After mile 13, the Chicago marathon was a running metaphor of barriers presented throughout my life. At times, I felt like I couldn't pace fast enough to keep up with the pulled down signage and SAG wagon. Being a back of the pack runner requires a grit that surpasses all of the convenient goodies that typical Google searched articles can provide. When the crowd dissipate and the tables that once housed water and fueling is gone, all you can rely on is your breath, a nervous mind and your training.
With enough time to shower, I performed a simple glance over in my suitcase and kissed my family before bolting off in my Lyft to Newark Airport. Hours before, I fell asleep fully clothed with one shoe still on my foot from attending the No Barriers Summit in New York City. Earlier on in the week, I participated in a branding conference in Santa Barbara and when I look over at my calendar, I realized I staggered my races in an exceptionally sadistic way. Realistically I haven't stopped training since last year; my overzealous calendar requires me to hover somewhere close to 40 miles a week for my running, 3 - 5 hours of cycling, a minimum of cross training twice a week at the gym and whenever I can luck up, an occasional swim practice. Coach Megan Roche managed to maintain my hefty load by weaving my endurance races as part of my training for the Javelina Jundred 100K -- a race held in Fountain Hills, Arizona with a 30 hour cutoff and only a few weeks away. The Chicago Marathon would serve as one of my longest training runs; I was looking forward to taking home a finisher medal for the third year in a row from another food capitol.
After unloading my items at a trendy Edgewater AirBnB, I opted to pull out my race day clothing and gear in advanced. After doing over 100 races and over ten marathons in 4+ years, you learn a lot about yourself. In my case, I thrive on pressure but being a procrastinator for race day is a recipe for disaster. I chose items that I ran in countless times and would hold up in the tough weather conditions predicted for the day: Heavy rains, possible thunderstorms and loads of WTF in the forecast. Since my departure from New York City, I experienced inflammation from my endometriosis and sciatica. When going through a flare up, my gastrointestinal tract can go haywire if I take in unfamiliar energy gels or indulge in random race day sports drinks. With this in mind, I certainly didn't want to try anything new.
For the course, I armed myself with a decent amount of Skratch Labs Sport Energy Chews,Energy Bars and single serving packs of their Sports Hydration Mix. I've been training with their products since the North Face Endurance Challenge in the Wachusett Mountains in April 2017. It was the first time that I didn't experience a gurgling stomach or a crash in energy. Using products with real food is what maintains my energy levels for my laundry list of events and aids in my recovery.
Hours later, I visited the Abbott Health and Fitness expo for the Chicago Marathon. Picking up my bib on a Saturday was an experience within itself. I was surrounded by a sea of colorful human ants who were getting their race bibs and indulging in impulse items that makes us runners squeal and family members possibly cringe. Before exiting, I saw a treadmill that taunted visitors to run 200 meters at the speed of Eluid Kipochoge. Whether viewed as foolish or bold, I pushed my body to attempt this station twice. This station served as my shakeout run -- or maybe that's the lie I told myself.
Before calling it a night, I met up with a few Instagram followers, friends from NYC and a fellow Skirt Sports ambassador. I moved around a lot to deliberately push myself into exhaustion. Typically I have a problem sleeping more than three hours before race day but after a week of living on airplanes and doing uncomfortable sprints on the treadmill, I managed to get in 6 hours of rest.
Between being programmed from living on eastern standard time and my obnoxious phone alarm, I woke up close to a hour before schedule. Although I was a wave three runner, I was given an opportunity to run with team Biofreeze. Race day perks entitled me to a special station that allowed me to store my bags in a special tent, separate bathrooms and a buffet style breakfast. My endometriosis and sciatica pain didn't ease up much and I opted to take a Lyft to race day central instead of the public transportation; this turned out to be a nightmare.
In hindsight, I think my driver was crafted from a condescending cesspool of old school misogyny in a vehicle reminiscent of terrible stereotypes of a bad movie.
NOTE: This is not a reflection of how I feel about Lyft. This company is my typical go to and it's rare that I've encountered rude drivers with using their service.
Evidently wearing a race day bib wasn't enough to convince my driver that I was running a marathon as he reminded me that I wouldn't come in first place. And then he pushed the envelope further by stating that I was wasting my time. "Someone as fat as you will not make it across the finish line." I didn't feel depressed initially but overwhelmed with rage. To add further insult to injury, he turned a 13 minute drive into well over a hour. Although I tried to advise him how to navigate traffic, his arrogance wouldn't allow him to take advice from someone who wasn't a Chicago native. I almost choked in my own saliva from laughing as he provided a half-assed apology requesting that I do not blame him for delay and reflect it in his tip.
