Running the Chicago Marathon Turned My Life Around

Read this reflective narrative about the Chicago Marathon.

As a twenty-something living in Chicago, Molly developed some unhealthy habits. Drinking too much and eating out often was taking a toll on her physical health, and she woke up one day unable to ignore it any longer. This is the story of how training for the Chicago marathon became a turning point for her fitness — and more. 

I’m not a lifelong life runner. In fact, for most of my life running is something I’ve hated doing. I always played sports growing up, but running was the part of practice I viewed as the punishment — I dreaded doing it and wanted to get over with it as soon as possible. Needless to say, I did not see running a marathon in my future. 

That changed a little when I got to college. My best friend and roommate was one of those crazy people who ran for fun. Our senior year, she ran her first marathon and her motivation was contagious. She ran all the time, no matter what the night before had been like. 

Even if I didn’t understand it, that level of discipline was something I respected. She convinced me to run a 5k for charity, and even to crawl my way through a half marathon. While my performance in both was far from impressive, here’s one thing I learned: When there is a race date on the calendar, I prepare for it. 

Training for a race is different from running for any other reason. A race means there is a goal and a deadline, and a consequence for not meeting either of them. That simple but powerful concept is something that motivated me. 

After college, my relationship with running was on and off, but mostly off. I started my career as a high school teacher, moved to a new city, and didn’t make time for my health the way I should have. To be candid: I drank too much, I ate out all the time, and I used the excuse of “not having time” to workout. 

When it got to the point where I couldn’t ignore my health any longer, I kind of expected to feel sad about the effort it would take to get into shape, but I didn’t — I was mad at myself. Some people don’t know how to get into shape, some people don’t recognize that their habits are harmful, some people have legitimate reasons for not attending to their physical fitness. None of that was true for me. I knew better on all accounts. 

That same day, I signed up for the Chicago half marathon, simply because I knew that training for a race was something that had worked for me in the past. That’s what running became for me — a way to take back control of my body. 

I had run half marathons a few times before, all of them were a struggle — but I finished. This time was different because I accepted that what I was about to do would be difficult. There’s a lot of coach speech about “embracing the grind” — and as cliché as it is, it’s true. Making drastic changes to your lifestyle is not easy, but it’s not impossible, either. 

I’m a firm believer in the three-week rule. It takes three weeks to make a habit, which can feel like hell. But when you get through them, your focus stops being on what you are sacrificing and shifts to the progress that you are making. 

That summer into fall I stuck to a plan. Running became a part of my routine, no matter how I made time for it. I was running five to six days a week. I was eating better and drinking less. While my half marathon time was still far from impressive, it was respectable, and I knew I had more miles in me. 

For so long, running 26.2 miles seemed like an impossibility, but at this point I saw running for what it was: a reminder that we are all better and more capable than we give ourselves credit for. 

A friend connected me to a local charity and I signed up through their fundraising team. A few weeks later, I got the email that I had been accepted to the 2020 Chicago Marathon. I was terrified and excited at the same time. I took a screenshot of the email and sent it to anyone I thought would care. 

Then came the stay-at-home orders from the pandemic. I know I am not unique when I say that the spring of 2020 came with career setbacks, family struggles, and long periods of isolation. During that time, running became my therapy. 

Through the turmoil and tragedy that our country and world endured in those months, my mind needed running just as much as my body did. For everything that 2020 took away, it came with a luxury of time. I ran more than I ever had in my life. In a world without structure, running was one of my only constants. 

It came as no surprise when the marathon was cancelled. What did surprise me was the level of support I received when I decided to run it anyway. 

I woke up on what would have been the marathon weekend in October. I started my run on the northwest side of the city and made my way up and down Chicago’s lakefront trail. Each mile came with a different reminder of why this city is special. Throughout my run I saw a handful of other runners wearing the same “virtual marathon” bib I was. When we passed each other, we shared some spoken or unspoken sign of solidarity. Friends, family, and strangers showed up along the way with little actions of support that restored my faith in humanity. 

Miles 12-15 drained me mentally; miles 20 and beyond made my whole body hurt. I had heard the stories about the mental and physical pain the body experiences during a marathon, but it was something I had to live through to fully understand. 

I finally reached my makeshift finish line with another unimpressive time, but I didn’t care. Friends met me for a socially distanced celebration in a park. Many more reached out with words of congratulations. Everything hurt, but it was easily the best day of my year. 

Training for and then running the Chicago marathon — even virtually — reaffirmed some simple and fundamental lessons that I’ll carry with me the rest of my life: Growth doesn’t come without challenges; and it’s important to love the people who show up for you. More than anything, running has taught me that we are all capable of more than we realize. 

Running a marathon, much like other aspects of life, has less to do with any unique set of abilities and more to do with a willingness to be challenged. On the good days and the bad, my journey with running has taught me that we always have more miles in us. 

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