On Oct. 7, I got to be part of the 2012 Bank of America Chicago Marathon. By “part of the marathon” I mean that in less of a “I ran 26.2 miles” sort of way and more like, “While my marathoning boyfriend and 44,999 others ran 26.2 miles, I chased them all over Chicago in 40-degree weather and it was a surprisingly incredible experience.”
This was Miles’ fourth marathon but my first. It’s not that I wasn’t proud of him for the other three, I just had no point of reference to understand what the marathon itself was like.
The other times, Miles would send me a, “Bye, I’m going to run now,” text before the race and another, “I’m done…my knees hurt,” sometime after it ended.
Between those texts, I’d do normal Abi stuff—watch YouTube videos, eat Cheerios—and think about Miles running without being connected enough to fathom what his day was like. I’d type, “Awesome job babe!” in response to his text about setting a personal record, but that about ends my connection to it all.
Tagging along Sunday brought me into what felt like a parallel universe. I was constantly thinking marathon marathon marathon as I hustled to different spots, cheering on everyone who ran past and excitedly panning the masses for my man’s beautiful, bearded face.
I know this is still a night-and-day difference from me actually running the race, but something about being physically present makes the whole situation infinitely more real and personal. I usually feel uncomfortable in huge crowds, but something about this felt right.
Maybe the crowd was so positive because there were no “sides” in the competition. While the top-tier professional runners race to win, most people run to set personal records or achieve goals. That opens the door to a really special, inclusive experience.
I felt it when I moseyed over to Mile 1 by myself. For 25 minutes I watched thousands of runners flood State Street, laughing and cheering, not yet begging for BenGay and Gatorade. I didn’t recognize a single person in the crowd or in the race, but the energy formed this bubble around us all, spectators and participants alike.
If anyone can recall my dear mother’s enthusiasm at any HES-HMS-HHS sporting event throughout my entire athletic career, multiply that by about 30,000—maybe you’ll begin to get a picture of this enormously encouraging atmosphere. Everyone is shouting wildly for every runner and no matter where you stop to watch, runners stream through constantly. It’s neverending positivity. I couldn’t stop beaming.
I felt unbelievably light as I headed over to the halfway point to wait for Miles, which is where things really came together for me.
At Mile 13, I found a spot by an older gentleman who loudly encouraged every single pack of participants who raced by. Many of them had Sharpied their names onto their jerseys so for more than an hour he yelled, “C’mon, Taylor! You got this, Andrea! Keep going, Ben! All right, Michelle!”
I’m not one for group yelling (It’s weird. Sorry, sports fans), but this guy’s enthusiasm was contagious. Within 10 minutes I was shouting right along, totally absorbed into the atmosphere. A few participants in each pack were wearing crazy outfits—full tuxedo, banana suit, a tutu, painted French mustache— which encouraged the crowd to cheer even more wildly.
So as I stood there, cheering for random people and anxiously awaiting the first glimpse of my reddish-haired human, I realized: The energy in the crowd was so electric because nearly everyone else was anticipating the arrival of their “Miles.”
It seems like such a simple concept, but think about it. I tend to forget that crowds this huge are comprised of individual humans who all ate breakfast somewhere, then hugged their beloved runner goodbye outside the starting corral. That’s so human. There is so much power in that.
Imagine the sheer magnitude that comes from 45,000 runners’ personal cheerleaders, all crammed together in mutual anticipation and support. I think that’s what makes a marathon unlike any other sporting event.
I had been cheering for almost an hour and a half by the time Miles ran past and I was giddy beyond belief. I can hardly describe the kind of adrenaline and euphoria I was feeling. I honestly thought I might pee my pants from excitement.
Miles was right—it’s basically impossible to explain this atmosphere to someone who has never experienced it. I would encourage everyone to attend a marathon at some point. If nothing else, park yourself at the finish line and watch the pride, relief and euphoria wash over the faces of every single finisher. It’s the strongest contact high you’ll ever get.
I wasn’t expecting the marathon experience to be all that impactful, mostly considering I wasn’t even running it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be physically/mentally capable to complete the 26.2 miles myself, but at the very least, I’ve just discovered my newest Chicago tradition.