As marathoner, Jennifer Pfaff, grabbed the tether leading me towards the finish line, Ironman triathlete, Kimberly Shah, was demanding I give it my all. The finish line was within striking distance. I needed to go after it. I struggled with all my might to move forward. I used every last bit of energy and made it across the finish line in my second consecutive Chicago Marathon. I had improved my time by forty-six minutes. I had finished in 4:50:20 which was good enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon 2013 in the visually impaired/ blind category. People congratulated me. That morning, I just wanted to improve my finish time from the previous year, but a comment to Kimberly as we made our way to the race had planted the seed and these amazing women were going to make sure I earned a trip to Boston. As I heard from people on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, there was a part of me which was already looking to 2012. I was going to return to Chicago Marathon start line and I wanted to do better. As a blind/visually impaired person, one need only to run a marathon in under five hours to qualify for Boston. Sure it is a tough task, but many of my friends who have their sight must struggle mightily to run a 3:05, 3:28, 3:332 marathon to BQ. I feel they earn their way, but me? I want to feel as though I did too. I wish the standards were a bit tougher. Then again, it took everything I had to make it in the first place so what made me think I could do better and run faster? I just knew I could. Within hours of crossing the Chicago Marathon finish line, I was already telling Jen that I planned to break my personal record by another forty-six minutes in 2012. Jen felt I could do better than that. Truthfully, I did too. I told Kimberly that I wanted to work hard enough to break four hours. She said she would hold me to that.
When 2012 began, I knew I would need to train smarter. I needed to understand so much if I wanted to improve my race times. Whether it was the Soldier Field 10, Pleasant Prairie Duathlon, or Chicago Marathon, I needed to understand how to race. I needed to learn how to prepare to race. I reached out to the talented and amazing pro triathlete, model, and actress, Jenna Parker to guide me. She was willing to help me. Over several months, she pushed me to improve. One year I worked on mostly long runs. Another year I did plenty of speed work. Jenna made sure I combined both. I had never learned to combine both. I had never learned how to do a tempo run, long run, or interval nor how to structure my training to ensure I benefited from these sessions. Jenna taught me how to do that. Although I did not realize it during my training sessions, a great benefit to training under Jenna was I was learning to get stronger. In races, my plan was always to start slow, build, and finish strong. Unfortunately, I would always start slow, get worse, and completely fall apart by the end. With Jenna's help, that would not be the case any longer.
As I continued to work with Jenna, I needed to finalized my Chicago Marathon guides. My first choices were Kimberly and Jen. I reached out to them and both accepted my request to guide me. As was the case in 2011, Kimberly would start with me as Jen would come in at the midway point and take me across the finish as Kimberly would run along side continuing to help even if not guiding. Jenna was my guiding light, Kimberly and Jen were in the system as my guides, and now all which remained was to set a goal and go after it. Well, the goal was set. Break four hours.
Race week was here. I worked on the plan which Jenna laid out and I was confident because I was in the best shape of my life. I met up with Kimberly on a Saturday morning for a run and I had my strongest run ever with her. The marathon expo arrived. Kimberly and I picked up our packet from Keri Schindler who was in charge of the Disability Wave. We walked around tried some samples and spent time with Jonny Imerman, cancer survivor and founder of Imerman Angels, the non profit for whom I was fundraising and running the marathon. Kimberly and I met up for one final easy run one day before the race and I was anxious. For several days, my legs felt sluggish. During most of this easy run, my legs felt tired. If I was struggled today, what will happen tomorrow? In the afternoon, I made sure my race outfit, tether, and bib were set. I was not a fan of the predicted cold weather for the race. I wished it would be warmer. I did not want to run in cold temperatures. As I tossed and turned in bed, I remained nervous that my legs felt weak. I was scared because I knew Jenna had helped me get into the best shape of my life. I knew I was ready for this marathon. I had the training to break four hours. Would I have the mental toughness to do so?
