Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Marathon Post

H.O.M.E. helps low-income seniors in Chicago live independently by providing home upkeep and repairs, a shopping bus, affordable housing and moving assistance! You have raise over $5,500 dollars! Your generosity is beautiful and appreciated. Missed out on the fun? Donate Here.

This is a long post (a marathon of sorts. zing). Grab a drink and settle in. Or finds something better to do!


The plane soared above the dim gray clouds and found the blinding sun-sparkled air. Racing through this thin and frozen skin we made our way west. Living the dreams of even the most powerful emperors and kings we soared above the mortal world. But we did have to sit on the tarmac for a while and the seats were cramped and most people shut their windows.

The Expo

The Cheering Crew with posters made by HOME residents (save one)!
Poster idea for next time: "Who loves short shorts?"

John, my official marathon cheerleading captain, food consumption coach, and all around good guy met me at the airport. We found the train and headed into town. Bruce and Kerry met us and after a few hugs we headed to their place. Bruce had wedding rehearsals so Kerry, John and I headed to the expo to pick up my bib, my complimentary shirt, and a bunch of freebies.

The expo was incredibly well run. Chicago knows a thing or two about handling large crowds. As I checked in using the QR code the smiling volunteer directed me to pick up my packet at table 26. As I approached table 26 another smiling volunteer asked if I was Andrew. This caught me off guard. He swiveled his screen so that I could check my information. In the top corner there was live video of my surprised face. This didn’t help my confusion. Finally I realized that my information was correct and he handed me the folder containing my bib which he had already pulled while I was walking over. I feel old when faced with well-used technology.

Much like at a well-designed store to pick up the shirt you have to walk past all of the colorful for sale items. There were many of vendors. It is rather amazing how many companies are in the running business. So many products were artistically and artisanal-ly displayed. Every imaginable bit of clothing and clothing accessory is for sale. Every imaginable food product, each one more organic, gluten free, and expensive than the last, is too. And this is a sport that is supposed to be inexpensive! That said I had to try a few samples. It would be unfair, un-capitalistic, un-American even, to skip past. And I did my part. I purchased a few of the energy supplements I tolerate the best (Clif brand) at a much better price than I can find in NYC.

We were set to leave and to meet Bruce in Chinatown for a bit of dinner when we noticed that Goose Island had dragged an entire bus into the giant hall and parked it to our left. John and I had to take a quick “ride” that culminated with beer. This was by far our favorite of the free samples. We were about to ride again when Kerry suggested we act like grown ups.

Best bus ride I've ever taken.

How to Eat for a Marathon

Saturday started with giant lattes and plenty of sitting. Or at least I did a lot of sitting. Sitting and resting are two critical things to do the day before a marathon. Though, most of my visits to Chicago, even those without a marathon, involve a good bit of sitting. I love visiting Bruce and Kerry not in small part for being served and served so well all the time. They are enablers of my laziness. A bit later in the morning John and I pulled our weight by riding along for a few errands like grocery shopping, a trip to the library, and a stop at Binny’s. If you don’t know about Binny’s let me tell you. It is amazing. I even found the Radler made in Salzburg that I had fallen in love with in Austria. I had previously search in NYC and not found any anywhere. Needless to say we grabbed a few packs.

Enjoying radlers on the Porch - and notice my Feel-good socks!
We chased a lunch of sushi with some sitting, lounging, and a bit more relaxation. It was great. Later in the afternoon Dan and Lindsay came in and we moved to the deck to sit in the sunshine and fresh air. Eventually Ellen, Ken, Janell and Mark came in too. Many hugs were exchanged. As Ellen walked in she plopped down a large and heavy tin-foil wrapped package. It wasn’t pumpkin bread, she said, but it would have to do. She had read the blog post that day where I waxed fondly about the year before and in response she brought me some of her banana bread (with chocolate chips)! While I had judiciously switched to water a bit earlier the wine and beer poured as the sun lingered at the horizon. Eventually the puns and jokes got a bit thick and we moved in for dinner.

Ken's apple roses.
Attempting to learn from last marathon’s main mistake I ate lots of food. This is not difficult with Bruce’s cooking. John, my official eating coach, instructed me at each pass of the dish to take more. After the main course Bruce offered me some pasta. I was going to decline as I was stuffed but then the wise words of my coach directed me on. I ate until I couldn’t eat any more. And then I had desert. Ken had made apple roses. They were gorgeous. He had put a lot into them. Even part of his finger made it in the mix when it was introduced to the mandolin. It was then, as Bruce quickly pointed out, they became finger food. There is no escaping bad puns.

I selfishly saved the banana bread for a before bed snack. It was delicious.

