October 9, 2011 was the date of the 34th Chicago Marathon. But who cares? The really important anniversary to celebrate was the 28th birthday of Sarah Coulam. If you don’t know Sarah, I’m sorry. She’s one of the nicest, sweetest, most giving people you’ll meet. On this day, it was my pleasure to be running a 26.2-mile loop of Chicago with her.
Just a week before, she had joined me in St. Paul, Minnesota, to run a portion of the Twin Cities Marathon. In our pre-race plan, she was to hop in with me at mile 21 and run for a couple of miles at my planned 7:37 pace, then give me a hearty “You’re doing great!” and pull off while I cruised to the finish line, smiling all the way to a great new personal record (PR).
It was a beautiful plan … until I screwed up the execution by starting much, much too fast. By the time I reached Sarah, I had not only hit the infamous “wall,” I had bounced off it and crumbled at its base. So rather than dumping me after two miles, she stuck with me till mile 26 when I could see the finish line, then she set me free so I could feel like I had conquered the race on my own. I know better. If not for her, the last five miles would have been ugly. Well … uglier.
With that backdrop, I was determined to do everything possible to help her reach her goal of a 3:50 marathon, which would be a 4-minute PR for her. So as I stood in corral D, awaiting the start of my second marathon in seven days, I turned to Sarah and said, “Happy birthday!” At that point, I wasn’t sure how old she was: 28? 29? When she confirmed 28, I thought about my own approaching 50thbirthday and quickly realized I could be her dad. That was really just a minor detail though, because I already felt as proud and happy as a dad could be.
Sarah had wisely ironed “Birthday Girl” onto the front of her neon yellow singlet. Then she made a point of running on the edge of the pack so that people could easily see her. Very quickly, we realized she would be a popular attraction throughout the race. “Go, Birthday Girl!” and “Happy Birthday!” rang out every few seconds. After a handful of shouts, Sarah jokingly said, “I should keep track of how many times we hear that.” To a numbers-obsessed guy like me, that was both invitation and challenge. After one mile, 22 shoutouts; at two miles, 43. By 15 miles, we were up to at least 374 (I’m sure I missed many in the crushing cacophony of cheers).
And that’s when it all stopped.
As we crossed the halfway point at mile 13.1, I asked, “How you doing?” She said, “OK,” but admitted her stomach was upset. Shortly after 14, she said she need to find a portajohn. Even though I was watching for the red “toilet” signs, I missed the ones near the aid station at mile 15 … but Sarah saw them. She called out, “Bathroom” and thought I gave her the head-nod acknowledgement, but I hadn’t heard, and any nod was just a quirk of my running form. She peeled off the course just as the street widened to 6 full lanes with volunteers dispensing Gatrorade and water on both sides.
If you’ve ever run a race of virtually any size or distance, you know how chaotic aid stations can be. People shouting, runners zig-zagging all over, trying to get refreshment and dodge fellow runners while being careful not to slip on the thousands of soggy crushed cups.
Seconds after we entered the aid zone, I turned to make sure Sarah was still on my shoulder, but she was gone. I ran backwards, scanning side-to-side: no Sarah. I stopped in the middle of the street and yelled for her: no Sarah. “Shit!” I said aloud, “How can you lose someone in fluorescent yellow?” I said to myself. To the end of the block I ran, where I could see the entire field as it made a hard right. After a couple of minutes, I decided to run ½ mile to where my wife, daughter and other cheering section were waiting. “Have you seen Sarah?” I yelled as they tried to hug me. “Yes, she was with you.” ARGH!
I waited as the 3:55 pace group leader ran by, then as the 4:00 leader passed. I must’ve missed her. We had been on a solid 3:50 pace for 15 miles. There’s no way she had dropped this far back.
I didn’t know what to do. Run back to where we separated? That seemed stupid as she must’ve been ahead by now. Run faster to try to catch up? I was already feeling the effects of running two marathons in a week. Could I possibly run fast enough to catch her? How long would it take? Should I pull out completely? This race was all about Sarah. What was in it for me? Besides, I had let her down. As her pacer, I had 2 simple tasks:
1. Stay with Sarah.
2. Get her to the finish on time.
I had failed both. Distraught, I decided to keep running in case she stopped or ran into trouble farther up the road. Little did I know she had also stopped, assuming I had also hit the portajohn. Most likely, we were both waiting at about the same time for about the same amount of time, then moving ahead in separated synchronicity. When we crossed the next timing mat, we were less than a minute apart, but it may as well have been from New York to Chicago because we didn’t have any clue where the other one was.
