Street Smart Chicago

My Marathon? Running for, and from, life. An unlikely story

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By Brian HieggelkeChi-Marathon-08-near-start

Mile 1
Nike changed my life. Ordinarily, I’m no corporate shill but bear with me.

October 2005, I’m watching the Chicago Marathon on the television in my apartment. Saying the same thing I say every October: “I can’t relate to what they’re doing. I can’t even imagine ever wanting to run 26 miles. Those people are crazy.” October 2009, I’m registered to race in my first marathon, at the age of 47.

What happened? Nike+iPod happened. And I became a distance runner.

Four years ago and fifty-some-odd pounds heavier, I’m at the doctor for a routine physical. High blood pressure. I can either exercise and diet, or I can start the meds now. I think about my dad, who’d had heart-bypass surgery a few years earlier and who’d been on the meds as long as I can remember, adding pills to his diet as quickly as his aging body added maladies. I’m not ready to be my dad yet. My inner self-portrait is youthful, vigorous and thin, like I’d been up until I quit playing football my junior year in college. Up to now, my girth is just a temporary setback. Temporary going on thirty years. The doctor gives me a wake-up call. I’m not in college anymore. Time to change. As soon as I get through the holidays, of course.

January 1, 2006, I start exercising daily. No special diet other than common sense. I lose two pounds a week or so. In the summer, Nike contacts me out of the blue and says they’ve teamed up with Apple to create a product for runners. If I’d come see a demo, they’ll equip me with everything I need to use it. I don’t really understand what the product does, but my workouts could use some variety, plus I wouldn’t mind having a Nano. I figure I’ll mess around with it a bit and then move on.

I have no idea how far I can go, so I set it to measure my run in calories burned. I’d been doing about 500 calories a day, according to the exercise cycle’s readout, so I try that. Three-and-a-half miles later, I’ve just run my farthest ever—training runs in football days topped out at an excrutiating two-and-a-half miles. Thanks to the tunes from my iPod, I hardly noticed this one. I’m intrigued. Before long, I’m in my first race, the Looney Daze 5K, a folksy litle run in Vergas, Minnesota that I do on my brother’s dare the morning after we close down the local tavern. I soon buy the system for my wife and son. (They both take up running and have each since completed at least one half-marathon.) And here I am. I’ve run 3378.1 miles, which according to the Nike+ Web site, means I rank 688 in total distance run of all Nike+ users (which numbers close to two million) in the world. I’ve completed eight half-marathons, including four this year. And come October 11, I’m doing the once-unthinkable. Me and forty-five thousand others.

Mile 2
The great novelist Haruki Murakami, he of “Norwegian Wood” and “Kafka on the Shore” fame, is a distance runner. In fact, he says that running and writing are interconnected for him, and that he would not be the writer he is if he was not a runner. He’s completed dozens of marathons, and written the memoir, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.” Now I believe that if I keep running, I might write as well as Murakami one day. He listens to the “Loving Spoonful” when he runs. I can do that.

Mile 3
On a business trip to Philadelphia, I go for a run. My hotel concierge sends me on a route around the art museum. Everyone remembers Rocky running the stairs of that museum, and I think I will do so, as cheesy as it is. When I get there, construction misdirects me away from the stairs. On my return, I think about it. It is not really on the way, or easily accessible, thanks to the construction. It is enough that I ran near the museum and thought about Rocky running the stairs. I will not actually do so. Just then, a song shuffles on my iPod, one that, I think, never played before or since. It’s “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from “Rocky,” which I’d bought as my “power song,” a feature of the Nike+iPod I never use. I take it as a sign and find my way to the stairs, arriving from the top. I run to the bottom, turn around, run to the top—the Rocky bit—and then to the bottom again. I’m not the only runner on those stairs.

Mile 4
A year later, I am running on Savannah’s River Street, in the heart of its tourist center. I pass a buskering saxophone player and he switches tunes to “Gonna Fly Now.” The entire crowd bursts into laughter. I smile too. How could I not? It’s not as funny when he does it again upon my return.

Mile 5
I still listen to music on shorter runs—five miles or less—but started getting bored on my longer runs and switched to books. When you listen to a book, unabridged, have you “read” it? Or did you just “do” it? I’ve done more than twenty books, including Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and “The Education of Henry Adams.” Keeping track of Civil War battles and generals is impossible without a map (Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War: A Narrative,” volumes I and II, a hundred or so hours long). Even worse, following the Crusades. I could not.

