Saturday, October 13, 2007

Chicago 2007 Marathon

No, I didn't run it, but my sister and her husband did, and I'm proud to say that they finished and I was there to see it. She has a blog "Running Cuckoo", and so I'll use the initials RC to refer to her here.

I'll start by working backwards a bit.

The race started at 8:00am. The plan was to meet up around 7:30am with RC and my brother-in-law at the start corral near the four and a half hour pace setters before heading down to the start line. My father, one of my other sisters, and I would be meeting up with her at various points during the race to cheer her on and pass out water, iced wet towels, and carbohydrate gels, all while holding up a 10 foot high 8 foot wide banner. My parents stayed downtown the night before so I needed to meet up with my Dad at the hotel around 6:45am. To do this, I needed to pick up my other sisters and my Grandmother around 5:30am to catch the CTA Orange Line around 6:00am. This meant I had to leave my house no later than 4:30am. I am not a morning person, so I knew it would take me a while to get ready at that early of an hour. This meant I should plan to wake up at 3:30am! What? No, no, no, my preference is to be heading to bed at 3:30am.

Ok, so my alarm was set to go off at 3:30am. I tried to get to sleep at 10:00pm, but with my eyes closed, all I could think about was the various things I wanted to accomplish before the race that I hadn't found time to do yet. Around 11:00pm I finally decided to get up and get a few things done so I could get them off my mind and get some sleep.

I'm a suburbanite, and so is most of my family. I thought it would really be helpful to have detailed map of the course that included all the street names and locations where we planned to try and meet up with RC. I had created such a map on Google Maps earlier, but hadn't had a chance to print out copies yet. In order to get the detail I wanted, and still include the entire 26.2 mile course I needed to zoom in on the map and then save images of the various sections of the course. Then I used an image editing program to paste all the sections together in one big image. Next, I printed out multiple copies, each one spanning three sheets of paper. Finally, I taped the three sheets together into one map that could be rolled up and carried in a pocket. I wasn't certain exactly how many groups we'd split into downtown, so I made three of these.

I still didn't feel sleepy, so next I figured it would be useful to have maps of all the CTA train routes. I printed three copies of these as well.

Nope, still not sleepy.

This is not my sister's first marathon. In the past we've attempted to meet up with her at various points along the course, however, it is difficult to know if you've missed her, or she's still coming. It's difficult to know how much longer to wait. The organizers of the race have this system where the racers wear tags on their shoes that register when they pass various points in the race. It is supposed to be possible to have a text message sent to a cell phone to let you know what time the runner passed these locations. We've found this system to be ridiculously unreliable in the past.

My sister had this great idea that she would give us her cell phone. Then at various points along the race she would pass out a slip of paper with her phone number to a spectator and ask them to call us and let us know where she was. The spectators of the Chicago Marathon are so supportive, and enthusiastic she was sure it would be easy to find people to follow through and make the call.

I was uncomfortable with her passing her cell phone number out to complete strangers. Sure 99% of the people who might end up with the number would probably make the call and then discard the number. But it was that 1% (maybe less?) that concerned me, the jerks who might find it entertaining to harass her in the future just because they could. A couple of days before the race I searched online to see how much it might cost to set up a temporary phone number. I thought perhaps I could find one that would forward to my cell phone. Then when the race was over I could just cancel the phone number. What I had found was a free voicemail system. Free? Yep free. I have no idea how they make their money, but I tried it and it worked.

This was great. The voicemail system could be set up to send out a text message and email whenever a voicemail message was left. Anyone with the password could check the messages. So I had created a message: "Hello, this is Danny. I'm tracking the progress of my sister through the Chicago Marathon and attempting to cheer her on at multiple locations. Please leave a message with the approximate time and location where you received this phone number. Thanks for your assistance, we really appreciate it." I had configured the system to send me a text message whenever anyone left a voice mail, and then told my sister about it. She seemed to like the idea, and she hoped to create the slips of paper with the phone number for this voicemail system sometime before the race.

So the night before the race I found out that she hadn't created the slips of paper yet, but was still planning to. I wasn't certain what all she needed to do the night before the marathon to prepare, and thought she might not find the time to get this done. Since I was still awake, I decide to make some up for her just in case. So I typed up a message: "My family is tracking my progress to try and cheer me on from multiple locations. Please call: ###-###-####. Leave a message with the time and location where you received this. If you are not willing to do so, please pass this paper to someone who will. Thanks!" Printed these out with an inkjet printer fitting 15 of these on a sheet of paper, and then needed to cut them out. I had been drinking bottled water and my fingers were damp. As I cut them out I found that the ink smudged, ran, and became otherwise unreadable. Hmmm, this is not good. It was going to be hot out. I was certain my sister would be sweating. There was no way these would last the entire marathon. We'd be lucky if they last a few miles. Not only that, but if my sister did find time to print up her own and if she used an inkjet printer as well, then this whole plan was about to go up in smoke.

