The 2002 Chicago Marathon: "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother"

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In the Spring of  2002, busy college student, husband, father, and Kansas City resident Matthew Westhoff called his older brother John (then living in Arkansas) and suggested that they use Matt's free airline vouchers to meet in Chicago and run 26.2 miles together.  The casual observer might be tempted to suggest a "better" use for a couple of free flights (i.e. one that does not involve pain)--but that would be a mistake. With Matt's curiosity piqued by John's Marathon debuts at Mississippi and Nashville, John seized the opportunity for fraternal-bonding-through-shared-suffering and maybe--just maybe, the chance to win a convert within his own family to the mystery, wonder and Zen-like state of heightened awareness achieved by long-distance running (not to mentioned the health benefits).  And so it began--abandoning their wives and children, the brothers  set out to go where no (Westhoff) brothers had gone before.  This is their story.

I have been running (and subscribing to Runner's World Magazine) long enough now  to recognize on site many elite marathoners.  In the marathon world, an elite athlete is defined as anyone who has a realistic chance of winning, or even finishing in the top 25.  They are easy to spot because they generally have corporate sponsors (I think they get shoe discounts or something) and they are running in front of everyone else, going really, really fast.  They do not appear on Oprah and talk about how they wanted to run a marathon to "heal" or "start a new life."  Like all professional athletes, they're running for big money.  Anyhoo, Matt and I seized the opportunity to pose as Khalid Khannouchi, the world record holder for the marathon and four-time winner of the Chicago marathon (note Matt leisurely drinking a soda as he crosses the finish line).

The above photo was taken at the "fitness expo," our first stop after checking into the hotel.  The expo is the place you pick up your bib number, T-shirt and electronic chip (used to record your times), as well as a bunch of free goodies (and advertisements)  provided by the makers of various and sundry products targeting the "fitness crowd."  Let's just say you have never seen so many sports bras in your life.  They sell them there too.

In the background of the above picture, on the floor you can see a big screen where they looped a film showing the marathon course as filmed from a moving car and speed up so that the whole thing takes about 5 minutes.  It was the main attraction, at any given time there were a hundred people or so standing there watching.  As Matt and I watched I provided a running narrative of what I thought would be going through his brain as the number of miles flashed on the top of the screen (e.g., Mile 2: "Hey, I'm running a marathon! Yippie!"  Mile 13: "Uh...okay,"  Mile 18: "John, I'm going to kill you..." etc).  After the expo we took the subway back to the hotel to drop off our stuff and get dinner at a placed called "The Grillroom."  At first we thought that the  prices were reasonable until Matt asked what came with the steak and the waitress responded with  "a plate."  (Steak is like a Hotel room in that it is a great paradox: the more you pay for it, the less likely it is to come with anything extra.  Stay at the Holiday Inn Express and you get free appetizers in the lobby in the evening and a complementary breakfast and paper.  Stay at a four-star and you can't park your own car, you have to tip and they don't even put an ironing board in your room, though they would be "happy" to pick up your clothes for dry cleaning.  No free breakfast but a $6 glass of orange juice delivered to your room by a guy in a tuxedo.)  I don't know if Matt was telling the truth when he didn't order a side and told the waitress that he "just wanted to eat the meat," or if he was trying to cut me a break since it was my treat.  I got a salad.

Race day was perfect weather-wise.  Cool and not a cloud in the sky.  Our hotel was within easy walking distance of the starting line.  Shortly after we arrived I made Matt wait in line with me for the port-a-potties.  He didn't have to "go" but I assured him that by the time we got to the front of the line he would have to.  He did.  What are brothers for?  The crowd was massive.  The race was capped at 37,500 runners.  With several thousand less than that actually showing up, it was still an awesome site to behold.  We estimated that by the time we got to the starting line after the gun went off, the elites had already covered about three miles.