Last Details

I nervously calculated what time I’d need to wake up. I chose the lucky socks that would be worn. I attached the bib to the shirt. I loaded the energy packets into my shorts. I re-calculated what time I’d need to wake up. I rechecked my alarm. I tried on the shorts. I calculated what time I’d need to wake up. I mapped the route to the starting gate. I planned where I would place my body glide and Vaseline. I calculated what time I’d need to wake up. I turned out the light and climbed into bed. I rechecked the alarm.

Arrived at the start as the sun was rising.
I woke quickly with my heart pounding. Whether I sprung from some exciting but forgotten dream or my heart was practicing for later I’m not sure. As my heart returned to the inside of my chest I turned over and looked at the clock. I beat my alarm by five minutes.

After stuffing down two bananas with peanut butter and a few more slabs of banana bread I slipped down the elevator and through the alley towards the L. Runners were trickling out of the streets. At each stop more climbed aboard. At Adams and Wabash we stepped off into a sea of excited people. Wading through the crowds I made it to the security gate and slowly, though easily, passed through. Chicago handles large crowds well.

I dropped off my bag with my jacket and phone and went in search of the toilets. This was, it became clear, everyone’s plan. The lines were long, the toilets well used, and the generosity of those holding things in was thin. After I took care of any remaining business I walked towards my starting corral. Along the way I passed a few ladies that caused a double take and then a quick averting of the eyes. I’m used to seeing male runners facing a wall and relieving themselves. I’ve done this before. But I’m less used to seeing clumps of women squatting on the sidewalk and staring back at everyone passing on the street. Runners quickly lose a normal sense of propriety. It comes with the territory. Everyone has at least one story of a desperate run.

The anthem was sung. The sponsors were thanked. The elites were named. And suddenly the race began. Even though I was in corral C (corrals went up to K) it took over 9 minutes of slow walking to reach the start line. I had mentally prepped to be stuck in traffic for the first few miles. I knew this could be a good thing. I wanted to start slow and build up after a few miles. Being stuck behind runners can help. Unfortunately Chicago handles crowds very well. The moment I crossed the start line the road in front of me was wide open. It is hard to hold to a responsible pace when you have space to run, everyone around you is flying, the streets are lined with screaming fans and you feel great.

I normally run with my hands in the air. Makes me go faster.

The Race

Chicago is a fun marathon. The crowds are really great. Everyone comes out to cheer and make signs. My only complaint would be that there is nothing keeping the crowds (or the volunteers) back. In a few places the road became very narrow as the crowds pushed into the lanes. It is not the worst problem to have.

In the first few miles I kept noticing my ankles. My knees were also feeling a bit sore. But nothing seemed too out of the ordinary. The temperature was still cool and I kept smiling as we wound through Chicago. Soon my joints warmed up and my thoughts went elsewhere. I recorded each mile. I got a bit nervous when I checked the first mile. I didn’t want to run under 9 minutes per mile but I had run an 8:30. So I slowed down a bit. The next few miles were around 8:45. Each time I had a moment of doubt and tried to slow down. This was my average target pace. But I wanted to start slower. Yet after the first few miles I gave up trying to slow down.

When not cheering on runners Amber works at H.O.M.E.
I am sneakily suspicious sure that none of this would have gone nearly as well without her help! 
As I rounded the 7-mile mark I started scanning the crowd for more than hilarious signs. And I saw Amber, H.O.M.E.’s director of development. She and a few friends had come out with signs to cheer me on. After a quick word and a few high fives I continued on. I wonder how enjoyable it is for people to come out, stand in a crowd, and wait for a long stretch of time just to see one runner and for a moment. It can’t be great. But it makes a world of difference for the runner. I suppose it is somewhat fun to see all the runners and cheer for random people. Still.

I realized I really like running. Last year I ran with the biggest, and goofiest grin permanently affixed to my face. But during the intervening training I started to worry that my pleasure was mostly due to the specifics of that run. There is nothing quite like running with the road to yourself, having thousands of people cheering for just you. Maybe I just like attention. It was a pleasure to realize that I was really happy. Even as a regular chump, running deep in the pack, I was having a blast. Later at mile 17 I would think very different thoughts. But that would be later. And this was now.

Picking up a few more tips from the coach!

I stayed on the right side of the road and picked up a few more miles. I started screening the crowd again. Soon I spotted the main cheering crew. Ken, Ellen, Mark, Janell, Bruce, Kerry, Dan, Lindsay and John Mark were all cheering, holding signs and waving. High fives, hugs, and some hurried words were passed. I’m glad I saw the signs the night before, as I actually don’t remember seeing them during the race. And the signs were special. Senior residents at H.O.M.E. made most of them. My favorite was the simple but direct “H.O.M.E. supports Andrew.” I couldn’t stay long and my cheering squad was pushing me on anyway. They wanted a bathroom break. So I continued on.