I searched around the house a bit and found some packing tape. I reprinted the messages, made sure my hands were dry, and then cut them out. Then I put a piece of packing tape on the front and back of each slip of paper. The tape was wide enough to hang over the edges on all sides so the front tape would stick to the back tape to seal the paper inside. Then I cut the excess tape off leaving just a bit around the edges to keep the paper sealed inside. Voila! A cheap lamination. It wouldn't be entirely waterproof, but it was water resistant enough to survive running water in the sink for a few seconds. These should make it through the marathon. I was a bit clumsy with the tape, so by the time I was done I had 13 left. Perfect, she could hand out one every other mile if she wanted to.

By now it was after 2:00am. I'm usually sleepy by now, but for some reason I wasn't. I turned on the TV and checked the TV guide. I saw that the marathon was going to be televised, so I set up the DVR to record it, just in case RC or any of us supporters got caught on camera. As 3:00am rolled around I quietly turned off the alarm so it wouldn't wake my wife and then started getting ready to go. I was ready early, and headed out. I figured I'd just drive slowly to burn off the excess time. I got to my Grandmother's house about 10 minutes early and she saw me pull into the driveway. She was ready, so we continued on to get my 2 other sisters. By the time we got to the CTA station the sun was coming up. It was great seeing all the runners on the train. We got some pictures and chatted the whole way downtown.

We met up with our parents and it was decided that we'd split into 2 groups. One group would try and cheer RC on from the start, 2 mile mark, Wrigleyville, and Chinatown. The other group would try to get to somewhere around the 1 mile mark, the 4 mile mark, and the 16 mile mark. Both groups would try and meet up with RC somewhere around the halfway point and the finish. The three of us that were headed to the start, headed out right away to find RC and my brother-in-law in the start corral and let them know who to look for and where. Then we worked our way up to the start line.

We made it to the start line just in time and staked out a location. Then we set up the banner and waited. RC had said that she expected to reach the start line around 8:20. We heard Jo Dee Messina sing the National Anthem and then got to watch the wheelchairs and the elite runners start. Next the swarms of runners came streaming past. We were sure that with three of us watching, one of us would see them coming. We watched, and watched, and watched. 15 minutes later we were still seeing runners come by and we were seeing signs for the 5 hour pace setters. We decided that they must have passed us and somehow all three of us missed them.

If we wanted any chance of seeing them at the 2 mile mark, we were going to have to get that banner down and get moving quickly. Jogging down Monroe, about 1 block from the 2 mile mark on State, I started to wonder why I hadn't received any text message from the voicemail system yet. They should have noticed us; even if we didn't see them (that banner can be seen from blocks away). As they ran by they should have realized that we didn't see them, and I thought RC would have handed out one of those laminated notes to let us know that they were already past us. I decided to call the voicemail system and see if the text message wasn't getting sent for some reason.

As I was dialing, I received the text message. When I listened to the voicemail, I discovered that she ran past Macy's about 3 minutes ago. We hurried to the corner and got the banner set up hoping that they hadn't past yet. After a few minutes it became obvious that we had to have missed her. We called the other group and found that they must've missed her as well. We let them know to move on to their next location and, we had to move on so we could see her in Wrigleyville. We got the banner down and hurried on.

While waiting in Wrigleyville, we received another voicemail. They were a bit over a mile away. Time to start looking again. This time we knew we wouldn't miss them. We knew they'd be running right up to the banner to get some iced towels, carb gels, and water. I handed 2 towels and 1 carb gel to RC (she didn't want the bottled water) and as she ran off I shouted that one of the towels was for her husband. He heard me and ran up to her to collect his towel.

We knew the next stop was going to be difficult to get to in time, so we immediately disassembled the banner and briskly walked back to the CTA station. We had to wait longer than we wanted for a train to come by, and when one finally did it was the wrong route for getting to the half way point. We figured if we waited much longer, we wouldn't make it to the halfway point, so we went ahead and boarded the train. As it headed downtown I kept checking the voicemail to see if there was a new message. I was hoping to find that we were far enough ahead to still jog over to the halfway point. As we approached the stop near the halfway point we realized that if they were maintaining the pace they ran to Wrigleyville, there was no way we could make it to the halfway point in time. We decided to stay on the train and head to Chinatown. We hoped the other group would see her at the halfway point.

