Category Archives: Chicago Marathon 2013

Gendurance

When I order shirts during the registration process for a race, ninety percent of the time, I end up with something I can’t wear—well, I end up with something I won’t wear because it doesn’t fit. If it’s unisex sizing, the shirt will most likely be too wide for my frame in addition to being too long. I will be able to fit two of my arms into each sleeve. It isn’t because I’m ordering a size bigger than I normally would.  If the race carries both women and men sizes, I try to figure out which would be better—the awkwardly hour-glass, skin-hugging women’s size or the usual “unisex” look. If I go with women’s—do I order a size up? If it’s a race shirt, it might be super tiny. But if I order a size up and it’s too big, I will regret it. This was my thought process as I filled out the Chicago Marathon registration last spring. I went with my normal size, in women’s. I thought it might be a little tiny, but I also hoped that after marathon training, I too would be a little tiny.

My fiancé has a similar problem with sizing. She is a petite woman as well, who prefers the shape of men’s clothing. She orders the men’s option all the time, except when men sizes don’t go down to xs. (And what is that about anyway—there are PLENTY of tiny runners, both men and women.) She is happy when she does have the option of ordering the xs, which will most likely be only a little large on her. However, ordering a size and that size being available when she goes to pick it up are two different things. We are not fools.

The Chicago Marathon did not have a men’s xs, so she too was wondering: will the men’s small be too big or just right? Should she go with the women’s instead?

***

When we were finally home after spending 1.5 hours getting down to the Expo, 2 hours in the Expo, 30 minutes getting out of the parking garage, 30 minutes trying to find a way back north to Wrigleyville—it’s like the city had a few closed streets or something—and then another 30 minutes driving back up, we spread out like kids on Christmas morning. “Home” base was actually Jean’s apartment. We sat around her coffee table and went through the goodies in our race bags. One of the first things I pulled out of my bag was a temporary tattoo from Naked Wines the size of a half dollar coin. A few minutes later, Jean found her tattoo. Drew didn’t have one. It made sense to me: “It’s because you got a guy-bag.” Because Drew had signed up for the men’s size in shirt, she had gotten a “men’s” bag.

She kept pulling things out, and eagerly asking us if we got it too. The answer was always: yes.

“I just want there to be one something that I have that y’all don’t.”

The three of us, like Strayed opening a resupply box, carefully took each item out one at a time and triaged it—keeping for tomorrow (race day); recycling; keeping for later. The tattoo ended up being the only difference. The only one.

This was curious. First, the tattoo was from a wine company. A wine company with “naked” in its name. The tattoo is a reminder that women are supposed to like wine, while men are allowed to like beer. It is a reminder that I should want to put something on my body that says Naked! because it will make people think about me in a sexy way. Because as a woman, I must always be trying to make other people think I am sexy.  It is a reminder that men are supposed to not want something that says Naked! on their bodies because to be naked is to be feminine.

K112625TITIAN 3

It makes me think of Titian paintings and Barbie, how deep our western roots cling to the expectation that women, being feminine, should bare all and men, being masculine, are supposed to be covered up.

***

I was actually really excited about the Expo. Before we went, my schema was about all the different shoes and socks and interesting samples of running food I would see and experience. Drew couldn’t wait to get her hands on some race gear. Jean wanted a pair of running sunglasses, which she had been training without. All of us were planning on spending more money than we could afford, simply because we expected to love everything that we saw. We expected to want it all.

After getting our bibs, on the way to get our shirts and bags, we passed the Nike official race merchandise “booth”—a full Nike store on the floor of the Expo. I was drooling. Everything we could see was a bright neon green with black accents. There were a lot of people, and we promised ourselves we’d come back. I actually started getting excited to purchase marathon gear! What a cool color for the race. I was silently very impressed that they were able to choose a bright color—because its for runners—that is “suitable” for men and women alike, especially because many of the women I know are constantly complaining about how the men’s athletic gear is always so much cooler than the women’s styles. I didn’t have enough money to spend on a Chicago Marathon shirt, and I hadn’t planned on buying any clothing, besides socks, but as I went to get my bag, the calculations in my head argued otherwise.

