Epstein: Inside the mind of a first-time marathon runner

Jake Epstein, Op-Ed Contributor

Around midnight on Sunday, I shifted around on a small cot in my hotel room, unable to sleep.

Swiping to Safari on my phone, I googled “How important is sleep the night before a marathon?” Pre-race insomnia articles and studies filled the search results. I clearly wasn’t the only one whose nerves and excitement built up the night before a big race, but subpar sleep wouldn’t be too detrimental.

Assuaged by these findings, I thought back to the 18-week training program I went through — all the long runs and early mornings necessary to prepare for my first marathon. Why did I complicate the typical transition to my first year of college to run a 26.2-mile race? Why would someone who’s never run a race longer than five kilometers spontaneously decide to train for the Chicago Marathon?

I couldn’t come to a strong conclusion before I was lulled to sleep.

Race day began bright and early at 5 a.m. I ate two protein bars and walked over to the designated security gate with my father. Handing him my coat, I entered Grant Park, preparing for the culmination of a summer’s worth of work.

I entered Corral D, where I lined up to start the race, an hour before the starting gun. I had no idea what to expect. I felt like a fish out of water next to experienced marathoners equipped with compression socks, Garmin watches and belts packed with electrolyte gels. As for me, ankle socks and old soccer shorts would hopefully do the trick.

While I stood silently against a fence, an older gentleman approached and asked me if this was my first marathon, snapping me out of a proverbial trance. He told me it was also his. These races bring all sorts of people together — the faces around me could resemble the entire cast of Breaking Bad — and this was only the beginning.

After what seemed like ages, the music blaring through the loudspeakers switched to an emphatic announcer. The Chicago Marathon was underway. The wheelchair racers, elite runners and Corrals A-D took off. 

Crossing the first bridge from the start line felt surreal. I was running a marathon. Let’s just say my Instagram caption, which very loosely referenced Forrest Gump’s “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now,” was set in stone within five kilometers. I planned to start off slower and speed up toward the end, but the adrenaline of passing people and the sheer energy of the crowds kept pushing me onward.

I was running on feel alone, unaware of my pace. I felt invigorated. Every neighborhood showed off its own culture, with signs, chants and live performances ranging from Irish dancing to “Gangnam Style.” From 10 to 25 kilometers, I experienced a runner’s high — you’re almost weightless, one with your surroundings. The only drawback is the sudden crash.

In training, I’d only ever reached 21 miles, meaning the remaining five and change were unfamiliar territory. I’d hit the wall a few times in training, but always toward the end of runs. This time, I still had more than four miles to get through. I could breathe fine, but my calves felt completely drained and my legs weakened with every stride. If I didn’t slow down, I thought I might join those who pulled up short, heading to a medical tent. I was running on fumes. It was about survival.

As runners who’d paced themselves more reasonably began to pass by in bunches, I felt deflated. I had no idea if I could keep strong for the rest of the race. What I did know was that once you stop running, you’re essentially done.

I thought back to 18 months ago when I laid motionless on the soccer field, my tibia fractured. I thought about the doctors who told me I might never play again. I thought about my family, who flew in just to watch me run.

I promised myself I’d finish this race — and finish it strong.

Stride after stride, I worked myself up to the last mile, then to the last half, with the final straightaway to the finish in view.

With one final push, nearing closer to the bright red finish line, I kicked myself into final gear. When I crossed the last steps of mile 26.2, I realized I could call myself a marathon runner.

I had this day in my sights for months, so now what?

What I do know is that I’ll be running the event again next year, after receiving an automatic qualifier. That will be a race against myself: a battle against time.

Jake Epstein is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.