Race day arrived. I could not sleep. By 3a.m. I was awake. I was alone with my thoughts until 4a.m. when I stood up for the first time and discovered my legs were still weak. I shivered as I prepared. Shortly after 5a.m. Kimberly called to say she was on her way. She picked me up and we headed out. The Chicago morning was cold. I mentioned my weak legs to Kimberly who promptly put my mind at ease explaining why I had felt that all along. I felt better. As the morning went along, my legs felt stronger. We made our way to the race. We entered the disability tent waiting for the moment when we could walk to the start corral. I told Kimberly how the plan was to go out slower, build to a steady pace then at mile 20 let it all go. She agreed and was ready. She reminded me to stay relaxed. On Saturday morning, during our run, Kimberly had me practice the race start a couple times. She has noticed how I am nervous to start out. I will either clutch on to my guide's elbow until I feel comfortable or clutch on to the tether around my waist as a security blanket. She insisted we practice the start so that I could get comfortable not grabbing her elbow nor the tether. She wanted me to run free and easy from the opening gun. We tried it a few times and she was satisfied that I could pull it off and it would save us a couple minutes which she insisted could be the difference between breaking four hours or just missing it. As we stood in the corral, I took deep breaths. Kimberly assured me I would do better this year. I was in much better shape. I knew she was right. I had worked harder than ever before. Jenna had prepared me like never before. The starting gun sounded and we crossed the start line. I ran free and easy. Fans cheered. We made our way. Kimberly was thrilled at how easy I adapted to this new way of starting and soon enough, I was flowing through the Chicago streets.
The miles flew by. Kimberly was excited. She would ask how I was feeling. I felt great. I figured as long as I stayed at about nine minutes per mile at the start and gradually increased my speed then maybe by the time I reached mile 20 with Jen, I'd be around the three hour mark at which point I would run my heart out confident that I would break four hours. Again, Kimberly asked how I felt. I felt great. From time-to-time I would speed up, but Kimberly would quickly remind me to slow down and follow the plan. I would slow down. At about mile eight, my friend, Michael Crissie, jumped out of the crowd and expressed how happy he was to see me running free and strong. He ran with us a bit as he informed me his brother Brian would be at mile 25 ready to cheer me on to the finish. A couple miles later, we were met by Kimberly's friend, LT Dan. He was running strong. After chatting for a bit, he moved ahead. At about mile twelve, my friend, Randy, cruised by, said hello, and headed towards what turned out to be a five minute PR of 3:23. Kimberly mentioned that halfway through that mile was when I had told her last year that I did not think I could finish. Back then, I was scared that I was running to fast. At that time, I had been running at a nine minute per mile pace. This year was about the same only I was running free and easy. I was not scared this time.
At the halfway point, Jennifer stepped in and took over guiding duties from Kimberly. Jen was now on my left and Kimberly shifted to my right as they both ran with me. Kimberly was excited at how strong I was running. In fact, what I did not know at the time, but learned after the race, was that I was running much faster than my planned nine minutes per mile pace. I was actually running the miles thirty to forty seconds faster. At the point of the guide exchange, I was running my fastest marathon ever! As the miles piled up, I started to wear down. I received a boost when I heard a familiar voice in the crowd cheering for me. My brother-in-law and a couple of my sisters had come to yell not only for me, but for my seventeen year old nephew who was making his marathon debut. After about seventeen or eighteen miles, Kimberly decided to drop off, loop around, and meet us at mile twenty-five. Slowly, I was starting to get worried. It did not seem like I was running as fast. This is when I was suppose to get stronger. Instead I was getting tired. Jen kept insisting I join her by running next to her instead of a stride or two behind. I tried, but could not. She kept encouraging me. I kept fighting. At about mile twenty, I started to labor. I felt a sharp pain in my left hamstring. I wanted to stop and walk it off, but I also did not want to break my stride. I stumbled a bit confused on whether to ask Jen to stop or to just run through it. The cramp grew worse. I needed to stop, but I knew I should not stop so I pressed on. Jen asked what hurt and I explained it to her. She said at the next aid station, we could get Gatorade, but stopping right now was not an option. I agreed and we kept running. It took a while, but the cramp went away. I felt pain in both shins, but was so happy from not stopping earlier that these shin issues were not going to slow me down either. I was grateful for the hamstring cramp for it showed me how much pain I was willing to run through on this day. My pace had slowed. Jen was demanding I fight through any issues because the slower I ran, the faster the four hour mark approached. I tried to use the crowd and music to get me moving. I was fading. At about mile twenty-two, someone yelled out, "Hey Israel!" It was Abby Reese. Her sister, Amanda has been a tremendous friend and one of my favorite athletes since I had the privilege to cover her legendary college basketball career. Abby made her way passed us on route to what was a five minute PR as well finishing in 3:43. Her stopping for a bit to say hello gave me a nice boost as I headed towards the next mile. Still, I was not able to sustain the pace and I started