Why My Worst Marathon Was My Best

“The only good thing about the Chicago Marathon is the beer at the end.”

That’s what I’ve told literally everyone about running that race in 2014. But guess what? I’m totally wrong. In truth, I set myself up to have a bad race. I completed the New York City Marathon in 2013 with a time of 5:05:07. Given that Chicago is supposed to be flat and fast, I assumed that I would obviously PR. But I finished in 5:28:25, which at the time felt like a complete failure. Looking back, it’s clear to me that I did a few key things absolutely wrong.

Mistake #1: Since I thought the course itself was fast, I started fast.

And you guessed it: I couldn’t sustain that pace. By mile 5, I could feel the sensation of dead legs. But instead of backing off, I tried to push through it, and pretty soon my quads started to ache because….

Mistake #2: I didn’t train for a flat course.

At the time, I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, between Riverside Park and Central Park. I had to tackle a hill to get anywhere, and I didn’t adjust my training for pancake-flat Chicago. I also didn’t realize that the Chicago marathon course is a series of down-and-outs, which I hate.

Mistake #3: I was injured and competed anyway.

While training for a Ragnar earlier that year, I did hill repeats for the first time and ended up straining the tensor fasciae latae (TFL) in my hip. I didn’t really know what was wrong, although I suspected piriformis or a high hamstring strain (both guesses that were incorrect). I didn’t go to a physical therapist or even to the doctor for care; instead, I just applied tube after tube of Icy Hot on it, so much so that someone commented on the smell in the elevator of our hotel in Chicago. Later, a trainer I worked with--Ramon Bostic--figured out what the injury was, and now I include foam rolling my TFL as part of my routine. I’ll be the first to admit that running a Ragnar, and then a marathon, with a strained ligament was stupid and short-sighted. I’m lucky I didn’t hurt myself more.

Mistake #4: I picked a race because everyone else said I should do it,

After you do New York, you do Chicago because it’s easier, right? Not necessarily! For me, the Chicago Marathon was harder than New York because there were less spectators and I don’t know that city very well. My love affair with New York is intense. The New York City Marathon is what inspired me to start running. I just wasn’t motivated or amped up enough to experience the race as a celebration of the city of Chicago, and I think that negatively affected my performance too.

Mistake #5: I got to the start WAAAAAYYYY too early. Hours too early.

I could have slept longer. I would have been less cold. If I had just timed my arrival at the start better, I would have felt more energized when the race started. I should have asked runners who I knew had done this race for advice on when to arrive (and listened when that advice was given).

But I did one thing absolutely 100% right.

My quads were burning, and I spent a lot of the last miles walking. The crowds were sparse, and the runners around me were starting to look like The Walking Dead. I saw a medical tent and thought, maybe I’ll just go to medical. I’m injured; no one but me and the medics will know that I’m not really that hurt. Then I passed a few rowdy spectators.

One had a sign I’ll always remember. It read:

“There will come a day when you can’t run 26.2 miles. But that day is not today.”

I remembered the quote from Kathrine Switzer. “I’m going to finish the race on my hands and my knees if I have to…”

I gutted it out. I picked up my feet. And I finished. Yes, it took me 5 hours and 28 minutes and 25 seconds. I spent most the last few miles glaring at silent spectators and at the people who couldn’t even be bothered to look up from brunch at the thousands of runners on Chicago’s streets. I could barely walk afterwards. A helpful fellow runner fetched my second finish line beer because I think he knew how painful it would be for me to get up. I saw my quad pulse when I tried to stretch it out.

I made a lot of mistakes that day. But I also had one really big win.

I didn’t give up on myself.

Today, whenever I face a really tough challenge, I think: “You got through Chicago. You can do this.”

And I do.