One foot in front of the other. Keep them moving. Strong form. Smooth motion. Continuous turnover. These were the things I was telling myself as I heard my feet pounding the hot pavement along with the shouts and cheers from thousands of encouraging onlookers. I'd been at this for over two hours at this point, and it wasn't getting any easier. I gave my head a quick shake and I exhaled with purpose in an attempt to snap myself out of the the delirious state of mind that had overcome me. Like an over-tired driver trying to wake himself up after continuously nodding off on a long road trip, I was convinced this would work. I winced in pain as I wiped salty sweat from my eyes and took a swig of the bottle of water that I had collected at some point from a well-wishing spectator. As I made the right hand turn onto Wentworth Avenue I gritted my teeth, dug a bit deeper and finally crossed the long-awaited 35 kilometre mat. I glanced at my watch expecting the worst.
The last 10 kilometres had been far more challenging than they should have been. My core body temperate had been rising non-stop, along with my heart rate. After the halfway mark the sun had come out to play, which is only ever bad news for this fare-skinned runner. But I had been shunning that from my mind. "Positive thoughts only" I'd been telling myself. So I stuffed those negative vibes deep down inside me, along with the pain and anguish.
So when I crossed that 35 kilometre mark and read 2 hours, 27 minutes and 10 seconds on my watch, I couldn't believe it. This time was a mere 10 seconds over my goal split of 2:27:00. Somehow, despite spending the last hour climbing deeper and deeper into the pain cave, under the hot, unavoidable sun, I was still hitting my splits. Right on track for my goal time: 2 hours and 57 minutes. I could still do it. It was within reach. I just needed to hang on. Grind it out. Don't give up. Dig deep. Dig deeper.
Over the next few kilometres, I kept repeating these mantras to myself. Over and over, in an attempt to convince myself that I could do it. Will myself to the finish. I firmly closed my eyes and promised myself that there was no stopping now. We are doing this, you and I. We had to.
When I opened my eyes, my body felt paralyzed. My mouth was paste; I couldn't speak. My vision was blurry. A swarm of strangers in white coats were bustling about the room. I was no longer running. No, I was no longer even standing. I then turned to my right to find the strong, caring eyes of my wife, looking deep into mine, using every ounce of energy in her body to not show weakness or pain, knowing that at that moment she had to be strong for the both of us.
The Start Line
The early morning sun was slowly starting to rise over Grant Park as 45,000 anxious runners went through their quirky pre-race routines. Some chatted casually with others. Others found a quiet spot to lay down on the grass. Many couldn't contain themselves, bouncing around in excitement or doing quick shakeout laps. Me, I was in line for the port-a-potty, even though I didn't have to go yet. I knew better than to wait until the line would inevitably be unmanageable. I tried my best to stay calm, repeating my race strategy and positive mantras in my head.
It was a cool, crisp morning. Exactly what I needed. After one last bathroom break, I made my way into the starting corral. It was about 12 degrees celsius, not perfect, but definitely doable. The forecast for the morning was modest, predicting that temperatures would only rise to 15 degrees by three hours into the race.
The final 30 minutes before the race dragged out like molasses. I passed the time by nervously chatting with the strangers next to me - a mom of three from Boulder, Colorado, a guy from L.A. who was running his 100th - one hundredth - marathon that day. And of course, the pleasant man from Mexico with the epic, perfectly greased and twisted moustache.
Finally, the countdown was on. After a moment of silence for the victims of the horrible shooting in Las Vegas and the national anthem, we were in the final minute. You could feel the anticipation in the air. The hairs on my arms were up, the butterflies in my belly buzzing.
It's go time
I have this tendency of flying out of the gate. Everyone does. It's one of the oldest rules of marathoning. Don't go out too fast. I really tried hard to hold back. But after going through a long tunnel in the first kilometre, my GPS was already way out of whack. Okay, I guess I can't rely on my watch today for pacing. I'll have to do this thing the old school way - based on feel and splits. That's no easy task.