Mile 6
I listened to the new “Born to Run” while running. It’s the best book about running that I’ve found. On one level, author Christopher McDougall tells the captivating story of a grueling sport—ultra-running—and those who pursue it, both for pleasure here in the U.S. and as a way of life in Mexico, culminating in a mesmerizing race across the wilderness. On another level, it’s a history of running, a survey of the evolutionary science and the current medical thinking about the activity, and a critique of the shoe-company-driven running culture that predominates. It’s since become a bestseller, and has spurred an interest in barefoot running, which it highlights in the story of Barefoot Ted. But that’s a simplification: at its core, the book makes the case that running is intrinsic to the human species.

Mile 7
Running is a great way to combine fitness with tourism. Minimal gear and it takes you places your travels would often leave otherwise unexplored. I’ve run through Regents Park in London. Up and down the hills in San Francisco. Through the flooded streets of Fargo just before the deluge that never came. On the beach in Santa Monica. In Portland, Oregon, in Harlem, in Central Park. In January, I went to Key West and ran in the Half Shell Half Marathon. I love the idea of a warm-weather race in January. Not only does it offer escape from Chicago’s coldest month, it forces me to stay in shape after the holidays. I’m not the only running tourist. Half-marathons have turned into big business, as at least two companies compete to roll out brand-name halfs (13.1 and the Rock ‘N’ Roll series respectively) across the country. Both came to Chicago this year.

Mile 8
I mostly run the lakefront though. I’ve probably logged about 3,000 miles between Hyde Park and Montrose Harbor. I know everything about that patch of trail. I watch the boats come in the spring and get packed up in the fall. I watch the trees lose their leaves and get them back. I watch Queen’s Landing gain its thick coating of goose shit each fall, wondering if it’s migration or a scaling back of park cleaning that leaves me stepping gingerly along the path. I see the Fire Department’s Scuba Team parked along the lake and wonder if they’re fishing for bodies. I dodge the back stroke of the fishermen casting into the lake next to the Shedd Aquarium. Once I ran a hundred yards or so on solid ice, measuring inches thick at the place where Lake Shore Drive North curves into Lake Shore Drive East.

Mile 9
Some runners like the early mornings, before the summer sun gets hot. I like the middle of the day, when North Avenue Beach is shaking with glory. I run through the crowd during the Air & Water Show, often having to slow down to a stop. I am the only runner here but it is hot and I like the action and have a 15-miler to complete. The Chicago Marathon is partially cancelled for extreme heat in 2007; I’m both inspired by the race and frustrated by not participating so I go out and do a half marathon of my own, at the same time as the runners. It’s not so bad, I think, but I am only doing half.

Mile 10
There is probably a race on the lakefront every weekend, often to benefit charities. Although I’ve done a few, I decide to generally stick to half marathons. The shorter races are not challenging enough, and I am not a speed runner. The free running shirts are too often so poorly designed I can’t wear them, aesthetically speaking. Two exceptions: I will always race on my vacations, if possible, especially when I’m in Minnesota at the lakes. Last summer, I did the Turkey Trot in Frazee, Minnesota, a town with a statue of the bird, whose farming is central to the local economy. The starter chatted runners up by name, and at the finish line, they served turkey soup. Chicago’s Turkey Trot is held on Thanksgiving, allowing runners to earn their feast.

Mile 11
When I race, I no longer need to listen to music or books. The crowd is enough. Many run with friends, and converse on the way. I once watched a couple hold hands and cross the finish line together. I am too competitive to run with anyone else in a race, but love to eavesdrop along the way.

I don’t get competitive in a half marathon till mile ten. Otherwise I’m afraid I’ll burn out early. Then I create all kinds of mental mnemonics to push forward. I’ll focus on that woman in purple who’s outpacing me—how can she do that? Look at her, she’s not in good shape! Never mind she’s half my age, she should NOT beat me, so I push. Till she pulls away. Other times, I count the number of girls I pass and subtract one every time a girl passes me. I like being retro-sexist in my head when I’m at the end of a long race—the singsong childhood taunts of “you got beat by a gurr-ull” never fully erase from your cranial hard drive and it’s not like anyone knows I have these thoughts. Besides, passing in a crowd means you have to keep your eyes on the back side of your quarry.