MensJacket
Just one of many super-fun men’s pieces.

By the time we made it back, the place was still rocking with people. It was hard to move through. We went straight to the green and black jackets and tanks. Fifty-seconds later, I understood I had been mistaken. The sizes I saw at first were all Ls. Then I saw an M, and finally an S. I saw no XS. Pulling the S off the rack was a tiny blow to my heart. It was a men’s small—way too large for me to pretend to wear running, when smaller clothes are more efficient. I went to another rack, scouring the whole place for women’s sizes.

It was clear: the green and black attire here was only men’s sizes. But there was hope: I had missed a whole other side to the store. I raced over to find sizes I could actually try on with some expectation of fitting.

I went through a doorway, created by a gap between two makeshift walls, and was greeted with rack after rack of salmon-colored, lower quality attire. I double checked—scanning everything in a slow 360 pan. No green. (For the record, I’m not against salmon as a color. I just don’t understand why both men and women couldn’t have both options.) I did find one jacket and then another I thought would fit, but they were all so overly “feminized”—some puckering around the zipper, others with infantilized pockets—that they weren’t worth a try on.

By far the best women's style.
By far the best women’s style.

***

After going through our bags, we took duct tape to our outfits and put our names on the front and back of our racing shirts. None of us were going to wear the blue Chicago Marathon tech-t we had received that day at the Expo. Jean would wear her Red Cross shirt, Drew needed to wear a tank top; I had chosen poorly—the race shirt fit, but was too much like skin to feel comfortable for the 5+ hours it would take us to run.

My Nike tank top was orange and magenta and white. Jean had white tape so I put NICK on both the front and the back, in the magenta areas so it would stand out. I’d never worn my name on my shirt for a race, but had been jealous many times when seeing that others had.

Wearing your name actually makes people want to cheer for you. Volunteers are awesome, and if you’ve ever volunteered, you know that for the duration of the event, you are stuck with saying the same handful of phrases, over and over again. It is nice to be able to shout out someone’s name and know that they know you are speaking directly to them.

I don’t regret putting my name on my shirt. All of those tiny interactions with stranger after stranger after stranger were a huge part of why running the marathon was so much fun. And yet, I still got called the wrong name by 30% of the spectators who were cheering me on. I will allow that sometimes it’s hard to read names on shirts, and that if you see the first part of my name, without getting a clear view of the whole thing at once, that you might jump to the conclusion that there is a Y or an I at the end of my name. But 30% suggests that it wasn’t all reading/viewing error. In my life outside of running, I get called Nikky all the time—by people who should know better, and by people to whom I’VE JUST INTRODUCED MYSELF AS NICK, especially by people to whom I’ve just introduced myself. For some reason, looking at me, and saying “Nick” is hard. For a lot of people.

“Keep running, Nicky!”

“You’ve got this Nikki!”

“Go Jean! Go Drew! Go Nicki!”

***

When I think about gender and the marathon, I wonder if the three of us are aware of our gender in ways some people may have the privilege not to be. I don’t mean to imply that there are people who don’t worry about their gender. No one escapes that. That moment, standing in front of your closet a few days before a big interview. That moment, your eighth-grade eyes lock with someone across the gym floor. Running into someone you haven’t seen in a while. Going out for drinks casually with new friends. Going out for drinks with old friends, with old friends and their new partners. People watching on the Metro. The weekly meeting with your staff. Family gatherings. And yet, some people may not be as bothered, have not ever felt boxed in, when it comes to hair, clothing, expectations. They are few, they are mystical beings in my mind, but I have to believe that there might be two of them on Earth.

