When I woke up the morning of the Wacky Snacky 5K race on a Sunday in February, 2001, I was feeling confident. My training had gone well and I felt like I was in line to accomplish my goal of earning a spot in a seeded corral for the Indy Mini Marathon that upcoming May.
In order to qualify for a seeded spot, I had to post a specific time in either a 5K, 10K, Half marathon or marathon. With the deadline about a week away, and races hard to come by in ChicagoBut in the wintertime, Wacky Snacky was my one -- and only -- chance.
One weird thing about it was that it also happened to be my first 5K ever. After spending the previous year working towards my goal of running the Chicago Marathon, I focused on longer distances. And besides, I felt like the 5K was kind of a crappy race, because you spent the money and took the time to jump into a race that lasted 20-25 minutes. Not for me.
But I had really driven myself and focused on this race. I had spent the previous several weeks running lap after lap of a 200-meter indoor track near where I worked. With only an hour to get there and get my work done, then get back to work, I usually ran a hard 3-miler or ran 200 or 400-meter repeats. It was hard, but it was actually a lot of fun. I was pushing myself harder than ever before, and my times kept dropping.
I had done everything possible to get ready for this race, but there was one element about the race I couldn't control -- the weather. When I left my house and got into my car, it was 57 degrees, but a cold front was racing in from the north west that was going to just absolutely drop the bottom out of the temperature.
The cold front was moving faster than I was, because by the time I had driven the 45 minutes into Chicago, when I got out of my car I was almost knocked down by 28-degree temperatures and 30 mile per hour winds. Still, I didn't let my confidence wane. When you train for something, you take the good with the bad and press on. I still didn't think I would be denied.
As I walked to the starting line, I took a look at the gray sky and scanned the Chicago skyline. From the first time I had visited Chicago in 1977 I was in love with the skyline. It always seemed to inspire me, and for some reason I've always run my best races in the city.
While I walked, my friend Noah caught up with me. He was also going for a seeded time (he was going for a Level 1, which was 20:00) and was already pumped up for the race. While I was trying to get focused, he was bouncing along next to me.
"Dude!" he said as studied my concerned look. "Don't worry about the weather. You've got this!"
I nodded, and as quickly as Noah had caught up to me, he was gone, moving further up into the pack. Since this was a gun-time race, I knew I had to get close to the starting line so that I could get a quick release onto the course, but I didn't want to be in the way of the faster people. Eventually I settled next to the curb on the right hand side of the street about 10 feet from the starting line.
As I stood there, I could feel the wind at my back but man, was it cold! My little warm-up jog had long worn off by then, and I just wanted to get going as soon as possible. Finally, the music was turned down and a silence overcame the crowd of runners. I love the moment right before the race starts, when it gets eerily quiet and everyone starts to lean forward in anticipation.
Finally, the air horn blared and the race came to life. I surged forward, and it only took a couple of seconds to cross the starting line. But the adrenaline was hitting me like a truck and I knew after just a couple of minutes I'd probably gone out too fast. Since this was my first 5K and I knew I had to average 7:14 per mile to make my goal, I decided to hit the first mile and see where I was at before full-on panicking.
About 3/4 of a mile into the race, we went over a small bridge and I could see to the front of the field. Among the hundred or so bobbing heads in front of me, at the front of the field I could see a tall guy with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail up front with the leaders. It was so cool, Noah was going for it!
Seeing that gave me a little resolve, if he was gonna do it, so was I. Little did I know his time at the front was pretty short-lived, but he told me later that he just wanted to see what it was like to run with the leaders!
I hit the mile in 6:48, which to this day is still the fastest race mile I have ever run. It was also roughly 25 seconds under pace, and I was approaching oxygen debt with each stride. But at this point, I knew (or hoped) that I only had about 15 minutes to run, so I kept battling.
I reached the two-mile mark in 14:02 after running a 7:15 second mile. Now I was starting to hurt badly, and we were turning back into the wind. I still had no doubts at all in my mind that I was going to break 22:30, I just had to keep digging. So I started digging...and digging...and digging. By now my lungs were hurting and my body was in pain pretty much from top to bottom, not to mention the wind was starting to take its toll.
With about 1000 meters left to go, a guy the size of an NBA small forward eased past me. I thought to myself: "Go with this guy!" I ducked in behind him and let him break the wind for me. When I get behind someone I try to focus on something specific, like the tag on their shirt or a word on the back of their shirt, just something really minute to try and stay focused.
I followed him for a bit but I could feel the wheels starting to fall off. But in the distance I could see the Mile 3 marker, so I just kept playing mind games and making deals with myself, and ran to that sign. With my chest hurting, my stomach hurting, heck, even my face hurting from the wind, I hit the third mile in about 21:45.
There's still time! I said to myself, but as we went up a little hill I had my only panic attack of the race...I couldn't see the finish line! What was the deal? Was the mile marker put in the wrong place? As I reached the top of the hill I started to relax as I saw people turning left about 100 feet in front of me. A building was blocking the view of the finish line so when I turned the corner I only had a couple hundred feet left.
I put my head down and gave it all I had to the finish. Noah was waiting -- as always -- and I could hear him cheering me on. When I hit that line and finally stopped, I couldn't breathe, I couldn't feel anything, and I couldn't even think. I had remembered to hit my watch at the finish but I waited a few more seconds before summoning the courage to look at my watch. Finally, I did.
I had made my seed time by four seconds! And Noah had finished in 19:36, finishing in 32nd place and easily crushing his goal. I had finished 120th overall in a field of close to 850 runners.
It was such an amazing feeling to accomplish that goal. I've never won a race before, heck, I've never even won an age group award, but I can imagine the feeling being about the same. I had run so hard, and I just kept pushing and pushing because I knew in my heart I could do it. That was certainly a special day.
Two months later, at the Indy Mini Marathon, Noah started with the elite men, and I started in the same corral as the elite women. He went on to run 1:31 and I ran 1:48 to set a half-marathon PR that stood for six years. I've had a lot of great memories in my running life, but this race has to be near the top!