How to Run 26.2 Miles with Leg Cramps
On race day, 1.7 million spectators came to watch over 45,000 runners treat themselves to a 26.2-mile tour of diverse cultures, historic buildings and residences, renowned architecture, vibrant murals and the mouth-watering scents of some of the best dining in the world. Known as a “major” in the marathon world (other majors include Berlin Boston, NYC, London, and Tokyo), this unique race takes runners through 29 different neighborhoods in the Windy City.
In past years, runners could participate in the Chicago Marathon on a first come, first serve basis before all 45,000 spots were filled. However, due to increasingly high demand, all interested runners were required to register online and wait until the April 28, 2015 lottery. On the 28th, all registered runners would either receive a confirmation email or the dreaded “wait until next year” notification. After registering, I convinced my good friend at Northwestern Medicine, Kevin, to register. He was one of the first people to listen to my Run4Papa pitch back in August of 2010, and has been advocating for my efforts ever since.
The experiment was set in motion: local Chicagoan + rookie marathon experience = ideal opportunity to run together to raise Alzheimer’s and other related dementia awareness. Honestly, what where the odds he and I would both win the lottery?
October 24: Starting Line at Grant Park, 65 degrees, 7:45 – 8:33 am
Like most race days, I tried my best to project a sense of calmness, not just for myself, but also for my first-time rookie marathoner. I kept telling him since April 28, 2015, he was going to finish this race and there would be no other ending then him and I crossing the finish line. More than anything, I believe that all races are 80% mental, 20% physical. For me, that has always held true…until today.
Mile 1.5 – State Street, 66 degrees, 8:51 am
Considering it was the middle of October, you might think that the weather would be cold and windy; however, it was 63 degrees and rising! As Kevin and I made our way onto Grand Ave., my parents were cheering us on as we rounded the corner heading toward the historic State Street and the Chicago Theatre. As runners, we feed off that adrenaline shot of support whether it’s at mile 1.5 or 25.5.
Mile 3 – The Loop, 67 degrees, 9:09 am
The spectators of Chicago made their presence known by lining the streets, producing some of the most original signage at a race. One of many benefits to capturing video and pictures of these races for Run4Papa is intentionally taking time to soak in the moment. To complete 26.2 miles is an accomplishment onto its own, but to be able to truly capture the race in its most pure form along the way, is utterly priceless.
Miles 6-12 – Old Town, Lincoln Park & Lakeview, 70 degrees, 9:49-11:07 am
We began to get into a groove. As we passed mile marker after mile marker, we would look at one another, (say nothing), fist bump and carry onward. With almost a quarter of the race completed, we were riding the Chicago heat wave as the temperature rose to 67 degrees. That is, until Mile 12 came along.
Mile 12.1-15 – River North, 73 degrees, 11:07:01-11:51 am
Cramps. Both calves. Seemingly out of nowhere. I have cramped in races before, but NEVER this early.
- Mile 20 – Boston Marathon on Heartbreak Hill
- Mile 24 – Great Wall of China Marathon ascending and descending 5,164 steps
- Mile 25 – The Outback Marathon through mounds of red clay
- Mile 26.1 – Big 5 Marathon in South Africa on an animal reserve
But those were extreme races and late in the race. Mile 12.1! This was unacceptable. For the next mile, the cramps would come and go, but it didn’t feel like anything serious. At Mile 13, Kevin and I stopped at a medical aid station and I rubbed some extreme cooling gel on my calves. I thought (and hoped) the problem had been rectified.
Mile 15.1, West Loop & Greektown, 77 degrees, 11:51:01 am
Instantly, I could see a huge emotional and psychological lift Kevin received by running alongside his nephews for about .2 miles. He was running strongly and I insisted he not slow down because of my cramps. Initially, he pushed back and said “we will finish this race together.” From my own experience, when you are running at a quality pace, the last thing you want to do (even if your heart is the right place), is slow down. In order to ensure he kept moving forward, I checked myself into a medical aid station, and wisely, off he ran.
Mile 15.5, Medical Tent, 60 degrees (in shade) 11:55 am – 12:10 pm
The medics were not overly complimentary to my situation. They bluntly informed me that my cramps were not going away and that it would be virtually impossible to finish the race with such severe cramping. Although I have run races all over the world, you never know how your body is going to respond on race day. Today was no exception.
After 15 minutes of treatment, nothing changed besides the fact that I lost 15 minutes of race time. I thanked them for their treatment and advice but my heart would literally have to stop beating before me quitting a race ever becomes a reality. 10+ miles of extreme cramping was now my new reality.
So. Be. It.
Miles 15.5-20, Little Italy, University Village, & Pilsen, 79 degrees, 12:10-1:05 pm
This stretch was a challenging combination of jogging until the cramps became unbearable followed by walking for 30 seconds and then transitioning into a steady jog again. While it was tough running alone, I did have the support of tens of thousands of people I had never met in my lifetime cheering mile after mile. During the time-frame, I saw a war veteran with a prosthetic leg making his way along the course, a fireman running in full gear, and spoke with a man who lost his wife to early onset dementia for several miles. Despite the pain in my legs, there is never a shortage of inspiration along 26.2 miles, and like myself, most runners find a way.
Miles 21-23, Chinatown & Bridgeport, 83 degrees, 1:15-1:45 pm
I do not recall much of this stretch besides the fact that I was hitting a mental wall and my calves were rock solid full of cramps. I tried zoning out (which is something I never do), but the cramps had literally been going on for the past 10 miles and I had over three more to go! As I lifted my feet forward step-by-step, it felt like there were 10-pound weights attached to my ankles; however, when I glanced down, it was just my calves begging me to quit.
Mile 23-26, The Gap, South Commons, 85 degrees, 1:55-2:32 pm
I was exhausted and ready to push through to the finish line. As I gave my parents a final hug, I started to jog until my calves wouldn’t cooperate any longer. Seconds later, I looked to my left and saw my father. He wasn’t behind the spectator railing, he was walking alongside me! I thought he was trying to give me a quick, emotional boost, but he ended up walking/jogging with me until Mile 26. Those three miles, 47 minutes and 15,840 feet with my father are a priceless memory I will cherish for a lifetime…
Mile 26-26.2, Grant Park, 85 degrees, 2:32-2:34:18 pm
My father was calmly asked to get back over to the spectator side of the race and I knew with .2 miles remaining, I was going to finish strong! After battling cramps for the past 13.1 miles, yours truly crossed the finish line at 6:00:48 (15 minutes after my good friend Kevin crossed the line!). While this was not my most impressive finishing time, I felt more proud of this completed effort than many prior races. Admittedly, this race might have been closer to 55% mental, 45% physical, but at the end of the day, I was determined to run against dementia and finish 26.2 miles in the Windy City.
Ice Bath, Château de Connolly, 32 degrees, 4:05-4:15 pm
4 bags of ice, freezing cold water…a perfect end to a long, long day at the Chicago Marathon.