In actuality, I think we are all running a long-distance race with gender expectations. We are all the master and makeup of our gender; we are all the victim. Even so, society still makes it easier for girls who like pink and boys who like black. Being queer doesn’t make me any more worried, any more the victim, any more the victor of my own situation. But it does strike a particular chord. I recognize that I’ve been training for the race my whole life. Most people who are prejudiced against LGBT folks manifest that prejudice in forms of gender discrimination. (For an example, consider all of the boys in middle school who get called fags daily for not being muscular or sporty enough. Consider all the girls who are whispered about because they don’t wear makeup or because they can out-throw the baseball team.) Indeed, this focus on being the right kind of feminine and the right kind of masculine is what pulls the Trans communities so close to the LGB communities in the first place. The hurt stems from the same place: a boy who isn’t boyish, a girl who isn’t girlish.

Thinking about the feminine and the masculine is such a common occurrence in my life that I’ve grown accustomed to feeling it. I don’t think about gender anymore. The implications beat me rhythmically like the tide on a primal level. The consequences of gender have become an insider joke between my close friends. On our last long-run of training—the Magellean 20-miler—Jean pointed to a Gatorade stand, signified by the two large flags on either side which read: G-endurance. She had been seeing them all summer and was tickled to finally show us. Drew and I were equally as nerdy, giggling back.

During the marathon, these flags became a beacon, a lifeline: not only because of their practicality—providing electrolytes—but also because of the spiritual affirmation of what we all do, all the time.

“Looking strong, Jean!”

“Go get ‘em, Drew!”

“Keep rockin’, Nick!”

It says Nick.
It says Nick.

The Hard Way

Image

A few weeks ago on a mid-week training run I saw a hummingbird. I was at the university where I teach, having run the four miles there and doing some stretching before running the four miles home. Hummingbird came right up to my face and left in an instant, fluttering about the landscaping. The sky shown a soft blue about twenty minutes after sunrise, and there weren’t a lot of cars in the parking lot or people walking past as I practiced some yoga poses that would be rather embarrassing in another time of day. 

The hummingbird seemed like a miracle. The morning was the first day this season it was down around 50 degrees for a morning run. A real treat after the humid and sunny runs that I’d suffered through during what seemed like a never-ending JulyAugustSeptember. The bird was moving too fast for me to see what colors it was, but every once in a while I’d catch the sun bouncing off of it in a flash, like a magician vanishing a coin. I immediately thought of Brian Doyle and his piece “Joyas Voladoras” I read ten times a year, which starts with a sinewy contemplation of humming birds–the machine marvel that they are. But the moment was not for sitting and thinking again about the loss of animal and plant diversity, about the limits of a hummingbird heart or the whale’s or our own. It was for a calm before continued forward momentum, it was for the path home to a steamy shower and a long day’s work. 

***

I’ve come to really love the breaks that marathon training has necessitated into my runs . When I first got back into running, in graduate school, it was merely a cheap form of exercise. But I took pride in jogging down Connecticut Avenue to the Van Ness Metro stop and then back up the long hill toward home. At about a three-mile round trip path, it got me out and working on hills and speed four to five times a week. I realized that even when I started not to need the two to three breaks at different stoplights I’d inevitably hit, I always felt really strong afterward. But I started feeling like I was cheating. Like it mattered more that I didn’t stop at all. Once I progressed to a certain level of tolerance and boredom for the course, I moved on. And I moved, literally, away from Conn Ave a few miles away on the other side of the red line. My new apartment was near Rock Creek Park where stoplights are very few and far between. I spent a good two years perfecting my hill work and my no-stop running routine. Before I moved to New York, my weekend long runs consisted of forty-five minute outs and forty-minute backs, always pressing myself to keep increasing my speed. I never carried hydration and my skin was a salt-lick every Saturday morning. I didn’t let myself stop for anything once I left until I returned. And then I started running races. 

When I ran my first half-marathon, I trained alone, and I ran alone. It was hard. I signed up to be a part of a charity group, but a month or so in, I dropped out. I worked until midnight on Friday nights and could rarely get up early to meet the group for runs on Saturday mornings. But I kept up with the training plan they had sent me, working it into my weird late-early-late-early-LATE work week schedule. And I never once, in all of those first months of running longer distances than I had ever run, I never once thought stopping to walk or stretch was a good thing. I only allowed myself those weaknesses when I felt utterly vanquished. And so, on half-marathon-the-first day, I ran until my pace got as slow as a walk and then kept running. Eventually, around mile 12 I realized that if I started walking, I’d probably be going faster. So I started walking. For two minutes. It felt glorious. My body thanked me with everything it had to give, and then I made it give some more. I started to jog the last mile of the longest race of my life–seriously, up to this point I’ve never been out on a race course for as long as 2:36–and my body hated me. It didn’t understand why I needed to keep going. It complained and continued to complain long after I’d finished the race. While I was glad that I shuffled across that finish line in my body’s closest pantomime of a jog, I wasn’t having very much fun. 