By the time I made it to the start, I couldn't enjoy the pre race festivities that Biofreeze offered to me. I grabbed a sausage link, a mini muffin, squeezed in enough time to use the bathroom and had a minor anxiety attack before joining the other wave three runners. Being heckled at the NYC Marathon last year gave me the unfortunate practice of not allowing someone's words to define me. I've been here before and I have countless bibs and medals to prove that I'm a marathoner and ultra runner. He will not be the first nor last to doubt my abilities. I wiped the tears of frustration from my face and tapped into a place of peace as Corral L made its way to the start line. At 8:54 AM CDT, my feet crossed the start line.
As an athlete with medical challenges, my primary goals for any race are fairly simple:
Anything in excess of that truly depends on how I'm feeling on race day. I kept my pace down to a humble 15 minute mile, knowing that I could maintain this pace for the entire marathon even if reduced down to a walk. My right side started to loosen up a bit and my stride lengthen; my breathing felt great and shoulders started to relax. I felt good for the first two miles. As I hovered close to the three mile marker, I noticed flashing lights approaching my right side.
"Is that a SAG wagon with garbage trucks and a police escort?"
Honestly, it made me exceptionally nervous. I'm no stranger to these things as a back of the pack runner but it's been a while since I saw this on a course directly alongside me. I started looking at my watch wondering if the timing was wrong. I'm used to running 13 - 15 minute miles, depending on the length of the race but I wondered if I was much slower than I projected. For six miles, I tried to outpace the SAG wagon and eventually I did. I had a temporary sigh of relief and my pain started to ease up.
The rain and wind made it an icky event but my spirits were still high. The Lyft driver's words washed away with the slightly opaque looking sky. For a bit, my vision for finishing the marathon in six hours and thirty minutes seem like a reality as I exited Lincoln Park. My legs started to itch for short bursts of speed and I obliged. At certain points, I hovered between a fourteen and a half minute pace to fifteen; this is my familiar happy pace for anything over a half marathon. Around mile 11, I noticed garbage trucks making their way over to water stations. It didn't make me nervous but I couldn't help but notice that some of the stations were in the process of breaking down. A few people behind me started talking amongst themselves wondering if they would make it to the finish line in time. I didn't worry for any of us; the Chicago Marathon matched a very similar tone to the New York City Marathon. Although the cutoff is 6 hours and 30 minutes on the course, I've watched people cross the finisherâs line minutes after the seven hour mark.
When I reached 13.1 miles, the SAG wagon and police escort were lined up next to me once again; I started to grow nervous. I glanced back at my clock, ignoring the mile markers on my Fitbit and started calculating the time in my head. Three hours, twenty minutes on the nose. I've been at this pace before but I never saw them this close to me at the Chicago Marathon. The rain started to taper off but it was replaced with a smog of loud garbage trucks and garbage bags being handed down the line as people started packing up. My morale was shaken and when the deafening sounds of vehicles weren't tailing me, I could hear more runners contemplating if they will make it to the finish line. I wondered if I should be a bit more nervous about my pace. I reminded myself of rule number one: Listen to your body. Just because the sciatica and endometriosis pain was departing, it didn't mean that I was safe. Slightly irritated, I followed my body's advice and remained consistent.
Initially I thought I was in my head too long because I ran for at least 20 minutes without seeing a course marker. Minutes later, I watched more of the hydration tables being flipped over. Unbeknown to me, this would be the music that I'd hear for the next 10 plus miles. This year I practiced running without my headphones a lot more and learning how to listen to my breath. My internal soundtrack started to shift from upbeat songs to music about defeat and depression.
Eyes forward, breath steady, mind sharp and feet constantly moving: It's the mantra that I've been refining since 2014. The simplest of tasks are hard when the visuals and sounds around you remind you of blows to the chest. I'm not quite sure if it was the pain radiating from my right side or the bruises on my self esteem but I reduced my speed down to a run/walk by mile 17.
A wave of emotions added weight onto my spirit. I battled with a mixture of anger, worry and things that I knew were toxic at such a crucial part of the race. Mile 19 almost broke me a bit. One of the marathon staffers was on his way to pulling down the sign and I started speed walking over to capture a picture of it. I was certain that my friends, family and followers weren't seeing me on the Chicago Marathon app any longer. A woman behind me started sobbing and her pain hurt my bones.