dropping back. Jen kept asking me how much I wanted to break four hours. She insisted, "You have to start moving. I can't want this more than you. This is your race." She was right. I wanted this, but the pain was too much. She asked again, "Do you really want this." I did not answer. I was too busy doubting myself. "Or we could just drop out. Is that what you want? I don't think so because we're not quitters." I was in so much pain. As she told me how much time remained before the clock hit four hours, I found myself saying, "At least I have a new PR. I'm shattering last year's time." Of course, I only said that mentally. I would not dare say it to Jen. We reached mile twenty-four. We were inching our way. The clock was ticking. Twenty-one minutes left. What was 8:20 to 8:30 pace with Kimberly had steadily fallen to over ten minutes with Jen. This was not how I wanted this race to go. I needed to start picking it up. I started to believe my heart is not in it. I do not want this as much as I thought. Even if I do, I do not have the ability to pick up the pace and run my race. Jen suggested we start running twenty second pickups. We did. After a couple, I started questioning myself as to why I could not take those twenty seconds and extend them into many more seconds or minutes. Jen told me we were still moving too slow.. We kept with the pickups. They helped a bit. We crossed over a mat. It was the 40K mark. 2,000 and few hundred yards remained. Ten minutes to go. I needed to start running fast. I thought of my friend who lost her life to cancer a year ago. She was the reason I joined Imerman Angels. I asked her to help me from heaven. I kept telling myself this was so close and I must push. I heard Brian Crissie's voice. "Israel, you're a mile from the finish. You're an inspiration, buddy! I'm proud of you. You've got this." I respect him so much so hearing him say those words almost reduced me to tears. I thought about Jenna. Confident that at this point in the race I would be running strong, I had planned to run my fastest mile right now as a way to say thank you for all the wonderful ways she has enriched my life both athletically and artistically. I needed to dig deep. What if this is all I had left? That could not be. Just then I heard Kimberly's voice. "We have to go. Come on!" I started to run faster. Not fast enough. Time is running out. Jen picked up the speed. If I was going to stay with her, I needed to push like never before. Clock is ticking. I picked up the pace for a bit, but started slowing down again. Kimberly yelled, "No! Not now. Faster." I could not go faster. I leaned back. Kimberly reached behind me and pushed me forward. "Lean forward!", she yelled. I tried to use her push as a way to spring ahead. After some time, I slowed up again. Jen screamed, "Run with me, Is! You got to run with me!" I tried, but my legs were not firing. Kimberly screamed that we only had five minutes to break four hours. I figured we were about 1,000 meters from the finish. I could do this. I have run 800 meters in 3:45 to 4:00. It would be close, but I could do this. I tried pushing ahead, but my legs were jello. I leaned back. Kimberly yelled once more, "No! Faster! I know it hurts. It's suppose to hurt. Now come on, go!" A fast charging Jen yells, "Help me, Is. Work with me!" I tried driving forward. Jen tells me we are about to turn. Kimberly instructs me to not hesitate and make that turn aggressively. I stagger. Kimberly grabs me to make the turn. We make it. She tells me it's one final straight-away. I figure we are a quarter mile from the finish. I push hard. Jen and Kimberly work hard to keep me moving. Time is running out. We are flying by people. Kimberly screams that we have 100 meters to go. I think to myself, that is about twelve seconds. I can make this hurt for that length of time. I start to sprint as best I can. Halfway there I start to slow down. I yell at myself. This is not the time to ease up. Now is the time to go all out. Just a few more seconds. We cross one mat. I keep running. There is one more. Kimberly and Jen slow down. I am confused. Is there not one more mat? I turn to Kimberly. "Is it over?" She turns to me. "Yeah" she hugs me, "It's over." Jen hugs me. She is not sure if we made it. Kimberly insists we did. Jen believes we missed it by sixteen seconds. Kimberly said we made it by one minute. We are not sure. Until further notice, I will go with Kimberly's estimated time. We walk around. Eventually, Kimberly departs and heads home. Jen walks me to the Imerman Angels ten where the first person I see is Jonny followed by Jemma who points out that not only did I run another PR, but is qualifies me for Boston as a blind/visually impaired runner.
I see my nephew. He completed his first marathon in 3:35. I ask how was it? He responds, "I always knew it was tough, but I didn't understand how much until today. I have more respect for what you do than I ever have before." Still unsure of my time, I head home. I get home and take off my race clothes. Before showering, I check Facebook. Almost immediately after logging on, my friend, Kristine, sends me a note congratulating me on my 3:58 finish. What? I did it? I broke four hours! Later, Jen confirmed it and I was so thrilled. My quest was complete. Thanks to Jenna, Kimberly, and Jen I had broken four hours. I also learned after the race that my final mile was an eight minute mile which was my fastest of the day. In fact, since losing my sight, my fastest mile in a race was 8:05 a month ago so this final mile has now in fact become my fastest race mile ever. While I have run faster in training, I have yet to run a faster mile in race. Again, all thanks to Kimberly and Jen who would not let me give up and settle for falling short. With special thanks to Jenna for not only preparing me throughout this season, but was my motivation to run the mile of my life to break four hours.