Monday, October 22, 2012

Saving the best for last: finishing the 5 World Marathon Majors with Chicago


Whenever I asked the question, I always got the same answer:  Chicago. 

At my four previous World Marathon Majors: New York City, Boston, Berlin, and London, I met many runners who were repeat offenders, or people who kept running marathons.  Some stopped at 10 marathons, others wanted to run all 50 states, and I even met runners  reaching for 100 marathons.  Then at the Berlin Marathon there was Henry, who had run 751 marathons (but who’s counting?).  And all of these runners, when I asked them which one was the favorite, every single person quietly answered, “Chicago”.  And then they smiled, and had a faraway look in their eyes.

I could not wait for this Holy Grail of marathons!  But to be honest, I was a bit uneasy.  What was it about Chicago that was so great?  One day would I be one of those marathoners who would speak about Chicago in such hushed tones?

The first way to judge a marathon was by its expo, held at least one day before where the runners pick up their racing gear (number and chip) and buy running related merchandise, and hope to see some running stars.  My uber running friend Sue (who would qualify for Boston again for the third time a few days later) and I loved this expo so much we went both Friday and Saturday to shop, and get our picture taken with two people who were in the movie “Spirit of the Marathon”, about the 2005 Chicago Marathon:   Deena Kastor (who holds the American women’s record in the marathon and is one of only 2 women to medal in the marathon at the Olympics) and Jerry, a regular guy running the Chicago Marathon in 2005 with his daughter.  Deena was happy to talk with me about our shared birthday (February 14th, a double celebration every year) and wished us good luck at the marathon. 

 Jerry was a good sport about getting a picture taken with me, after I told him I loved seeing him in “Spirit of the Marathon”.

A cool thing about running one of the 5 Majors is that they are all in big cities where there is lots to do and see.  Chicago didn’t disappoint.  Sue and I visited the Field Museum for several hours, enjoying every minute of this natural history museum’s amazing collections.  Sue, of course, posed with her namesake, “Sue” the Tyrannosaurus Rex. 

We also enjoyed dinners with friends, both from our running camp and other friends from Brevard County

 and also with  a friend from as far back as early 1963, Michele, with her husband Joel.  Michele was my next door neighbor in New Jersey, best friend from age 4 years old, with whom I shared many adventures and conversations, especially with paper cups attached by string from my house to her house. 

That night after dinner I said goodbye to my friends went back to my hotel room and begin my pre marathon rituals, which include setting out all my clothes the night before on the bed, both for running and the outer clothing I would wear at the start.

The morning of the marathon brought almost perfect weather to run 26.2 miles, beginning with 41 degree temperatures.  Sue and I left the hotel and walked over to our corrals.  Who do we run into, among the other 40,000 runners, but Ilse, Leslie, and Cindy G. from our running camp. And that’s when the magic of Chicago started.

The other 4 world marathon majors involved lengthy bus rides to the start, and then time spent hanging outside in the cold weather for up to 4 hours before the start.  Not Chicago.  We left our hotel at 6:35, and by 7:30 AM we were running.  And I mean running fast, from the second our feet hit the start mat (while Bruce Springsteen’s anthem “Born to Run” blared out of the loudspeakers).  The running field was never crowded.  Not once did I have to slow my pace because I was surrounded by slower runners.  The Chicago organizers had not only 2 start waves but corrals for the runners depending upon previous running times. 

Right from the start, as I was running fast, and keeping up my average of  9 minute 15 second per mile pace, I thought, maybe I can do it.  “It” meaning another Boston qualifying time.  I had done it once before, almost two years ago to this day.  A BQ eluded me at the other 4 world majors, which were absolutely fantastic experiences, memories I will always cherish, but with difficult courses (Boston and New York) and crowded fields with way too many touring options the two days before the marathon (how could I not try to see as much as I could in the foreign cities of Berlin and London, both so friendly to me, the American tourist) and of course with the 4 hour marathon before the marathon.  But Chicago… a pancake flat course with cheering spectators every step of the way, making all of us feel like, well, what came to mind was Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller singing “Danke Schoen” and "Twist and Shout" in that parade scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”…


With the flat course, time clocks and water and Gatorade stops almost every mile, manned by wonderfully cheery volunteers  and all those spectators screaming for us, holding signs that made me laugh such as “Chuck Norris never ran a marathon”,  and the sign that brought tears to my eyes -  “One day you will not be able to run a marathon.  Today is not that day” -  I had no choice but to keep running…

We ran through 29 diverse neighborhoods.  My favorite was Chinatown.  As we approached this neighborhood, first we were greeted by dozens of Japanese flags, then Japanese families cheering for us next to about 20 drums being played by men dressed in traditional Japanese attire.  That was our introduction to the streets of Chinatown, where hundreds of people stood outside Chinese restaurants and shops, people of all ethnicities, yelling and cheering for us marathoners.  Only in America, I thought, could so many people all come so peacefully, so happily, for such an event.

