fatigued frame up the sharp incline. I power onwards through to the finish and release my emotions in the only way I can—a steady stream of tears roll down my cheeks and a feeling of warmth wraps around me like a blanket. As I begin to rejoice, I come to the realization that this experience forced me out of my realm of familiarity. The marathon allowed me the opportunity to run side by side with the human spirit.
Writer: Benjamin Gerber
Location: Streets of the Chicago Marathon
Photography: Event Photography Group