Who loves a sweaty hug?

Apparently Kerry!

There were lots of pretty buildings and streets. I loved seeing the changes in the neighborhoods.The loop was packed, the park was beautiful, Boystown was incredibly lively as was Pilsen. I’m sure Chinatown was nice but I was deep in my pain-cave when I passed through and therefore stopped noticing as much. If pushed I could probably have come up with the order of neighborhoods without having checked (like I just did – thanks internet!). But at this point in my telling I’m not exactly sure of the timeline. I’m not saying things are a get boring during a long run but at some point unless something striking happens many of the steps blend together.

Fortunately for you, there was something striking, or at least rubbing. Somewhat early on in the race I noticed some friction. I had been slightly concerned when making my shirt that friction would be a problem. The shirt is a fancy technical T with minimal possibilities for chafing. But the iron-on stickers I added were not. After I put the front stickers on the back of the shirt and then the back stickers on the front – measure twice, iron once – I tried it on. The now stiff edges of the sticker/shirt borders were right at my functionless male nipples. I’ve run into trouble in the past without added stickers so I used generous amounts of body glide all over paying special attention to the above-mentioned regions. I even reapplied right before I dropped my bag and headed to the start line. But I was still headed for real trouble. When I noticed some volunteers holding boards covered in Vaseline I was excited. I swiped the board as I past and ended up with a huge glop. I slathered my chest and still had a handful. I smeared some on my neck and added more to my legs. I slung some off my hands (which partially worked) and used the edge of the cups from next few water stops to scrape the remaining Vaseline off.

Mark was pressed into service passing out damp sponges.
Even with all the extra Vaseline I ended up bleeding (just a bit) through my shirt. I can’t imagine how badly things would have been had I not had the Vaseline. I’d rather not think about it. I don’t know why I run with such pointed attention. I’d rather not think about that either.

And then mile 14 came along. I’m really not sure what mile it was as I lost track of the mile markers for a bit around the middle. But sometime after mile 13 my right calf did something funny. I was still running at roughly my optimal target pace when suddenly it felt as if the entire calf flexed ferociously. I stumbled as my foot landed a bit before I intended. This slowed me down for a stride or two. In another mile or two the spasms became more frequent. This, along with feeling really tired, slowed me down significantly. Each time I tried to speed up my calf would go off. And then my left leg, feeling left out, decided to get in on the action. If I pushed off with any extra strength to speed back up the leg would jerk and I’d wobble. I resigned myself to slowing down and not falling down.

No matter how you feel you fake it for the photos at the end.
Miles added to miles and I moved towards the left side of the road. I looked up from my feet and started scanning the crowd. My cheering squad planned to jump on the L and head down to Chinatown after I passed mile 10. And then I spotted them. I made a good show as I passed. I waved and smiled and looked full of energy. And in response both calves jumped and I danced an awkward wobble around the corner.

I don’t remember much more. At each mile I tried to speed up but couldn’t find the needed discipline. I’ve heard it said that a marathon is a 10k with a 20-mile warm up. And in some ways it is. Unfortunately, I fell apart in those last 10k. It is a mental game and I couldn’t outsmart it this time. I kept counting the remaining distance and trying to plan my last attack. Four miles out was too early to start. But then I didn’t start at 3 miles out either. I saw 3:52 sprint away. I watch four hours slip past. And then I was two miles out. Somehow I managed to dig a bit deeper and slowly push past the tiredness and the mis-firing calves. I kept picking up the pace until I climbed to an 8:46 for the last mile and change. And then it was over.

If you look closely you'll see I'm trying to hold on to the beer for support.

Then Comes the Hard Part

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly time moves. I can remember, though barely, thinking of time passing excruciatingly slowly. But those days in grade school are long past. Now I find that at work it is always Friday with another week lost forever. On vacation I hang my shirts only to repack them seemingly immediately when the trip is over. Years bleed together and the sun always rises and I have the first gray hairs in my beard. The marathon was no different. All of the training, the excitement, the nerves, the cheering, the support, and the tiring miles were behind me.

But then I learned something I didn’t know. After the marathon is when the real challenge starts. Last year I ran the NYC marathon as a mild “D-list” celebrity thanks to the Foot Locker Five Borough Challenge. At the finish line I was grabbed and escorted 3 feet to the side and given food, drink and a warm blanket all before being thrown on TV. In my literal 15 seconds of fame all I managed to do was stay upright. Success. However, this year I was just another plodding runner with no special treatment at the end. The second I stopped running I was in trouble.