Both of our pre-marathon training programs had been sabotaged by a phenomenon commonly known as "reality."  Other responsibilities had made it difficult to stick to a running schedule. In addition, Matt had been plagued by knee pain in the weeks prior to the race.  I had advised him not to run at all for the two weeks before, so it was a mystery to us both how his knee would hold up.  Unfortunately, he had pain in the first mile.  Now, if my Grandma Westhoff  is reading this she is no doubt shaking her head.  She is convinced that marathon running is an unnatural and unhealthy activity which ultimately leads it's fanatical adherents down the primrose path  to heart failure, short stature and  premature death.  I'm sure that as she reads on she will be affirmed that I have in some way contributed to the permanent crippling of  my younger brother.  Not so fast Grandma.  In discussing his preparation before the race, Matt and I both concluded that he had violated a couple of basic rules and that his injury was predictable if not inevitable.  This combined with my clinical assessment of his injury leaves me convinced that not only will Matt  some day walk again (without pain, I mean) but that his running future is bright.  That was of course of no comfort to Matt as we began pounding out 26.2 big ones.

As promised, I stayed with Matt the entire race though his pain forced us to keep a much slower pace than I am used to.  As a consequence this marathon was a completely different emotional experience than my previous ones.  As the race went on and we fell further and further behind my natural pace, I felt more and more like an imposter of sorts.  Having learned my lesson at Nashville, in preparation for this race I had written "JOHN" on my shirt in six inch high letters.  It worked better than I could have hoped.  I felt like a minor celebrity.  For the entire race enthusiastic strangers on the side of the road knew my name and were  yelling  "GO John!" or "keep going JOHN, you can do it!"  I have to admit that it was particularly pleasant when women would yell out what would in any other context be construed as a cat-call: "Woooooooo, JOHN!!! Looking GOOD!!!"  

But I was living a lie.  I was  fine, and a little embarrassed at all the cheering.  At our pace, I never even hit the wall.  Here I was, getting all of this nice but unnecessary support while Matt, my own flesh and blood suffered right beside me in total  anonymity.  Sure, he could partake in the general goodwill of the crowd, he could pretend the giant poster-board can of "Mid-west Style Whoop-Ass" at mile 16 was just for him; but never once did anyone yell "Go Matt," or even, "Go guy-in-the-blue-shirt!"  People...if you ever run a marathon, please,  write your name on your shirt.

I had no doubt Matt would finish, I just felt so bad knowing what he must be going through--sad that he couldn't unreservedly enjoy the first and most fun miles.  I wanted to be supportive, to make it a positive experience so when we were done he wouldn't say "I'm never doing that again," a not uncommon sentiment among first (and last) time marathoners.  I ran and I worried.

Please excuse the poor quality of the race photos.  The photographers probably had a hunch I would try and rip their photos off the web so they were careful not to make them any bigger than an inch across.

We finished in 5:03, a respectable time  considering the number of times we had to stop and walk when Matt's  pain became unbearable.  After we crossed I was nervous to hear the final verdict.  Could I look forward to future running-bonding with my brother or would this be his last indulgence of my new-found marathon madness?  Then Matt spoke: "I could totally do that faster--I need to loose some weight."  I smiled.  Mission accomplished.  "Next time..." he continued "we have to get Daniel out here."  "Ah yes... Daniel, our youngest brother,"  I thought.  "And then Mom," I said.  "Yes... of course, Mom" he smiled knowingly.   Somewhere, in the distance, a dog barked.

Note: Ahem.  I got a little literary in that last paragraph.  Excuse me.  It wasn't exactly like that, but you get the idea.  It suffices to say that we're planning our next race.  Incidentally, this account would be incomplete if I failed to mention that after the run we went to Gino's East for the definitive, world-famous Chicago-style pizza.  Note the bewildered look of epicurean joy on Matt's face as he anticipates dining on Chicago's finest deep-dish.


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This page contains a single entry by John published on October 16, 2002 9:41 PM.

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