At 8 a.m. on October 7 Abby Bouzan-Kaloustia was doing some last- minute stretching, anxiously awaiting the gunshot that would signal the start of the 30th annual LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon. If I had been running the marathon, I would have been right next to Abby, my good friend and training partner. But having planned on running the ING New York Marathon this year, I was instead pacing nervously along the sidelines.
I was nervous for Abby for several reasons. First and foremost, she deserved a good race. Over the past summer I witnessed firsthand her dedication and discipline in training for this one day. This also was Abby's first marathon, and I wanted her to have a good experience. But by 8 a.m. it was already 73 degrees-already too warm for a marathon. While Abby was one of the toughest runners I know, running in the heat was not her forte. It was obvious from the start that it was going to be a rough race.
I started watching the race at mile 4 along North LaSalle Street. As the runners passed, most of them seemed in good spirits and running smoothly, including Abby who I saw chatting with another teammate of ours. Both of them were running smooth, steady and right at their goal pace.
Crossing few blocks west to mile 11 on Wells Street, I encountered what seemed to be an entirely different race. It was clear that during those next seven miles, the heat had started to affect the runners. Shoulders were slumping and running form was beginning to suffer. I thought of Abby and became nervous when she did not pass me at mile 11. I was relieved when it was only a couple minutes past her expected time that I saw her come around the corner of Division onto Wells. I instinctively jumped into the race and ran with her for about a quarter mile. Although she said she was feeling OK, I could tell from the rhythm of her breathing and the tone of her voice that she was starting to struggle. Promising to meet her in Chinatown, I jumped out at North Avenue and ran toward the Red Line train.
In Chinatown, I once again anxiously waited for Abby to come by. Around the time when Abby should have come through, I got a call from a mutual friend of ours who had just seen Abby pass. I hung up the phone and began running back along the course until I found Abby about three miles from Chinatown. At this point she was walking and it was obvious she needed some support. From there I ran/walked with Abby for the remainder of the race. She finished roughly 25 minutes past her goal time.
Abby wasn't my only friend or teammate who had a less than stellar race. Four of my teammates dropped out, and another good friend of mine (and first-time marathoner) wasn't able to cross the finish line before the race was officially called off. Those friends and teammates who did finish were nowhere near their goal times.
The fact that a runner can prepare months and months for a race that potentially can be sabotaged by uncontrollable external factors, like the weather, is a very frustrating notion. But by going into the race with the right mindset, a runner can be prepared for the possibility of a sub-par race and learn to embrace the outcome of the race, no matter what the finish time.
In essence, marathoners need to think of the marathon not only as a race, but also as a process. One of the best ways to do this is to work several other races into your training. Fortunately, Abby had run for the Fleet Feet club team this summer and had incorporated several other races into her training. A runner training for a marathon should seek out the little victories along the way and avoid putting all physical and emotional investment into the outcome of one race.
Racing shorter distances during training can be especially beneficial for first time marathoners. You learn how your body handles the stress of races and personal do's and don'ts. For instance, through some of Abby's longer races, she learned the importance of not going out to fast- something that is absolutely crucial to smart marathoning. Racing half marathons can be especially helpful during marathon training as it more closely mirrors the feel and logistics of a full marathon and can be a great benchmark for your fitness level. (Try the LaSalle Bank Chicago Distance Classic or the Banco Popular Chicago Half Marathon, which are held during Chicago Marathon training season.)
I was worried that my friend Abby would be so upset by her marathon finish time that she would overlook the larger accomplishment: a season full of personal records, new running experiences and the feeling of being in incredible physical shape. But I was pleasantly surprised to know that she was able to look at her season as a whole: "My success over the season outweighs my less than perfect performance on marathon day," she said.
So when you are getting ready to begin training for your next marathon, remember to incorporate other races into your training, and set mini goals for yourself apart from the marathon. Only then will you be able to see the actual marathon race for what it really is-icing on the cake.
Kathryn Harb recently moved to New York City, but continues to stay closely tied to Chicago and its vibrant running scene. Although currently injured, she is anxious to join the New York running scene as soon as she recovers.