On my way to the finish line, I saw some other signs.  At mile 3.2, I saw some people with a University of Dayton sign.  “I’m a Flyer!” I yelled out, as they waved to me.  Around mile 10, I saw a New Jersey Runners sign.  “Jersey Girl!” I called to them, and they yelled back something in Jersey-ese.  Somewhere in the high teens, I saw a sign that said “University of Florida”.  “Gators!” was all I could say at that point, which was meet with the Gator chomp sign by the UF fans.  And later, somewhere in the 20 mile range, I saw signs that said “Go Mom!”  and “Keep running, Cindy!”  I couldn’t get any words out at that time but pretended those signs were for me and smiled.

Others finished before me.  The male champion, Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede, set a course record of 2:04:38.

Another Ethiopian, Atsede Baysa, won the woman’s race by one second, the closest women’s Chicago Marathon finish in 2:22:03. 

How incredibly cool for amateur runners like me to be running the same race on the same day as these speedy professionals.

A record number of finishers, 37,455 runners, crossed the finish line in Chicago's Grant Park on October 7, 2012.  I was one of them.  But there was no way I could have run such a great race, no way I could have even finished, without the help of my team of experts.  Coach Doug Butler's advice and running camp program once again made running so much fun for me and  got me to run stronger and even faster than I needed to go.  When faced with typical runner's injuries such as plantar fasciitis (mid July) and a sprained ankle (mid September), and a not so typical runner's injury (a broken wrist in mid August - a waiter in Rhode Island, after hearing I broke my wrist while running, asked me, "Do you run on your hands?"), Doctors Larry Bishop, Bruce Thomas, Mike Shapiro, Kurt Hensel, and Briant Moyles, and Physical Therapist Jeremy Stewart, not only fixed what was broken but made me feel better and healthier than I have ever felt. 
A friend asked me when I knew I had a chance at qualifying for Boston again.  Was it in the last mile?  Halfway through the race?  With the help of these seven men on my running team, I knew I had a shot at Boston from the first step I took on the start mat.   

By the time the finish line was in my view, I believed another Boston was in sight for me.  I was just over 4 hours and 1 minute and all I needed to BQ for the Boston Marathon in 2014 (I was already signed up for Hogeye Marathon in April of 2013) was 4 hours, 10 minutes.  Still, anything could happen, and I just kept running, focused on the finish.  As I crossed the finish line at 4:01:43, I knew I had it.  But even more, I knew I ran a marathon that was a runner’s dream, the flat and fast Chicago Marathon, with spectators who made each runner feel like a rock star and wouldn’t let you quit.  And someday, if I am ever asked which of my marathons  was my favorite to run, I too would answer, in a quiet voice, with a faraway look in my eyes, “Chicago.”




Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Running with Royalty: The London Marathon

Close your eyes of think of England.  What do you see?  For me, it’s castles, kings and queens, endless green lawns, double decker buses and centuries old buildings whose every stone whispers stories of victories and betrayals. 

 I see our country’s ancestors who handed down to us their language, laws, and government and 21st century people who are our best friends in the world.   I had all of that and so much more at the London Marathon in April 2012.

Nothing can better sum up my experience running London than the taxi ride I took back to my hotel the evening right after the marathon.  I had just seen “Jersey Boys” in London’s version of our Broadway, the West End.  I hailed a taxi (not wanting to trust my legs to the Underground’s stairs after just running 26.2 miles a few hours ago) and was greeted by the driver, a very British man a little bit older than me.  “How was your day in London?” he asked as I gingerly sat down.  “Well, I just saw a fantastic musical, and before that… I ran the London marathon!”  I said.  “NO!” he said.  “I want to hear all about it!”

 I started talking and couldn’t stop.  I told him about the amazing organization of the marathon, from the best expo I had ever been to (so spacious, hundreds of booths from every possible marathon vendor you can imagine, an on site pasta party where the organizers had a constant stream of speakers and videos detailing what we would experience during the race) to the best organized race I had ever ran (although there were 36,672 finishers, I never felt crowded, there was water every mile as well as balloon arches and a dotted blue line showing us the fastest official route).   

I spoke of the amazing time I had touring his city in my two days before the marathon, visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum, shopping at my fave store, Harrod’s, and walking by Buckingham Palace (while my dog was at Barkingham Palace!)