As we toured through the infamous Loop district of downtown Chicago, I had the chills. These crowds were insane, not to mention this city. My god, is it ever beautiful. I focused in on my legs and my breathing. Smooth and steady. Today's plan, if all went well, was to run a personal best - more specifically, I had my eyes set on a 2:57 marathon. I knew I had the fitness in my legs and the belief in my heart. I'd never felt fitter and more ready for a race. My training cycle had been phenomenal, largely thanks to the cool summer weather we had in Ottawa, my incessant dedication to get myself back to running, and the incredible coaching I'd received from Dave. I was ready for this.
I knew that an average of 4:12/km pace would get my goal. I also knew that a 4:12 would bring me across each of my 5km splits in exactly 21 minutes flat, which made the math on the course pretty easy to calculate. So with my GPS out of whack, this is how I managed my pacing. I passed the first 5km split in 20:56. I smiled to myself with confidence. Perfect.
We headed north up Lasalle Street where I saw my family for the first time around mile 4. Thumbs up. High fives. What a boost! After a beautiful run through Lincoln Park, I crossed the 10km mark in 41:29, 31 seconds under my target. As we reached the northern most point of the course, we turned around at Wrigleyville and began to head south down Broadway Street, one of my favourite parts of the course.
The Park West and Old Town neighbourhoods treated us with shady streets, covered with old trees and lined with stunning brownstones. I truly enjoyed every second of this stretch. Heading down North Wells Street, I crossed my next split; kilometre 15 in1:02:24, again 36 seconds ahead of schedule. As I approached our rented house at kilometre 17 I caught a glimpse ofmy cheering section's waving Canadian flags in the crowd from the distance. I headed right for them. They cheered furiously, shouting my name and giving me words of encouragement. I was gliding. It felt effortless.
Back downtown, we headed west on Adams Street and approached the half way mark of the race. My next two quick splits were as encouraging as the previous three. First, my 20km split had me 42 seconds ahead of schedule. Shortly after, I crossed the half way point of the race, 21.1km in 1:27:56, just over a minute ahead of schedule, giving me a nice buffer to play with in the back half of the race. As I cross the half mark, I laughed to myself in astonishment of my split time. 1:27:56 was only 1 second off of what I had run at the Army Run Half Marathon a few weeks earlier in Ottawa - my dress rehearsal prep race for Chicago. The consistency that you can train into your legs is straight up crazy.
The Next 5km
Between the half and 25km, I zero'd back in on my goal. Feeling that I was little too jacked up and now over a minute ahead of schedule, I tried to calm myself down a bit. I knew that the easy part was done and that there was some serious work and inevitable pain ahead. As I slowly ate my second gel I started to feel my first instance of discomfort. The gel wasn't going down very well - something that I had experienced in past marathons, but never in training. Funny how that happens. Negative thoughts immediately bolted through my mind from every angle. I batted them away, and told them to 'eff off. No big deal. I kept a strong mind and crossed 25km in 1:44:29, bringing my buffer back to 31 seconds. "Good job" I told myself. "Keep it steady. Keep it strong."
By kilometre 26, some moderate pain started to settle in - more than it should have at that point. As I grappled with this unforeseen challenge, I convinced myself that my training had been adequate. Hell, it'd been more than adequate. More than I had ever done. I was a stronger, fitter, faster, smarter marathoner than I'd ever been. I knew that. I trusted my training. So what was happening? I flipped my watch over to heart rate mode only to realize that my heart rate has sneakily creeped up above 180. Shit. I definitely wanted that closer to 160. It was then that I finally realized how hot I was. Sunday had turned into sun-day.
It was beating down on me. The temperatures had risen beyond the forecasted 15 celsius and had definitely surpassed 20 by this point. But it wasn't necessarily the heat that was hurting me - it was the sun. With little shade in the second half of the course, I was vulnerable out there. Not only was the direct sunlight taking its toll on me, but the reflection off the buildings and the dark, black pavement. It was hitting me from all angles.
