This sunday was the 108th running of the Chicago Marathon. 40,000 people descend on the city to run it each year. Most of the time I watch it on the 9pm news but Sunday I felt compelled to get close–to get someone else’s sweat on me. My wife has run this marathon twice and I see her face every day, but I wanted to experience who else runs in this annual spectacle of humanity?
I rode by bike to Chinatown and among the dim sum diners and tourists, I found a low spot on the inside of a turn where the runners cut the corner and run close to the curb. This is where I crouched for an hour shooting the runners as they strode out of the bright sun into a cool open shadow, and I loved the light there. To the amateur, open shadow is boring light but it is alive with random ambient reflection and color especially on dark, sweaty skin. In the blur of movement your eye can’t see this quality of light and its cumbersome to create in the studio. It takes 1/500th of a second and the right over exposure, but it’s there.
I also enjoy seeing people in unguarded moments. At mile 22 in a marathon, your about as unguarded as you’ll likely get in a given year. At this point runners are turning inward, looking for strength to make every last meter. I was fascinated by the range of feeling I could read on their faces – from grimaced determination to hazy-eyed focus, it kept me crouching there longer than I had time to. The next day as I edited these, I thought about people who run marathons. Why do it? Who are these people? In the end I had a theory that satisfies me. I think people who run marathons are generally exceptional people with exceptional integrity. I’m not talking about the Kenyans –although they are exceptionally fast. But I mean the regular people, like these 21 folks who were going to finish well past 4 hours. No record setting here. I think they operate in an elevated sphere of integrity most others don’t. Many run selflessly for a cause to raise money or awareness to benefit someone other than themselves– Cancer research, Ronald McDonald House, Child Lymphoma Society, whatever. I think others run for their legacy, for their children or to make sense of their existence on the planet. Maybe it’s something that brings them closer to the people they love or closer to the feeling of death, which in turn makes us feel more alive! Whatever it is, these people were on a journey. A marathon is a beta of an ideal life lived. A long hard slog on a road you can’t step from until you’ve fulfilled every promise you’ve made. Imagine if this were how we all lived our lives, Sunday through Sunday.