I toasted two of my favorite writers, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, at the very pub where they used to hang out, the George Inn.  I was so excited to be there, this was an English major’s dream field trip, that the bartender must have realized how cool this was for me and gave me my drink for free, and I don’t even like beer but I just had to drink to the Bard and Chuck!

I traded running stories with 14 super friendly Canadians from our tour group, Marathon Tours and Travel, at the pasta dinner the night before the marathon.  They are in a running camp so similar to our running camp, the major difference is that they run in freezing weather, including down to 20 degrees BELOW ZERO, something our Set Goals Not Limits campers have not experienced in Melbourne, Florida.

The race itself was an experience of a lifetime, running through the outskirts of London in small rural villages, then into the city itself, with modern steel skyscrapers and historical stone buldings. The spectators just made the race even better, screaming for us the entire way.  “Go Florida” was something I heard often, as I ran in my Florida running shirt. 

And the other runners?  That was what was extra cool about London.  It’s really 2 races in one.  London is one of the 5 World Marathon Majors (this was race #4 for me, having already run NYC, Boston, and Berlin.)  So it is A Serious Race, attracting the best runners in the world.  The top 3 women finishers, Mary Keitany, Edna Kiplat, and Priscah Jeptoo, as well as the men’s race winner, Wilson Kipsang, have all been chosen to represent their home country, Kenya, in the 2012 Olympics. 

But this is a people’s race as well.  Exactly half of all runners run for a charity, wearing the name of their charity on their shirts.  It’s hard not to cry when you see some of the names of the charities, such as Kids with Cancer and Stillborn Babies Charity.  Most of these runners are not super fast.  The organizers of the marathon keep the race going for 8 and ½ hours, whereas most marathons are open for only 6 hours.  And that’s not just for the charity runners – there is also something unique about London’s marathon – it’s the huge number of runners in “fancy dress”, meaning crazy costumes.  There’s even a corral at the start for these runners, wearing everything from formal evening wear (while dining) to a running car to animal costumes to Wizard of Oz characters to a raunchy workman (naked except for his tool chest, which did not cover much of his body) to another guy naked except for a teapot (which pretty much covered his whole body).  The juxtaposition of running by some of the world’s most beautiful sights:  Tower Bridge at mile 12, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey at mile 25, then finishing the race right in front of Buckingham Palace, while running by these “fancy dress” runners is one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. 

“Were you always a runner?” the driver asked me.  I briefly told him my story (it’s detailed in my Boston Marathon blog), basically, started running at age 45, started training for a marathon in the hospital after getting really sick at age 48 (as in walking the halls in a hospital gown, tied to an IV pole, deciding I was no longer the girl in the bed but a runner training for a marathon even though I had never run a race farther than 3.1 miles) and that if I can do this thing, run marathons, anyone can do it and more… I encouraged him to get out and run, and he said he’d give it a try!  When we pulled up to my hotel he said he wanted a picture of me, and I emailed him my post race picture.  I opened my wallet and he refused to take a penny (or shilling or pence or whatever they call their coins, I never got that straight, I just concentrated on the paper money) and said it was an honor for him to have me in the cab. 

All the English people I spoke to that marathon weekend treated me like my cab driver did, like I was something special, like they were proud to have an American come to their country to run their marathon.  Everyone wanted to know my story, was I a professional, did someone sponsor me to race London (they were asking this of ME!) and what did I like about London.  Easy to see why these people are our country’s best friends.

The next morning, before leaving for the airport, I sat at breakfast at our hotel’s restaurant, and I hear, “There’s Cindy Bishop from Merritt Island!”  Philippe joined me at our table.  Philippe, another Canadian with our group, was someone who I ran Berlin with in October 2011.  He is on my schedule, running all the World Marathon Majors.  I’ll see him in Chicago in October.  We talked about the marathon non stop for half an hour.  We were both happy with our times:  I ran my second fastest marathon in 4 hours, 18 minutes, and 5 seconds.  Philippe ran a PR in 2 hours and 42 minutes and 6 seconds - and he’s 47 years old!!!  We spoke of how crazy cool the fancy dress runners were, how great the organization was and how the spectators just kept us going… I mentioned that it was cool that Prince Harry gave out the awards, and another kind of royalty, the future Kenyan Olympic team, can someday tell their grandchildren that they ran the London Marathon with Cindy Bishop.  But we both agreed that the real royalty was the most inspirational runner of all, the one we can tell our grandchildren about, and anyone else who will listen.  Philippe and I, and the other 36,669 finishers, ran with Fauja Singh, a 101 year old runner who finished the marathon in 7 hours, 49 minutes, and 21 seconds.  He didn’t even start running marathons until he was 89 years old.  Fauja proved to all of us that we can do anything, defy the odds, if we just follow our dreams.