Prior to my first ever marathon in 2010, I signed up to do a twenty miler to see if I was ready to run. Elite marathoner, Jennifer Pfaff volunteered to guide me the second half. In 2011, I reached out to head coach and owner of NJOY Racing, Ironman triathlete, Kimberly Shah inquiring if I could join the team's Saturday morning runs. Not only did Kimberly welcome me with open arms, she offered to guide me for those runs. After guiding me for a mile, Kimberly volunteered to be my eyes at that year's Chicago Marathon. That year, Kimberly and Jen teamed up to take me 26.2 miles in 4:50:20 which was forty-six minutes faster than I had run the marathon a year prior. Breaking the five hour mark enabled me to qualify for the Boston Marathon in the Visually Impaired/Blind runner category, but I was not too pleased. Sure, I was overly excited that I had finished faster, but I was a bit ashamed of the congratulatory e-mails, voicemails, and Facebook messages. After all, I had run a very slow marathon, but because the standards for blind/visually impaired runners are what they are, I had run my way to a qualification which I did not feel I deserved. In fact, when I see what my friends who have their sight must achieve to earn their way into the field of the famed Boston race, I feel it is an insult that the Boston Athletic Association does not force blind and visually impaired runners to deliver faster times which would be considered elite. I felt that I could run faster the following year. In 2012, Kimberly and Jen once again agreed to be my eyes as I attempted to break four hours at the Chicago Marathon. With their help, I did. My 3:58 was much better and had me feeling more deserving of Boston. Still, I wanted to keep improving. I wanted to run faster in 2013.
When 2013 began, my focus was to run the Chicago Marathon even faster. Each of the last several years, that has been the highlight race. After all Paula Radcliffe had inspired me to run 26.2 miles when she shattered the world record at Chicago in 2002. I have always enjoyed running in Paula's footsteps at Chicago. Unfortunately, circumstances dictated that Kimberly and Jen would not be available for a third consecutive year. Who could I ask to guide me? Before I could iron that out, an opportunity to qualify for Paratriathlon US Nationals came along. Not confident in my swim, I decided to pass on it, but pro triathlete, model, actress, Jenna Parker insisted I go for it! After all, it would be better to know for certain if I was or was not good enough instead of sitting around wondering. My race journey took me to Austin, Texas where I won my first ever national title then to London where I raced at Paratriathlon Worlds having the great honor and privilege to represent the United States Of America on Team USA. The focus over those months was Nationals and Worlds preparations. In July, I decided to attempt to break my personal record for a stand-alone 5K. I turned to elite runner, Elizabeth Bilitz to guide me. As we entered the final mile, she screamed, "Come on, Is! You got this! Yeah!" On route to breaking my personal best by three minutes, I had run my fastest ever race mile in under 6:50 all thanks to Elizabeth. The Chicago Marathon was months away and I knew I had found the woman who I wanted to run me in the second half of the race. The only question which remained was who would help me set the tempo the opening half? I spoke to Keri Serota, co-founder of the Dare2Tri Chicago Paratriathlon Club, who was in charge of Disability Services for the Bank Of America Chicago Marathon. She told me she has an ever-expanding list of men wishing to guide and that she could put me in contact with one or two of them. I knew that within my group of runners and triathletes, I would find someone. I reached out to my first choice. I asked the lovely and talented Ironman triathlete, Lindsey Cook who immediately said yes!
Liz and Lindsey would take me the distance. Would I be ready to go 26.2? After all, from late February to the middle of September the focus has been on sprint distance triathlons. The Chicago Marathon was only weeks away and I did not have the volume of miles which most would consider proper training. Each year I run the marathon, I have always done a twenty miler as a way to gage myself and prepare mentally, but this year I did not do that event. In fact, after returning from London, I was so ill, I would not have been able to run more than a couple very slow miles. Chicago Marathon race week arrived. I was scared. I did the miles I was assigned and kept worrying about those I had not done leading up to this. I knew that the most important thing to do was have fun. I had enjoyed my most successful season in triathlon. I won a national title. I went to London. Along the way, I had deliver my fastest ever bike and run splits in a couple different races. Jenna helped me relax by saying the marathon should be all about fun and celebrating my overall achievements. After all, I had reached higher than I ever had in previous years. for the first time ever, I had been named to the Dare2Tri Elite Team. I had represented the USA in an international race. That did not remove the concern I had for Chicago. I wanted to run well so Lindsey and Liz could be proud of me. I wanted them to enjoy their experience guiding me. If I ran slow, made excuses, or walked during the race, it would not be a good experience for them. It helped that both said they would have fun and help me run my best race. In the end I thought to myself, I have learned so much from Jenna Parker about being mentally tough and racing my heart out. I have learned so much from Kimberly Shah and Jen Pfaff about reaching for excellence. I knew in my heart, I could run my personal best at the marathon distance even without the miles in training because all the work I had done to this point had made me fitter, faster, and stronger.