Her voice reminded me of every doubt that I still hold in my head at each race. Just because I'm accustomed to being a self proclaimed back of the pack runner doesn't mean that I've become immune to the added on fears that I cannot Google search to prepare me for race day. In training manuals for any plan that you can find under the sun, they teach you about your gait, what to eat, stride and hitting the runner's wall. As slower runners, our runners' wall sometimes approach before our body and minds are ready to take us off the course. Where's the manual that teaches me how to push past those boundaries? If you weren't reading this, I would ask you close your eyes and imagine training for 3 to 5 months, making it to the start line, running your race and realizing that youâre on the pavement or trail alone because everyone is already ahead of you. Listen to the stark silence that fills the air as the spectators leave. Taste the possible dehydration as the water stations dissipate. Do you feel the heaviness of your feet pulling you in like anchors?
At some point, all of us feel some sort of this on race day; my point was mile 19. I was reminded of the snarky morning driver who boastfully laughed at the thought of my almost 240 pound, 5'3 body semi muscular frame moving across the pavement. Memories of reaching the NYC Marathon between miles 21 and 22 encountering a man who reduced my experience down to a fat joke enraged me. Countless letters attacking my health, body type and even my femininity ran faster than my feet. I could quit now -- but I refuse. Instead, I chose to let oppression fuel me for the last seven miles.
Oftentimes words don't hold power unless the person receiving the message believe in them. Before running, I allowed others to determine my fate and silently feared success. There was something about the touch of success that reminded me of losing it and becoming a huge failure. Marathons and ultra marathons fuel me because they make me terribly uncomfortable. Each time I make it past a certain point, I'm reminded of the strength that I haven't met yet. I'm desperate to fuel her addiction to adrenaline and fear -- even at times when I'm met with a DNF.
Semi dismantled water stations and missing signs reminded me of job interviews that didn't work out so well. I created a narrative for my last 10K that each marker was an employer who told me no and if I could make it to the finish line, that would be the yes that I was desperately seeking. Ask any athlete of what quenches their thirst for the finish line and each person will tell you something different. And with this narrative, I picked up my pace a bit more.
By mile 20, I was surrounded by a beautiful cheer section that waited for people who were still in the race. Familiar faces from Team WEPA, Harlem Run and Black Girls Run greeted all of the back of the pack runners on the course. People handed out bottles of water, candy, chips and food. Their cheers chased away the self doubt as I reached the Pilsen district. Along the strip of West 18th Street, people cheered as if a herd of elites were running through their neighborhoods. I could smell empanadas, beers and an abundance of love while residents played music from different regions. Murals that covered the district gave me a reminder of home, running through neighborhoods stretching over Bed Stuy, Bushwick and Williamsburg. My legs burned but not as much as my desire to make it across the finish line.
My phone alerts were jingling uncontrollably; people who followed me on the tracker were worried if I was still running. At mile 24, I checked in with my Facebook and Instagram followers to assure them that I was close to the finish line. I grabbed a bottle of water from one of the spectators, filled up my handheld water bottle with the Skratch Labs Sports Hydration mix, took a swig and did run/speed walk intervals at 60/60.
Police guided me to the sidewalk and encouraged me to keep running to the finish line. The street sweepers and garbage trucks filled the pavements. I saw finishers sporting their race day medals and I knew I was minutes away from holding onto my own symbolic piece of victory. I made a right turn to the biggest incline of the race. The Chicago Marathon is relatively flat but at the last 200 to 400 meters, a strange incline is thrown in the mix. Once up, I sprinted left for what felt like the longest 30 seconds to the finish line. Alas, I heard the words once again: "Congratulations marathoner."
I looked back at some of the people who were taking their steps across the finish line and I saw the lady who was once drenched in tears. Clearly she used the missing markers as fuel to get across the finish line too.
After being draped with a space blanket, I waited another 40 minutes to get my checked in items. Unfortunately I didn't make it back to the race day area in time to enjoy the lunch station that was offered to me and spent a great deal locating my missing bag. Even with all of the hiccups, I refused to not relish in the victory that I earned at the Chicago Marathon.
After showering at a friend's hotel room, ritualistically I grabbed a deep dish from Lou Malnati's with my friend Dara and enjoyed drinks and more carbs with my Skirt Sports ambassador friend Jennifer. My post race breakfast was dim sum and made a quick drink with the Skratch Labs recovery drink mix -- and feel free to judge me on having Dim Sum for breakfast. My legs felt surprisingly great and although I was a ball full of energy, I gave myself time to recover. After coming with the sneezes and sniffles, I filled up my water bottle with Skratch Labs' wellness drink recovery mix -- they have a drink for that too.
Being a back of the pack athlete with plenty of barriers placed in my path isn't easy but not committing to a personal goal hurts more than post marathon aches. Cheers to another 26.2 completed. I'm looking forward my first Javelina Jundred in two weeks and the New York City Marathon in three weeks. My adventure awaits me and I'll be ready to take on all of the courses. Ask yourself: What fuels you?
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Latoya Shauntay Snell
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