Sports column: Running down a dream

By Mike Szwaja

My alarm rang at 5:28 a.m. It was supposed to wake me up, but that was wishful thinking. I was already awake. I had been awake all night. The constant shots of adrenaline kept me awake.

About three hours later, I would cross the starting line on Columbus Drive at the north end of Grant Park in downtown Chicago to begin the Chicago Marathon – my first marathon.

I first thought about running a marathon years ago when teachers repeatedly asked me for my life goals in middle school.

“Run a marathon.”

That always found its way onto my list. Completing a marathon is an ultimate test of yourself as a person – physically and mentally.

Back then it was more of a pipe dream, but last April I took the first step into making it a reality when I started a regimental training program.

After six months of intense training, concerns still lingered in my mind. How will your surgically repaired knee hold up? How will the lingering tendinitis in your other knee hold up? Will the shin splints in my left shin act up? Am I really ready to run 26.2 miles?

Regardless, there I was Sunday morning, standing in line with 39,999 fellow hopefuls. To my left was my best friend since the beginning of the Clinton administration, who had trained with me for the big race.

Even though he is an Iowa Hawkeye, we both made sure, through intense telephone communication, to push each other through the training. For the next four-and-a-half hours, we would be there side-by-side, conquering the 26.2 mile monster. Two soccer moms awaited the start of the race in front of us.

One of them asked the other, “Are you nervous?”

“Five hours without the kids,” she answered. “Are you kidding me? No way.”

At that point it hit me. Those people were ordinary people just like me. Mothers and fathers, doctors and lawyers, gardeners and construction workers, students and retirees, blue collars and white collars – ordinary people about to do the extraordinary.

Before we knew it, we were one mile into the race. My buddy and I read vast amounts of marathon literature prior to the race, and the number one piece of advice for first-timers like us was to go out slow to conserve your energy for the later miles. We listened – our first mile clocked in at a tortoise-like 11:30. It would certainly pay off later.

The little things are the most memorable things you take away from your first marathon.

We ran behind a man dressed like Superman for about three-fourths of the race. My favorite Superman moment was seeing him pass another runner dressed as Batman. The costumed runners were crowd favorites.

Speaking of the fans – all 1.5 million of them – they served as our driving force. One woman held a sign that read, “You’re all Kenyans!” We saw her five or six times, and every time she put a smile on our face – and for a few seconds each time, made us believe we were actually Kenyans.

“Keep going runners, you’re doing great!”

You hear that about 5,000 times during the race, but hearing it never gets old. An extra few quick steps followed every time, and those quick steps really helped.

At one point, someone bumped into my shoulder. I turned my head and saw a man wearing running gear covered with the Union Jack. He apologized in his English accent, and immediately I thought, “Wow, he’s one of the 4,000 foreigners running today. That’s so cool.”

Fittingly, at about mile 21 – the notorious mile-marker where so many runners “hit the wall” – we came up behind a girl wearing a shirt that read, “It’s just a wall … run right through it.” There’s no stopping after you read that.

That said, mile 21 was the toughest. You have come so far at that point but still have four miles left – or about 40 more minutes of running.

Those last four miles were all mental. The shin splints were starting to appear. A couple of my toenails were falling off. And I was relying on the race-issued half-bananas to get me to the finish line.

When I made the last turn back onto Columbus, and the finish line was in sight, I forgot about the pain and broke into a sprint. The last three-tenths of a mile were straight out of my dreams.

Fifteen rows of fans packed bleachers on either side of the street, and every one of them was making noise. For three-tenths of a mile, I was an Olympian.

And that feeling didn’t go away after I crossed the finish line. Someone immediately draped a finisher’s medal over my head. Final time: 4 hours, 26 minutes, 48 seconds – good enough for 17,414th place.

That was the proudest moment of my life, and seeing everyone else show off their own medals made me even prouder. There we were, ordinary people who had just accomplished the extraordinary.

Mike Szwaja is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected]