It's darker in the mornings this time of year. The weather is moody, sometimes warm and sunny, other times damp and gloomy.
Today was cloudy and unseasonably
cool. Not good for an afternoon drive to see the fall colors, but good
for a marathon. The temperature was forty some degrees at the start and
a fast moving cover of clouds kept the sun under wraps most of the
I decided to drive downtown to
watch my daughters run, instead of taking the train. The place I like to sit on
the course these days is just outside the train station, where the
runners pass at the thirteen mile mark. At that point they are still
feelling pretty good, smiling and waving as they go by. The street is not too
crowded with people, only one spectator deep. Conveniently, there's a
Starbuck's, a McDonald's with a bathroom, and parking within half a
Last night, in an unexpected show of support, I
went to Kinko's and made four signs with my daughters' names on them. I
chose Day-glo pink and green 18 x 24 posters with big black lettering
that anyone could read from a block away.
I had them laminated, too, to make
the signs stiffer when they were held up in the air. I also signed up
for a service which sent my daughters' split times at every 10K mark to
my computer. I tried to sign up for the text messaging service, too, but
someone from FEMA must have been running things, because it was screwed
up. Luckily, I have AOL by phone, so I could just call my email to
figure out approximately where they were on the course.
Since this year was my older
daughter's first marathon, the plan was for the two of them to go slow,
very slow. Not that my other daughter runs fast; she's got a pretty
demanding career that precludes heavy training, so she's usually
finishing around the four hour mark.
Today she would be pacing her
sister, so no personal records were planned. Helping her rookie sibling
cross the finish line with dignity was the only goal.
Personally, my biggest worry would
be losing control of my bodily functions and having it captured on
video, the way Wide World of Sports covers people collapsing during an
ironman race: Up close and personal pooping in your pants in public. My
apologies to any sensitive readers.
The first Chicago marathon I went
to in 1999 was already my younger daughter's third or fourth. I
positioned myself with a camera on the median strip near the start so I
could get pictures of the skyline and the myriad runners passing on either side.
There was also a bunch of vocal spectators on a bridge just above and behind
me for entertainment value.
I thought I had the perfect place
to see her run past. Surely I could spot her. There were only thirty some
thousand people running that day. What was I thinking?
I ended up walking most of the
course in reverse trying to catch a glimpse of her. That race, where a
men's record was set, had started out hovering around freezing, so the
runners were layered in clothing. But the sun was out and it got pretty
hot, so there were sweat shirts, sweat pants, hats, gloves, you name it
left strewn all along the course. I knew this because it felt like I
dodged most of it trying to locate my daughter. And I never saw her
until after the
race was over.
The next time I came to watch, she
got me seats in the covered grandstand at the finish line. I went from
steerage to first class. There was free food in the huge tent, which
also had computers so you could track the runners on the course. What a
civilized, sophisticated way to go to a marathon. It helped that
she had a friend who
worked in the Mayor's office. All the food and high tech equipment
aside, I still missed
her finish, because I left the stands to check where she was on the
course and go to the bathroom. I was gone for just one darn minute and
the next thing I knew she was calling to me as I was leaving the tent.
I was out of town the next few
times. But a couple of marathons ago, I discovered my current spot by
the train station, just after the runners cross a bridge over the
Chicago River heading west. The Sears Tower is a couple of blocks away.
You might think it blots out the sun, but you don't even notice it's
there unless you happen to look up and tilt your neck back so far it hurts. That's a tall building. Oh, hey, that's the Sears
The river meanders through all the skyscapers like black ink. The sun,
when it comes out, is bright and white. Everything seems devoid of
color except for what the runners are wearing, often unnaturally iridescent shirts, shoes, caps, and gloves.
My first year by the train station,
my daughter's boyfriend [at the time] rode his bike and followed her
along the course. He knew where I was supposed to be and rode ahead.
When he found me he pointed her out about a half a block away. [Thanks
Steve. Did I mention I cried when they broke up?]
She stopped for a quick picture
[hmm, where is it, I wonder?] and I finally had a chance to wish her
well while she was actually out on the course. Then I went down the
stairs, hopped on a train and went home. No traffic, no hassles, or
This time I wanted to sit in the
same place, but drive there. I was worred about traffic, however, and
all the re-routed streets. But it was Sunday morning. There isn't any
traffic then in the city. Since I had a map of the course I could avoid
any blocked off streets.
In fact, my plans were falling into place a
little too easily. Which made me uneasy. I got off the expressway, drove six blocks to a public
parking garage one half block from where I wanted to sit, and attempted to
The garage door opened, but the
machine that spits out the tickets didn't work. Meanwhile, there was a
car behind me honking to get in. I got out to see what was wrong with
the ticket machine, since I couldn't go forward without a ticket, when
suddenly the garage door began to close. As it neared the hood of the
car behind me with no sign of letting up, the driver finally saw me gesturing
and backed out of harm's way. She was too busy trying to tell me to
move my ass to notice her car was about to be crushed.
Soon I discover I'm trapped inside the garage with
no ticket. The door is closed. I can't back up. I can't go forward.
There is no one around. In fact, there's even a sign that confirms
that no one will be around until Monday morning. I'm about to call the cops just because I'm so hacked off, when
the garage door starts to open again. The lady behind me had kicked off the
automatic door opener when she backed out.
