By Caroline Kurdej
I arrived at the start line trembling — from the cold and the nerves — ready to vomit.
“Hello, marathoners! Are you ready for the 42nd Bank of America Chicago Marathon?” The announcer’s voice boomed from the speakers off LaSalle Street.
The crowd roared. Runners started stripping, tearing off their clothes and exposing themselves to the temperatures in the mid-40s. No! I panicked. I haven’t run in weeks. My doctor prescribed physical therapy and a “slow” return to weight-bearing, impact exercises. I was supposed to defer my race until 2020. I disobeyed. And I’m going to wreck myself.
“Corral E! You’re up next!” Oh, no.
My feet crossed the start line, and I was immediately hit by the enormity of the event. Spectators lined the streets and screamed from the tops of bridges for the 45,786 other pairs of feet pounding through Chicago’s 29 neighborhoods.
I saw signs that made me laugh: “PICK A CUTE BUTT AND FOLLOW IT.” I saw signs that sparked rage: “RUN LIKE SOMEONE CALLED YOU A JOGGER.”
By mile 6, hunger had set in. I turned to a stranger to keep my mind off the grumbles. Racing without breakfast turned out to be a mistake. “What’s your marathon story?” I asked. Josh shared that it was his first marathon as well — his wife’s doing, all for the cause of World Vision International, a humanitarian aid organization.
“Do you know when we’ll be able to find food on the course?” I asked.
“Do you want some Gatorade Chews?” he responded. An angel had answered my prayers.
My best friend from college, Dominika, hopped in near mile 8 in Lincoln Park, equipped with a fanny pack and a smile.
“Cześć!” She shouted in Polish above the cheers. Hi!
“Do you have any stories for me?” I asked.
“I almost got arrested by the police for trying to jump in and run with you,” she said. True friendship.
Initially, I showed up to the McCormick Center the day before the marathon to report on the expo for a graduate school assignment. After seeing fellow runners, I decided I would pick up my marathon packet, just in case.
A few months prior, I finished up my career as a Division I cross country and track athlete at DePaul University. As a senior in college, post-apocalyptic thoughts entered my mind halfway through my final track season. What will my life be without running?
I had to make a plan. August was my Chicago Triathlon debut, and October would be my first marathon. I vowed to compete, no matter what. No stranger to pain, I ran on a broken toe for two months in college. What’s the worst that could happen?
“Are you going to finish the race?” Dominika asked.
She was well aware of my predicament and tried her best to dissuade me from competing. But once I called her from the course, she decided to support me in my stupidity.
“I’m not sure just yet.”
I promised myself I would run for a little, maybe just 10 miles, for the experience. An irrational desire took over. My family didn’t know I would run in the marathon until I called from the race.
At mile 12, my feet pounded the pavement a few blocks from Concrete Cowboy, where two nights before, arguably the most crucial night of sleep before a race, I danced until 2 a.m.
At mile 13, I swore vigorously, not believing that I was only halfway there. The novelty of cheers was well-worn away, the physical fatigue set in, and I was living on Bon Jovi’s prayer.
At mile 15, tears streamed down my face. At mile 16, I limped into an aid station.
When the medical staff asked me what was wrong, I blubbered, “I think I just needed to cry a little.” The physician slabbed a pound of Biofreeze on my knee and promised, “I don’t like beer, but when you cross the finish line, I’ll have one with you!”
I don’t like beer either.
Forrest Gump passed me at 16, fake hippie beard down to his red shorts. “Run Forrest, Run!” I encouraged. He didn’t look back.
My papa completed two Chicago Marathons and also embarked on his first one without training. He pushed his mind and body to the finish line in an ode to my grandfather, who died from Alzheimer’s.
“I had to prove to myself that my mind is stronger than my body. It was struggle.”
He prepped for the second marathon by running five miles along the same road in Schaumburg every day until mid-October rolled around. He took two days off before the marathon, to taper and rest, and then whipped 26.2 miles out of his ass. It must run in the family.
Papa warned me I would hit a wall at mile 17. I called him from the marathon course to confirm his dire prediction.
“How’s the race going?” he asked.
“Papa! My legs want to fall out of my ass,” I whispered.
“Go all the way to finish line,” he encouraged in his Polish accent. “You are strong woman!”
At mile 18, pain ricocheted through my knees and pounded through my joints. A spectator held out a bundle of bananas. I reached for one hungrily, eager for a remedy to subside the pain. Potassium would help, I was sure.
I unpeeled the banana and chomped down a single bite when the fruit slipped from my fingers. I fumbled my sole source of potassium, watching regretfully as it tumbled behind me, lost.
“Your banana almost killed me!” a fellow runner said, laughing, as he came up next to me. Next, we saw an enthusiastic spectator dressed as a T. Rex. “YOU ARE DINO-MITE” his sign read. Taio Cruz began playing in my head.
“400 METERS,” read a sign. One lap around a track remaining. How many circles had I run in my lifetime? I could no longer lift my knees — I dragged my legs, dead weights, in a depleted Cupid Shuffle. To the right, to the left, toward the finish.
My official chip time was 4:07:00.
I barely hobbled across the finish line. Yet, just as soon as I crossed it, I yearned for more.
“Papa, want to run the Chicago marathon together next year?” I asked.
“Let’s race,” he said.
“What’s your goal time?” I was helping him fill out the registration form.
“2 hours,” he said, laughing. His previous best was 04:54:17.
“I believe in you, papa.”
A few weeks ago, we received the exciting news — we won the lottery! Chicago 2020, here we come.