At the finish line every volunteer endlessly repeats, “keep walking. Keep moving!” This makes sense, as there is a constant and thick stream of exhausted runners finishing behind you. They need to keep the area clear. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the second I crossed the line and started walking I felt like I was going to fall apart. The mantra in my head became “Keep moving. Don’t fall down.” I knew if I stopped or sat down I would never get back up. My legs were jello. My face was tingling. I felt sick. I swayed like a drunk sailor riding out a hurricane. I finally reached the bottle water. I somehow made it to the Gatorade. I was handed a plastic bag full of snacks. I was barely moving forward but I was. All my mental power was focused on not collapsing. I did however summon the strength to grab a Goose Island beer. And that actually required two extra steps. It is strange thing, will power.

Eventually I walked free of the chute. In the large open area I could sit down. But I was still forever away from the bag pickup and I knew if I stopped I’d never move again. So I plodded along. After what seemed like miles I picked up my bag. As I was despairing about how far away the designated meeting point still was, Lauren came up and said hello. We, and the rest of the Fred’s Team group, had planned to meet under letter “G” at the other end of the park. Instead we both collapsed there. I finished what I hadn’t spilled of my beer and Gatorade. I stretched my legs in the sun and immediately felt better.


I rode the L one more time even passing non-runners coming down the stairs. I passed through the alley back to the house. The sun was shining on the Deck. There was pizza. I tried not to blather on too much with limited success. I tried not to spend all my time thinking about how close I was to being under four minutes, how much I had wanted to beat 3:52. And I was surprisingly successful. I had, after all, had a wonderful time. It is hard to be too upset.

Delicious Excuses

Eyelash salt. My phone camera is surprisingly good.
After the race I discussed my performance with the Fred’s Team runners. As they stretched on the grass they suggested an electrolyte imbalance was leading to the spasms of my calf muscles. In short, I was low on salt. They pointed to my face as evidence. I liked the idea. First, low salt presents a clear solution for the next marathon. Secondly, that solution doesn’t involve more hard training. Thirdly, it provides a convenient excuse for why I didn’t hit my goal. Brilliant.

But I’m pretty sure the real reason I didn’t break 3:52 had less to do with salt and a bit more to do with pastries. I’ll let my Eva bring you up to speed on my Austrian training just before the marathon:

Your trip prominently featured 4 kinds of dumplings:
Semmelknödel (with the Schweinsbraten and Sauerkraut)
Böhmische Knödel (with the mushrooms)
Zwetschkenknödel (with the plums inside)
Eismarillenknödel (the ice cream one)
Plus the following Austrian specialties:
Green Salad with Kürbiskernöl (pumpkinseed oil)
Lungenstrudelsuppe (the lung strudel in the soup)
Apfelstrudel (apple strudel)
Mohnbeugel (poppyseed pastry, your last breakfast)
Kaiserschmarrn (at Cafe Central (the non-breakfast))
Stelze (=pork leg at Schweizerhaus in Prater)
Käsekrainer (the hotdog)
Bosna (the other sausage in bun)
That is actually pretty amazing. One could think we did nothing but eat.

Indeed. And the list only tells half of the story. Most of the above was homemade and served in ridiculous portions. One can’t say no to such generous hosts nor to such tasty treats. It would be un-Austrian of me!

My Austrian eating coaches Eva and Mario. Prost!

Final Thoughts

This summer I met a group of old people. They lived in a pretty brick building in Chicago. We chatted and ate snacks. They were polite, nice, and genuinely glad to meet me. And everything should have been boringly straightforward. But I was thrown. I was thrown because I had gone to this apartment building because it was part of H.O.M.E. I had gone there to see how H.O.M.E. was meeting the needs of seniors. And all I saw was seniors living their lives. What I had failed to understand before I arrived was how basic the needs of many seniors are in America today. These seniors didn’t need grave and expensive medical treatment. They didn’t need intensive care. They just needed a place to live. They just needed a home.

I am so very grateful that you supported these seniors by giving so generously to H.O.M.E. Your giving is making a very real difference to many people. H.O.M.E. provides safe and affordable housing, moving help, maintenance help, and transportation to those who need it most. I know all of you who donated have already received prompt and well-written thank you notes from H.O.M.E. but let me thank you again on their behalf and on behalf of the seniors whose lives you’ve helped to improve.

And lastly, let me thank you. This is yet another gift you’ve given me. And it was wonderful and fun. It is rather silly raising money around a marathon. I mean, one of my cousins did an ironman on the same day and he didn’t tell you about it everyday for months! But thank you for putting up with me. Thank you for reading. And thank you for giving.


After lunch we walked east to the lake and enjoyed the afternoon. The water was blue and green and leisurely rippling. The shore was full of life. Oh that all weekends could be as beautiful, as wonderful. Oh that all days could be so filled with family and friends. Oh to always be home.

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