On Sunday morning,  together with 40,000 or so other runners in the start corrals, I was acutely conscious that the Chicago marathon was the first World Marathon Major event to be held on American soil since the Boston tragedy in April 2013. It has to be said that, on race day morning, I was in probably the safest place in the United States. The start area in Grant Park was an exclusion zone: apart from participants, race officials and volunteers, everyone was excluded for a substantial perimeter (800 metres or so). On our way to the start corral, there were several serious-looking helicopters – cruising quite low – overhead and about six massive cherry-pickers with rifle-armed, black uniformed personnel. The most impressive fellows, however, were hanging around in groups of three, looking particularly humourless: unbelievably fit-looking, ‘ripped’, plain clothes FBI agents (complete with earpieces and wires tucked behind their ears, just like in those CSI and NCIS shows on TV). I knew they were FBI, not because I have a highly-developed imagination, but because I read the very understated badge (about the size of an Aussie ten cent piece) on the lapels of their chic ‘Abercrombie & Fitch’ style, studied casual blazers. Although their outfits did rather stand out amongst the marathoners’ tech fabric gear, fuel belts (nervously stuffed with sachets of energy gels), compression socks and running shoes in every colour of the rainbow, these guys really looked as though they could have completed a full Ironman event, on zero notice and without a warm-up, wearing their blazers! More security measures were in clear evidence on the course: along the way, at apparently random intervals in front of the crowds of spectators, I saw about 20 or so uniformed, armed members of the Chicago Police force with very compliant-looking Alsatians. (I strongly suspect the dogs were also armed.) The security was awesome!

I will confess to a slight chill when the ‘first post-Boston WMM event on US soil’, thought actually struck home, but by then, I was well on the way to the start line and the very familiar first words of “The Star-Spangled Banner” could be – very faintly  – heard over the sound system. The guy next to me, who turned out to have a beautiful baritone voice (and very, very good legs 🙂 immediately joined in the singing. Within a word of him joining in the anthem, everyone’s hands went over their hearts as we all sang, our voices soaring above the mass of tech fabric, running shoes and fuel belts, visors and that (by now quite familiar to me) smell of the start of a major event. It’s a distinctively clean smell: freshly-showered folk, the mint/eucalyptus fragrance of Dencorub type products having been recently applied and a bit of the sweet scent of Gatorade/Powerade around the place. Despite the very palpable nervous energy in the crowd, as we sauntered to our assigned start area, we sang loudly and with real feeling, all but drowning out the voice of the professional who was supposed to be singing it to us. It was a precious and really spine-tingling experience with, as one would expect, many choked-up and teary voices. After we finished the anthem, I thanked Beautiful Baritone With Good Legs for starting the singing. He turned to me, offered a firm handshake and with a mild yet clear southern drawl, said:  “Why, ma’am, it’s an absolute pleasure. My name is Joe, I’m from Alabama and that’s how we roll! Have a great race!”.

I made my way to the front of the 3:30 pace group, standing next to Todd the Pacer, one of about six or so 3:30 pacers. I had ascertained that Todd was a 2:50 marathoner. He appeared to be seriously cool and seemed to be the guy who could get me home in dream time, despite my compromised training in the lead-up to Chicago… Sadly, it didn’t quite work out that way. Todd was a very encouraging running companion and an excellent pacer: he had something to say every now and again, (a perfect pitch of patter), a nice, self-effacing sense of humour and was easily able to punch out those metronomic Ks in a whisker under 5 min/K pace. Delighted that it looked as though I had found the Man Who Could Help Me Get There, I stuck with Todd – comfortably – until the 15K mark. Then It Happened. Totally without prior notice, Todd ran off the course, calling out to those of us who were using him as a (to that point, fabulous!) pacer, “Run with him!”, indicating one of the other 3:30 pacers. I was gobsmacked at this turn of events, not only that it happened at all, but also at my own reaction to it. I felt as though I’d lost my lifeline and motivation. I started to slow, just a little bit, then a tiny bit more…. It is ridiculous to blame the pacer and I am not doing that: I chide myself for relying on Todd to the extent to which I did. Hopefully, lesson learned! Stress seems to be a good teacher.

The course? The course itself is great, uber-flat. I don’t know why the organisers bother with an elevation map; it’s a dead straight line. The Chicago marathon course starts in Grant Park and takes runners through 29 unique neighbourhoods, passing many Chicago landmarks: we ran down Columbus Drive, along State Street and past the well-known Chicago Theatre, through the canyons of skyscrapers in the Loop, under many points of the “L” (elevated railway – think “Blues Brothers”), Lincoln Park Zoo, Wrigley Field (home of the Chicago Cubs), Old Town, Franklin Street Bridge, Little Italy, Pilsen, Chinatown, onto Michigan Avenue past the McCormick Place Convention Centre and the final Roosevelt Road overpass which turns back into Columbus Drive for the very welcome finish line. I think there were other landmarks along the final few miles (and I’m sure a map would inform me of them) but, the above are all that I remember… The official estimate was that of 1.7 million spectators lining the course, yelling, cheering, dancing and playing music. Tons and tons of zany costumes, posters, themed street parties in full swing. The supporting crowds in the mid-west are much more restrained than their New York cousins, but there were several randoms yelling and displaying posters with slogans along the lines of “Run faster, I just farted!”.

