Friday, June 2, 2017


Much of my inspiration to write comes when I'm out on a long run. Somewhere along the banks of the Charles River or amid the hills of Somerville, my body finds a rhythm and my brain slows down enough for thoughts to flow with far less judgment and self consciousness.

Which, perhaps, is part of the reason why nearly three months have passed since I've written a blog post. That little injury I picked up on an ill planned long run in January? It snowballed into a four months, and counting, string of rehabilitation exercises, MRIs, injections, adjustments, massages, scraping, dry needling, cupping, and wallowing. A nasty IT band injury reared its head along with the lumbar herniation and sciatica screaming down my leg. There have been ups and downs in the process of healing, but not a whole lot of running.

Instead of racing through the winter and spring as I planned, I gave up my race bibs and cheered from the sideline. The transition from participant to spectator proved to be both challenging and rewarding.

(That's Meb running the Boston Marathon)

BP crushing Boston Marathon

Steph finishing strong at Newburyport River Half Marathon
Three half marathoners
I've balked at doctors who recommended drugs to ease my pain. When a spine specialist confirmed via MRI that a herniated disc in my low back was responsible for the radiating throb, stabbing sensations, stinging, burning, and cramping down my left leg, I reluctantly agreed to an epidural steroid injection because I hoped it might allow me to sleep more than two hours per night. It did not work. It did confirm my opinion that a traditional medical approach of a belly full of pain pills and a body full of steroids is not for me. Instead, I've become rather adventurous when it comes to experimenting on my body with alternative treatment approaches.

Here's a sampling of the methods of rehabilitative torture I've dabbled in:

I've seen three physical therapists. The first was not a good personality match for me. He admitted to being an anti-runner. The second was a better fit, but our hours didn't line up and he prescribed the same clamshells and hip lifts I've been doing routinely for years. Then, my mother-in-law urged me to make a trip out to Hopkinton to see the physical therapist who'd helped treat her injuries. It was a long hike down the Mass Pike to get to her, but Kim gave me the Ah ha! I needed. "You're plenty strong," she explained, "but your hips, glutes and IT band are seriously tight." Strengthening to correct imbalance would be important, but she wanted me to first focus on targeted, sustained stretching after exercise to help things loosen up. So I stretched and stretched. Every day. Within a week, my poor, lopsided pelvis felt decidedly less crooked and the constant sensation of tightness was slowly easing.

Duncan supervises stretching time
A chiropractor has been scraping my low back, butt, and leg with a variety of metal spatulas using the Graston Technique, a self described "form of instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization that enable clinicians to detect and effectively break down scar tissue and fascial restrictions". It's felt modestly effective and mildly medieval.

Image result for graston technique

Every three weeks or so, Liv, the amazing yoga teacher and orthopedic massage therapist has been using her magical hands to work out the tight junk and helping my body get more relaxed and evened out. In our most recent appointment, we gave cupping a try on my IT band. This therapy/experiment involved placing glass jars on the skin of my left upper leg. Using a handheld pump, Liv suctioned the air out of the jars to create a vacuum, drawing underlying tissue partway into the cup. The idea is that this works like the inverse of massage. Rather than putting pressure on the muscles to urge release, the suction pressure lifts the tissue upward, theoretically allowing for enhanced circulation in areas that are gummed up. It looked gnarly (warning, gross picture below) and left me with some epic leg hickeys. But it felt pretty good.

A physician specializing in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (PM&R) has been using trigger point dry needling on my wickedly tight glutes, outer hip, quad, and calf. Dry needling is a treatment for myofascial trigger points where fine needles are used to mechanically stimulate the trigger point, creating a local twitch response (LTR) within the muscle fiber. The idea is that the LTR sends a message to the spinal cord to let go of gripping and tightness in a muscle. Although evidence of efficacy in research is modest, this is the intervention to which my perception of relief and responsiveness has been the strongest. It is painful and intimidating at first, but when I feel the muscles twitch and fire there is a strong and real sensation of release. Dr. Bailey has been the most amazingly patient, thoughtful, and holistic physician I've ever worked with. If you're in the Cambridge area and are struggling with myofascial pain or a sports injury, Dr. Bailey may be able to help you too. I wish I had a picture, but I was distracted by my quivering calves and forgot.

