On Oct. 22, I rolled out of bed at 5 a.m., showered, ate yogurt, and walked into the black morning to take a bus to the Chicago Marathon. In a way, it was dj vu. Twenty years ago I had run the Chicago Marathon, and this year, like then, the weather was cold, windy and intermittently wet, the kind of race day conditions runner’s dread.

To quietly commemorate my past, our family joined 60 other volunteers from the OPRF High School cross-country team to set up, break down and man the water station at the 25-mile marker during the annual late October race. Shortly, after the tables were stacked with tiers of water, it began. The wheelchair athletes zoomed through first, including the strong-armed victor, University of Illinois senior Joshua George. Next came the elite athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia, loping effortlessly in spite of the harsh headwind. We saw Kenya’s Robert Cheruiyot, who, in spite of a serious finish-line mishap, won.

In the third hour came the mid-line athletes, the men and women seeking qualifying times for the Boston Marathon. Well into the fourth and fifth hours, as our arms, legs and backs began to ache, the seemingly endless sea of casual athletes arrived. Many of them had written their names on their shirts, so we called out to them: “One and done, Ed.” “You’re doing it, Sue.” “Good job, Harry, one more mile.” Interspersed in the hive were the costumes-two Elvises; a Sir Lancelot, complete with sword; Wilma and Fred Flinstone; and members of the Justice League: Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman and The Flash, who, by the way, were pudgy and doing fine.

It was then-I finished in the 4:22 field-that I flashed back to 1986. I remembered my euphoria as I jockeyed for position in the first couple of miles; how my legs shifted into second gear at the 10-mile marker and how I did a double-take as the young pregnant woman passed me … twice.

I recalled the desolate South Side streets at 17 miles when it started to rain and the cheering crowd took shelter. At 20 miles, I hit the wall as a girlfriend ran me to the 25th mile. At that point, in spite of a nagging knee injury, I couldn’t quit. My husband Kevin, who had traversed the city to see me at five locales, was waiting at the finish, so I caught my fifth wind as the hundreds of volunteers and spectators verbally pushed me towards the finish line.

Unclear back then was the significance of it all. Finishing that race was the precursor to my own personal marathon, which now, as I approach 50, is far from done. In those years I was diagnosed with a rare form of macular degeneration whose onset in 1986 has continued until now when my central vision is depleted. As anybody with a setback knows, being able to run with it isn’t a jog in the park. Anything can be palatable, however, if you see the signs early and mentally prepare to go the distance.

Now, when incredulous couch potatoes ask me, “Why do those “crazy” runners do that?” I’m succinct: Because they can.

For some reason, running a marathon is the great equalizer, and regardless if a person is young or old, fat, fit or disabled, with encouragement, they can do it.

So kudos to the 2006 marathon medal winners. And to the rest of you, what are your plans for Columbus Day weekend, 2007, hmmm?

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....