My Love for the Chicago Marathon

by Jesse Mendoza

(Photo: Between miles 23-24 on Michigan Ave. Chicago Marathon 2018)

Chicago Marathon, Oct. 7, 2007

I remember this day clearly. It was a day that changed my life.

It was less than a month previous that I ran my first 5K race after a long layoff of running. I was back on the roads and it felt pretty dang great. I’ve always known about the Chicago Marathon from seeing it on TV, but had never experienced it live. Just a year before, I watched my little sister cross the finish line of her first half marathon, and that inspiration started me back on this journey after never having run a step since Cross Country in high school.

I knew I had to see the marathon for myself.

I went to the store the night before to pick up a folding chair that I could sit on to watch the runners. I took a few notes on where to best spectate the marathon and jumped on the train to head to the city. I remember the day starting pretty warm, but it still seemed like the usual fall, October day.

I knew I was in to see something special, but I wasn’t expecting it to be… well… this special.

I remember the energy of that day. The entire city was decked out in its Sunday best for marathon day and there were people everywhere. So. Many. People. I made my way to Grant Park and walked to a spot I thought I could see the first runners go by. I ended up ditching the folding chair in an alley since it was obvious there would be no sitting today. The crowd was already five to six people deep and the race hasn’t even started. I remember taking a few layers off as it was already in the 70’s near start time.

I didn’t know too much about the marathon at the time. I knew it was 26.2 miles, but I really didn’t know what it TOOK to run 26.2 miles. Heck, I barely survived my first 5K just a month earlier, and I couldn’t fathom going another 20 plus miles. I didn’t know anyone running today, but I felt a particular kinship with my fellow runners out there today. I was a runner now too, and I wanted to take it all in.

I was starting to get really uncomfortable just standing there in the hot sun. I remember the sun quickly heating things up closer to noon after the clouds cleared away. By this time I had moved closer to the finish line as runners ran over the Roosevelt street bridge just before the turn to the finish line. I remember hearing ambulances throughout the morning as it started to feel more like a really hot summer day with temperatures in the 90’s and high humidity. I caught whispers from the crowd that race organizers had raised the alert level to Black for Extreme Conditions and started to close the course. Runners who had yet to reach the closures were being pulled off the course, and others just ignored the warnings and kept going.

There was carnage everywhere.

News reports the next day reported one dead and over 300 runners taken off the course by ambulance suffering from various heat related illnesses.

And here I was near the finish watching it all unfold.

Runners barely alive. Others just walking with zombie-like expressions or being held up by other runners, barely able to walk in a straight line. I was in awe. I’ve never seen anything like it. Here I was fresh off of a 5K race, three measly miles, and I’m watching an incredible scene of sheer determination to get across the finish line after so much suffering for 26 miles. I heard stories of runners going around police barricades with no other option but to finish.

At times I couldn’t bare to watch, and at other times I wished I was out there. I wanted to know what it was like. I wanted to be in their shoes going through what they were going through. Suffering, I wanted to run a marathon. The Chicago Marathon.

One year later on October 12, 2008, I would do just that.

It was everything I ever imagined it would be. It ended up being another really hot year. It hurt. A lot. I cried as I clutched my medal and nearly bent it in half.

I was a marathon runner.

To this day I continue to be inspired by this race and that’s the reason I love it so much. I went on to run it another five times and each experience is just like the first time all over again.

Chicago Marathon 2016