Here's the short version: To say it wasn't an ideal race would be an overstatement. But I loved it. I must have something messed up in my head.
Here's the long version:
I woke up at 5:40 and started getting ready in the dark. I'd set everything out the night before, so it was only a short matter of assembling myself, but I still took it slowly. At some point my mom woke up and she pointed out the stream of runners we could see crossing the bridge on Columbus, heading toward Grant Park. There were so many of them.
I left around 6:20 and stepped onto an elevator full of other runners. "What's going on today?" one of them said.
I walked the mile to the start area without any issue, went to the bathroom and found my start corral. I was going to start with the 4:30 pace group because I wanted to run the first 4 miles at a 10 minute/mile pace, then pick it up to 9 minutes/mile for the next 18, and then do 8-minute miles for the remainder of the race. That would put me finishing under 4 hours, so I figured if I didn't quite stick to my schedule I'd still be okay. I just didn't realize how far off I'd end up being.
The overwhelming advice I got from other marathoners was to start slow—slower than I'd think I ought to—and then pick it up gradually. I was prepared, and I was really excited for the rush of cruising by all the exhausted slowpokes in the final miles. (I turned out to be one of those zombies.)
The first four miles were easy; I hardly noticed them go by, even though I was trotting along at a comfortable 10-minute pace. I sped up a bit as planned, and went the next 10 miles or so without any issue. I hit 10k around the hour mark, and I hit the halfway mark at 2:08. I had plenty of juice left.
But then things started going sour... I noticed threats of cramping in my calf muscles, but those spasms were few and far between, and they weren't severe. But by mile 15, it got really bad. I had to mix in more walking then I wanted to because after a few minutes of running my muscles would seize a bit. I didn't want them to seize completely, so I opted not to test their limits—I'd rather finish a little behind schedule than not finish at all.
I tried to suck it up until at least mile 17 so I could be running, rather than walking, when I saw my mom and Ricky Boy in the crowd. Success. But shortly after that, it got so bad that I couldn't run at all. I tried to run every now and then, but I couldn't make it more than 20 seconds without my legs cramping. And it wasn't just in my calf muscles anymore; my hamstrings, quads and even glutes joined the fun.
This was awful, because I wasn't winded at all—I barely felt tired—but I had to walk because my legs wouldn't cooperate. I knew I had to keep moving (I tried stopping to stretch once, thinking that would help the situation, but it caused me to hobble stiff-leggedly for a few dozen feet before my legs returned to normal. So I decided just to power onward, walking as quickly as I could, trying not to calculate how long it might take me to walk 8+ miles. Sometimes I tried to run without bending my legs... that worked a little but, but even then I got those threats of cramping.
I made it eventually, in 5:03. It was 80-something degrees out—ugh. I guess I was walking pretty fast, then, since I'm sure I didn't run more than half of a mile after the 18-mile mark. I guess I should be more disappointed than I am... But I'm not because I know there are going to be a lot more marathons in my future (I'm already planning to do several around the world over the next few years). It's just a shame that my first one couldn't have been picture-perfect. Oh, speaking of pictures, I did try to run—and even smile—for the photographers, so hopefully there are some nice pictures.
But enough about the logistics: Let's talk about the course. It was incredible. The crowd support was phenomenal... more people were cheering than I ever could have expected. There were a few parts in which the crowd thinned a bit, but nowhere was there nobody. And the crowd was so diverse: Sometimes there were screaming people crammed shoulder to shoulder everywhere I could so—both at my flanks and at overpasses. People held all sorts of signs ("Toenails are overrated," "Chuck Norris never ran a marathon," "I love your stamina! My number is xxx-xxx-xxxx," and "I thought you said 2.62 miles!" are a few I remember) Cars that drove on roads adjacent to the course honked in support. Random people held out bowls of pretzels and fruit for us runners. There was an entire school pep band playing at one point. Somewhere around Mile 20, there were some people with a keg or two handing out free beer. I got a popsicle from a guy in the Mexican neighborhood. There were dancing dragon people in Chinatown. Several churches had their congregations out front cheering and playing upbeat music.
Maybe the best park was the Nike Inspiration Zone, I think around Mile 24. At that point I kept crying (I think?) but it turned out that I was laughing. I think I'm a lunatic. Anyway, that part was awesome; can't really describe it.
When I crossed the finish line, all the pain in my feet and the looming spasms in my legs went away. It was incredible. It was the most amazing feeling of accomplishment I've ever known. I got my weird thermal blanket thing I'm still not sure of the purpose of, my medal, a bag of yummies and a 312. I couldn't drink more than a few sips of the 312—my belly was so full of the Gatorade I kept drowning myself in with the hope that it'd cure my cramping (it didn't). And after a few minutes of walking (it was another mile to the point at which I'd arranged to meet my mom and brother) the pain came back. I saw people laying on the ground and I just wanted to do the same, but I figured I ought to find my family first...
Anyway, I told myself around Mile 20 that I'd never do it again, but I changed my mind by Mile 24. Bring it on.