Mile 12
August 4, 2008: My wife Jan is attempting her first half-marathon on Sunday and though she’s managed ten miles, she wants to tackle 13.1. It’s been a stormy Monday, but it’s cleared up when we get home from work. We quickly change into our running gear and head south from downtown. It’s turned into a beautiful summer evening. When we get to the halfway mark, at Hyde Park, the air changes noticably. A storm’s a-brewin’. An hour and just under seven miles to go. It’s a sky full of amazing to watch a storm blow into the city in real time, especially a storm as magnificent as this. A tornadic derecho ( they’ll call it, as five tornadoes touch down in the region and the lakefront records 94-mile-per-hour winds. Sirens negotiate with thunder for ear time. About five miles from home, the hail is falling and lightning bolts outdo the fireworks from a hundred fourths of july. For some reason, Jan thinks we’re in peril. We duck for cover under the wing of a nearby beach house. The door opens and a young lifeguard beckons us inside for shelter. The spartan cinderblock quarters also harbor a couple of stranded cyclists, but it’s mostly a crowded room of panicked youngsters. The storm is heard but not seen; this is not a room designed to be inside when it’s closed; its lone window makes a prison cell a room with a view. Phones consult friends and family nonstop as the air explodes with anger. Soon, a break and we venture out. Should we take this taxi right here? No, we’ll run, in the rain. We have a distance to finish. A month or so later, torrential rains haunt the Chicago Half Marathon, which I’m running alone this time. The suburbs are flooding but we race.

Mile 13
Some runners fly solo; others run in packs. But those of us who run alone still act like pack rats. We’re a not-so-secret society. Two runners meet a party: this is your cue to leave as quickly as possible. They will talk forever about things unimaginably dull. In the wild, runners nod, wave, smile when they pass each other on the trail. This is not Chicago behavior; this is not big city. The only other place I go where folks are this compulsively friendly is in rural Minnesota.

Mile 14
Ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich, as everyone now knows, is a runner, venturing out in his all-black track suit to run away from the drama he’d wrought last winter. Local artist CRO made Newcity’s Obama cover before the election last fall, now his Blago running pictures haunt the city. Blago set the sport of running back a decade I think, but I secretly love the scenes of reporters chasing him on a run in the snow, panting out their questions as the TV cameraman runs along. I have a black track suit for winter, too.

Mile 14.5
We do not “jog”; we “run.” Jogging is casual, uncommitted. Running is sport, it is serious. What a difference a word makes.

Mile 15
Our annual 600-mile-drive to the lakes in Minnesota, so I drive in running gear, planning a 5K break along the way. The car breaks down in Wisconsin. While Jan looks under the hood, I run laps around the rest area parking lot, and up the hill to the scenic overlook and back down. And up, and down. And again. I pass a senior couple on the way up, and again on each leg of my run. They stare at me quizzically. It’s only a kilometer round trip to the top and back, I tell them.

Mile 16
When I start running, I don’t like to stop. I try to run so that I hit the lights just right. One morning, I take a shortcut across Michigan Avenue before I reach the crosswalk so that I don’t miss the light. As I pass the two lines of stopped cars and reach the turn lane, a cab flies up and we collide. I sort of splay across his hood and roll off, continuing my run. I contemplate my luck and stupidity all the way home. I wait for lights and cross at intersections now. I’ve tripped on the lakefront path and fallen several times, each time rolling in a continuous motion and regaining my feet and running on, without stopping, as passersby express concern. “I’m okay,” I shrug sheepishly, as I run off.

I finish a longish run one day and notice two blood streaks on my chest. I’m concerned. I find out that bleeding nipples is a not-uncommon effect of distance running, on hot humid days, for men. I get Vaseline and red running shirts. Unlike many runners, I do not get injured when I run, even when I run six days a week, as I often do.

Mile 17
One of my best friends in college was an amateur distance runner. Zin was a strange duck who took double time to finish his degree, and then became the first in the gang with a graduate degree. He collected baseball hats and played Civil War board games. He did not drink, due to an ulcer, except when he did, then he mixed a 32-ounce mug of vodka with orange Tang. Sort of like mainlining. His distance running was a part of his oddity. My sophomore year, I ran the beer concession for my fraternity. I got my beer distributor to donate two cases of beer—one Heineken, one Amstel Light—for a fundraiser I was organizing. It was a runathon for charity. I do not remember the charity, but I do remember the beer. We stayed up all night long the night before the event, justifying our distributor’s largesse, so most of the guys dropped out. Except Zin and me. He won the case for the most miles run; I won the case for the most money raised. I probably made it once around the track.

Mile 18
I obsess over the weather for one reason: should I run outside today? If so, what should I wear? Runner’s World magazine maintains a web tool, What to Wear for Runners (,7152,s6-240-325-330-0,00.html) that allows you to plug in the temperature, wind and sun condition, and tells you how to dress. When I’m smart, I follow it like scripture. It’s always right, especially when it seems wrong. Should I really wear so little? The answer is always yes. Now I monitor the October 11 forecast every day. First it sounded like it might be cold and rainy. Then it looked perfect—sunny and cool. Now it’s looking cold and maybe rainy. Is there a point? I will run, regardless.

