(Originally performed at Serving the Sentence.)
It felt like I had just run a marathon.
But I hadn’t. I was still 4.2 miles from finishing my fifth Chicago Marathon.
The miles had been clicking by as planned. I had spent the previous nine months training for this 26.2-mile race with the intention of not only running it A LOT faster than I ever had, but also running it fast enough to earn a qualifying mark for the Boston Marathon. I told everyone about this goal. I wrote about it on my blog, I told my training buddies, family, friends, anyone who would ask. I believe saying your goals out loud makes them real and holds you accountable, so I put myself all the way out there. And I also put in more miles, more hours, more literal blood, sweat and tears, than I ever had -- and it worked. I got faster and more confident, and although the training had been difficult, I had enjoyed it.
Because for the first time in years, I was running for all the right reasons.
I wasn’t running to escape something, or to fill the void. I was running because I wanted to. For the joy of it.
In the recent past, running was a coping mechanism as I went through some difficult life changes. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s what I needed at the time, and it helped get me to a better place. A place where all of the joy returned.
I had come so far, figuratively and now literally. At each mile marker I would check my watch, and I was right on target. I made it to mile 22, feeling confident. I told myself, “Only 4.2 miles to go. It’s just 35 minutes of your life. You can do this.”
And seemingly, just like that, a searing pain in my left hip overwhelmed my body and began to infect my brain. It was becoming difficult to keep my stride and fatigue was coming on.
The miles were not clicking by quickly anymore. I became enraged by every song on my playlist and kept furiously skipping to the next one. I would look up, hoping the mile markers on Michigan Avenue would become larger, but they still looked so tiny and so, so far away.
I checked my watch and the seconds, minutes were adding up too fast. My goal, my Boston qualifying hopes, were slipping away.
I was fighting off tears and trying to repeat my mantra — “it’s only 10 minutes out of your whole life, you can do this” — but the pain became unbearable. I finally reached the turn onto Roosevelt Road — and the wretched bridge hill that I knew was waiting for me at mile 26. It was going to require everything I had left to propel myself those final .2 miles into Grant Park.
I made it a few steps up the bridge but then I had to start walking. My entire left leg from hip to toe was rendered utterly useless, and my back hurt so badly that I couldn’t stand up straight. I was hobbling along like a car with a flat tire, veering off to the right, trying to steady myself while on the verge of collapsing from pain and exhaustion. At that moment, a stranger pulled alongside me. She looped her left arm through my flailing right arm and said, “Come on, we can do this.” She said it with a calming confidence, and I’m not sure I believed her, but I picked up my feet and started to shuffle along with her anyway. A few seconds later, she unhooked her arm and told me to keep going.
I made it a few more steps before stumbling into a George Romero-era-zombie-like-walk-thing. A volunteer approached me. “Ma’am, are you OK?”
“I’m gonna finish!” I shouted through clenched teeth as I choked back the tears. If I fell down, I knew they would haul me off the course, and there was no way in hell I wasn’t going to cross that goddamn finish line.
A second volunteer approached me. “I’m gonna finish!” I said it as much for my benefit as for hers.
And then I broke into a run. I had to. That’s just what you do, you RUN across the finish line, no matter what. My arms flailed wildly and I swung my left leg around as best I could while hunched over and wobbling with every step.
I finished the race.
And I missed qualifying for Boston by 24 seconds.
Immediately after crossing the line, a medical volunteer, Chris, was at my side. He put his arm around me and grabbed my hand to steady me. I was still drifting to the right, and the dizziness hit me hard. He led me to get my finisher’s medal and some water. He asked me questions to make sure I was lucid and to assess any potential injuries, but all I remember saying was, “I just couldn’t do it. I had it. It was right there. I just couldn’t do it.”
We reached the medical tent, and Chris passed me off to a small army of medical volunteers. They led me to a cot and helped me lay down. Nurses and med students surrounded my bed, covered me with hospital blankets and elevated my feet on a box. They gave me water and Gatorade and potato chips and took my vitals. Nothing to worry about, I was just dizzy, dehydrated, physically destroyed and emotionally defeated.
Fifteen minutes later, a med student checked my vitals again, and I was ready to try sitting. The nurse, Andrea, pulled me up as I swung my feet over the side of the cot. For the first time, I looked at my medal. And I started sobbing.
Andrea sat down on the cot across from me and held my hand. “I know you’re disappointed and I know it hurts, but you still accomplished something great today.”
After a few minutes, I stood up and walked around the tent, and this time, I could stand up straight and I didn’t feel dizzy, so they signed my discharge papers, and Andrea walked with me to the exit.
Every couple minutes during the slow, painful march to meet my friend, Jennifer, I would burst into tears. I couldn’t believe I had worked so hard for so long and come so close only to fall just short.
I finally reached our meeting spot, and Jennifer was waiting for me. On sight, I began crying. She enveloped me in a huge hug and told me she was proud of me. For the next hour, I abandoned my pity party and tried my best to revel in the actual party happening around me.
When I got home, I fielded dozens of text messages and phone calls and Facebook notifications. I attempted to process what I had just gone through and cope with the intense physical and unyielding mental anguish. I broke down in tears again and again.
Hours later, following celebratory beers and burgers with friends, I finally got the courage to look up my official results — and I lost it all over again. 24 fucking seconds. I had it. I was right there. I just couldn’t do it. I replayed those final miles over and over in my head. I should’ve been stronger, I should’ve pushed harder.
And then, before getting ready for bed, I composed a Facebook post.
“The drawback of telling everyone your goals and dreams is that when you fall short, you do so publicly,” I wrote. “Today, I ran my fifth Chicago Marathon, and ultimately, I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do. And while I know that time will help that wound heal — and motivate me to try again — it’s still difficult.
“But in the end, I believe this day served to remind me of the good people in the world. From the incredible support from my friends (especially Jennifer, who drove all the way from Cincinnati just to meet me at the finish line), to every spectator who yelled my name, to the stranger at mile 26 who looped her arm into mine and helped me start running again, to the volunteer who steadied me when I thought I would collapse after I finished, to the nurse in the medical tent who held my hand while I sobbed and told me that I still accomplished something great today.
“Yes, I fell short, but I didn’t fail.”
What happened next amazed me.
Almost instantly, dear friends and vague acquaintances, runners and non-runners, were posting comments, and each one of them lifted my spirits. Their words were filled with support, compassion and above all, love.
And the kind words just kept coming — and the tears kept coming. But now, the tears were not of defeat and disappointment, they were of inspiration and gratitude. And then late that night, I returned to the results web page.
Holy shit, Maggie. You did it. You fought. You finished. You ran faster than you ever have. You overcame obstacles. You inspired people. You DID accomplish something great today.
The next day, every conversation I had about the race helped me gain more perspective, and seeing a dozen brutally honest and horrifying finish line photos – the zombie shuffle, frame by frame, in high definition -- showed me just how close I was to not finishing at all.
Yes, I’m still very disappointed that I didn’t qualify for Boston. But I have no regrets. Some things you simply can’t prepare for, and we can only push our minds and bodies so far. I did my best, I finished, and that’s good enough. With every passing day, I become more thankful for the experience, and I become more motivated to give my goal another shot.
In the end, it turns out the best part of telling everyone your goals and dreams is that when you fall short, you do so publicly. And everyone helps you get back up again.