So what could I do? Shade was difficult to find. I'd been doubling up at every water station. I could slow down, but I was nailing my splits. I was on pace. My goal was within reach, and I couldn't back down now. But it hurt so bad.
I once heard that when you believe you’ve reached your absolute limit, you’ve only tapped into about 40 percent of what you’re truly capable of. The barrier isn’t the body. It’s the mind.
So I did what every good marathoner does, and dug a bit deeper. Crawled a bit further into the cave. I searched deep inside me for that next level. Mind over matter.
Around kilometre 28, I found myself running with the 3 hour pace group from wave 1. Since I was in wave 2, I started the race a few minutes after these guys did. The lead pacer confirmed his watch time with me and told me that he was bringing this group over the finish line in 2:59:30, so with my 2 minute buffer on them I'd be golden if I hung tight. So that's what I did. Every once in a while their lead on me would stretch to 20, 30, 40 metres, but I always dragged myself back in.
By the time we reached the 30km mark, the struggle was real. I felt like I was hanging on by a thread at this point, just grinding through, one step at a time. But again, I hit my split - 2:05:48, 12 seconds under my goal. Looking back, it was hitting these crucial split times that held me together and kept me going. While it felt like my body was about to crumble at any moment and that I was slogging along out there, I wasn't. I was still running - fast. Every time I hit one of these splits my mindset would be brought back from the depths of hell with a small glimmer of hope.
But that sliver of hope wouldn't get me through. My mind had to do it. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
This brings us back to Wentworth Avenue, my feet pounding, the sun pummelling, 35km within reach. But in my mind, I wasn't on Wentworth. I was in the pain cave; a deep, dark, depressing and horribly painful place than only a certain few decide to enter, and even fewer stay. There comes a point in every marathon where it reminds you that it's the marathon. It's the boss. It doesn't take orders from you, you take orders from it. It commands your respect; the respect it deserves. And it forces you to answer that simple, yet so complicated question: How badly do you want it?
"Badly" I stated with conviction. "So badly". It'd been a long year. I'd patiently battled through an injury that lasted months. I diligently trained all summer, committed to my regime, determined to regain my fitness, strength, speed and endurance. And now I was finally here. Thirty some odd kilometres into hell. So yeah, I wanted it pretty bad.
Well, there's only one way to get there; through the pain cave. There are no detours. There are no shortcuts. So in I went. Further. Deeper. It was the only way. As Robert Frost once said, the best way out is always through.
"Are you okay?"
I slowly opened my eyes. Her soft green eyes warmed me. Her cool hand on my face was pure bliss. I was delirious. I was confused. But more than anything, I was realizing that I was in excruciating pain. I tried moving my arms and legs, but couldn't. Wiggling my fingers and toes didn't work either. Tears quickly filled my eyelids and promptly overflowed down my cheek. Katie immediately wiped them away.
"You're okay" she affirmed me, even though I hadn't yet even attempted to answer her initial inquiry. "Everything will be okay."
I shut my eyes, harder than I ever had, trying to fight through the pain and comprehend what was happening. Where was I? Why was I here? What had happened? The pain was compounding and spreading. Every ounce of my body felt broken; completely shattered. I opened my eyes back up, and tried to speak. Nothing. I closed my mouth, swallowed, and tried again.
"What happened?" I muttered.
Katie clutched my hand firmly and gently filled me in. I was in Mercy Hospital in Chicago. I was severely dehydrated and cramping badly. I had collapsed just shy of the 40 kilometre mark of the marathon. I'd been running, began to waver, and then simply dropped to my knees, then onto my chest. I never got up. I never finished. And now, I was entering a different kind of pain cave - an unimaginable, unrelentingly agonizing pain cave.
"It feels like every bone in my body is broken" I told Katie. Nothing was broken; the x-rays would confirm that. I was just experiencing some muscle cramps. The kind you get in your calf in the middle of the night that lasts 7, painstakingly long seconds. But this wasn't just my calf - it was every single muscle south of the shoulders. And this wasn't 7 seconds. It lasted for hours.
