Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | November 27, 2012

Guilt is a Better Motivator than Glory, And Other Lessons from the Chicago Marathon

(Yes, I know, it’s a little late to post a write-up about the Chicago Marathon, since it was nearly eight weeks ago. But I still haven’t gotten around to taking down last year’s Christmas lights – and now I don’t have to. So procrastination isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)

Lessons Learned from the Chicago Marathon

1) I Need to Get Sponsored by an Oatmeal Producer

In the days leading up to the 2012 Chicago Marathon, I did two things: I hydrated until I felt my eyes float and I ate more oats than a thoroughbred at Churchill Downs. Oatmeal with maple syrup. Pizza made with oat flour. Oatmeal with peanut butter. Oats and cherries baked together.  Oats, oats, oats for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes even dinner. I think Bob’s Red Mill should take me on as their first sponsored athlete. Fueled by Thick Rolled Oats!

2) I Can’t Get Anything Done the Week Before a Marathon

I thought I’d accomplish a lot while tapering. After all, I wasn’t doing crazy long runs. I wasn’t even sleep deprived from those early morning weekend runs. And yet I did nothing other than sit in front of the computer, staring at, hitting “refresh” over and over and over again. Take it from me: this is not an enjoyable way to spend time.

3) If You’re Going to be Miserable, Drag a Friend Along

In the weeks leading up to the marathon, I’d started doing some of my long runs with my pal Kevin, and we’d came up with some vague race strategies: we’d start out with the 4:00 pace group and try to hold on. At the time, I was thinking I’d be lucky to break 4:15, so 4:00 seemed optimistic. As the race got closer, however, I gained some confidence.

Then, at the Marathon Expo two days before the race, I decided – in a burst of irrational exuberance – to sign up with the 3:55 pace group. I texted Kevin and told him to do the same. He was reluctant.

“Are you sure about this?” he kept asking. Sure, I’m sure! Granted, it was ambitious, but what the heck? We’d go down in a blaze of glory!

And so we came to find ourselves on race morning lining up behind the 3:55 pace leader. As we stood beside our aspirant peer group, I recognized the folly of my optimism. The people surrounding us were younger, fitter, had legs like cheetahs and zero percent body fat. I was out of my league. At least I had Kevin with me, since misery loves company.

I stood in the chill looking up at the Chicago skyline, surrounded by thousands of fit, young runners and felt inspired to compose a Tweet. “I am never, ever doing this again,” I typed. “And this time I mean it.” Our wave moved forward, and we were off.

4) Guilt is a Better Motivator than Glory

We clung to the 3:55 pace group leader. Within the first mile, Kevin and I met Tim, a runner from Michigan who was also hoping to break 4 hours. Tim, like us, wasn’t sure it was entirely feasible, and, like us, he was a few years older than the buff post-adolescents nearby. Kevin, Tim and I bonded together over our shared optimism and self-doubt. We stayed with Ben the Pace Leader and held on for dear life.

Around the 6 mile mark, I realized it was time to choke down an energy gel, so I stopped to grab some water. The pace group kept going, right down the middle of the road. I walked while downing the gel and water. By the time I looked up, the pace group had gotten ahead of me.

They seemed so very far away, on the other side of a wall of runners. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to catch up. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. Wouldn’t it be better just to plod along at my usual snail’s pace? More relaxed. More enjoyable. Less effort. Like sirens on rocks, I could hear vague voices in my mind saying “Just let them go, just take it easy, who cares about your finish time?”

Then I saw Kevin looking over his shoulder. He leaned over and said something to Tim, who also began scanning the runners nearby. They were looking for me! How could I leave Kevin like that? I’d harassed him into running with the faster group. It wouldn’t be right to ditch him. Guilt washed over me, and then it kicked my butt into gear. I had to catch up!

I ran over to the side of the road, hopped up onto the sidewalk and sprinted up the side. I passed the sea of runners and cut back in, weaving up to Kevin and Tim. “I’m here,” I said, wheezing. “Right here.” And we stayed together for another 10 miles.

5) It’s When I’m by Myself that I Become a Loser

I’m not quite sure when I lost Kevin, but I think it was between mile 16 and 17. At some point, I looked over my shoulder and noticed that he wasn’t there. We’d made a pact that we’d start together but not hold each other back, so I didn’t drop back to look for him. I continued on with Tim and Ben the Pace Leader. Then, soon, Tim was gone, too. It was just me and Ben, plus a few random stragglers.

“Must stay with Ben, must stay with Ben.” At around the 18 mile mark, it was time for me to have another energy gel. As usual, I had trouble washing it down, so I took an extra cup of water at the aid station. I finished off the water, tossed my cup and empty gel pack in the garbage and started to run again.

But when I looked up, I couldn’t see Ben. Where was that little 3:55 sign?? I spotted him up the road, maybe 50 feet.

It might as well have been 50 miles.

Must catch Ben. Must catch Ben.

