Chicago has been hosting the Bank of America Chicago Marathon since 1978. This annual event hosts 45,000 runners and 1.7 million spectators. Runners participate from all 50 states and 140 countries and 29 percent of the runners are international.
In 2018, The Chicago Marathon added a record-breaking $378 million to the city’s economy. Year-after-year the marathon generates significant impact for the city of Chicago. Each year, the marathon attracts new visitors to Chicago and enhances the image of the city as a leading tourist destination.
Not only does the marathon bring money into the city, 10,000 charity runners raised $22.7 million dollars towards worthy causes. Runners shed their outer layers for a good cause, donating 10 tons of clothing to Illinois AMVETS, a veterans service organization, each year.
The Chicago Marathon is considered one of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors, which are the largest and most renowned marathons in the world: Tokyo Marathon, Boston Marathon, Virgin Money London Marathon, BMW BERLIN-MARATHON, Bank of America Chicago Marathon and TCS New York City Marathon.
While all of this is impressive, what is even more meaningful are the unique stories of each of the 45,000 runners that toe the line at this annual event and the manner in which the city becomes interwoven with history, people and personal experience.
French philosopher Paul Ricoeur developed a highly influential account of narrative identity. He states memory was brought to both language and works by means of narrative, by the
act of putting things into narrative. The transition from memory to narrative is necessary in that
sense: to recollect, in a private way as in a public way, is to declare that ‘I was there.’
I was there.
I toed the line at the 2019 Chicago Marathon.
As I reflect back on my experience, I realize that this event was more than a fleeting affair between my feet and the pavement of the city. It was an occasion that merged with the fabric of my soul to fashion to my identity.
Ricoeur argues that personal identity is not fully stable or self-transparent, but is also not incoherent or self-alienated. Our self-relationship is one of active interpretation rather than autonomous self-authoring.
One can experience the narrative of the city merging with their soul at this event. I challenge any runner to participate in this event and come out the other side unchanged.
This marathon is like no other. I’ve run 7 marathons and multiple half marathons, 10 and 5Ks. However, I’ve never experienced the energy and city-wide support like I have in Chicago.
The marathon takes the coordination and cooperation across the entire city, requiring businesses, residents and city officials to essentially shut down the operations of the entire city to allow 45,000 runners to run through 29 neighborhoods across 26.2 miles.
The city, which is normally bustling with commuters and is overwhelmed with the sounds of horns honking, cab drivers yelling and visitors shuffling by takes on a different ambiance. Sounds of cowbells, spectators yelling words of encouragement and pounding of music from loud speakers fill the air.
One would not recognize the city from one day to the next. The marathon isn’t just an event held in the city, it builds the architecture narrativity of the space.
Instead of runners being confined to the sidewalks, attempting to bifurcate space in a place not meant for them…meaning, the sidewalk is designed for walkers, commuters and those walking purposefully from one place to another, it is not designed for runners, runners own the road. All roads are cleared of traffic, no cars are allowed. The space where Ubers and bicycles and buses once occupied is rebuilt with the runner as the audience.
Ricouer states, “built space is a sort of mixture between places of life that surround the living
body, and a three-dimensional geometrical space in which each point is some place.”
When you think of Chicago as this ‘built space’ the city is normally designed with a different audience and narrative in mind.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is a historic event that is the impetus for the architecture and design of the city. When the city lost the majority of their infrastructure to the fire, architects flocked to the city to rebuild. Some of the greatest architects in the world welcomed the challenge and used Chicago as a playground to build innovative structures.
Chicago has a diversified economy based on manufacturing, printing and publishing, finance and insurance, and food processing. The buildings and architecture of Chicago reflect this diverse and multicultural heritage. The first skyscraper was born in Chicago, in the early 1880s architectural pioneers at the Chicago School explored steel-frame construction and large areas of plate glass. Tube-frame construction was then created and implemented in the John Hancock Center and Willis Tower (then the Sears Tower). The Willis Tower was the world’s tallest building until 1998 (now surpassed by Petronas Towers and Burj Khalifa).
You will see a mix of art deco, modern and neoclassical architecture in the city., just to name a few The city is known for its amazing architecture.
However, the architectural history of Chicago is only one narrative. When you look at the city through the lens of the historic architecture, you see the city from a different point of view. You notice the style of buildings. You note the Willis Tower, which is the highest tower in the world. The Rookery, the lobby designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Wrigley Building, striking in glazed terra-cotta.
One can also look at the city of Chicago through the lens of the movie buff. The Chicago Board of Trade is an iconic building that was in The Dark Knight, Transformers and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. This year the Chicago Marathon used the Chicago Board of Trade as the design on the marathon medal. Therefore, this building took on a new narrative to me. To me, this building represented an accomplishment. It represented six months of training, 80 mile a week training session, scarifies, blood, sweat and tears. However, the narrative behind this building was different for others. As one marathoner said, “I was so disappointed to see the medal design this year. After months of training I’ll be leaving with a medal with my workplace on it”. For them, the narrative was their place of employment, it didn’t represent this sense of accomplishment for them.
