I love race day.
I like running, but I love race day. There’s nothing like the excitement of the starting corrals, that rush on the course as you realize that all the training is paying off, and the celebration and release of crossing the finish. It’s not all joy, of course. There are moments of real struggle out there as you fight through a nagging injury, bad weather, or whatever your mind may conjure to sow doubt. And, you know, running competitively just hurts. The point (for me, anyway…most runners aren’t like this, I don’t think) is to push. To go as hard as you can for as long as you can. I’ve never been one to feel endorphins during a run, but I certainly feel the dopamine rush at the end when I know that the work I did mattered, that every mile I pounded out in the neighborhood got me across the line in the shortest amount of time I reasonably could.
Unfortunately, I’m on a bit of a forced hiatus from racing. Or, really, anything more than walking. One of the symptoms of long COVID is exercise intolerance, and I’ve got a pretty bad case of it.1 I think I’ll be alright eventually, but I can’t get up a flight of stairs without gasping for air right now. My doctor, reflecting the total body of wisdom that medicine has so far gained about long COVID, said, basically, to just rest until it gets better.2 Other sources I’ve consulted say the same thing:
My initial reaction to this course of treatment, obviously, was to mope and pout about it. Waiting around for problems to solve themselves isn’t something I’m wired to do, and it has been a frustrating time. It was fortunate, then, that I got an email from the local chapter of my alumni club offering the chance to volunteer at the finish line of the Chicago Marathon. I’d thought about volunteering before, but when you sign up through the official race website, the best you can get is holding out water cups along the route. That’s vital, of course. I love the water people! But standing out there for eight hours with wet hands didn’t sound all that great. Instead, as part of a group inside the finish area, I got a chance to pass out those Mylar sheets (“heat shields” they call them, apparently with a straight face) to the runners who’d just completed the race. Maybe I could soak up some of their dopamine.
And I cannot express how grateful I am that I did. First, it was a chance to get inside the ropes at one of the largest races in the world, with 40,000 runners. The logistics at that level are absolutely mind-bending, and it was cool to peek under the hood. I met up with the other alums in the volunteer area, and they were a lovely group, mostly about my age, mostly runners in various degrees of disrepair/semi-retirement. We were gathering just as word got around that Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya had passed mile 25 and had a chance to set a world record. It was a perfect morning for it: cool and windless, and of course Chicago is one of the fastest courses in the world. There’s only that diabolical little bridge on Roosevelt in the last mile; otherwise, the glaciers ensured that this course is as flat as a pool table. One of the guys pulled out his phone and we all crowded around to watch her run the last mile. Sadly, she missed the WR by 14 seconds, but it was so thrilling to watch her rip, and really enjoyable to do it in the company of other runners. The whole administrative area back there was electric.
Then, once we got our credentials and swag, and wolfed down a quick lunch, we walked to our post in the finish area. We were the third stop, maybe 500m past the line. First the runners got water, then they got their medals, then they got their heat shields from us. And let me tell you, while I had some expectation of what I would encounter there thanks to the many sub-marathon races I’d finished, I wasn’t ready for the depth and breadth of pure, raw, unedited emotion I was about to witness from these marathoners over the next five hours. In so many cases, it was impossible not to get caught up in their journeys with them.
As we took our spots, the elite amateur runners who finished just after the professionals were crossing. They were all finishing in the 2:30–3:00 range, an extraordinary pace of 6-7 minutes per mile over the whole race. Even at my fastest, I couldn’t run a 5k (3.1 mi) at anywhere near that pace, much less a marathon (42 km/26.2 mi). Most of this group also looked like they could have kept going if they had to. And, in fact, most of them seemed like they had somewhere else to be. Many walked briskly past us, passing on our offered mylar wrap. I thought that was nuts, give that it was still quite chilly, but what do I know. These are people who take their running very seriously. While part of me was envious of their ability and accomplishment, I thought of the hundreds of miles a week they must train, and the dozens of hours. There wouldn’t be room for much else. And while I spoke of the emotion I saw in the runners, this group had more of a businesslike affect. They ran, it was good, they’d take tomorrow off, and pick it up again Tuesday.