I jump back in the car and try to
back out before the garage door comes down again. Bad idea. I didn't
have much wiggle room and in my haste I didn't check the right side of
my car. Suddenly I heard the sound of the right rear view mirror being
ripped out of its socket as I hurriedly backed out of the garage.
Clearly, things had been going too well. Now we've experienced a correction. So things can start going well
again. I drove around the corner and found a public garage that was
only one block away from the race, with a ticket machine that worked.
The race was already underway by the time I got parked and walked
over. It had started at 8:00 AM. My kids wouldn't be coming by for
about at least an hour and a half to two hours by my calculations.
There was almost nobody on the north side
of the street, so I set up my chair and got into the zen of waiting.
Several cars, trucks, and motorcycles came by with camera crews
carrying signs telling us to wave and shout. I waved and shouted and
clapped, too. A group of high school girls in crazy outfits and makeup
holding a banner with the name of their school lined up across
from me. Little kids started sitting on the curb. All kinds of colorful
signs appeared. Go Dad was the most popular one. When the first
wheelchair racers rolled by, people began to cheer and clap like we
saving Tinkerbell's life, since that's our job on the sidelines. Keep
the runners propelled to the finish line. No one collapses and dies on
our watch. Or our block at least.
Some guy shows up with a bullhorn
and does a play by play of all the runners passing by. Many, like my
offspring, have their names on their shirts so people can call out to
them and spur them on.
The bullhorn commentator shouts to
as many as he can, "There's Gretchen, she's a winner -- she's been
training for months to be here -- go Gretchen!" "Hiya, guy in the
funny shirt, how's it going?"
My daughters gave me a time they
thought they'd be coming by, I got out a poster about ten minutes
beforehand and started holding it up so they could find me. Another
woman whose daughter had already stopped by for her bag of fruit and an
energy bar, offered to hold up one of the other posters with me. I told
her she would only be committed to five minutes, but we got to talking
so the five minutes went by quickly and she said she had time to stay
All of a sudden, no more than two
minutes later, my volunteer poster holder saw names that matched the
posters on some bright green shirts. My daughers saw her about
the same time, then saw me. At first they thought it was funny that
someone they didn't know had a sign with their names on it. Hey, there's Mom next to her with that
other sign. Just like we planned. After the wait to see them, it took
about ten seconds for them to pass out of sight. The moment reminded me
of spending all day preparing dinner and having your family take ten
minues to eat it.
They didn't stop, which was smart,
since my older daughter, on her very first 26.2 mile journey in running
shoes, looked like she wasn't going to make another mile, let alone
another thirteen miles, as she went by.
The day before, her biggest fear
was not finishing. Not finishing had haunted her ever since her taller, but younger,
sister had encouraged her to try a marathon. The expression on her face seemed to reflect her concern.
At least that's what I thought. I tried to tell her beforehand not to
think negative thoughts.
Visualize the finish line. You've
trained for this. You can make it. Sure, Mom. My younger
daughter, after all her marathons, triathlons, and an ironman, was
smiling and waving to me like she was out for a stroll, so I knew she'd
get her sister through it.
After they went on their way, I drove home to track them on my computer, concerned enough about my
older daughter that I let out a WHOOPIE when I got the email with her
[unofficial] finishing time.
They had a lot of people supporting
them along the way. Wearing shirts with their names on them meant that
they heard encouragement from complete strangers, too. They said the
support on the course was incredible. That's just the way marathons
are. Especially Chicago. No, really.
Those little high school
cheerleaders across from me were doing some great foot-stomping cheers. In their
feather boas and funny hats, they looked like characters from an
episode of Pee Wee's Playhouse. There were live bands playing in every
neighborhood on the route. My kids also had other people they knew cheering them
on about every two miles. Later, they were joined on the course by a
friend of my older daughter's who ran the last six miles with them.
Turns out my older daughter's knee
was hurting from about mile three. No wondershe didn't look happy. So
I was really impressed that she finished, given the fact there was no
reward at the end, only a sense of achievement. And the finisher's
medal. In her case, the thought of not finishing was a powerful enough
incentive to help her overcome the pain. Apparently not wanting to feel
humiliated is a great motivator.
Of course, now, after getting up
early, loading the car, carrying everything from the car to the race,
and holding up the signs, I think I'm more tired than they are.
Especially when I consider all the running around I did to different
stores to find matching iron-on letters for their shirts.
There's all that getting in and out
of the car, too. And asking the right questions, "Do you have any more
letter 'I's' in the back? How about an 'N'?" Then there was
the grueling work on the posters. Typing the letters. Pushing the button to
print out the template. Have I mentioned the practice copies I had to
make? And have you ever tried to use a giant paper cutter to trim the
extra lamination off and do it straight? That's something I usually
delegate to others. But, no, I had to do it myself. Sheesh.
I also had to carry a folding
chair, my camera, and my purse along with the bag of posters, which I
brought back home so we can use them again. Plus the stress
of knocking my rear view mirror off the car so that now it's only hanging by a
couple of wires. I smell duct tape.
After today's hard work, they're having massages tomorrow.
I think after a hard day being a spectator, I am going to need one too.