Breaking the wall: My journey running the Chicago Marathon

CHICAGO, Ill. – I hit that dreaded wall that every runner talks about at mile 21 of my first marathon. I knew it was coming. It was inevitable. And when it hit, I thought maybe this whole running thing wasn’t for me. Maybe the wall would actually win.

I was running the Chicago Marathon next to two runners I met that morning near the start line. We were going to finish. Next to two strangers, I was going to end this journey I started in January to move forward, regardless of what life threw at me.

But I was scared.

It wasn’t easy. My mind raced during the long journey to the finish line.

Maybe I’ve run enough for today.

Twenty-one miles is a long way. It’s a respectable distance. Twenty-six miles is far.

Gosh my feet hurt. Oh, a bowl of chips. I bet everyone who has reached in this bowl hasn’t used anything but hand sanitizer all morning -- if even that. But, chips! Am I really going to do this? Am I really going to eat these chips? Yes, I’m going to do this. I’m hungry. I need energy. Here goes nothing. Where is mile 22?

Why are these people looking at me like I’m crazy? I must be crazy. I am crazy. Twenty-one miles is a long way.

Why am I doing this? Is this really worth it? I don’t want a 26.2 sticker on my car, and I don’t want my toenails to fall off. I think this is the wall everyone talked about. I think I’ve hit it. You’re winning, wall. Stupid 21 miles. Stupid marathon. Stupid running.

Why can’t marathons be 18 miles? Or even 19 miles? I still felt great then. Oh my gosh, I think I have to run another hour. I don’t want to run another hour. Twenty-one miles is a big deal, right? Maybe today I’ll just celebrate running 21 miles for the first time in my life; 26 is too many.

Photos: My journey through the Chicago Marathon

“You doing OK?” a voice broke my inner dialogue.

I nodded my head. Chomped on another pretzel. This wall was not going to beat me. Not with my new friends going stride for stride next to me. Not with all of my friends from Indiana to Washington D.C. to Texas tracking me. Not with my mom just a few miles ahead, waiting to cheer me on one last time in my first marathon.

I woke up that morning scared. Scared of running 26.2 alone. Scared of going out too fast. Scared of ending up in the medical tent like I did after my first half marathon in May. Scared of not finishing.

I knew my mom was scared, too. She doesn’t love that both my sister and I decided to run a marathon after my dad died of a heart attack. One night we were laughing over dinner. The next morning, he was gone.

More than once in the last decade I’ve had little moments that I believe come from having an extra cheerleader in heaven.

Finding Dee and Jennifer by the start line, you can call that fate, but I call that my father.

For my entire training, my training mates have all told me that even if I didn’t know anyone running Chicago, I would make friends. They were right. But the fact that these friends just so happened to also be from Houston and Jennifer and I just so happen to live less than a mile apart was just a bit more than meeting people who also decided to spend last Sunday running all over the Second City.

READ MORE: My 'fearless' journey to running a marathon

Jen, Dee and I had sweated through the same temperatures in the same humidity on the same days through a lot of the same routes without knowing it. They were the answer to my prayers. I was not alone.

So together we ran and walked and talked and struggled and cheered and laughed over the creative signs people make that really do help you get through a marathon.

And it was Jen’s voice at mile 21 that broke through to me and asked if I was OK. It was in that moment I decided to tell the wall that I wasn’t going to stop because this no longer was just about me running a marathon. This is about doing what I was told I couldn’t do, being who I was told I couldn’t be. I am grateful for this journey; it gave me more than I deserve.

Throughout that journey, I found support mates in my hill training, my strength training and my long-run training. They have been my relentless cheerleaders.

On Sunday, when I was walking to the start line of the Chicago Marathon, I felt lonely because everyone seemed to be heading to the start line with running buddies. But I realized mine were walking with me, just virtually. They were all tracking me from afar. They all wanted to see me succeed.

Then, 26.2 miles later, after I defeated the wall and a race volunteer put the medal around my neck and congratulated me on finishing a marathon, I realized the wall crumbled because I no longer was just moving myself forward, I had a whole new crew who was there after the wind blew to make sure I never stopped.

This time, the wall didn’t win.

PHOTOS: Training for a marathon

Earnest Hemingway once said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

A year ago, I was broken. Running and my training groups healed me at the broken places.

And defeating the wall? That made me strong.

Follow Stephanie Kuzydym on Twitter.


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