One day before the race, I stepped out of my front door and there waiting for me was the beautiful, Lindsey. We had lunch then went to marathon expo where we picked up my race packet and her race guide packet. We had the chance to meet up with friends and make new ones. Then we head for dinner. After which, I went home to pull out my race tether and gear from Pinnacle Performance Company whose orange colors I would be sporting for the marathon. I tossed and turned attempting to sleep. I kept telling myself I would run a personal best. I had run 26.2 miles before so this would not be a new experience. I should not be worried for there would be no swimming involved. At one point, I woke up drenched in my own sweat. I was scared.
4:15a.m. was my wake up call, but I was up forty-five minutes before that and I could not sleep. I picked myself up out of bed, checked Facebook and Twitter, and then put on my Pinnacle gear. I had my usual race morning breakfast then received a call from Lindsey that it was time to go.
We reached the race location where we met up with Liz. Together, we walked to the Disability Tent where it was warm. I sat in front of a heater for most of the time. Lindsey and Liz helped me stay relaxed and they assured me all I had to do was run my race and place my trust in them. Lindsey and I made our way to the start corral just in front of the pros. My buddy, Abe Cortez yelled out my name as we walked. I had the joy of seeing Hailey Danisewicz who was running her first marathon. I was shivering. This was the first time in several years where I would not have Kimberly along side. I would not have Jen with me for the second half. How would I run? Will I have the ability to go strong or will I end up disappointing Lindsey, Liz, and Jenna? The gun sounded!
Lindsey and I crossed the start. I was a bit pensive for the first hundred meters, but I kept telling myself to be calm. Lindsey called out as we ran. she informed me of obstacles and our surroundings. Fans were all around. We ran through a tunnel. People were loud. We headed towards a bridge. I thought of Kimberly's joy in past years to see and hear the deafening roar all for us. Lindsey had the same excitement in her voice. Fans yelled out as they would for the entire race. Some screamed, "Go Sexy Isra." Others yelled, "Go Pinnacle!" Lindsey said she would keep me at a steady pace. I slowed a bit then Lindsey would have me speed up. I felt comfortable. I did my best to truly take it one step at a time and not worry about how I will feel at mile ten, sixteen, or twenty. Every so often Lindsey would say, "You're doing great. I'm so proud of you." That filled me up with joy. I was doing well. Then came the helicopters and police. The pros were nearing. Lindsey did a great job to keep me clear of them. A couple of the pros praised her for guiding while a couple encouraged Sexy Isra to run strong. The miles piled up. I was getting a little nervous because I had to use the rest room. It was not a major deal at that point, but as we covered more ground and I drank more liquids, I would have to stop somewhere. Could I hold it? Maybe for a few miles, but not for hours until I crossed the finish. I debated on whether I should say something. I decided to stay quiet and keep running. Some times it would hit me and I needed to go badly. Other times it was as though I did not need to go. Lindsey informed me that the three hour pace group was passing us midway through mile 5. I told her my friends, Jen and Bridget, had to be in the middle of that. If they were not, they would be coming soon. Within thirty seconds, I heard female voices behind me nearing fast. Lindsey and I looked to our left as those women passed. It was Jen and Bridget. We wished each other luck and they ran ahead. As Lindsey kept me at a very steady consistent pace, I heard a man yell out, "Sexy Isra! Hey Israel." He neared from behind and patted me on the back. It was Peter Mullen, one of the men who had guided me in my first ever marathon in 2010. He wished us well and he continued on. As people passed, many gave Lindsey compliments for guiding while others said how inspiring I was for running. One gentleman passed by and said, "Hey Pinnacle, I know you can't see, but your guide is very hot." I smiled thinking, of course I know she is. As Lindsey and I neared an aid station, Andrew Murray ran by on his way to a twelve minute personal best. He cheered us on and wished us well. The miles were flying by. Lindsey kept me at a very consistent pace. Before I knew it, we had passed the tenth mile. All of a sudden, the halfway point neared quickly. Wow. It would almost be time for Liz.
