Long Train Running: A Chicago Marathon Story | Chapter 9 — The Unfinished Line
By the time this is published, the Chicago Endurance Sports training group I’d been running with this summer will be gathering at the Ben Franklin statue in Lincoln Park getting ready to have their last long-ish training run before Race Day. It’ll be chilly and dark. These runners are out and wide awake before the sun, warming up with dynamic stretches. They’ll be coalescing into their separate pace groups, hyping each other up for this final day of training before it’s Marathon Week. They’ll be laughing. Spirits will be high. They’ll probably be talking about the weather now and what the weather will be like in eight days when they gather again to do the thing they’d been training for and looking forward to all summer — maybe longer.
I will be asleep. Or maybe I’ll have dragged my fickle body out of bed to bang out some work before the kid wakes up and the dog needs to be taken out and the wife needs her coffee. The point is that I won’t be at the Ben Franklin statue in Lincoln Park getting ready to have a run. Because I’m not running the Chicago Marathon.
This isn’t my choice. This is the last thing I wanted. But I have answers to the questions I’ve been living with for the last two weeks. The answers are that I am injured, too injured to run, so injured that I’m now using a cane to get around. Yeah, a cane. An old man’s cane. It’s the cane that belonged to my great-grandfather Joe. I grabbed it from my grandparents’ house after Nonny died expecting it to be a kind of heirloom. I had no intention of actually using it. But I’ve been instructed by Brad Pennington, PA-C in the Orthopaedic Surgery Department at Northwestern Medicine to take as much pressure off my right leg as possible. For at least six weeks. And if the cane ain’t doing it, I should upgrade to crutches.
I have a focal stress response, which is the beginning of a stress fracture. If I were to run the marathon next week, or even the quick, easy seven miles scheduled for this morning, I would quite likely end up with a stress fracture in my femur, or even a full blown fracture. Imagine that… I trained so hard for this goddamn race that I am literally a few steps away from breaking the largest and most difficult bone to break in the human body.
Rest. That’s the treatment plan. That’s all I can do.
These injuries happen. And it can be a result of improper training, specifically, training too hard. I can’t say for sure, and neither can Pennington, if I caused this injury because I didn’t rest properly or do my cut back weeks properly. I don’t think I have a bone density issue or low calcium. I don’t know. Shit happens. This shit couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
When I started this training thing, I was in pain. But that’s because I was out of shape and I went into it way too hard, way too fast. So this summer, all of this training has been about achieving one goal: get strong. I have failed in that regard. Other than the focal stress response, do I feel stronger? Yes. I look it, too. I have noticed my body taking a new shape. A better shape. The shape of someone who is in shape. What I didn’t know is that underneath all that shape and strength was a subterranean weakness festering. If this had happened at the beginning of the training cycle, I’d have rested, just been late to the game. But I would have been able to run the marathon. Six weeks of rest. Six weeks of rest when you’re looking at nineteen weeks of training is hardly a drop in the bucket. Six weeks of rest when you’re at week eighteen is… What’s the word… unfortunate. No. Disappointing. That’s it.
I signed up to run the Chicago Marathon as a way to raise money for Gilda’s Club Chicago. And I did. I raised more than my minimum thanks to the generosity of family and friends. And though I know not a single one of those donors will ask for their money back, I still owe them a marathon. I owe myself a marathon. Because I also signed up to run this thing to prove to myself that I could do it. I didn’t care about finishing at a certain time; my goal was to finish somewhere not much longer than four hours without having to walk and without injury.
The marathon has become a trigger for me. The ads, the emails I still get, the posts from the social media groups I’m in or follow, my running shoes collecting dust and dog hair… they trigger my sadness. I would rather not think about the Chicago Marathon the way I didn’t want to think about an ex-girlfriend after she dumped me. It’s a reminder of my shortcomings. I had planned on taking my son to see my grandmother on Race Day. She lives in Thronton, far away from all things Chicago Marathon. I love seeing her and my son together. Plus, Gramma would take care of me. She’d let me lay up and watch movies and cook for me. No one can love like Gramma can love and that Gramma love can fix anything. Anything.
But! Because I’m not a beta twentysomething anymore or a second grader, I’m avoiding the avoiding, and I’ll join Team Gilda outside of Gilda’s Club Chicago on North Wells Street to cheer on the runners. I know how hard they worked, how hard everyone participating in the marathon next Sunday worked to get to that day. They deserve my cheering. Not because my cheering matters much in the grand scheme of things, but because runner’s need energy, and there’s no better energy than that which comes from a stranger screaming at you from a crowded sidewalk while you jog in the middle of the street. And instead of thinking of my shortcomings, I’m thinking of how far I got. I’m thinking of how I’ll heal and how I’ll do better next time and how I’ll be stronger after I’m healed. And when I miss being out there on a run, just for me, I’ll go for a swim. That’s okay to do, Pennington says. I love swimming.
Maybe I’ll start conditioning myself for more water-based endurance activities. Maybe I’ll compete in a triathlon. How hard can it be? And why bother with a measly little marathon when I can push my body to the absolute brink with a triathlon?
Nah, maybe not. Not yet. Baby steps. Marathon first.
I won’t run the Chicago Marathon this year as planned. I physically can’t. And since I can’t run the marathon, I can’t finish it, so, this is far from over. This long train running has not come to the end of the line yet. But it did have to pull into a station along the way for repairs. It just did so at the worst possible time.