Although I was most keen on the Lithuanian Cheer Zone at Mile 17, there are 3 main Cheer Zones on the course: 1) the Bank of America Cheer Zone; 2) the Merrill Lynch Cheer Zone and 3) the US Trust Cheer Zone. : As always with a WMM event, the infrastructure was awesome. Everything was well-organised. The Chicago Marathon Expo, was amazing. Easily up there with the very best of them in terms of atmosphere, availability of any and every kind of running thing you can name, freebies of all kinds and loads more! The race boasted 20 well-stocked aid stations (each with water, Gatorade, toilets & first aid), plenty of volunteers to make sure that the runners got their stuff, security second to none, loads of medicos and support at the end for everything!

The knowledge that the Lithuanian Cheer Zone (the best one!) was ahead at Mile 17 sustained me for many a mile. I passed the time, displacing evil thoughts of Todd Betrayal, with happier visions of my dear Chicago Lithuanian friends (Alvida, Ruta, Daiva, Carina and Julija) who, together with a substantial representation from the Chicago Lithuanian Consulate, had sacrificed their Sunday morning and were out in force, near the University of Illinois. I thought that the magical “MILE 17” sign would never come…I was so, so, eagerly anticipating not only friendly faces and loud cheering but, critically, the banana which Daiva had said she’d have, ready for me. I saw them all from about 100 metres away. I couldn’t miss the very distinctive yellow, green & red Lithuanian flag, as well as the huge Aussie flag which Ruta had so thoughtfully procured and brought along :. I saw Alvida’s beaming smile from a long way off and Julija and Carina jumping up and down on the spot, waving madly! I have never been so grateful for the perfect specimen of a banana which Daiva, with shaking hands, was peeling for me (did I even say ‘Thank you?’…. oops! maybe not at the time!). Delighted and emotional, I saw my Vida at the front of the crowd. It was my intention to grab her face and plant a kiss on it – somewhere – but I’m afraid that I only managed a slobbery excuse of an encounter…. as I ran off, to the sounds of Vida saying “Oh my God, YUUUUCK!! That was really, really gross!”

The 2013 winners were both Kenyans. The men’s division: 29 year old Dennis  Kimetto won in a Chicago course record time of 2:03:45 (pace: 2.93 mins/K), the 4th fastest marathon of all time. The women’s race: 32 year old Rita Jeptoo in 2:19:57 (pace: 3.32 mins/K), the fastest marathon in the world run by a woman in 2013. As for me, I got to the start as well as the finish without the need for any medical attention. Although not a totally flash time (3:58:10), as it was my 10th marathon in 5 years – particularly given the compromised training this time due to the Parisian knee – I’m very pleased. My personal stats: I placed 11,021st overall out of 38,881 finishers, 3,023rd out of 17,394 female runners and 34th out of 423 women in the 55-59 age division.

Although I read somewhere that over 1,000 medical volunteers were available on race day, I don’t believe it. I remain very confidently of the view that every medical practitioner and every medical student in the State of Illinois was in Grant Park on 13 October 2013. At the finish zone, as the 38,881 finishers made their way through the wonderfully red, white & blue coloured  finishing gates, there they were, actively  volunteering and so eagerly and totally ready to lend a hand to help out and attend to any medical needs, emergency or not. Happily, as no full-scale medical emergency occurred during this event, the result for all of these wonderful and selfless volunteers was that many of them appeared to be delightfully idle. After the finish line, with runners emerging from the Gates of Hell, the medicos actively scanned the runners, on the keen lookout for the walking wounded. Having received from the countless sterling volunteers, my heat blanket, my well-deserved (and very cool!) Chicago marathon medal and my goodie box of rejuvenating nourishment, I was absent-mindedly rubbing my right – slightly stiff – thigh muscle as I walked along, soaking it all in. During my 400 or so metre walk past the finish line, I received no less than half a dozen really earnest inquiries along the lines of “Are you all right, m’am?”, ” Would you like a doctor to have a look at that leg?” and three offers of a wheelchair. So, either I looked a whole lot worse than I felt, or the medicos were bored and looking for activity! Delighted that I didn’t need it, I declined all offers of medical aid, but, I have to say that, had there been an MRI machine handy,  I might have taken them up on it, just to check things out!

Vida & I had a great time together in Chicago; she’s a very easy travelling companion and, happily for me, she always brings her very fine sense of direction with her. We had fun and some great food with the Aussie gang (Wayne Raven, Tina Tang, Alan Tyler and Gina Chapman-Davies). We also spent time with the Lithuanian element. That Litho Cheer Zone was truly awesome stuff;  a major highlight of the race for me. I went to the Lithuanian Consulate afterwards for a reception for Lithuanian runners. It was the first time that I’d run any race – much less a marathon – with so many Lithuanian compatriots! There were about 14 runners either from Lithuania or Lithuanian citizens living in the States (plus me, a Lithuanian citizen living in Sydney :). Vida also got to see my old neighbourhood (Cicero): St Anthony’s (my old primary school and church) and the house where I grew up until the age of 12. And the really good news for Vida, is that she got to see all that in the company of her mother PLUS three of her mother’s dearest childhood/girlhood friends.

My next marathon is Boston on Patriots’ Day, 21 April 2014. That promises to be one awesome event. I predict many a tear will be shed: in the start area, along the course and at the finish…Can’t wait.