On Sunday, October 7, 2018, I attended the 41st annual edition of the Chicago Marathon. It is one of the six World Marathon Majors, alongside the Boston, New York, London, Berlin, and Tokyo Marathons; thus, it is also an IAAF Gold Label Race. The race is limited to 45,000 runners and only those who finish within 6½ hours are officially timed. The Chicago Marathon attracts participants from all 50 states, over 100 countries, and is the fourth-largest race by number of finishers worldwide; therefore, making it one of the largest and fastest marathons in the world.
Starting and ending in Grant Park, the marathon is a loop course and winds through 29 of the city’s neighborhoods. The course loop is generally divided into three sections: North, West, and South. Three of Chicago’s main stadiums are near the turning points for each direction of the race: Wrigley Field is to the north; The United Center is to the west; Guaranteed Rate Field is to the south; and Soldier Field is near the start/finish location.
Somali-British runner Mo Farah won the 2018 Chicago Marathon with a time of 2:05:11 – a record time for a European runner. Brigid Kosgei, a Kenyan marathoner, won the women’s race with a new personal best time of 2:18:35. Spectators were able to track participants by using the Chicago Marathon app. Onlookers were also able to discover race and expo information, results, sponsors, participant accounts as well as a wealth of other marathon details by using the app. It was a terrific tool because bystanders were able to track exactly when their runner would be passing through their location.
I knew a few people participating in the race, but I never saw any of them. I didn’t track them on the app and I more so went for the marathon atmosphere. This was the first time I had ever attended a marathon and it was an unforgettable experience.
On marathon day, runners arrived in Grant Park well before sunrise. I left my apartment around 8 o’clock in the morning. As I was dressing to head out for the race, I heard a dull roar outside and when I looked out my window, it was pouring rain. I wore my rain coat, brought my umbrella, and tucked my Marathon sign under my arm as I started my walk to the train. I thought of the runners and how strong they must be to run 26.2 miles in not only the chilly Chicago winds, but also a torrential downpour.
There were quite a few people on the train carrying signs or maps – the Chicago Marathon is a huge deal! The day prior to the race, I saw groups of runners carrying the flags of their countries as they picked up their race packets. Flags from Australia, Singapore, Mexico, and Canada wildly waved in the wind as participants descended on the downtown area; their marathon medals worn proudly around their necks reflected the sun and everyone knew what they were: a marathoner.
On race day, the typically bustling streets of downtown Chicago were completely free of cars. Roadways had been blocked off to make room for race participants. The car-free streets looked eerie, but that gave me an even greater understanding of the marathon’s importance. I stood at the halfway point and the crowd was a consistent roar of cheers, cowbells, horns, and applause. There were thousands of people cheering for the race participants, and many of them were complete strangers to each other. It was one of the most supportive atmospheres I’ve ever been part of, and it was amazing. I held my sign in front of me and cheered on runner after runner. A lot of them smiled and said that my sign was the best. I was glad because people need something to smile about after running 13 miles; especially with another 13 to go!
The crowd dwindled down as fewer runners crossed the halfway point. Many of them were further along the course. I stayed for another hour and cheered on the slower runners and the walkers. I saw myself in them. When I first started running, I was 331 pounds and during my first 5K, I was one of the last people to finish; but I still finished. It didn’t matter how slow I was, I was still conquering the task at hand, and I wanted the slower runners in the Chicago Marathon to see someone cheering for them during one of the most physically challenging moments of their lives. A lot of them smiled, had a laugh at my sign, and thanked me for the sticking around as they passed me by; eventually disappearing further into the course.
The entire experience revived my desire to be a runner. This is my first full week back to running and I’m so excited about the journey. Katherine Switzer said, “if you’re losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.” The atmosphere surrounding the Chicago Marathon was magically indescribable as bystanders cheered and lifted up total strangers in the moments that pushed the boundaries on human strength. There aren’t enough words to convey how powerful it felt to be part of it all. At the end of the day, I suddenly felt as if I could do anything. After all, it’s only a crazy dream until you do it.