The doctors pumped my body full of fluids, a few IV bags worth, in an attempt to rehydrate me. There was also morphine for the pain. And then there was vomit. Oh yeah, this was some new, twisted kind of pain cave. A place that no one should ever have to visit, but one that many people live with on a daily basis. I was so tired, but I couldn't rest. I gripped the side rails on my bed, my body shook, spasmed, and contorted as I tried to deal with the cramping. I screamed. I cried. I swore pretty badly. But I couldn't help it. I couldn't deal.
I have no idea how Katie dealt. She didn't cry. She didn't panic. She was a rock. Solid, supportive, loving, compassionate and calm. She was my hero. She always has been. Between doing everything she could to sooth my pain, coordinating with the doctors and nurses, dealing with the insurance company on the phone, to texting and calling all of our family and friends to keep them up to date, she was juggling a lot. Not to mention the emotional roller coaster she had been through in the last few hours.
She'd been cheering me in the race, following my near perfect splits on the app - she thought I was killing it and had no idea that it was killing me. Racing apps give you amazing data, but they give you zero context. And then the phone call came in from Unknown. She ignored it - after all, she was focused in on the app. I was about to cross the 40km mark and she was waiting at 41, giddy and excited to help push me to the finish. And then the unknown caller texted.
OMG is right.
Immediately, without hesitation, she took off sprinting from 12th avenue where she had been spectating to 25th, fighting her way through 13 blocks of crowded sidewalks By the time she had gotten there, I was gone, already taken away in the ambulance. The unknown caller, a race spectator named Meghan, handed her my hat which had been left behind and told her that they had taken me to Mercy, which luckily was only a few hundred yards away. She bolted to the hospital and met me in the hallway in the ER.
All of this...the panic, the stress, the fear. And she didn't collapse. I'll say it again, she was strong for the both of us when I couldn't be. Something that I always knew she had in her, but something that she showed me that day. And it's certainly something that I will never, ever forget. She's my hero. My guardian angel. My love.
After 6 hours of pain, fear, remorse, guilt, regret, sickness, and tears, I heard the words that I never thought I would.
"Okay, Jason. You've been cleared to go home. Let's just get one more bag of fluids into you, and then you're free to go." Like I was being released from prison. Pain prison. "No pain medication though, your kidneys have already been through a lot. Just water. Lots of water."
I stared blankly out the window of our Uber on the drive home from the hospital trying to make some sense of the day. But it was too much to process. The pain had exhausted me beyond beleif. I didn't have the energy to think. I just wanted to sleep. It was only once we arrived back at the house did I remember that our unit was up three flights of stairs - no elevator. My father in law was there waiting for us at the front door. He slung my left arm around his shoulder and essentially carried me up all three flights. I'd never felt so weak and helpless, nor so grateful for this kind of love and support. I staggered to my room, flopped down on my bed, and drifted away.
The next few days were pretty rough. My muscles were still extremely tight, but I also still had nausea and my mind was a wreck. I could deal with the sore legs - I was used to that from previous marathons. Upset stomach? Whatever. But emotionally, I had a lot to work through.
I wasn't heartbroken about the race. I wasn't ashamed that I didn't finish. I wasn't even gutted that I didn't have a medal. This was about more than the marathon. More than running. This was about life.
I was proud of my race. I truly was. I ran 40km the Chicago Marathon. I gave it everything I had. Every last morsel of energy, determination, sweat and tears. It's all out on that course. I literally ran until I dropped. Nothing was going to stop me. And no, those three letters D.N.F. do not define me as a runner, let alone my effort on that course. I was okay with all of that. Sure, running and I are in a weird spot right now. We're on a bit of a break - a well deserved and much needed one. I just need a bit of time, and that's okay.
But there's something that is still bothering me, lingering in my mind. Prodding my brain and tugging at my heart. I still hurt. Not my legs; but my heart and my soul. What I went through on Sunday was awful. It was scary - terrifying, in fact. I can't help but think how much worse the outcome could have been. I felt this immense amount of guilt. "Don't beat yourself up. These things happen" people tell me.
