From a distance I saw the racer coming, and somehow I knew it was her. She was alone, just as she'd said she'd be, pedaling with her arms, pumping rhythmically--three brisk strokes and a rest, three brisk strokes and a rest--in the manner of a seabird making its way across a vast expanse of water. As she approached, people began to clap and cheer, then cheer louder, realizing at the last moment that it was a woman in this wheelchair. Then she briskly turned a corner and was gone, pulling the applause along behind her.
No doubt it followed for all 26.2 miles of her journey.
She was Miriam Ladner of downstate Urbana, the only woman among the top wheelchair contestants and the last of the so-called elite athletes interviewed at the media conference two days before Sunday's 29th Chicago Marathon. Asked if she hoped to set a world record on a level course known for its speed, she said it wasn't likely. "I don't have any people to work with at this time," Ladner explained. "Wheelchair athletes often set records, at least in my division, with people who work with drafting. It's a big part of our race. With no other athletes here to draft with, I won't go as fast. So I'll compete against my own best time."
The lack of allies to help her cut through the wind made this year's marathon doubly difficult. The 35,000 entrants began and ended the race running north through Grant Park into a stiff breeze that angled off the lake. Forget the loneliness of the long-distance runner; what about the loneliness of a long-distance wheelchair racer? Yet race Ladner did, and she won her third straight Chicago Marathon in the women's wheelchair division in 2:04:21, within three minutes of her victorious time last year. I don't know if Ladner made it into the TV coverage, even at the finish line, but as I watched the leaders go by at the corner of Addison and the Inner Drive I admired her above all others.
Of course, all were admirable, which is why an estimated 1.5 million spectators lined the course, remaining in place and clapping for the runners long after the leaders had passed. Yet there is nothing like the excitement of seeing the leaders. At Addison and the Drive, where the course turned and headed back south, first to come were the official race vehicles, strobe lights flashing, to make sure the course was clear, then the police cars whose sirens sound so cheerful when they wail to herald parades and other processions. Then came the lead men in wheelchairs, with the massive South African Krige Schabort, last year's winner, cruising like a big blue Olds 98. (The marathoners in chairs get a head start to clear the foot traffic and typically finish about a half hour faster than the top runners.) On this day, however, Krige would be beaten by Ladner's fellow University of Illinois alum Joshua George, a smaller man who cut through the wind to reclaim the title he'd won twice earlier in the decade, this time against a much stronger field. After Ladner and a few other wheelchair stragglers came a pack of men on foot, most of them Kenyans. Soon after the lead pack came a larger pack, and at the back of it, drafting off the male runners, was women's leader Constantina Tomescu-Dita, who won the women's race two years ago and last year lost by five seconds to Deena Kastor.
As I headed home to watch the rest of the race on TV, walking past spectators arriving with posters to urge on individual marathoners, Tomescu-Dita became the early story of the day. Her long stride and the exaggerated pump of her arms making her look like a boxer putting in roadwork, the Romanian stayed with that pack of men for the first 11 miles, her pace well ahead of the women's world record (2:15:25, set in London in 2003 by Paula Radcliffe, who'd set the previous record at the 2002 Chicago Marathon). Tomescu-Dita drifted back from the men as they passed Walter Payton College Prep on Wells Street, but she plowed on as the course wound into the near west side and back past the United Center. All the experts on TV were saying she couldn't keep it up, and indeed she was off Radcliffe's record pace at the halfway point. But I was rooting for her, if only to shame Mike Adamle, whose first question to her at the media conference had been about the shopping on Michigan Avenue.
Tomescu-Dita made it plain she intended to crack 2:20.
But the wind and chill ruled out records and even personal bests for most of the top runners, and she faded badly in the last six miles. Russia's Galina Bogomolova and Ethiopia's Berhane Adere passed her and she wound up fifth. Bogomolova was a short runner with churning strides, and in the end Adere, tall and elegant, pulled away from her, making it look easy in the stretch to finish at 2:20:42. When she crossed the finish line, though, Adere went immediately to the barriers that narrowed Columbus Drive and knelt with her head in a break between two of them until she was sure she wasn't going to throw up. Clearly it displeases the gods to make the marathon look effortless.
It was the folly of men, not gods, that nearly spoiled the victory of Robert Cheruiyot on the men's side. The lead pack of about ten runners held together until the last quarter of the race, when Cheruiyot sped ahead with fellow Kenyans Daniel Njenga and Jimmy Muindi and Somalian-American Abdi Abdirahman. In the last mile only Cheruiyot and Njenga were left--Cheruiyot long and lean, Njenga shorter but determined. It was the fifth Chicago Marathon for Njenga, who'd finished second in 2002, third in 2003, second in 2004, and third in 2005, and every time Cheruiyot tried to pull away Njenga chased him down. They ran side by side across the Roosevelt Drive bridge, but as they turned up Columbus Cheruiyot sprinted one last time. Taking his final steps, easing up and throwing up his hands, he slipped on a rain-slicked banner laid across the street to plug the marathon's main sponsor. He fell back and cracked his head on the pavement but his feet crossed the finish line at 2:07:35. Instead of a laurel wreath for his victory, Cheruiyot celebrated with a mild concussion and an ice pack.
With its flat, fast course, Chicago fully deserves its spot in the world marathon majors alongside Boston, New York, London, and Berlin. But Cheruiyot's fall was a civic embarrassment. Yes, this is Chicago, where we keep gats in our pants and lanterns within kicking distance of cows, where signs warn pedestrians to watch for slabs of ice falling from skyscrapers and slippery surfaces drape the finish line of a 26-mile race. Cheruiyot was carried away on a golf cart to the nearest emergency room, and it was left to Njenga to speak at the finish line. After coming in second for the third time, he simply said, "Maybe next year." The man should be made an honorary citizen of the city and given a lifetime pass to Wrigley Field.