I didn’t, however, have the energy to sprint. Unlike the first time I’d lost the pace group, motivation eluded me. Ben, after all, didn’t care if I was running with him or not. I had no sense of obligation – no guilt. So instead of going faster, I just maintained the gap, figuring I’d catch up at the next water station: if Ben stopped for water and I ran through it, I’d catch him then.

By the time we got to the next water station, just after mile 19, I was still roughly 50 feet behind. But Ben didn’t stop. He ran right down the center of the road, maintaining his pace. Shoot.

I had to pick up speed if I wanted to catch him. I tried to make up some ground as we rounded the corner at mile 20. But Ben was still ahead, and starting to slip away.

The awareness of the moment became clear. This is it, I thought to myself. This is how it happens. This, right here, this moment, this gap, this failure to catch up is what causes me to not make that 3:55 finish time. This is it.

I kept Ben in sight through miles 21 and 22, hoping that I’d get a second wind. As the course hit a small decline to pass under a railroad bridge, I thought “I’m gaining on him!” And then the road bottomed out and I hit the incline back up to street level. You’d have thought I was climbing Everest. Ben and his little 3:55 sign faded into the crowd. I was all alone, surrounded by strangers.

6) The Last Few Miles are Never Pretty

The last four miles of the race were ugly. Fortunately, the good weather prevented some of the really unpleasant stuff I saw during my last marathon, the over-heated 2010 edition. But even with the cooler temps, people were falling apart. Walking, sitting down, lying on the ground, dry heaving. Every time I someone in front of me stopped to walk, my will faltered a little more.

I knew I’d lost the pace group, but I refused to walk. I had to break 4:00. I tried to figure out my pace and finish time, but the math got blurred in my head. All I could do was keep running.

As I hit the straightaway on Michigan Avenue, all the sounds and peripheral images faded away. The only thing I could see was the pavement, my watch, and the mile marker signs, which seemed to be getting farther and farther apart. 800 meters, a sign finally announced. An eternity passed. 400 meters! I ran for what felt like at least 5 miles and then saw the 200 meters sign. Please, oh please, let it end. And then finally, the finish.

7) I Understand How Two Opposite Emotions Can Coexist

As I crossed the finish line, I understood, with new appreciation, the meaning of the word ambivalent. To say I had mixed emotions would be an understatement. I was thrilled, shocked, surprised and over the moon that I had finished in under 4 hours. My time was 3:58:01, over 55 minutes faster than my previous marathon. I had exceeded my expectations – smashed them to bits, in fact.

And yet. I had missed my Boston qualifying time by just over three minutes. A total of 181 seconds. Count ’em. The equivalent of a commercial break on TV. The time it takes to make a piece of toast. Shorter than most YouTube videos. Less than one song on my ipod. In marathon times, it’s the blink of an eye.

And yet. I’d finished in under four hours, something that until a few weeks earlier, I would have declare an absolutely impossible goal.

I started crying. For what I had gained. For what I had narrowly lost. For reaching an impossible goal and just barely missing another. For my sore, bloodied feet. For being lucky enough to not have anything worse than blisters. For hitting a milestone. For hitting it all alone – a moment of pride, and a moment of sadness.

8) The Faster People are Quieter

As I got my emotions under control, I became aware of how peaceful and quiet the finisher’s chute was.

I’m used to finishing farther back in the pack, when there is much whooping and hollering and people dressed in costume and generally having a good time. But up here, with the sub-four hour people, it was more sedate. The air was filled with nothing but the soft rustle of the warming blankets draped around the finishers.

I pulled out my phone to share the good news online and saw that my tweet from the start – the one vowing to never do this again – was sitting there, unsent. A connection error. I smiled. I knew I’d be doing it again after all. That technology fail prevented me from making a liar of myself. Again.

Kevin texted a few minutes later to tell me he had finished, and we planned to meet in front of the Art Institute to head back home.

9) Personal Accomplishments are Worn on the Inside

I left the finish area as a sub-four hour marathoner, something I’d never thought I could be. I felt like a champion as I headed away from Grant Park, leaving the spectators and the runners and the cheering and the crying behind me. Then I turned onto Michigan Avenue and became just another person in the crowd.

But inside I thought, “3:58. Imagine that.”


  1. Thanks for not posting the pic of the blister 🙂

  2. I enjoyed experiencing your marathon through your essay. Congratulations once again – and what’s up with California?

  3. Loved all the details….I’ve been waiting for this!

  4. Wow – a 55 minute PR – AMAZING! (gives me hope!) Though I think I can imagine an understanding of your feeling on missing the Boston qual time – a goal of mine I keep inching toward. Great description on the 2 conflicting emotions at once – exhilarated and yet…But now you KNOW you can do it, you can almost see it.

    (I had the experience of signing up w/a pace group for my recent half, losing the pacer but running with a new friend for almost 9 miles, which helped me and pushing through to the “really wasn’t sure it was possible” time I got – broke 2 hours solidly.)

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