Ricoeur states, “the first step of living in a community starts with the narratives of life that we exchange. These narratives only make sense in this exchange of memories, of experiences and of projects.”
The course itself lends it way to it’s own narrative, memories and experiences. The way the runner navigates the city is pre-defined and rigid. Each of the 45,000 runners must experience the city in the same sequence. You can’t go off course. You can’t join midway. You can’t skip a neighborhood or section. As such, each runner has a same sense of place, comprehension of time and place and memory.
But of course what’s interesting is that even though all of the runners have the same sense of place, are running the same route and are experiencing the same event, each runner has their own unique narrative.
Steph Bruce, a top USA runner, sponsored by Hoka, shared her experience on Instagram, stating that she had an accident at mile 22 and had to run the last 4.2 miles with crap running down her leg. She came in 10th.
Jordan Hassay placed third in the Chicago Marathon in 2017, however this year she dropped out of the race at mile 2 due to a hamstring injury.
Meek Mill, a recreational runner, shared on the Chicago Marathon Facebook group that he achieved his personal best this year when the triad of solid training, good nutrition and perfect weather converged.
John Smith (an alias) shared that he would never run the Chicago Marathon again because the crowds were too loud and he couldn’t hear his own music. He also didn’t appreciate the smells in each of the neighborhoods.
Sally Jones (an alias) stated that she was pushed out of the way by a faster runner causing her to fall and skin her knee.
Bob Barker (an alias) said he witnessed the community of runners coming together when they saw a female struggling at mile 6 and they stayed with her until medical staff came to her aid.
Each of these runners has a different story associated with the Chicago Marathon which is weaved with the city, the crowds and their own personal experiences.
Ricoeur speaks of emplotment, which is the assembly of a series of historical events into a narrative with a plot. He uses the Italian word ‘Intreccio’ to describe this…a plait. This is exactly how the story of the Chicago Marathon is built. Weaving together the narratives of the neighborhood stories, with the history of the architecture with the experience of the marathon itself, a new narrative is formed.
In each of the stories I shared, note the complex plait of narratives weaved to form the entire story. Every one of the runners has their own narrative associated with the event, which is weaved with the common experiences we all shared, along with their own unique view.
Ricoeur states that narrative is more than simply a story. Narrative refers to the way we understand our future potentialities, as well as the way we mentally organize our sense of the past.
We experience this narrative through the race course.
The marathon route itself has a story as the weaves throughout the city with a purpose. The marathon itself forms a unique experience which cannot be recreated, even if one was to follow the exact route by car, bike or on foot. Even if one was to run this exact route, but not as part of the marathon, the narrative would vary.
First, let’s talk about the narrative of the setting up of the race itself.
The narrative of the city is formed by the transformation of the city. The city is completely transformed in absence of the other elements of the city that form the narrative…the cars, the honking, the pedestrians…as the streets are closed to all outside traffic.
Not only is the narrative transformed by what is missing, it is transformed by what is added. Tents populate the Grant Park area, setting up bag checks, hospitality tents, medial units and food stations. There are 20 aid stations throughout the course, dotting the marathon route. In total, there are 650 Gatorade tables, 72,000 gallons of Gatorade, 100,000 gallons of water, 1 million water cups, 1 million Gatorade cups, and 2,000 porta potties.
6,000 volunteers show up to help on race day along with 400 course marshalls, 22 forklifts and 40 semi-trucks. The five bridges the runners cross are lined with carpeting so they don’t trip on the grates.
It takes 33 hours to set up and break down the entire course from the time the first semi-trucks arrive on Saturday to the time the last barrier is removed on Sunday. While the city is transformed with these out fittings, the entire course is broken down and cleaned up by 5pm on race day.
The “semantics of action” of the transformation integrate into our broader structures of meaning.
The race helps us understand our future potentialities through making sense of the past.
When the race debuted in 1977, there were 6,000 runners. This local race lacked significant resources and runners spent the majority of the 26.2 miles trudging down a barren highway. As a result, there were very few spectators, as the terrain was inaccessible.
In 1988, an award-winning journalist, Philip Hersh, encouraged Chicago to follow the successful model of the New York City Marathon and bring the race through the neighborhoods of Chicago. When the current race director, Carey Pinkowski, took over as executive race director in 1990, the course completely changed and became a global sensation.
Today’s course brings runners through 29 culturally diverse neighborhoods. In these neighborhoods, there is a community narrative that makes sense of the memories and experiences of those living there. Each of these neighborhoods attempts to bring these narratives to life during the marathon in an attempt to create a shared experience among the runners and those who live in the community.
Us runners carry out ‘emplotment’ as we draw disparate past events into a meaningful whole by establishing casual and meaningful connections between them.
When runners toe the start line in Grant Park the anxiety is palpable as they await the word “go”. Thousands of bobbing heads slowly make their way to the start line, tossing the clothing they wore to stay warm while in the holding corral. The sounds of watches beeping permeate the air as runners fire up their garmin watches.
Legs struggle to warm up with the sudden movement after standing for hours in the corral awaiting the start. Adrenaline rushes through the body as runners make the turn from The Loop into the Financial District. Crowds shout, full of energy before hours of cheering wear them down.