I’ve run four more half-marathons since, and haven’t felt nearly as bad or needed to walk as desperately as I did that first time. In fact, I didn’t stop at all for two of them. And I felt great afterward. Not stopping had always been the unstated rule, the goal above only finishing and underneath the goal of personal record. I was training as much to beat myself as I was to ensure that I wouldn’t need to stop or walk or stretch in order to finish.

The marathon has changed all of this though, for now. The goal is to finish, there is no personal record recorded, and stops are a health-conscious must.

These past few years running Ragnar Relays and training with people of different endurances and speeds has made stops more common and natural, even if my personal solo-running was still non-stop. But when I signed up to run the marathon with Jean and Drew, I signed up to run with a group, to train with a group, and to get stronger as a group. It was different. It is different. I am slower than I’ve ever been. And while some days, especially when the training run is not very long at all, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to run fast, I also have to admit to myself that I am happier than I’ve ever been. I’ve never had so much joy running alone as I’ve had training for this marathon. And while my running partners are a huge part of that, I’ve been slowly realizing that my perception has changed. I used to run past people who were walking, only to later have them jaunt quickly past me, and then walk again as I kept my stoic pace. This would happen about eight or ten times in a half marathon. I would think why on earth would you do that if you could get the same results by just powering through?  I used to tie my success to how many times I didn’t stop to walk when I wanted to. I used to measure my happiness about runs only in the time and speed it took me to get to the end. Maybe someday that version of me will come back, but as I prepare these final three days before the Bank of America Chicago Marathon 2013, I am deeply aware that time and speed are minuscule on Sunday. I’ve been training with stops every four miles to two miles. I’ve been completing the routes, crossing off the miles, and taking my sweet time to stretch and hydrate and eat something regularly while out on a long run. I can’t believe I was ever doing this the hard way. 

***

As I watched the bird flit from species to species in the plant bed lining the theatre of the school for a few moments longer than I would have stayed otherwise before setting my eyes toward home and hitting “continue” on my watch, I realized that I was not a hummingbird anymore, a pedigree who needs to keep moving to stay alive. With those five minutes of yoga behind me like a big red dot on my GPS map, I didn’t know then I would run my last few miles of the day faster than I’d run all summer, with more joy in my heart.

A couple of weeks back, during week 10 of marathon training,  the long Saturday run was a scheduled 15 miles. Fifteen miles, I thought, is only 1.9 miles longer than I’ve ever run before–1.7 if I count that during one of my half-marathon races, my watch calculated I’d actually gone 13.3. One-point-seven miles seemed very doable, and I thought about it all week long. I thought about it during my morning 7-miler on Wednesday and while I was working on syllabi on Thursday. I thought about how to calculate 15 miles on a road atlas when I was making dinner. I imagined a 15-mile radius around me from a birds-eye view as I did my daily errands, keeping track of how far I’d have to go before my apartment wasn’t in my bubble any more. But I was always safely tethered to home.

On 18 August, my partner and I drove down to a canoe drop on the Des Plaines River Trail about two trail miles north of Old School Forest Preserve. (Most definitely more than 15 miles away from our apartment.) We planned to run to the park (2m), run around the larger outer loop adding the small pond mile (4m), run the inner loop (1.5m), run the fitness loop twice (2m), run the inner loop one more time (1.5m), and run enough of the outer loop to be back at the Des Plaines around mile marker 13 so we could end at the car. Neither of us had been to this park before. We chose it because we wanted to run somewhere we hadn’t already run approximately 45 times before in the three years since we’d lived near the IL-WI border. We also wanted somewhere safe we could leave water bottles on the path, and somewhere with lots of shade. Old School delivered. And yet, despite Old School’s beauty and protection from the sun, while completing our first inner loop–about mile 8–things started to go south.

