By Kris Smart, Executive Director
Toeing the line in Grant Park is like no other place on earth, especially when the start line looming in the distance says “Bank of America Chicago Marathon”. It has been my blessing over the last two years to be on Columbus Drive walking over the crumpled up sweatshirts and t-shirts of my fellow Chicagoans, moving forward with 45,000 of my close personal friends toward the beginning of such a life-changing and magnificent journey with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run“ as our soundtrack.
Each year, the excitement and nervousness well deep in my spine. But as I begin my slow march to start, the feeling becomes an overwhelming calm, knowing I am doing something for myself, but also that I will be completing a 26.2 mile journey in service of others.
In those final moments before we start, I think about my singlet–who I wear it for, and how her words “Smell You Later” ironed on to the back give me the strength of purpose to continue forward. This is not something that I aim to do just for myself but for those in whose name I run, and for my daughter, age 8, who will be at miles 11 and 19 and at the finish in her Adventure Time hat with her big purple microphone cheering me and the whole city on.
Run with a purpose, I think. Run for something larger than me. Run for her, so that she will see that her mom can do something extraordinary, something that even a few years ago, she would have thought out of her reach.
The gun goes off long before I cross the threshold, and we joke that the Elite runners must have blown through the first 5k already. As we come alongside the Art Institute, I take my throw-away gloves off, fold them together and toss them to the side of the road, hoping they find a new home on the hands of someone in need, and I begin to run.
This is an amazing city. You don’t quite know how remarkable it is until you run through the streets and neighborhoods. In a cab or on the sidewalk surrounded by cars, you do not appreciate the silence, the true canyon lands of State Street, Jackson and LaSalle. Only on foot do you notice the rolling hills that are in Lincoln Park near the zoo. On Marathon Day, Boystown comes alive and provides energy at mile 8 that you need to keep you going to mile 10, where there is Elvis.
At mile 11, I see my daughter. She holds up her sign, cheers me on and tells me she is so proud. I go through the city past the Sears Tower. Out west through Charity Row in my charity runner singlet – everyone cheers just for you – no matter if you raised money to support their mission or another cause – everyone cheers just for you, and they call your name, and let you know you are more than halfway there.
The course extends out like a ribbon to the United Center, then back through Little Italy and Greektown. It’s the neighborhoods and diversity that make the city so great. People in lawn chairs sit on the sidewalk outside their houses with cowbells and make shift water stations, cheering.
Along Ashland it is desolate, but I know Pilsen is next so I pick up the pace. I want to see the colors and hear the music; I want to see my daughter’s face. She is there with my husband, ringing her own bell. She asks if I want a peanut butter sandwich. I grab it, along with a kiss and continue forward.
The streets are thick with volunteers at the aid stations, all smiles, with bands playing and piñatas. I move forward, excited at the prospect of what I get to see. We run through an industrial area, that once was empty but now the street is lined with people – somehow knowing exactly where runners need a lift, and I am lifted by their cheers all the way to Chinatown. Through the gate, I am recognized by a bystander I do not know, but I stop to get a hug and take a photo.
Under the freeway into Bridgeport, it starts to hurt; there is a throbbing pain in my leg that gets worse when I walk, so I don’t. I run. Sox Park is in the distance, and some older ladies on Wentworth Avenue are sitting in folding chairs, drinking beer and shouting “You just keep going!”
At the turn onto Michigan Avenue, a man stands at the apex of the corner; he is preaching “You are amazing. You’ve got this. I know you hurt. I know it has been a long way. I know it. You got this. You are going to finish.” I do hurt. It has been a long way. But I got this. I am going to finish.
Throughout the day, people run up beside me and ask “Who are you running for?” or “Tell me your story.” And I do. I explain the words on the back of my jersey, what they mean, how it feels to run for someone other than myself. I talk and then listen, because people who ask have a story themselves, and having a few minutes to run alongside another person helps the miles click by.
Up Michigan Avenue I look for the blue fencing, and I always misjudge when it will come into view. It is farther away than I think it should be. Finally, I see flags line the course and a huge video screen at the end of the block. The cheering starts to get louder and I see the sign for Roosevelt Road.
That turn means my journey, started many months before, years even, is about to come to an end. I run up the hill even though my leg hurts and my body is tired. I run toward the 26-mile mark, and turn onto Columbus Drive once again. I pick up speed (although the photos say otherwise) and look for the faces in the crowd that belong to me as I cross the finish.
The moment at the end is joy, relief, and peace.
A smile crosses my face; I feel elated.
“Never again” I say, and I mean it for up to 45 minutes, maybe a whole hour, before I recall how it feels to run through these streets and I long for that feeling again, just once more, maybe if I train harder I can knock off a few minutes from my time.
Run for someone. Every day that I lace up my shoes, head out on a run weaving in and out of my neighborhood towards my beloved lake to the frozen beaches, I run for me. But on Marathon Day, I run for something larger than myself.
I run for her.
As you think about your own journey remember that you don’t have to go it alone. You can bring along the hopes and the aspirations of another. You can make your journey one that lasts beyond a single day or year. You can create in someone else the feeling that they can do what they set out to do – that the world is not one constrained by limits.
Running a marathon is hard; I am telling you right now, it is hard work. But running a marathon for someone else, well, that makes the work just a little bit easier, and the medal shine a little bit brighter.
The Bank of America Chicago Marathon is like no other race in the world. It is Chicago. It is our neighborhoods. It is our streets. It is not as flat as people would lead you to believe. And it is a life-changing, amazing journey.
If you choose to take this journey, I hope you will consider running for Girls on the Run- Chicago as one of our SoleMates. Raising money for Girls on the Run means that with every step you take towards your finish line, you are helping girls receive scholarships that allow them to participate in our program so they can reach their own personal goals and aspirations.
Registration for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon opens on February 19 at noon. Contact Cindy to sign up as a SoleMate, and we will be there for you with our Adventure Time hats and our giant purple microphones cheering you on all the way to the finish line.