When we got to Chinatown we planted ourselves at the corner where we thought we'd best be seen, and waited. We called the other group and discovered that they were waiting at the halfway point and that RC wasn't there yet. Later we got a call from that group saying that RC had just arrived and that she was really struggling. Her husband was about 20 minutes ahead of her, she was hot and exhausted and wasn't sure if she could finish. One of my sisters was going to walk with her for a while. A while later I got a text message and checked the voicemail. The message didn't make any sense. It said that RC was near the 16 mile mark and she was looking really good?! Then about a half hour later another message said that she was at the 19 mile mark! That puts her at a 10 minute mile pace. 10 minutes later her husband came by and we gave him an iced wet towel. If RC kept that 10 minute pace up then she was only 10 minutes behind. Sure enough 10 minutes later she came running up to us. We handed her a bottle of water and she told us that she heard the race was canceled. We had just heard the same thing a few moments before. With only 5 miles left she was planning on finishing it even if it meant a slower pace than she wanted. She had encountered water stations that were out of water and she asked if someone could meet up with her around miler 23 or 24.

I promised her I'd be there with a bottle of water, and then I took off running down Cermak towards Michigan. One of my sisters came along with me. After a block or two, she said that she was going to slow down and catch up with me if she could. I handed her everything I was carrying except the water and iced towels so I could travel faster. I ran to Michigan and then headed south. I wanted to be sure to get to the 24 mile mark before her or her husband. As I approached the 24 mile mark I slowed to a slow walk and a before long my sister that was carrying everything caught up. We sat and watched for them, and at one point we both get phone calls from other family members. After I hung up I looked at the time and realized that we might have missed our brother-in-law while we were on the phone, and he didn't know to look for us there. We kept a look out for him, but it turned out that we had missed him. 10 minutes later RC came walking up. I told her that walk or run, I'd keep up with her as long as I could. We had two bottles of water for her and the three of us walked for about a mile and a half or so.

She said that she was going to try and run again around Roosevelt. I asked if she thought I could run to the finish with her since the race was canceled, and she agreed that I should be able to. I told her not to let me hold her up, and that if I got tired to just keep going without me. As we passed through the cloud of mist from a Fire Engine at Roosevelt, she picked up the pace, and my other sister said she'd find us after the finish. I surprised myself and managed to keep up with RC all the way to the finish. As we came up the final stretch it was great seeing that banner, knowing that the family was all underneath it and watching for RC. We caught their attention and they cheered and shouted. I fell back just a bit and watched my youngest sister cross the finish line of a race that almost half the registered runners never reached. I can't explain how impressed I was with her determination, her endurance, and her strength. She really is an inspiration.

I walked with her through the finish area and offered to carry her thermal blanket, banana, bagel, water, etc. She received her medal and while standing in line to have her picture taken, I heard the guy in "Spotter 7" chair behind me call out "Runner down at station 7!" Not my sister, somehow she found the strength to pose and smile for the camera. We kept looking for her husband, but since we didn't know how far ahead he finished we didn’t' really know where to look. My other 2 sisters found us just as we were exiting the finishing area. We walked around with them a bit looking for RC's husband and finally decided to head back to RC's condo. They had agreed ahead of time that if they couldn't find each other after looking for a while at the finish that they'd meet up there. By the time we climbed the stairs, I was exhausted.

Between the lack of sleep the night before and the active day walking, jogging, and running throughout the city, by the time I was driving my sisters home from the CTA train stop I found I was fighting off sleep behind the wheel. My parent’s house was a block away, and I handed my dad my camera earlier, so I decided to stop by there to get the camera and take a short nap before taking the one hour drive home. While there I realized that if I only took a short nap, I'd not only probably still be tired, but I'd be driving in the dark. It seemed safer to just head home right away while the sun was still up. My parents offered to drive me home, and I wasn't going to turn that down. Of course, since I didn't need to stare at the road, and I had someone to talk to, I ended up staying awake the whole way home anyhow. Once inside the house though, I immediately fell asleep and didn't wake up for 12 hours. I think that next time I'm going to have to train for this. Not for the marathon, just for the spectating. It sure takes a lot out of you.