Amid my parade in and out of the treatment rooms and medical offices, I've reluctantly decided to acknowledge that my body is asking (yelling) for some change in my approach to endurance training. So I signed up for swimming lessons.

And bought a new grown up bike. It feels fast!

I've had a lot more time to experiment with strength and endurance training mashups. In the early injury stage, I felt so lost without my runner's high that I sought out the highest intensity forms of cardio strength training I could find. This pseudo CrossFit approach to training certainly got my blood pumping and my muscles tired. Lifting heavy stuff while breathless is exhilarating, but I quickly learned that this approach should probably be delivered in modest doses if I want to prevent myself from even further injury and recover between workouts. So I'm balancing out with more traditional resistance training and lots of stabilizing exercises.


These days, I'm spending more time on prehab and rehab exercises than I am on any sort of competition specific training. It's hours of foam rolling and stretching and stabilization and strengthening and balance and postural alignment and ice and sometimes just plain resting. That's the hardest part. I'm learning to be patient.

I am striving to make peace with my body, not to try to force it or control it or cajole it. I recently listened to Tina Muir's podcast interview with Amelia Boone. Amelia is an obstacle racing phenom, but she also happens to be right around my age and lives a human woman's life with a full time job. She spoke about her experiences facing serious injury.

"It's not about getting back to yourself," she said...
"To try and return to a previous version of yourself is ludicrous, so I tell myself to give myself permission to morph into a new kind of athlete."

The inspiration to write this post came to me on my first 10 mile run since January. It was slow and it wasn't easy. I'm not the same runner I was before, and I give myself permission to morph into a new kind of athlete.

Stay Tuned.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Injury, Identity, Perspective

Forgive me. It's been a while. While winter in Boston has marched on, I've been busy wallowing in self-pity.

42 days with no running.

A lumbar herniation aggravated by a series of foolish decisions left me with agonizing sciatic pain in my left leg. I've grown pretty accustomed to my body doing what I tell it to do. Suddenly, it simply could not. I clung to the railing and winced my way up the stairs at work. I couldn't walk to the grocery store. I couldn't sit or sleep. I realized how completely I take good health for granted and began to imagine that constant pain was simply my new normal.

And the 42 days of no running.

Hyperbole and a Half

Running is my release. Running is a routine that grounds me. Running is a habit that gives me a sense of control when life feels turbulent. Apparently, Running is also a part of my identity to which my self-esteem is deeply tied.

In the first weeks after injury, I thought I was coping pretty well. In spite of feeling like a caged animal, I was trying hard to maintain a positive attitude. After all, this injury was not life-threatening and unlikely permanent. Just a small blip in the history of my active life.

I pedaled home from the grocery store on my bicycle one Wednesday evening in February with pain radiating up and down my spine and my left leg throbbing. My sister, husband, and friends were out together at a group run. I walked in my door, dropped my backpack and crumpled to the floor to find a position that provided some relief from pain. Before I knew what was happening, tears streamed down my cheeks. I gasped for air and wiped snot from my nose, feeling completely foolish and very much alone.

I found myself wishing for bad weather. If I couldn't run, I wanted everyone who could to feel miserable doing it. I sneered in contempt at carefree runners.

I felt guilty and embarrassed to admit that I was struggling. When I held up running next to the legitimate challenges so many people experience every day -- loss of a loved one, financial hardship, serious injury, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare or education, the list goes on -- my situation seemed trivial. But, trivial or not, I experienced this blow to my identity in a very real way.

On a Saturday morning when I typically would have gone for a cathartic long run outside, I instead hauled a water cooler, Gatorade, and snacks into the back of my sister's car on our way to set up a makeshift aid station along the Boston Marathon course. Carly works for Best Buddies, a nonprofit organization creating opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. On this morning, it was Best Buddies' turn to host aid stations for Boston Marathon charity runners on their long training run. Carly recruited me to join her in volunteering. I poorly masked my jealousy as we set our table up at the run turnaround point on Beacon Street.

Runners began to approach our station, stopping to chat as they snacked on pretzels and refilled their water bottles. Many expressed relief when I announced that this was the point where they could turn around and run home. All all expressed gratitude for our support. The perspective from this side of the water table was surprisingly satisfying, and it filled me with appreciation. I thought of the many folks who've given up their weekend mornings to hand me a cup of water, point me around a turn on a race course, or yell for me from the sidelines. It was the least I could do to return the favor this one time.

I went for my first post-injury run one week ago. I'm cautiously optimistic, but it's going to be a slow return. It will probably have setbacks. I am grateful for my body, for my good health, and for my ability to take care of myself. I am going to be fine.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Race Recap: Cambridge Half Marathon 2016

The inaugural Cambridge Half Marathon on November 13, 2016, was an eagerly anticipated event in my life. I spent months badgering everyone I know to join me in a race through our home city. I successfully coerced my husband, Chris and my sister, Carly, to run. It was Carly's first ever half marathon!

The race was organized by my favorite race directors at Cambridge 5k Race Series and it benefited two local organizations, Cambridge Camping and Belmont S.P.O.R.T.

*Notes: All the splits I report are from my watch, so they're not official. A few of these photos are borrowed from the Cambridge Half Facebook page

I volunteered to help out at bib pickup at the Cambridgeside Galleria on Friday evening, so I had bibs and t-shirts for my family ahead of time. On Sunday morning of the race, I woke, ate breakfast, and jogged the one mile from my apartment to the Galleria at 6:45 am to get settled.

The race day headquarters, including bag drop, port-a-potties, and post race party were all located inside the Cambridgeside Galleria parking garage. This setup was convenient for organization and ensured a lively, weatherproof party...but it was also dark, cold, basementy, and permeated by distinct aroma of port-a-potty.

Upon arriving in the garage, I dropped my bag at the Slumbrew Happy Soles team tent, peeled off a few layers, and got a hand stamp for post-race beer.

The Course
Closing down major streets in Cambridge is no small undertaking. I took so much pleasure in blocking traffic with thousands of runners on Massachusetts Avenue on a Sunday morning. The half marathon course took runners through East Cambridge and Inman Square, past Harvard University, twice through the vehicle-only Cambridge Street Tunnel, up Massachusetts Avenue, onto the Alewife Linear Path, to Belmont Center, around some alleys and a parking lot, and through a large city park. The course was varied! It was flat, with just enough gentle hills to keep things interesting! It went by my apartment! I am certainly biased by hometown pride, but to me, this course was perfect. It probably doesn't hurt that it happened to be 50 degrees, mild and sunny.

There were 6 water/Gatorade stops and 5 medical tents on the course. Each water stop was staffed by volunteers from a different local organization. Crowd support was modest in size but large in enthusiasm.

Race Start
Runners were shepherded from the parking garage to the start area at 7:30 am. Feeling a little intimidated by the field size of 5,000 participating runners, I snuck off ahead of the mob to wedge myself into the corral on First Street. Volunteers held up pace signs to help runner self-seed. The morning was chilly, so I'd come wearing a throwaway sweatshirt and cheap knee socks-turned-arm sleeves to keep warm. I stripped these off and tossed them outside the corral.

Having run the Chicago Marathon one month ago, I came into this race feeling confident about running, but unsure of realistic performance expectations. I hadn't trained specifically for a half marathon, and most of my running in the weeks leading up had been easy paced to support my body's recovery from the marathon. I always need to have a race goal, so I set an intention to start conservatively and run negative splits today. "Negative splits" means I planned to gradually speed up, making my second half of the race faster than the first. If you know me, you know this level of discipline is a challenge! I tend to take the less conservative "fly out of the gates and then hang on for dear life" approach to racing.

Within minutes, I was flanked in the corral by familiar runners. One more perk of running a hometown race. We exchanged well wishes, shook out our limbs, and listened to the national anthem. The horn sounded and we inched forward.

Miles 1-3
After crossing the start timing mat, we turned left onto Cambridge Street. We crested and descended a small hill. My legs were filled with early race excitement. As we passed the first mile marker, my watch buzzed and flashed 7:00 even. A little fast, so I settled myself down and slowed the pace.

After mile 2, we trundled through the Cambridge Street Tunnel at Harvard University and peeled up Massachusetts Avenue heading north. I grinned and waved to my coworker Abbie, who was supporting enthusiastically at Porter Square near the 5K mark. (7:00, 7:13, 7:04)

Miles 4-6
At the mile 4 marker, we turned left onto the Alewife Linear Park, a paved mixed-use bicycle and pedestrian path. It carried us around Russell Field, home of the CRLS Falcons football team, and behind Alewife T Station onto the Fitchburg Cutoff Path. I admired the scenery of marshland juxtaposed with industrial overdevelopment and abandoned railway.

Along this flat stretch, I began playing leapfrog with a tall man. We took turns leading and following over 3 miles. I noted my preoccupation with his proximity and made a conscious effort to ignore him. Tunnel vision. Don't get caught up in racing this early. (7:04, 7:07, 7:06)

Miles 7-9
We turned off the bike path and into a residential neighborhood in the town of Belmont. We crossed a 10K timing mat before making a hairpin turn at Belmont Center to begin our return trip back to Cambridge via Concord Avenue. As we passed Belmont High School, I spotted Dave and Lara's kids amid a throng of children. I high-fived four-year-old Walter.

Concord Ave has a long, gradual incline on the way back to Cambridge. I know that I tend to find strength on hills, so I decided it was time to lose leapfrogging tall guy once and for all. I dug in and smiled smugly to myself as I left him behind, running mile 8 foolishly fast.

We reached Fresh Pond in Cambridge and turned left down an alley behind the Trader Joe's, past some dumpsters and under a bridge below Alewife Brook Parkway. I enjoyed sloleming around potholes as we crossed the Apple Cinemas parking lot and turned into Danehy Park. Amusing fact: The steepest hill of the entire race was here in the park, to the top of a capped city landfill. (7:11, 6:54, 7:02)

Miles 10-11
What goes up must come down, and I hurtled down the other side of the landfill and out of Danehy Park. Now we were heading back toward Harvard Square. I had been trailing behind a coworker for miles, and I finally caught up to her outside Harvard Square. We exchanged greetings and good lucks.

I performed a mental check of my body and decided I was feeling strong. Time to pick it up a little. I surged back through the Cambridge Street Tunnel, emerging to a small but energetic crowd of high schoolers outside CRLS. I noted that the 11 mile marker appeared to be a few hundred yards early.

As we crested the last small hill on Broadway, my eyes caught a glimpse of folks from the November Project weilding a sign that read "Commence Beast Mode." I smiled toward them and promptly heeded their advice. Soon we passed my apartment, where the employees and patrons of the local barbershop were bemusedly watching us dummies run by. I charged on, now reeling in and passing runners one at a time. (7:00, 6:50)

Miles 12-13.1
I know what it feels like to be passed in the last miles of a long race. I have spent the final miles of many races fighting my body's overwhelming desire to slow to a crawl, wanting to punch those smug jerks in the face. Now I truly know what it feels like to be a smug jerk, and it feels excellent. Matthew Inman has a great comic about "springboards":

With springboards in mind, I turned onto Binney Street and into the last mile of this race. At last, the final turn onto First Street! My heart skipped a beat as I squinted at the finish line, which appeared to be 100 miles away. I'd tricked myself into forgetting that this road has the longest finishing chute of all time. Still, I could just make out the time on the clock overhead and I knew if I propelled myself to see this thing through I wouldn't regret it. I grinned my way across the finish line. (6:47, 6:37) (1:18(.2))

Gun time: 1:32:36.
Net time: 1:32:12. 
A surprising PR by 2 minutes, 38 seconds.

Check out those negative splits!

I collected my medal and found Happy Soles captain Eric, who'd finished looong before I did and earned a PR of his own. Together we cheered in our loved ones and teammates to a cascade of impressively fast finishes. This course gave runners wings!

Becca nailed her race with a trademark all-out-sprint finish.

I beamed with pride as Chris finished his race in 1:56:04

Eric's wife, Kristina, earned her much deserved sub-2 hour finish. Lara, Dave, Bailey and Steph all ran fantastic races.

And Carly? The young lady who loathed running just one year ago finished her first ever half marathon in 1:57:07. And she loped across the finish line like it was totally no big deal.

She already signed us up for another half marathon. Who wants to join us in the Newburyport River Run Half Marathon on May 7?

Post Race
The after party in the parking garage was loud and raucous and fun. Slumbrew, Notch, and Bantam Cider provided libations and a handful of vendors offered snacks.

Bottom Line
Impeccably organized C5K race + first-ever opportunity to run a half marathon on home turf + perfect weather + flat, fast, flying course + PR + running with my people = Happiest Bean. Can't wait for next year!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Gear Review: CamelBak Mini M.U.L.E. hydration pack

I am a grownup woman reviewing a child's hydration pack. And I am not ashamed. The Camelbak Mini M.U.L.E. is a great hydration (plus!) pack for a smallish adult female marathoner.

In the city, it's not difficult to find water along my running routes. I'm fortunate to have access to abundant public water fountains and runner-friendly Dunkin Donuts or Whole Foods stores.

During marathon training this summer, I began logging lots of miles on unfamiliar, much more rural trails and roads. I was already fairly accustomed to carrying this handheld water bottle, but found myself quickly drinking through 18 ounces in the summer heat. Between fuel, extra layers for unpredictable weather, keys, phone, and money, I also found myself carrying a lot more stuff as my runs grew in length. I've previously tried and disliked the feeling of running with a water belt, so I decided it was time to buy a running pack.

First Thoughts
I did not do research about running hydration packs ahead of time. I walked into REI, pulled all of the small hydration packs they had in stock off the racks, and ran around the store wearing each one. I tried on and really liked a few different brands. The CamelBak Mini M.U.L.E. wasn't even among my first round of test packs...because it was in the kids section. That's right, this is a pack designed for a child to wear while riding his or her bicycle. I had narrowed my choices down to two packs when I caught a glimpse of the Mini M.U.L.E. and decided to give it a try. I didn't love the bright pink color, but the $50 price tag was less than half of any other pack I had looked at. A 1.5 liter reservoir seemed like a good match for marathon training long run range, the pack had some extras like gear and cell phone pockets, and the fit was surprisingly comfortable. Sold.

Pack Specifications
Total Capacity: 91 cubic inches (1.5 Liters) + 1.5 Liter reservoir
Hydration Capacity: 1.5 Liter reservoir (included
Pack-Only Weight: 8.5 oz (.24 kg)
Torso Length: 12 inches (30 cm)
Harness: "kids fit lightweight mesh with slider sternum strap"
Fabric: "70D Diamond clarus/ 210D Nylon"

I'm a 5'5", 125 lb woman, and this pack fits snugly and comfortably. It sits high between my shoulder blades and has adjustable shoulder straps and a sternum strap that slides up or down. I've taken it on dozens of runs now, and I've never needed to make adjustments or fuss with it while running. I do sometimes hear the water sloshing in its reservoir while I'm running, but this hasn't affected the way the pack feels. I even tried it out on some faster paced tempo runs without a problem.

Carrying Capacity
The pack has two zippered pockets: one on the front of the backpack for keys, snacks, etc; and one at the top of the backpack which fits my iPhone vertically and is a good place for stashing cash. There's also an open cargo slip pocket in the middle of the pack with adjustable straps. This pocket works well for carrying a light shirt, pair of gloves, or sunscreen.

Hydration System
The 1.5 liter reservoir is your typical Camelbak with a hose and bite valve. The bite valve can be shut off with a locking valve to prevent leaking during travel. When running, I do tend to leave this valve unlocked for easy access to drink, and I do occasionally notice the bite valve leaking just a little. The pack has a separate pocket for the hydration pack.

In addition to using on runs from 8-20 miles, I've taken this pack on day hikes. I was able to cram in my lunch and snacks, a couple layers, map, cell phone and keys without a problem. It is not the coolest looking pack, so I wouldn't necessarily wear it out on the town.

Bottom Line
As autumn wanes and the local water fountains are shut off, I'll be happy to comfortably carry my own water and have a place to keep all my snotty tissues. For a smaller woman, the Camelbak Mini M.U.L.E. is a great alternative to the more expensive hydration packs.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Race Recap: Chicago Marathon 2016

I have been working hard to make every single second count since the day I found out I missed qualifying for the 2016 Boston Marathon by exactly that margin.

On Sunday, October 9th, 2016, I completed the 39th Chicago Marathon.

The weather was phenomenal. The course was flat and fast. The crowd support was electrifying.

The race was hard. It was fun. It was everything. I didn't know it was possible to feel so happy while running a marathon.

And I got my one second...

The Day Before
I traveled to Chicago on my own. My flight arrived early Saturday morning, and after dropping my bag with my AirBNB hosts in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, I hopped onto the CTA Blue Line "L" train toward downtown Chicago to check out the race expo and pick up my bib.

The Abbott Health & Fitness Expo was held at McCormick Convention Center. I opted to take advantage of the free shuttle buses running from downtown locations to the expo. Although lines for the shuttles were long, buses arrived and departed quickly. I waited about 15 minutes for my ride before sliding in to a yellow school bus seat.

My seatmate and I began chatting. She introduced herself as Angie. I asked whether she'd completed many marathons. She had. Like a ton. All over the place. As she was describing some of her running achievements and experiences, she casually slipped in, "My boyfriend works for Runner's World, so I'm meeting him at the Expo." A few minutes later she referred to her boyfriend as "Bart."

"Wait," I cut in. "Is your boyfriend Bart Yasso?"

Yup, Bart Yasso, "The Mayor of Running" and author of the book My Life on the Run. Bart was scheduled to give a seminar at the Expo about his book. When I Bart this year the day before the Boston Marathon, I running nerded out:

Upon arriving at the expo, I followed the crowd to retrieve my race bib, t-shirt, and gear check bag before exploring the 200+ vendors and exhibitors peddling official marathon merchandise, running gear, goos, and gizmos. The huge space felt really crowded. A massive line had formed for customized Nike running t-shirts. I didn't stick around to find out whether or not this was free, because the long line didn't seem worth it either way. I was briefly accosted by a vendor who offered me a free spinal screening. I caught the Runner's World course preview and information session. Hearing the details of the course helped me feel more confident about how I would run it.

With Whole Foods hot bar dinner in hand, I retreated to my AirBNB. I donned the bathrobe and slippers left for me by my hosts, laid out my race outfit, made a pot of peppermint tea, and put my feet up to watch reruns of Parks and Rec on Netflix. I climbed into bed at 8:30 p.m. and slept surprisingly well, apart from a brief 1:30 a.m. wake up when a crew of boisterous young men decided the alley next to my window was a good place for late night public urination. Ah, city living.

Race Morning
I woke before my 4:40 a.m. alarm. Silently and methodically, I dressed, ate peanut butter and banana toast, and swallowed a mug of tea and a glass of water. I applied a pacing tattoo to my inner arm to keep track of my splits along the way in case the GPS in my watch went awry (this proved to be a good choice - the GPS was waaaaay off.) I jammed race fuel into one pocket of my shorts and a plastic Ziploc bag containing my phone, ID, and credit card in the other. I filled my handheld water bottle with electrolyte drink in the bathroom sink.

The race provided a clear plastic gear check bag for each participant to leave at the finish area. I packed mine with a sweatshirt, post race snacks, and house keys before setting off into the dark morning. I made a brief stop at Dunkin' Donuts for a coffee on my way to join other jittery runners on the Blue Line train. We exchanged nervous good luck wishes as the train rattled toward Grant Park.

The Start
The Chicago Marathon is a massive event. 41,000 runners big. All of Grant Park was closed to the public to host the race staging area, and participants were filtered in to the park through specific entrance gates based on our assigned start corrals. I found my way through my entrance gate and dropped my bag at the red gear check tent.

The race starts in two waves, with each wave broken up into several assigned corrals. The first wave begins at 7:30 a.m. and the second at 8:00 a.m. To my relief, my qualifying entrance time granted me a position in the first wave.

With 45 minutes to the start, I ate half a Honey Stinger waffle and sipped a cup of water while chatting with a few runners. A quick port-a-potty stop and I flashed my bib to gain entrance into Corral C. It was a cool 50 degrees.

The corral system at the Chicago Marathon meant that I was grouped with other runners who had entered qualifying marathon times at paces similar to my own. The 3:25, 3:30, and 3:35 pacing groups were all in Corral C. This meant that, in spite of the enormous crowd of runners, we shouldn't be tripping over any slower runners ahead of us.

When the corrals were sealed off at 7:10, dozens of runners who'd still been waiting in port-a-potty lines began scaling the fences to get in. At 7:20, a local opera singer sang the national anthem. As she belted "...and the home of the brave!" hundreds of runners in unison stripped off our "throwaway" sweatshirts and tossed them toward the donation bins located along the corral fence. At 7:30, a horn blared and the crowd inched slowly forward.