For about two miles, I ran much faster than we had been going, hoping I might catch up to her (not realizing she was still behind me). Just as I was thinking how futile that was, I passed a runner sitting all alone on the curb, clutching his right calf and grimacing in pain. With nothing to run for and having experienced a lot of calf issues in my last two marathons, I decided to double-back to help him. “Want me to push your toes?” I asked. Teeth gritted, he nodded. With one hand, I pushed his toes toward his body while the other hand massaged the back of his knotted calf. After a minute or so, he thanked me and said he was ready to go. As he tried to stand, his left calf seized. I pushed and massaged that one too till he said, “You go on. I’m just going to walk.”
Less than three miles later, I ran by a man who was prone in the middle of the Pilsen neighborhood street. As I glanced over, I saw he was a DetermiNation runner, so I doubled back yet another time to make sure he was okay. A couple of course officials were trying to get medical support on their walkie-talkies while another directed the approaching runners from stampeding over him. He was suffering severe leg cramps and heat exhaustion. I stood there several minutes, providing some shade to him, but there was really nothing I could do aside from be there and ask his name in case I found his family at mile 22, where he said they were waiting, or at the finish line tent. Eventually, with an ambulance on its way, I moved on.
About a mile later, I came upon another DetermiNation runner who was struggling. I recognized him from a DetermiNation meeting where I had spoken on Friday. He was nursing a bad ankle injury. “I think I’m going to drop out.” I agreed that would be wise and told him the next med tent was at the next mile marker. When we got there and I steered him over, he asked the medical staffer, “How far to the next med station?” She said, “One mile,” and Stan headed back on course.
Despite my pleas for him to not push it, lest he injure himself more, he pushed on. I didn’t know whether to tackle him and drag him off to the side, or stand back and applaud wildly. I erred on the side of caution and did everything I could to convince him to stop. “You’ve given your all! No shame in stopping here! You’ll never be closer to the finish than right now!” And yet, he pushed on. When we met again an hour or so later in the DetermiNation tent, he wanted a photo with me, saying, “You’re a big reason why I’m here now.” I took that to mean he’s always been a rebellious type who just needed to be told, “You can’t do this.” Hey, he’s a classic DetermiNator.
At mile 23, once again running alone, I did something I’ve never done in a marathon but always wanted to do. I stopped and drank a beer. You know what? It was gooooood.
With 1.5 miles to go, I was coming up on a young man wearing the distinctive yellow and red singlet of the Hansons/Brooks Project, a training team of elite and nearly elite runners. I was on pace to finish in something over 4 hours, which meant he was having a really bad day if I was catching him. Suddenly, he stopped. He wasn’t cramping or collapsing, he was just mentally checked out. I wasn’t going to let him off that easily. “Come on!” I shouted, “This is all mental. You KNOW that! Let’s GO!” And he started to run again. Like an old-fashioned Asian husband, I stayed one step ahead and 1 step to his left, exhorting him on with shouts that alternatively challenged and encouraged him. From there, he ran every step the rest of the way to the finish line, at which point we … got separated.
In one race, I had lost two pacees. Worst … pacer … EVER!
Back at the DetermiNation tent, I began asking if anyone knew anything about Sarah. Had she finished? Was she still out there? Did her tummy hold up in the increasing heat? No one knew anything. After 20 minutes, there she was. We came together, hugged, sobbed on one another’s shoulder, and said, “I’m sooo sorry!” She felt guilty for losing me, and I of course knew I was at fault.
Running a marathon is largely a solitary activity, but we had taken it on together. When we drifted apart, it became difficult to hold it together. I compensated by finding other people to help. Sarah had to go it alone till mile 21 when another friend found her and escorted her for a few miles. But those miles from 15 to 21 were rough, mentally and physically. I’m proud of her for sticking with it. I hope she’ll give me a chance to redeem myself.
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