Things started getting more real in the 3:00–4:00 range. One young woman early in this group was talking on her phone as she passed us, saying over and over “I did it, mama, I did it.” Had to be a first-time finisher, though she didn’t have that written on her shirt like so many others did. This group was also more likely to stop and chat with us as we handed out the blankets, and here I gained an appreciation for just how many countries were represented. Over 100, according to a news report I saw. So many foreign runners were repping their homeland, some with flags around their necks (did you really run the whole way with that? did it chafe? or did someone hand you that at mile 25?) and many more with hats or their shirts displaying their home nations. As we draped the sheets around those who wanted them, we were saying “congratulations” and “felicidades” and other translations that I was impressed by but am unable to reproduce. The runners seemed to really appreciate that. In fact, they appreciated us just generally. I make a point to thank volunteers when I race, and it was a treat to be on the other side of it.
It was also in this group that we saw our first medical crises. Runners who cross the finish line in distress, or who collapse just after it, are triaged by doctors at the line, and taken by wheelchair to the medical area another hundred meters past us. (There are of course EMT’s and an ambulance ready right there at the line for those in serious trouble, and I’m glad to report I heard no sirens Sunday.) Most of the people we saw in those wheelchairs were presumably dealing with leg injuries or cramping, and they just couldn’t walk anymore. Some had that far-away stare that goes with extreme exhaustion and dehydration. It was starting to get warm out there.
The 4- to 5-hour finishers were the largest group we saw, and also the most diverse in terms of their overall condition and mood. This was the full range from agony to joy, people for whom this was their best-ever or worst-ever race. Plenty of tears in this group, including a woman who broke down in heaving sobs as she got to our area. One of the other volunteers just held her until she was ready to go. I’ve never run a marathon, and probably won’t3, but I can imagine the emotion that I’d feel upon completing my first one. There were few dry eyes at the volunteer station as we took in that scene. We also saw a man who was clearly furious at himself, or maybe the universe. Something. He was wearing a bib from the D corral, one of the earlier start waves, so he’d clearly had A Journey out there. Still, he managed a smile for my colleague who gave him his sheet and a pat on the back.
This was also the part of the day when the warming sun made the runners start to smell like runners. No elaboration needed.
After the 5-hour mark, the expressions on faces became even more polar. There was either joy or agony by then, and little in between. There was also a big uptick in the walking wounded at that point, people who were clearly using every bit of willpower they could muster just to keep moving their feet to somewhere they could sit. Wheelchair traffic was up, too. Hard to watch. More than once while passing out a shield, I asked the recipient if they needed some help. They all said no. I wonder how/if those folks are getting around this week.
The longest official time you can run in Chicago is 6:30, and they closed the finish line that long after the last wave started. If you’re still on the course past that, you can keep walking/running, but you’ve got to move to the sidewalks, and your time won’t count. I saw some of that group walking in as we were packing up. They were in surprisingly little physical distress, I assume because they’d been walking for several hours. The party area to the north was still going strong, so hopefully they could get water and other stuff down there. They absolutely earned it.
By the end, my heart was as worn out as my feet. The other volunteers all agreed. Even the heat shield station leader (what a title!), a stern English woman named Chloe whose approval we all sought in vain, said that there was something different about this year. Maybe because this was the first time back to full participation. For many, I think, it was just cathartic to be back out there, like in the before times. It was as deeply connected to other humans as I have felt in a long time. I absolutely cannot wait to do it again next year.
I love race day.
I had COVID twice, in September of 2021 and again in September of 2022. I was as fully vaccinated as could be at each point, and each case was mild, like a two-day cold. The exercise intolerance developed about six months after the first case, and was getting better until the second case, when it got a lot worse. ↩︎
I have long thoughts on that which I’ll save for later. ↩︎
Even if I shake long COVID, I have a history of injuring myself when I train for longer races, maybe because I run like a maniac. ↩︎