As we run straight up LaSalle we pass the iconic Chicago Marquee sign.
By the time we reach Lincoln Park, our legs are finally warmed up and most of us have found our pace.
The Lincoln Park Zoo holds a variety of narrative capacities. For some, it tells the story of reaching mile 7, which may be the mileage in their daily runs. For others, it may represent visiting as a child, their past merging with the present. I envision visiting the previous year with my kids and seeing the pumpkins on display. I smile as I picture my daughter marveling at the carved gourds.
After running around at mile 8, runners pass through Boystown, which is one of the country’s most inclusive LGBTQ+ communities. It’s the oldest officially recognized gay neighborhood in the United States. Dancers dance on stage and pump up the crowd.
Mile 13.1 is the official halfway mark and for many, the narrative capacity may be the significance of completing half the distance or for the pessimist, having a full half yet to go. But for me, this place, this site, on the corner of Monroe and Franklin represented my husband’s support. In training, I would have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as a my mid-race nutrition. Many runners use GU (a glucose, quick release energy gel), but I can’t stomach it. I would also drink a diet root beer after a long run. I typically don’t drink soda, but my body craves the sodium when losing so much sweat over a period of time. However, I didn’t think about how difficult it would be to carry a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and diet root beer would be on a marathon course. Not just difficult, impossible.
So my husband, fought through the crowds and walked 2 ½ miles to meet me midway through ther race to bring me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a diet root beer. After 22 years of marriage, this means more to me than jewelry.
As I rounded the corner and looked up at the Willis Tower building, at that moment the narrative capacity didn’t represent the fact that this was one of the tallest buildings in the world, it represented love and support. I embraced him, then ran on, munching on my sandwich on the go.
In my view, the second half of the race is where the narrative becomes richly woven with history, culture and personal experience. We entered Greektown at mile 17 and spectators lined the streets, pounding on drums. Miles 17 through 20 are the toughest, for me personally, during the marathon. It is not far enough in to believe you are almost done, but you are far enough in to have fatigue set in. This is where I question myself. What was I thinking? Why did I sign up? I’m never doing this again. My legs hurt. But I look over on the side of the street and see a slew of signs that make me laugh. I am distracted. Distracted enough to forget the pain for the moment. I laugh out loud at the sign, “Go hard. Don’t stop. Keep going. That’s what she said”. I smell the delicious aroma of meat and imagine lamb roasting on the spit to make a gyro piled high.
As we make our way into Little Italy, the smell of lamb is replaced by pizza. I imagine the chef inside the pizza shop spinning the dough high in the air. Flour sprinkles down like snow. The chef expertly catches the round disc and lays it on the pizza stone. He dips a ladle into a big pot of tomato sauce and swirls it on the crust, then picks up a handful of mozzarella and sprinkles it generously. He grabs the wooden pizza peel off the wall and shoves the concoction into an old brick pizza oven used for generations.
Maybe at this point in the race I’m hungry?
I create my own narrative as I pound the streets.
Mile 18 in my mind has the soundtrack of Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” the smell of pizza and a weakness in my quads that makes me question if I can go on.
Pilsen is dotted with spectators who live in this Hispanic neighborhood. A vendor on the street cooks fresh tortillas and serves up hot tamales.
I stop by the biofreeze tent and have my legs sprayed. Now the smell of pizza is overtaken by the thick menthol sent of biofreeze. I hobble on.
At mile 22, we enter China Town. We were greeted with the red and gold ‘Welcome to Chinatown’ sign. You will then pass a dancing dragon, punctuated with the sounds of drums. Take a deep whiff and you will smell the dumplings cooking from the many restaurants that line the streets. The residents spill out of their homes and hang off the balconies, hanging Chinese flags and playing music. They are sharing the narrative of their memories and experiences.
As we round the corner at mile 23, it’s a straight 3 mile shot up Michigan Avenue back to Grant Park. I take off my headphones. I no longer want the course puncated by the beat of DaBaby and Cardi B, I want to hear and feel the crowd. I take in the sounds of the cowbells, shouting of names and cheers. I feel the wind whipping past, pushing me to the side and I fight the urge to collapse. I keep moving, one foot in front of the other, the city carrying me forward. I finally cross the finish line and raise my hands in the air…a victory. Me vs. me.
Ricouer states, “Places are points where something happens, where something comes to be”. The finish line for the Chicago Marathon is where I became a marathoner.
To some, Michigan Avenue at south end part of Grant Park is just a place. To some, it’s just a park. Maybe the narrative capacity to some is the fact that this is the location of Buckingham Fountain. Buckingham Fountain has a rich history of its own. Or, if you were a fan of Married with Children in the ‘90s, perhaps this location is meaningful to you as the site of the opening credits for the show.
For me, and all of the other Chicago Marathoners, this place is the point where we became marathoners. Whether it was our first or 100th marathon, each time a runner crosses the finish line, he/she is a marathoner. The place symbolizes the narrative capacity of achievement and the culmination of months of training, blood, sweat and tears.
I am a marathoner.