Instead, we'll just have story time. The story of an intrepid explorer and his silent sidekick trying to find their way back home.
When you're registered as an 'invited athlete' in a major marathon, there are a lot of perks. A spot on the front of the starting line, access to the awesomely staffed and stocked hospitality suite, convenient airport pickup. Of course, if the race goes wrong and you are unable to finish, all this just makes you feel like a phony. A grifter who cheated the race organizers. Plus the process of dropping out is a bit complicated.
When you step off the course, you have to notify officials. I told the very nice woman my name, number, social security number, mother's maiden name, and the name of my first pet. Maybe I shouldn't have given all that info? Wait, was she actually part of the race staff at all? What are all these crazy charges on my credit card?
Then they make sure you don't need medical attention. Is there a psychologist on hand? Or maybe a psychiatrist? Which one can perscribe the good, happy drugs? Then they put you on the sag wagon for a ride back to the finish area. At the 30k marker it was just me and a very good Japanese marathoner who looked like he had injured his foot or calf. He didn't appear to speak any English, but I do know he has run 2:06 in the past. We took our seats and stared out the windows, each lost in our own thoughts.
Our bus of despair departed the station with a painfully ill-informed driver. He had no idea how to get back to the finish area. One helpful policeman, a few deftly executed u-turns, and a chorus of honking horns later, we were getting close.
However, as we limped down the stairs and off the bus, we discovered that no one knew what to do with us. The driver was still yelling at the security guard that had tried to prevent him from parking. The three or four race employees standing around did not have the 'elite finish area' marked on their maps. The poor Japanese guy just looked at me hopefully.
One official looking fellow finally suggested we hike up a couple blocks and cross over to the post race recovery area. Two guys that had run thousands of miles in training hobbling up the sidewalk in sweat soaked short shorts and paper thin racing flats. A big city like Chicago has seen odder characters on its streets, but it sure felt awkward at the time.
Finally, my new friend and I arrived at the post finish recovery area. Just a couple of blocks to our left was the actual finish line. I was pretty sure that's where we wanted to go- I recalled hearing that our gear would be in a tent right after the finish line on the left side of the road. I can see that tent maybe 50 yards ahead. Even with sore feet and hamstrings on the verge of cramping, we were looking at a 45 second stroll, but our journey was nowhere near an end.
There were two barriers remaining separating us from the simple joy of sitting down. A huge gateway with three foot tall letters reading "No Re-Entry" over and over, and an overzealous rent-a-cop who thought directing pedestrian traffic should be approached with the same intensity as protecting the President. I calmly and politely tried to explain to Officer Power Trip where we needed to go. I showed him my number and pointed at the tent, but he only knew two words. Those same lovely two words posted all over the direction my foreign friend and I were trying to go.
So I tried a different approach and asked every person in an official-looking red Chicago Marathon t-shirt how to get to the elite finish area. Everyone wants to help, but no one has the necessary knowledge. No one on the other end of their walkie talkies has what we need either. For a few seconds I despair. I'm on the verge of quitting, just sitting down on the curb and waiting for the street sweepers to gently nudge me down the street with the rest of the paper cups and bananna peels. But I've given up once today and can't let it happen again. Plus, I really need my room key which is nestled in a tiny pocket of my backpack. In the elite finish area tent.
We finally found a worker in a blue shirt who knows exactly where we need to go. He walks us directly past the dreaded "No Re-Entry" barrier and amazingly nothing happens. No devastating earthquake, no plague of locusts, not even a "Hey- you can't go that way" from Officer Power Trip. Lesson learned- it pays to hang with the blue shirts.
Sixty seconds later we're in the right tent. The bad-ass Japanese marathoner is reunited with his coach/translator and I can sit down and take off my shoes. By this point the happy finishers have all departed the area. The champions are celebrating their wins. Those who ran personal records are informing friends and family. Only the injured and the hitchhikers remain. I gathered up my stuff and hit the road. My 26.2 mile tour around the city took some detours, but it still ended up being a memorable experience.
The vast majority of Chicago Marathon staff and volunteers were helpful, knowledgeable, and pleasant. However, in an event that large, confusion is unavoidable. Even when things go wrong, it's good to learn something from every race. The lesson this time was that it is best to finish the race as planned and avoid the side trip altogether.