I crossed the start line at 7:35:17 and took a deep breath.

Miles 1-5: The Loop
Almost immediately after exiting the north end of the park, we entered a tunnel on Columbus Ave. So much for accurate GPS. Inside the tunnel, the unified footfalls of thousands of runners echoed eerily. Despite being shoulder to shoulder across the broad street, our seeding by pace meant the crowd of runners undulated as one big wave. There was fairly little jockeying for position. We emerged from the tunnel to cross a bridge and the first mile marker flashed by in a blur. I mentally reviewed my plan: Be conservative. Don't get swept up. Keep it close to 8:00/mile.

Miles 5-10: Lincoln Park & Lakeview
Friends Dave and Lara were coincidentally in town visiting family, and I knew they'd be waiting somewhere near Mile 5. I squinted to scan the crowd as we entered Lincoln Park, but I couldn't find them. Amid the throng of runners, they couldn't find me either. But look at how awesome they were! Thanks for being out there, guys. It meant so much.

We continued north through Lincoln Park, where there was plenty of green and the field opened up. I began chatting with a kind and encouraging woman who told me she was sure I'd get my BQ today. As we neared the northernmost point of the race between the mile 7 and 8 markers, I noted that I'd been drifting ahead of pace. I waved her on to let myself slip back onto pace again. Don't be greedy in the first half. Somewhere around Mile 9, I decided to listen to music for a while and settle into a groove.

Miles 11-16: Old Town, River North, West Loop, Greek Town
Again, I found myself drifting farther ahead of the 3:25 pace group. This was starting to make me anxious, and I felt a familiar twinge of doubt. I'd needed to pee since mile 1, so when a bank of Port-a-potties came into view on my right, I made a split second decision to go for it.

I had to wait my turn behind another runner, and the detour took me about a minute in total. When I emerged from that port-a-potty, it was as though a switch had flipped inside me. My body felt better. I'd slowed down my heart rate. I shook off the nervous funk. Refreshed, I set off to methodically catch back up to the pace group over the next mile. I focused on following the "Blue Line", a dashed blue strip of paint running through the entire course to mark the shortest route.

I came through the half marathon mark feeling strong. There were so many fans! My name was taped across my chest in bright yellow, and I constantly heard strangers cheering "GO BEAN!". Mile 14 was the Charity Block Party, and many of the charities for whom runners had raised funds were lining the street, offering cheers and high fives to runners.

Miles 17-21: Little Italy, University Village, Pilsen
I felt a big burst of energy during this stretch, and I started to throw in some 30-60 second strides to mix up pace in hopes of keeping my legs fresh. The one downfall of a super flat course is that you use the same muscles in the same pattern repeatedly. So since there were no hills, I tried to "be the hill". Just before reaching mile 21, we crossed a big iron bridge. Fans had climbed and were sitting atop the bridge, screaming for the runners. It felt surreal.

Miles 21-Finish: 
As the 21st mile marker came into view, I recognized a small sensation of fear in my belly. Some runners around me were starting to fade. This is where the real racing starts, I told myself. There is no wall. I did a body check. Feeling pretty great, actually. There is no wall. As I crossed the 35k timing mat, I thought of all my friends and family following my race from afar thanks to the wonders of the internet.

At mile 23, I could feel that my legs were growing heavier, and running was starting to require more effort. My pace had dropped, just a little. I had my eyes set on the Blue Line. Ride the wave, I thought. It will pass. I focused on running one mile at a time. Just this mile.

When the mile 25 marker came into my view a few hundred yards away, the wave of discomfort did pass. The only thing I could think of now was ONE (expletive, expletive) SECOND. I found myself passing runners. ONE SECOND! At Mile 26, we traveled up a small overpass ramp, turned left, and there it was. The finish line 200 meters ahead. I let out everything I had and pushed forward to the finish with a grin from ear to ear. 3:25:10. That's a PR by 7:23 and gives me a 9:50 cushion under the Boston Marathon qualifying standard. 2018 Boston Marathon, here I come!

The Chicago Marathon was some of the happiest running I've ever experienced. I've been basking in the glow all week.  If you're trying to decide on a marathon and you like big city running, DO IT. 

When I returned home to Cambridge, Becca and Carly treated me to a very special celebratory vegan brownie sundae at Veggie Galaxy...

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