Traditionally, this is the moment in a half marathon when my mind starts to get the best of me. When I’m at 8 miles, I’ve been running for over 75 minutes, my arches are starting to hurt, my hips have been screaming since mile 5, and I try to console myself with the thought that I only have 5.1 miles left. And then my mental-heart breaks. Five-point-one miles seems very doable when I’ve been running for 2, and impossible when I’ve been running for 8. But not today, not for me at least. My mental-heart is light, so light that I’ve turned off my music and am  just enjoying the scenery and the quiet. The idea running through my head at the time came from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild:

Foot speed was a profoundly different way of moving through the world than my normal modes of travel. Miles weren’t things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass, and flowers that bent in the wind, trees, that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was.

For me, training for this marathon was reminding me each day of the lesson I had to keep learning: what it means to run one mile. And jogging under the protection of those woods, while working my way up to the longest I’d ever been out on my feet, I could tell that I was working hard but I was happy.

*

But at 8 miles, D is not enjoying anything. We stop and talk about it, but she sees no way out of the mental hole and I fail to say the right things. And then I fail to do the right things. We keep pushing into the fitness loop, tension building like a finger pushing into a blown-up party balloon.  We stop three or four more times before we hit 11.5 and decide to go separate ways: me, back on the inner loop and toward the car with that 2-mile stretch of path in the sun through fields and hills, while D opts to keep running more flat fitness loops in the dense part of the woods. We make a plan to meet back up and then we disappear from each other.  Sometimes it is easier to push through something when you are alone–when there is no other option but to rely on yourself.

At this point, I have been thinking about the number 15 all week, but now I’m just thinking about water. I take a long drink from the nearest fountain, run to the next fountain a half mile ahead–my water bottles are all on the outer loop, which is now out of the way. When I see a fountain for the last time before getting on the Des Plaines trail, after I’ve been running for over 2 hours, I tell myself that I won’t need any more water, that I’ll push through and make it. The water bottle back in the car is the foremost image in my mind’s eye. Even though it feels like my body could overheat at any step, I don’t.

*

15mileField

This pic was taken by some random Google user, and it is a pretty accurate view of the Des Plaines trail that links up with Old School, about .2 miles from the opening of the park. This field was an ocean of yellow on both sides when I was panting my way through it, looking at my watch. It was here that I took my first steps past the longest distance I’d ever run. In that moment, even though I couldn’t stop to saver it, lest I not be able to get my legs working again, I felt like Sam in Fellowship. The hobbit is intensely aware that if he takes the next step, he will be farther from home than he’s ever been.  It is early in the book, and very early in his journey, but a challenge he must overcome before he can attempt anything else. And then he does. And so did I.

That last hilly stretch after my moment of bliss in the field was primal. I finally stopped thinking about distance and ran toward water. When I reached the car–my watch blinked 15.04 miles. I was beat, but not beaten. I held the button until the display said: END.

During week 11 of marathon training, the long run was 16 miles, and the week-day runs leading up were 4, 8, and 4. I ran my first 4-miler on Tuesday evening, and then got up to run the 8-miler early Wednesday. Afterward, my body knew it was time to stop running. I ended up skipping the second 4-miler, listening to my body and opting for rest. Even though I knew it was the right thing to do, I was sad because it felt like I wasn’t doing my homework and sadder because I felt like I couldn’t do my homework if I tried. I rested up, and D and I ran all 16 miles that Saturday on more familiar ground, together, without music, talking the whole way. While both weeks were challenges to go farther than we’d ever gone, the second week was made easier by the first. We were stronger in many ways. In fact during the 2+hour run, I never once thought about it being the longest run yet–that came later. Out there, in the process, it was simply one mile after the next.

map_DesPlainesRiverTrail (see page 2 for Oak Spring Road and Old School)

map_OldSchool (all the loops)