Mile 19
Runners must go to running stores to get properly fitted. Fleet Feet measures your feet two or so different ways, then has you run in some test shoes as they observe your gait. Then they let you run a spell in the shoes you’re going to buy. My first time, I was moved up into shoes a full size larger than I’d been buying on my own. This is serious business. Runners wear out shoes every 500 miles or so. For me, that’s two or three pair a year. I’m a notorious procrastinator. One time, I bring my worn-out shoes into Fleet Feet to make sure I’m buying the right model. The right heel has worn down to a 45-degree angle, layers of sole rubber excavated by the lakefront concrete. The staff is incredulous: they’ve never seen shoes this worn out. Can I really run in them? What is it like? Am I going to keep them or can they have them for “research?” As I ring up my new pair, I see one of the women who works there running on the treadmill in my old shoes.

Mile 19.5
I once ran on the third of July, after a martini tasting. It was not my finest effort.

Mile 20
I was a miler on the sixth-grade track team. This was neither a sign of aptitude nor, unfortunately, of future prowess. It was the place where all the slow, talentless kids got stuck—along with the true milers—because it was the one event that allowed unlimited participants in meets. I think I got lapped.

Deena Kastor, bronze medalist in the 2004 Athens Olympics, is running on Sunday, in the same race and on the same course as I am. No other sport in the world does this; that is puts the absolute elite together with the rankest amateur. It will take me twice her time to finish; luckily there are no laps.

Mile 21
Steve Prefontaine became a distance-running icon when the free-spirited youngster perished James Dean-style in the seventies. Today’s endurance icon is Lance Armstrong, the bicycling champ who beat cancer and did a couple of marathons after temporarily retiring from the two-wheeler. This is how we like our heroes these days: the fortitude of Armstrong over the freewheeling of Prefontaine.

Mile 22
Runners tend to sniff out other runners. Marc Malnati, the owner of Lou Malnati’s Pizza, is obviously a runner: there’s a shrine to his accomplishments at the new location in the South Loop. So that’s why he’s so thin, in spite of a lifetime supply of Chicago-style pizza. Eric Williams, the owner of the Silver Room and one of the coolest guys in Chicago, has done the marathon. So too the fashion designer Lara Miller. Atalee Judy of Breakbone DanceCo. is running next Sunday. And so on.

When Oprah ran the 1994 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C., she captured the public’s imagination, as usual. She’d openly battled weight issues, and here she was, training for and then completing a marathon in less than four-and-a-half hours. Her accomplishment ushered in new levels of interest in the sport, and popularized the “anyone can do a marathon if they follow a proper training program” mentality. Today, many first-time marathoners follow such programs, often in organized groups, and conquer the challenge. I do not. For me, the marathon is a stop along the way, not a destination. Though I may or may not do a full marathon again, I have no expectation that I will stop or even reduce my running. Too many “trainees” achieve their goal and then stop running, I believe. Does Oprah?

Mile 23
On September 2, 2007 I set out for my first twenty-miler at 9:30am. Three hours later, I pulled up short at 19.5 miles, the first time I’d ever failed to finish a distance. Everything in my body felt wrong: I was breaking up, breaking up like the Six Million Dollar Man. My heart thumped outside of my chest like a cartoon character. Granted, the midday thermometer was testing the day’s high temperature of 84 degrees, but I was disillusioned. It would be two years before I took on twenty miles again. This weighed heavily on me as I thought about attempting the marathon, so I was quite relieved when, a few Saturdays ago, I pushed through the twenty-mile mark with reasonable ease, feeling as if I could have done more. I was confident. The next weekend I was running the Chicago Half Marathon, along with my son Todd, who’d been clocking times on training runs in my range: it’d be fun to make it something of a race between us.

That race morning I felt great and pushed out at a pace that I’d hope would position me for a strong time. Todd caught up and passed me at one of the aid stations, but it was so crowded I did not know till the end of the race that he’d sustained his pace and beaten me. Around mile eleven or twelve, just about the time I’d normally start really pushing it, I started feeling a strange pain in my chest when I’d take deep breaths. Then I got the chills—it was a warm and humid day—and it felt like the skin around my head was tingling and loose. Something might not be right and so I just coasted into the finish with a disappointing time and a burden of concern. When the pain was still present two days later, I listened to friends and family who insisted I get to a doctor. While I was waiting at the doctor’s office, Nike contacted me. They could get me into the marathon, but I need to call right way. Yes! I did so from the doctor’s office, still optimistic that this would be a false alarm. The doctor said that my blood pressure was high once again but the ticker seemed okay; she gave me an EKG and asked me to take some labs. She asked me to take a treadmill stress test since I was going to tackle the marathon, to make sure my blood pressure wouldn’t kick off a heart attack under the wrong conditions.

