MJ at the marathon
CHAMPAIGN — It’s that time of year when I use this space to express my feelings about distance running. In recent years, with the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon in town, I’ve questioned the sanity of runners and even the folks who line the streets of Champaign and Urbana to cheer them on.
So instead of racking my own brain trying to figure out what’s going on in the heads of these creatures, I decided this year I’d go straight to the source. What better way to know what a runner is thinking than to ask that runner — while said runner is in the midst of running 26.2 miles for fun.
Saturday morning, a couple hours after the first wave of runners had taken off from campus, I set up shop downtown at the corner of Church and Randolph streets, about 100 yards shy of the 14-mile marker, in my neon green Nike running shoes to chronicle the deep thoughts of these athletes.
First thing I learned: Don’t talk to the ones wearing headphones. They can’t hear you — at least they pretend they can’t hear you.
Admittedly, I was nervous about the response I would get, so I first approached a runner I knew would be in a pleasant mood. He was wearing a white T-shirt with a gigantic Chicago Blackhawks logo plastered on the front. This was less than 12 hours after Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews’ breakaway game-winner in overtime gave the reigning champs a 3-2 series lead against the St. Louis Blues.
“How about that game last night?” I asked him.
“One more, baby,” he responded, lifting a fist into the air.
To make the moment even more enjoyable, the band McMahon, Cassidy, Hutchinson & Diener, which was playing music on the corner of Neil and Main, was in the middle of the song “Johnny Be Good.” That was the song the folks at the United Center used to play following a Toews goal before “Chelsea Dagger” became the official celebration song of the Hawks.
It should be worth noting that I don’t have the names of these individuals. I attempted to jot down some bib numbers, and I’m all about going the extra mile, so to speak, for my work, but let’s be real, that would have required me to run along with them, and you all know how I feel about running.
Not long after that first encounter, I spotted a man running dressed as the superhero The Flash. He had the spandex suit on from head to toe, complete with a mask. He was in a group on pace to finish in about 3.5 hours.
“Hey, shouldn’t you be at the front, Flash?” I asked him.
“Well, this is my fifth lap around the course already. I’m just getting warmed up,” he responded.
More than halfway into a marathon and this guy’s still got a quick wit. Color me impressed.
What struck me while standing there is how much runners talk among themselves during the event. I guess it could be pretty boring otherwise.
I spotted two women chatting about how they got involved in the race.
“I signed up a year ago,” one woman, nearly too exhausted to speak, told the other.
“Well, that’s great, good job,” the other woman, breathing creepily too easy, said to her in response.
So instead of asking strange questions and getting angry glares fired back in my direction, I decided to shut my trap and just listen for a while.
“We only have 12.2 miles left,” one woman said to her running partner. Only 12.2 miles left? I love the positive outlook.
One guy I thought was talking to himself. Turns out he was on his phone, using his headphones to communicate with the person on the other end of the line.
“Yeah, I’m at Mile 14. It’s going all right,” he said so casually that it stands to reason the other person could have believed he was lying on the couch had he not announced he was running a freaking marathon.
Another cellphone runner was far more excited than she should have been 14 miles into her run.
“It’s so great!” she was telling the person on the phone. “And the next one, we’ll be together!”
She was wearing one of those bibs that said “My first marathon.” Apparently, it won’t be her last.
I observed two men casually talking about finances as if they were doing so over eggs and coffee at a cafe.
“There are charges they can put on there, and then there are charges they can’t,” one guy was explaining.
My favorite exchange was between two women and a man running in a group. They had just picked up one of those gel packs that keeps you hydrated during long runs.
“We need this,” the man said to the women. “It might save a life.”
Plenty of runners are readers of The News-Gazette, and a lot of them took a moment to acknowledge me.
“Write something good,” one man said to me. “Marcus, I love you!” another yelled. I love you, too.
“How am I doing?” another asked me.
“You look great,” I told him.
“Well, I feel like (crap).”
Another yelled, “Marcus, how are you?”
“A lot better than you,” I said.
“Oh, we’re fine. We’ll get there.”
There’s that runner’s optimism again.
Then, I heard a female voice excitedly yell my name from across the way.
It was Allison Groce, wife of Illinois basketball coach John Groce, smiling and waving and looking as comfortable as can be. John must have been running her in the conditioning drills with the team. She’s not even breathing heavy.
“You’re feeling pretty good, huh?” I asked her.
“Yeah, I feel great. I just started.”
That’s when I noticed Allison was wearing a yellow bib signifying she was a part of the marathon relay, and her leg of the race had just started. The full marathoners wore orange bibs.
I saw a man laboring through his run while wearing a T-shirt that read, “26.2, remind me again why I’m doing this.”
So I asked him if he was still trying to figure that out.
“You’ve got that right. Geez,” he said.
There was the man wearing a neon green headband, neon green shirt, shorts and socks. Unfortunately, his shoes were white.
“That your favorite color?” I asked him.
“It sure is,” he said.
“Well, you need my shoes,” I told him.
“I sure do,” he said. “I love ’em.”
All in all, I enjoyed the day, though my smiles at some runners were greeted with scowls. So I stopped smiling for a while.
“You look sad,” a female runner said to me.
But I really was happy. Happy I wasn’t running.
Marcus Jackson is a News-Gazette staff writer. He can be reached at 217-351-5605 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.