HER COLUMN | Lessons from a joyful, painful, Chicago Marathon, which I’m definitely running again

Heidi Stevens at the finish line. (Marian Chao/TNS)
Heidi Stevens at the finish line. (Marian Chao/TNS)

I completed my first marathon last month.

It was the hardest thing I've done, physically, since childbirth. I'd like to do another one.

They (other runners, coaches) warn you that you'll experience post-marathon blues. You've spent the last 6 months training, mentally and physically, for a goal and you've reached that goal and it feels amazing and now ... what?

I have a little of that. But mostly I'm still riding the high of watching Chicago show up for its people. In Pilsen (beauty and music and joy and Mexican flags). In Northalsted (performers in drag singing Tina Turner on a makeshift stage). Signs and costumes and cheers and dancing on the sidewalks of Chinatown and Bronzeville and the Loop and Lincoln Park and South Loop and Little Italy. So many streets I've lived on, worked on, partied on, cried on, sat in traffic on, all under my feet that day.

Mostly I'm still riding the high of watching spectators' faces when they'd spot their runner. And watching their runner's entire body language shift when they'd spot their spectators. The squeals, the waves, the fist bumps, the hugs. (I stopped to hug a lot. Probably derailed my goal of beating Al Gore's 4:58 time. I clocked in at 5:02 and 20 seconds. My daughter was born at 5:20. I'll take the symmetry over the victory.)

Mostly I'm still riding the high of crossing the finish line. Twice I have lain in hospital beds and listened to doctors tell me I have a damaged heart (meningitis, then COVID). Twice I have wondered if I'd ever go for a jog again, let alone finish a marathon. I don't say this to be dramatic. I say this to underscore how unlikely that finish line felt. I'll ride that high for a while. Maybe forever.

So mostly I don't want to run another one because of post-marathon blues. Mostly I want to run another one because I'm worried I'll forget what I learned from this one, the further it recedes into my past.

Like how to work around the obstacles in your path. The obstacle might be an abandoned Divvy bike or a tree felled by the wind or it might be far, far greater. I ran next to a man with two prosthetic legs. I made a friend during training who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. (She brought her finisher medal to her oncologist appointment after the race.) I met a woman at the race who was struck and severely injured by a car while she was out for a run last fall. (Her name was Hope, because of course it was.) I started the course behind a man whose shirt said, "8 years ago my dad died of a brain tumor. Last year, my wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I fear no marathon."

During my final training run, a week before race day, one of our coaches suggested dedicating each of the 26.2 miles to a different person to help us approach the race one mile at a time. ("How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time," is a phrase I've learned from people who run these things. "Run the mile you're in," is another one.)

I made a list of 26 people and I printed it out and I carried it balled up in my fist for a while and in my pocket for a while and I looked at it when I remembered to. It was filled with friends and family, but also people I've had the privilege of meeting and writing about over the past couple decades--people who've endured unbearable grief and kept going and people who've made meaning out of personal tragedy and people who lead with love and people who make a point to put beauty into the world and people who are good to children, which is everything, I think.

Not because running a marathon is anything like what they've been through or go through or do each day. Not so I could consider myself among their ranks. But as a thank you. For inspiring me. For shaping me. For helping me see the world in a clearer, truer, more empathic, way. For trusting me.

I'm not the same person I was when I started training for a marathon, and I'm not the same person I was the morning I set out to complete the marathon. Every mile changes you. I understand that now.

And every mile, if you let it, can teach you to forgive and appreciate all the versions of yourself, from all the chapters of your life. And that feels good.

I know I have left things too quickly and I have stayed in other things too long and I have tried to live up to other people's ideals for me instead of doing the hard work of figuring out my own ideals and then trying to live up to those.

I know I've stayed quiet when I should have spoken up and spoken up when I should have stayed quiet. I'm learning to be OK with all of it. The marathon helped. We're all works in progress.

You don't have to run a marathon to figure this out. A dear friend sent me her baby photo recently and told me that looking at her sweet, trusting face as a baby (it really was the sweetest, trusting face) helps her give herself more grace as an adult. I love anything that nudges us toward kind and loving acceptance of ourselves, which makes so much more space for kind and loving acceptance of others.

The marathon was painful. It was also amazing and humbling and joyful and terrible and lonely and crowded and beautiful. So is life, obviously. What a tremendous, bewildering gift.


Heidi Stevens is a Tribune News Service columnist. You can reach her at [email protected], find her on Twitter @heidistevens13 or join her Heidi Stevens' Balancing Act Facebook group.


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