We made it to the halfway point. Lindsey said I was looking strong. I was feeling it too. Liz joined us and took over guiding duties. Lindsey ran with us for a bit before departing. Liz measured my tempo, found my pace, and off we went towards the back end of the marathon. There are some very loud portions of the marathon. Most of which are near the beginning. One loud place is what is known as Charity Mile. All the non profits for which people are running are lined up in a row and their volunteers packs the streets creating what I consider to be the most deafening part of the course. In this section, I have a difficult time hearing my guide. This time was not an exception. Liz called out instructions and I was lucky to hear her. I found myself rattled. I was doing my best to stay focussed on her, but in doing so, my pace slowed and I was feeling anxious of running into people. I ran into the shoulder of one person then stepped on the heel of another. Both were wearing earbuds and would not have heard me anyway. That was tough. Liz helped me make my way through it, but then we had to make up time due to my slowing down. Liz had me pick it up for a bit to get on track. The miles flew by. Before I knew it, we were at mile sixteen. Only ten more to go. I was tired of course, but still felt good. My need to use the rest room would go and come. I was becoming concerned because I knew we were nearing the time in the race when I would usually start to fade. Jen would always get on my case to push harder. Liz might do the same. In past years, I had put in the miles which helped me respond, but this time, I may not be able to do so. The only positive was I had shown all year long that I was much better prepared mentally to dig deep. As we dipped in under single digits in terms of miles remaining, I started calculating the time in which I needed to run to cross the finish. We reached mile nineteen. I heard LMFAO's Sexy And I Know It which made me think of Jen. Any time we hear that in a race, she always tells me, "There's your theme song Sexy Isra. You need to run strong." It was at about the same place last year in this race when we heard the song. For the first time since early in the race, I missed Kimberly and Jen. As Liz and I crossed mile twenty, I smiled. Ten kilometers to go. I was tired yet my legs were still moving. Had I slowed? At different points, but Liz would have me run some pickups to get back on track. I was hurting. I was also happy because I felt I was running my fastest marathon. I kept thinking of those runs I had done in previous years with Kimberly along the Chicago lakefront. I thought of all the work, advice, and guidance Jenna had given me. I did not have the marathon miles, but I had the fitness which I never had before. I was lighter and stronger. With each step I was getting closer and it was time to dig deeper and push harder. Liz kept telling me to pick it up. I would. There were a couple moments where I felt I would slow down which I used to mentally prepare myself for another pickup. I felt tired, but I did not feel like I was fading. In past marathons, I faded for long stretches before gathering myself for the final mile, but on this day, I was remaining steady. Liz said we were nearing a turn where we would come up on her college and sorority sisters so we better pick it up and look strong. she did not want to drag me through those streets. She wanted me to work for and earn my pace. We made the turn. I pushed hard. It hurt. I was not going to let Liz down in front of her sisters and that sign. Yes, there was a sign cheering and encouraging Liz and Is! That was us. We were killing it. Liz told me we had crossed mile twenty-three. Just over five kilometers to go. I was getting more and more tired yet I was still running my fastest marathon ever. I could not fade now. I needed to finish this. There were moments I wanted to slow, but Liz would not let me. Maybe she could see it in my body language or on my face, but at those exact moments, Liz would have me run some pickups. Those helped. I thought to myself, at some point here, I am going to have to pick it up and just keep running hard to the end. I need to finish strong to close out my best race season. As I did on the run portion at Paratriathlon Worlds in London, I started to count down the approximate number of minutes I had before the finish. Knowing it was around twenty minutes, I started to push a little harder. I did not know how much I had left, but I was going to try. We neared mile twenty-four. I started to think of Jenna, Kimberly, and Jen. I played a montage in my head of various moments throughout the year. Jen guiding me to my fastest half marathon in January by having me close with my fastest ever final two miles. Until this day, that run was my longest of the year. I thought of qualifying for Nationals. I thought of how Justin hoped me clinch the US title with a furious final two miles. The end was nearing. I needed to run faster to end it quicker. As we neared the final mile, Lindsey joined Liz and me on the course. With those memories on my mind, Lindsey on my right, and Liz guiding me on my left, it was time to flip my Pinnacle Performance hat backwards and get down to business of closing the marathon. 2,000 meters to the finish. I pushed hard. I could not tell if I was running faster, but I was trying. Loud speakers played ACDC's You Shook Me All Night Long. Lindsey voiced her joy at how consistent my pace looked. Liz screamed, "Come on Is! You got this. Finish this, Is!" I pushed harder. I pumped my fist. I thought if Kimberly and Jen were here they would love how strong I was closing. "800 meters, Is. That's all you got. Finish!" As Liz yelled out, I smiled and pushed on. We were closing in on my fastest ever marathon. I did not have the proper volume, but I had the fitness. I had the toughness. Now I was showing myself that I had the heart. Lindsey and Liz prepared me for a turn. We made it nicely. I was running under control and strong. A quarter mile from the finish. My friend, David Hardin, yelled out my name. I was pumped. Lindsey and Liz were excited. I was closing the show. I raised my fist and pumped one final time as Liz guided me across the finish line. I had crossed in 3:50:28.
I hugged Lindsey and Liz. They had helped me run a steady consistent race. they had just helped me run my fastest marathon by eight minutes. When I crossed the finish line, I had become a three time Boston Marathon qualifier. At the finish, Keri Serota greeted me. She was so happy. She was screaming her congratulations with such excitement, it gave me chills. I laughed and thought about Jenna. I had done it. With no pressure and a mindset to cap off my year by celebrating and having fun, I had run my personal best. This race was a credit to her. I truly am fitter, faster, stronger. I head into the winter months knowing that with proper training next year, I can achieve even more. I know that with continued guidance and training I can get even closer to where my friends who have sight have to be to BQ. I now believe I can do it. I have a support network filled with marathoners and triathletes who will motivate and inspire me to do it. I have a great company in Pinnacle Performance Company whose CEOs, directors, and employees believe in me. Not just those in the US, but those in their UK offices too. I have the support of Dare2Tri Chicago. I have the continued backing from Matt Miller's C different Foundation. I have amazing, talented, beautiful women ready to guide Sexy Isra as I continue to build upon my success to find special things inside of me. Thank you to all. Thank you to Lindsey Cook and Elizabeth Bilitz!!