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May 30, 2005

So, right. The marathon.

When I told Sandy I was running a marathon in Madison this weekend he said he didn't even know I was training for one. It had fallen off my radar, too.

Which is progress. Before most marathons I'm a neurotic, antisocial, calorie-counting wreck. This time, not so much, thanks to the new focus on cycling. Over the past 18 weeks I have fudged on my training schedule. I have lost track of my running rituals. I have been careless about diet.

Thursday a co-worker put out a plate of Goobers. Less than 72 hours before my race, I knocked them back like I was Goober the Hutt.

Then a funny thing happened Sunday: I ran well. Really well. This despite not remembering to tie my shoes.

After taking a minute to do so, I crossed the starting line a minute late and spent the first mile weaving through the crowd. Then the field thinned out, and around Mile 15 someone said I was the 30th man.

By Mile 18 I was more than five minutes ahead of the pace I need to qualify for Boston. I started figuring out housing and whether I could afford the time off work. I wondered what the weather in Massachusetts was like in April. (This, of course, was my jinx, like the time in 2001 when I started figuring the Cubs' magic number in July. They proceeded to collapse like a small-cap tech stock.)

The next mile my calves started to seize on me. This has happened before, always in the last 6 miles of a marathon. If I fully extended my foot the calf would wiggle up the leg and tie itself in a knot behind my knee. It's caused by an unsound bicycle stroke that my mechanic finally diagnosed in March. I had hoped I'd corrected it in time. Apparently not.

Then my legs tightened around Mile 24. I started taking walking breaks. It wasn't a matter of lacking energy or will -- I had adequate reserves of both -- it was a matter of the harpoon that went through my quads with every step.

There are a lot of people I could have been thinking about at this point, friends and family who have endured much worse agonies for much longer periods of time. But whom did I think of for inspiration? Adrian. Adrian! Adrian Balboa, in a coma after giving birth to Rocky Jr. (Perhaps I need to ease "Gonna Fly Now" out of rotation.)

On the last quarter-mile I alternated between a trot and a splayed-leg skip, the latter of which Suzie captured above. Finally I crossed the finish line and into the haze of the Madison Brat Fest, which in an eloquent expression of Madison's duality was sharing a location with the marathon finish. My time, 3:17:25, was the second best of my seven races. Respectable, but well shy of glorious.

After five years of running, it's startling how quickly and completely my identity has gone from runner to cyclist, just as it was startling when I quickly went from whoever I was before -- I honestly don't have a clear recollection -- to being a runner.

I have in the past daydreamed about what sort of runners tattoo I would get if I were the sort to go for such nonsense. A marathon tally on an ankle? An ornate "26.2" on my chest? Now I daydream about what sort of cycling tattoo I should get. A Chicago hold-up on a calf? A cassette on a shoulder? A yellow band around a wrist? And I wonder about where my identity will have wandered five years from now, and what kind of tattoos I'll daydream about then.

When in the past I have been near people who were more successful or happier or wealthier or wiser than me -- read as, "at just about any given moment" -- I have said to myself, "But at least I can run faster and longer," much in the same way Darth Vader deals with rejection by thinking, "But at least I can crush their trachea with my mind."

As a cyclist, I draw the same smug lines. I'm not even a good cyclist yet, but I'm soothed thinking of the character and grit and sinew that I, as a cyclist, have and all others, as non-cyclists, do not.

(Not that this mental filtering withstands the slightest scrutiny. Just about everyone I know, non-cyclists included, has so much character, grit, sinew, etc. etc. that I tremble just thinking about it. If they didn't, I wouldn't bother knowing them. It's only the people I don't know who are weak and soft.)

As soon as I returned to Chicago I went to Moody's for a Berghoff dark and a burger. Then I went to the Jewel for beer, ice cream, bananas and energy bars, a shopping list that I think captures this tension of ending a marathon regimen while anticipating a cycling one.

It starts as soon as I'm out of Moose Tracks.

Photo taken by Suzie Seemann: May 29, 2005