The toughest thing about a stress test is coffee withdrawal that day. When the nurse applies warm water to my chest before shaving it to attach the electrodes, the lab technician quips, “You’re too nice. I just shave ’em dry.” Luckily, we’re past beach weather, since my chest ‘do, with its combination of bald spots and hairy spots, looks like Wooly Willy’s worst nightmare. The test involves getting your body wired, then running on a treadmill, which they crank up in pace and incline till you reach a maximum heart rate and a state of exhaustion. I ask how long the typical patient runs, and the nurse says maybe five minutes. What’s the worst? “Oh, practically no time at all. Thirty seconds.” And the longest came from a group of college track team members who hung in for eighteen minutes. Before long, my nurse is telling colleagues she thinks I might break the record. I don’t, giving in just under thirteen minutes. I run in Chicago and am not used to the hills, you see. As soon as you stop, you jump up on a bed next to the ultrasound machine where the tech takes pictures of your heart. Since I’ve yet to give birth, this is fascinating stuff, gazing at my innards. Before long, we’re finished, and the cardiologist will have to weigh in on the results. I am confident, though, that all systems are go, as far as the race is concerned. (And the doc soon says they are.)

Mile 24
Runners tend to wax philosophical about their sport, a byproduct most likely of hours spent stuck inside your own head. For me, the sport was first a competitive challenge—could I run farther, and then farther again? When I raced, could I go faster? But somewhere along the line, it changed, and now I’m increasingly a zen runner, in it for its own joy. On a beautiful day, I feel out of sorts till I run, and then content afterward. Sometimes I experience moments of unexpected exuberance, the childlike bliss of just plain running to nowhere.

Looking back, I see now that the conditions were ripe for me to become a running addict. My career was in a decade-long winter of discontent. I’d reached middle age, with all its associated baggage. I was not only running for my life, I was also running away from it.

Mile 25
The weekend after my stress test, most folks training for the marathon would do their peak run of twenty miles. Instead, I went to my high-school reunion and squeezed in short runs where I could. My confidence was waning. The next weekend, I’d have to do another long run just to be sure. I might even take it up to 22 miles, just for an extra boost. That week, life interfered and I knocked off fewer miles than I’d planned. The night before my long run, I got to bed late. I decided to set my iPod for a full marathon and see what happened. I’d hoped to start running around 7:30am, which is the start time for the Chicago Marathon, but hit the trail about 10:30am. Luckily it is a cool, overcast day, with modest breezes. I head out from Printers Row, along my normal route to the lakefront near the Shedd Aquarium, and turn north, meandering on paths that take you away from and back toward the lake, eventually passing Loyola’s lakefront campus till I hit the halfway mark at Touhy and Sheridan. So far so good. On the return trip I discover the hard way that the Park District locks up its bathrooms awfully early in the fall, running up to a couple of locked doors before finally reaching one still in service. Otherwise, the run’s pretty uneventful till I pass mile 21. I’ve now reached my longest distance ever, and still feel okay! I punch the sky. Mile 22 proves to be one of the toughest, when a gnat flies directly into my windpipe as I enter the pathway at the north end of North Avenue Beach. It’s a lot easier to get that thing in there than it is to get it out. The guy running behind me probably fears I am coughing up the swine flu. As I get past the 24 mile mark, I am on my home stretch, on pavement I’ve run literally hundreds of times before. I am tired, but know I can finish. Perhaps this course comfort is why I never hit the proverbial wall. In any case, I finish and call Jan to let her know I’ve made it. “I just realized something,” I say. “When you run the marathon, there are people there to give you shiny blankets and bananas. I’m all by myself.” She graciously offers to meet me on my walk home and bring provisions.

As someone who runs alone, who never set out to run a marathon, who doesn’t follow proscribed training programs, it felt right to do my first marathon this way: by myself, alone with my audiobook (“Born Round,” by Frank Bruni) and music, on my own path.

Mile 26
The Chicago Marathon ends with its only hill, a modest incline as the runners turn off Michigan Avenue east on Roosevelt Road toward Grant Park. I’ve watched the race from this spot, seen as the faces of runners barely hanging on crash as they realize what they still have to do. This week, I’ve been running that hill, every day, preparing my mind, I hope, for one last conquest.

Visit sometime after Sunday to find out if I made it. (I did; here’s my review.) See for my review of Chicago Marathon apparel, plus for my review of “Spirit of the Marathon,” which chronicles six runner stories as they prepare for the Chicago Marathon.

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