"Medal of the Week" is taking place of "Bib of the Week" since unfortunately I no longer have my bib from my first marathon. And as I type this, I have decided that MOTW might become a feature too because I still have all of my medals (close to 30 of them) even if I don't have the corresponding bib.
I decided to wait until the start of the New Year to begin running. Looking back I'm not sure why, maybe it was when I -- to quote John "The Penguin" Bingham -- had the "courage to start". I don't know, but I remember going to the Foot Locker at the Fox Valley Mall in Aurora and picking out a pair of Reebok DMX shoes to start my training.
So my first run was on Jan. 2, 2000, and I ran a mile in about 15 minutes. At the time I thought "this was hard...how am I going to be able to run 25 more of those?" But I kept working at it and it got a little bit easier every time, and by late March I was running four miles in about 32 minutes.
My first official race was the Shamrock Shuffle, where I pretty much did everything wrong! I wore cotton clothes, lined up in the wrong place and went out way too fast. Still, I finished in a gun time of 49:24 (they weren't using chips yet for that race) and had a blast.
So I kept at it. As I moved towards my goal I was still not sure if I was going to be able to do it, so very few people knew. In fact, it wasn't until June that I told anyone outside of my family. I eventually told my friend Noah while we were sitting at our desks at work, and within 15 minutes he had signed up too!
The long runs were so hard. I was trying to do them all by myself and I'd have good and bad days. It was a struggle to train because by the middle of the summer I was working three jobs: my day job in IT, my night job on the sports desk at the Beacon News and a paper route in the morning. Looking back I'm still not sure how I was able to make it!
Add to that Kevin was born on Sept. 15th and working in training runs was tough. I also had an injury issue in August as my right IT band started hurting. I took two weeks off and went to Dick Pond's to get fitted with some shoes, and the first pair didn't do the trick, so they were nice enough to get me in another pair, the legendary Adidas Bostons (RIP). I eventually went through about eight pair of those, and to me they are still the best shoes ever.
Still apprehensive, I didn't even register until August (can you believe that!?!?) and in September I had my first big test at the Chicago Half Marathon. Through 10 miles I was just cruising and looked like I was going to run about 1:55, then I just...stopped. My body told me it didn't want to run any more. If you have never experienced that, it's just the weirdest feeling. I struggled in the rest of the way and finished in about 2:05.
A couple of weeks later, when it was time for the 20-miler, it got even worse. Noah and I decided to run together on the Lakefront Path, and it was hot and very windy. I had hoped to run a 9-minute or 9:30 pace, but the conditions were just horrible, and eventually the run took us over four hours. Needless to say, it was a nervous next couple of weeks before race day.
At the time Noah was living in an apartment just off of Lake Shore Drive (actually, he lives around the same place again now), so I stayed at his place the night before the marathon. Despite having an awesome soft leather couch to sleep on, it was a short, restless night, and I probably only got about 2-3 hours of sleep.
But race day dawned, and we headed to Grant Park. Funny thing was, after all of the worrying and anxiety, I felt so calm when we got down there at a little before 7 a.m. It was still dark -- the race was on Oct. 22nd that year -- and with just over 27,000 actual starters wasn't the crazy bin that it is now.
Even all these years later, I still cannot describe my feelings as I stood with the massive crowd at the starting line. I know as the race got closer my anticipation started to build, but I don't remember being overly nervous or anything. I've never been able to do this in any other sport I play but when I line up to run I always feel confident. By then there is no reason to be nervous, it's time to run and I'm either going to finish or I'm not. That -- and my time -- is completely up to me.
One thing I do love about the marathon is the almost silence that falls over the runners right before the race actually starts. Then when the horns go off it's almost like releasing the air out of a balloon, almost like a collective "it's go time!".
As usual it took several minutes to cross the starting line and I noticed that a lot of people were jumping up and touching the starting line banner. I decided not to, because I had this picture in my head of jumping up in the air and coming down and spraining my ankle or something.
(Editor's note: No joke. I read after the race that a guy slipped and fell on a trash bag someone had been wearing to keep warm and he tore his ACL.)