But this didn't just happen. Things happen by chance or coincidence. I had done this to myself. I put myself in this position. I pushed harder, faster, and deeper when I should have been scaling back, running slower, drinking more water. It's not like the warning signs weren't there. The sun came out. The temperatures rose. I felt hot and sick. I watched my heart rate climb all the way to 194.
But no, I didn't adjust. I stubbornly continued on, dead set on my plan. But that's what you're supposed to do. That's what endurance sports is all about, right? You don't slow down. You don't give up. You find that inner something and take it to the next level. Dig deep. That's what I had learned through running folklore and the epic tales from legendary endurance athletes like Rich Roll and Scott Jurek. It's what sets them apart and makes them so special. And I truly believed that's what set me apart as well. It's what defines me as a runner. My mental game it's perhaps my greatest strength as a runner. I'm not the fastest guy, the one who puts in the most mileage or runs the most races. But god damnit, I knew that I had some serious mental strength. And I rely on that when things get hard.
But this time was different. This wasn't about me digging deep to grind through a few tough kilometres or to push me down that final 5km stretch. This was about me being selfish, short-sighted, and putting my personal goals ahead of what's truly important. My health, and more importantly, my family. I had been so caught up in the numbers. Distance. Pace. Splits. Seconds here and seconds there. PB-ing. BQ-ing. Who the hell cares? At the end of the day, none of that matters. None of that matters if I don't have my health or my family. And putting myself in that position - the position where I am deliriously dehydrated, pushing my heart rate dangerously high, until I literally collapse to the ground, stopped dead in my tracks, is not fair. It's not fair to me. It's not fair to my family. And I have an immense amount of guilt and regret just thinking about it.
They say the marathon is only 10% physical and 90% mental. So if I'm so mentally strong, why did this happen to me in Chicago? Why did this happen to me in Boston? Maybe I'm not as mentally strong as I thought. Sure, I'm good at skirting negative thoughts. I'm good at digging deep and running through pain. I'm good at not stopping, no matter what. There's mental strength, then there's stubbornness. There's stupidity. Marathon running is such a strategic sport. Your race so rarely goes exactly as planned. There are too many variables. So when those curveballs inevitably come at you, you need to adapt - not throw the blinders on. You need to mentally make the hard decisions.
A few weeks back I was listening to a podcast with Canadian marathon elites Rob Watson and Dylan Wykes. Rob asked Dylan how many of his races in his career went exactly according to plan. 5 percent. This is an Olympic marathoner we're talking about. But that's just the way it is. That's running. So what do you do in those other 95%? Well, you suck it up. Sure, you can dig deep, but you also need to change your plan. Alter your strategy. Temper your expectations. Because it can't always be your day. No matter how much you train and prepare for your race, it's just not always gonna happen that way. That's not just racing, that's life. We don't live in a fairy tale world.
Not finishing a race sucks. It does. I'm not trying to sugarcoat the fact that I DNF'd. I didn't get that amazing final stretch experience or that finish line exhilaration. I didn't get that medal. I was supposed to enjoy post-race celebrations, drink a well-deserved beer, and devour an epic, cheesy burger. But no. I got none of that. No medal. No high fives. No beer. No burger. Wanting those things is normal - it's part of the marathon experience. But as much as that sucks, it's not chewing me up like I thought it would.
I think I'm just more upset about what I did to myself - and my family - and less about not getting that medal. Sunday was traumatizing. That hospital was scary. I went through so much physical and emotional pain that the thought of "not finishing" seems so insignificant. I never want to feel like that again. I never want to put my health at risk like that again. And more than anything, I'm never going to put Katie and my family through that again. Never. I can promise you that.
But saying that and doing that are two different things. Will I really be able to put my goals aside and restrain my mental grit and determination in the face of dangerous circumstances? Do I have the ability to slow down when the sun comes out? Can I scale back when my heart rate creeps over 180? Mid-race, will I be able to make the decision that today is going to be a 3:10 day, not a 2:57 day, and be okay with that? Well, I'm going to have to. I need to learn how to. I need to become a smarter runner. A more responsible runner. A humbler runner. There's a reason why you set an A goal, a B goal and a C goal. There's your plan, then there's the marathon's plan. Only one of those is going to change, and you better believe the marathon isn't budging on theirs.
