Several years back, when my knees were younger, I ran the 5K in the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon.
It was a family affair, a challenge we undertook with a friend and her two kids. My son and I trained and ran together (yes, some of us have to build up to running 3 miles) and my younger daughter ran the 1K.
I was hooked by the enormous spirit of the race, from the spectators, volunteers and other participants. Nothing like crossing that finish line on the 50-yard line, even if your pace is twice the winning time. People ring cowbells and cheer anyway.
I entered several more times, getting progressively slower even as my children got faster, still enjoying the crowds and feeling of community.
Life took some other turns for us, and I became the family cheerleader, watching in the stands as my husband and daughter came through that Memorial Stadium entrance. I volunteered last year on Marathon morning, helping last-minute runners check in or find a pair of shoes (yes, some poor soul forgot the one thing a marathoner probably shouldn’t leave behind).
But each time I’d regret not taking part.
As race day grew near, I mentioned to my daughter that I was excited to have a couple of hours just to talk nonstop with my sister.
"I don’t think you’ll run out of things to talk about," she commented. Not sure what she meant by that.
After watching the kids run in the 5K Friday night, we got up on Saturday facing the usual "what to wear" question. It was a chilly, windy race day, by my standards, so we threw on several layers.
We may have overdressed. Most of the people in the parking lot did not have on rainproof jackets or hats. The serious marathoners were in tank tops and running shorts. But we didn’t plan to sweat nearly as much as they did.
We felt a little like imposters, watching the thousands of runners who had trained for months.
But it was just fun to take part. We finally got under way at 7:40 a.m., trying to look perky and jog a bit whenever the TV cameras were around.
The route was perfect — up First Street through Campustown, through downtown Champaign and then out Church Street past Prospect before turning south through some of the city’s prettiest old neighborhoods.
As we walked, I pointed out the new construction near Boneyard Park, the News-Gazette building and the local shops and restaurants we like. We commented on the stunning azaleas and dogwoods and gardens in houses along the way. We waved and talked to friendly volunteers and people we knew on the route.
We worried about where to take a pit stop before we realized we would be passing several cafés — and we weren’t really worried about affecting our time. (For that matter we could have stopped to have a pastry, though it seemed to go against the whole fitness theme of the day.)
We stopped to take pictures of clever signs and tweeted some of the best. Some people got straight to the point: "Motivational sign." There were weather themes: "It may be cold, it may be chilly. At least the course isn’t hilly." And one enterprising homeowner quoted Abe Lincoln: "Things may come to those who wait ... But only the things left by those who hustle."
We had so much fun that I felt guilty when people cheered us on. We’re not the real runners, I’d say, pointing to the marathoners passing us by like we were standing still, poetry in motion. We all cheered them wildly.
The race gave us the chance to be a participant and spectator at the same time, and have fun doing it.
And I’m pretty sure we never stopped talking the whole time.
Sure enough, as we passed Mile 5 (and Mile 25 for the marathoners), I realized I had forgotten to ask my sister something I needed advice about (she’s my go-to for most things). I found myself wishing we had more time.
When I glanced at my phone, I also realized that despite all of our stops we had a chance to make it in under two hours — only an hour and a half behind the winners. And just then the leader of the marathon raced by, having covered 25 miles while we walked 5.
When we got to the stadium, we did what every self-respecting finisher does — we sprinted the last 30 yards or so to the finish line, remembering to smile for the cameras. (I had some pretty frightening grimaces captured on camera in those 5K races.)
And we got our medals just like everybody else.
Next year, we’ve decided that we want to finish in time to see the marathon winners cross the finish line. So we’ve got to shave about 25 minutes off our time. It shouldn’t be hard if we eliminate the potty breaks, photo ops and tweeting.
But there’s still plenty of time to talk.
Top: My sister and I near the starting line, just before the 10K.
Middle: A sign along Armory Avenue in Champaign.
Bottom: A sign on Hessel Boulevard, about a mile from the finish line.