As I got to the start line I didn't jump up but had this huge surge of adrenaline, so much so that just as I crossed the start line I screamed "LET'S GO!" to no one in particular. But as I made my way up Columbus, I made what turned out to be one of the better tactical decisions of my career.
It was kind of slow going at the start and I thought to myself "you know, you could run at this pace all day long". So I did, I just focused on keeping a slow-ish, comfortable pace and simply navigated my way through the streets.
As I did, I was having an absolute blast. For much of the first several miles of the race, I just rode the waves of everyone's emotions and enjoyed the sights. In what seemed no time we had reached the furthest point north the course went and turned back towards the city. So I just stared at the skyline and kept going.
Just before the halfway point, I spotted my sister, Joni and my brother, Tim. They had been in on the plan from the early going, as they were one of the first people I told. Of course, out of everyone in my life then, they were two people who supported me no matter what. They had driven up from Peru, Ind. the morning of the race, and it was such a big deal to have seen them.
I continued on, hitting the halfway point of the race at 2:17 on the clock, which was the gun time, I think I was at about 2:10 in total time. That was when the race began to grind a bit for me. Miles 13-17 on the marathon course go out west to the United Center then turns back towards the city. I've never liked that stretch, the streets are really cambered, there is little crowd support and absolutely no shade. Blah.
Once we got closer to downtown, my spirits rose again, and I just focused on getting to Mile 20. By that point I was really looking forward to seeing Chinatown. The year before, I had made it home from church to see the elite runners covering the last several miles, and thought Chinatown just looked so cool. And, yes, it's everything and more. Lots of people, lots of noise, dragons dancing -- they pull out all of the stops.
Just like that, we had about five miles to go, and the miles just kept counting down. I was still feeling pretty good, all things considered. I had been really smart with my eating and drinking and had found the perfect pace for me.
As I crossed back over the Dan Ryan, I took a look to the north at downtown. Let me tell you, at that point in the race is just looks so far away! A couple of blocks later I saw Joni and Tim again, and they actually jumped out and ran a couple of blocks with me. Joni asked me how I was feeling and I said "my feet hurt!". To which she replied "yeah, but you look great!". She always found the positive in everything.
Back then, the course would go all the way out on 31st Street to Lake Michigan, then would hang a left on the old Lake Shore Drive for the final push home. Once I got turned that way and was running towards the tunnel under McCormick Place, I started thinking about the great runner Khalid Khannouchi (who won Chicago in 1997, 1999 -- where he set a world record of 2:05:42 -- 2000 and 2002) and how this was the point in the race the previous year where he dropped the hammer and passed Ondoro Osoro to win the race and set the world record.
Once we got through the McCormick Place tunnel, it was just over a mile to the finish! We wound our way through the park south of Soldier Field and made our way to a short jaunt on Lake Shore before going up the Columbus Drive ramp. Like this year's course, which has that final hill up Roosevelt Road, the last stretch to the 26-mile mark was up a bit of a hill, but it made for a great sight to get to the top of that rise and see the finish line.
I was almost there! I picked up the pace (well, what pace I had left) and headed home. I made sure as I passed the grandstands that I looked up and took everything in. Thirty seconds later, I crossed the finish line in a final time of 4:27:42, which is still the second-fastest of the eight marathons I've run.
It is hard to describe the feeling of finishing, and after receiving a mylar blanket the next thing I wanted was that medal! I was almost giddy as the volunteer hung it around my neck. That medal was the one thing I thought about through all of my training and all of the tough days I had were I worked too much and didn't get enough sleep.
I was just so proud, one of the proudest moments of my life. The next day at work I hung up my race number in my cube and basked in the accomplishment. For days afterwards, I still couldn't believe I had done it -- and so had Noah, who finished in 3:53: 27.
Despite my original prediction that I would be done running after the marathon, I've kept at it, off and on, for the last 14 years. I've had some great experiences running and have done some really cool things, but so far nothing has topped that day, and I don't think anything ever will.