I randomly came across a tweet a few days after the race that really spoke to me, and helped me come to terms with what I'd been struggling with.
This is so true. It certainly didn’t give a shit about my 2:57.
Later that same day I saw this Facebook post from Carey Pinkowski, the Executive Race Director of the Chicago Marathon.
“The Marathon is a special event - we all know that on that Sunday everything can go right or it can go wrong. You can spend months training to have your heart broken in a second. But we always rise. We remember that it’s about the journey, and that running is a personal expression of who we are and where we’re going.”
The Chicago Marathon was so much more than a race to me. It symbolized my injury, my long recovery and tireless training to get myself back. It was months in the making. My journey was a long one, much longer than the 2 hours and 48 minutes I had managed to run on that day, until in that moment - a single second - my Chicago Marathon dreams came crashing down. I went from running a marathon to laying flat on the street. From chasing my dreams to the hospital bed. But in time, I stood back up. I started walking. And I will get back to running. I will rise up. I will be back. Running truly is a personal expression of who I am. It’s my greatest passion. It’s my creative outlet. And I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world.
There’s an old saying that the only bad race is the one you don’t learn anything from. If that’s the way that races are judged, then the Chicago Marathon is the best damn race I’ve ever run. I have learned so much from this experience and will come away stronger for it. Yes, I will go back to the marathon. I have to. But I need a win. An emotional win. I need to run a good race - not necessarily a fast one. But one that I can enjoy, from start to finish. That doesn’t mean it won’t be hard, because let’s be honest, the marathon is always hard. And who knows, maybe I’ll run that 2:57...but maybe it’ll be a 3:20. I’ll have to wait and see what the marathon has planned for me that day.
But before I get back to running, I still need to time to work through everything that happened and to come to terms with where I’m at. I still feel an immense amount of guilt. I need to forgive myself and I know that will come in time. My body has taken an immense physical and emotional toll and I need to give myself the adequate time to recover. But when I do, I know that I'll come out stronger on the other side.
I’ll leave you with my favourite running quote.
“Marathons are hard.”
I love this. The marathon is such a crazy, complicated beast. But I love how it can be stripped down and summed up so perfectly in just three simple words.
The words “thank you” don’t even begin to express my deep gratitude for the amazing people I have in my life. But I will try.
Thank you to everyone who asks me about my running. Even something as simple as “how’s your training going?” warms my heart and adds fuel to my fire.
Thanks to my running community; my fellow running obsessed friends, the awesome folks on Strava, and of course my OCRC crew - my fast friends with fast feet - for not only their support, but for pushing me to be a better, faster runner. And for the dozens of messages of support I received after Chicago. Much love.
Thanks to my coach Dave for taking me to the next level. I would never have gotten as far as I did in Chicago without your wise words and phenomenal training plan.
Thanks to my recovery crew - Jade and Jenn - my incredible physio team. There’s no way I would have even made it to the start line without you guys.
Thanks to my friends and family. No matter what, you're always there to support me. To push me further. And to pick me back up when I'm broken. Your never ending encouragement, interest and support push me so far and fill my heart with so much love.
Katie. What can I say, babe? You've been with me every step of the way. From our first half-marathon over 5 years ago to my bedside in the hospital. You've always supported me. You've always believed in me. You always tell me to chase my dreams. And you always ask me the tough questions. You truly know how much this all means to me, because I know it means the same thing to you. You've not just watched me on my journey, but you've lived it with me. Thank you for being you, and for helping me discover me. I've never met someone who is more selfless, loving and caring. Not sure what I did to deserve you, but I'm not gonna ask any questions. Love you so much it hurts.
A wise man once said "Do what you love; love those you care about; give service to others; and know that you’re on the right path."
Peace and love.