11/14/2013 02:57 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The 6 Things That Helped Me Get to the Finish Line of the Chicago Marathon


When I set out on a run at the Lake Hollywood Reservoir Sunday, my first since participating in the Chicago Marathon a month earlier, I was eager. My mp3 player was dead so I figured I would just listen to Pandora on my iPhone. But when I realized there was no reception in the area, and I would not be able to listen to music, I almost quit -- like a big crybaby.

I have a good reason, though, for my histrionic behavior. When I run I need motivation to keep me going because, several miles in, my right knee starts throbbing, then my left, followed by the ugly bunions on my feet. TMI much? Then there's my iliotibial band issue, a common injury which often affects the outside of the knee all the way to the gluteal region, i.e., the buttocks.

Music distracts me, and that's key for me -- anything to keep me from thinking of the pain.

A month before the marathon, my podiatrist inserted expensive, non-insurance-covered orthotics into my running shoes to address my foot deformity. He promised they would help prevent the blood blisters I had been getting, but my anxiety was not assuaged. With all my injured body parts, my overactive imagination went into overdrive and I envisioned lunging for my medal at the finish and then collapsing into a heap.

I needed to graduate to long-distance runs, but I could not get seem to get past running more than half marathon distance -- a mere 13.1 miles. My boyfriend, who was also running the marathon with me, kept telling me it was time to start tapering, in other words, slowing it all down, but I brushed him off. How could I taper if I still needed to train? With his close-to-perfect, German engineered body parts, he had never experienced this kind of discomfort while running. What did he know? It irked me when he kept telling me that he was confident I would finish. How annoying to have to deal with someone who believes in you so much.

I tried for 17 or 18 miles, but I only made it to 14. That was the longest I would run before the marathon. Don't worry, marathon vets assured me. You can probably walk the entire thing and still make it within the six and a half hour cutoff.

What? I screamed inside: But, I don't want to walk a marathon! I want to run like the wind. I wanted to resemble those strong, athletic, long-legged women featured in Nike ads with the breeze blowing through their hair whilst carrying that air of invincibility.

Despite my doubts, I knew it wasn't in me to give up and that was cause for worry -- that I might push too much and injure myself even more. Not only do I have a high threshold for pain, but I've long suspected I'm a closet masochist.

I would reach that finish line, even if I had to crawl, which is why I sought the help of professionals, like the podiatrist and a good physical therapist who preached that you don't run to train, you train to run. Work on strengthening the glutes, my PT recommended, so less pressure is placed on the aging knees. Squats, side-lying hip abductions, monster and crab walks, and clam exercises all became my frenemies.

Ultimately, it was strength training, along with these six things, that I believe helped get me to the end.

1. Chicago. I mean, it's an amazing city. I lived here for five years when I worked as an education reporter for the Chicago Tribune covering the city's schools as my beat. I had to move back home before my sixth winter, however, because this wimpy California girl simply not withstand that kind of cold. Besides, I was becoming alarmingly obese due to my relative lack of activity and exercise. Who wants to go outside when it's freezing? So on that marathon Sunday a little over a month ago, I ran through old haunts in 29 diverse neighborhoods and thoroughly enjoyed it. From the Loop in downtown to Pilsen, where I stopped to take a photo with my iPhone of Nuevo Leon, my favorite Mexican restaurant in the entire world, all the way to the end at Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain.

2. The perfect weather. It was a sunny high of 65 degrees. Hey, you never know what to expect with the Windy City. It's entirely plausible that the marathon could have taken place during a blizzard and I would have had to don a parka. In years prior, the marathon has been marked by freezing rain, heat and humidity, below freezing wind chills, snow and death. Yes, people have died running this thing. I tried really hard not to dwell on that sad fact.

3. The cheering masses. You would not expect to find that kind of support in LA. Who wants to stand on a street corner cheering when you can be at the beach or on an obnoxious, double-decker bus tour gaping at movie star homes? Thankfully, Chicagoans come out in droves for the marathon with incredibly clever signs. I especially liked one that said "I don't know you, but I'm proud of you." At mile 23, I laughed aloud at the one that said: "Consider the first 23 miles a warm-up. The 5K fun run starts now." And that is exactly how I looked at it. I was able to smell the end, at that point.

4. Sentimentality and nostalgia. What do I know -- this was my very first marathon, but I think it must help when you have a real connection to the city you're running in. I mean, my first day at work here was Sept. 11, 2001. My kids spent their formative years here -- attending a public school in the city, cheering for the Cubbies and getting to know all of the city's wonderful museums and cultural landmarks. In fact, when I moved back home to LA, I retained my Chi Town cell phone number. I'm still reppin' the 312, baby.

5. Drugs (Advil). I popped one in early in the race and then at mile 16. I have no proof that it helped alleviate the pain from my aforementioned body parts, but I don't think it made them any worse.

6. Music. This one is probably the most important to me. For some reason, I must have played Mary J. Blige's "Family Affair" at least five times. "Knights of Cydonia" from Muse got me through miles 20 to 23. Additional shout-outs to Garbage, No Doubt, Shakira, Enimen, Rihanna, AC/DC, Guns n' Roses and Garth Brooks. I know, my tastes are a bit on the eclectic side. They were all there for me.

By mile 14, only halfway done, I was confident, and even quasi cocky, that I would make it to the finish line. When I got to 20, I was like, "I got this. It's a 10K now." It really was all a mind game to me. At mile 25 I saw my boyfriend on the sidelines patiently waiting. He had finished two hours earlier and had the coveted medal in his possession. I was tempted to yank it off his neck, but thankfully, I maintained my composure and restrained myself.

I wanted that medal but figured I should earn it.

And although I wasn't running fast, I was steady and took very short walk breaks. It took me five hours and 51 minutes to finish with a 13:30 minute per mile pace.

The "problem" with accomplishing something as big as a marathon is that it makes you believe you're capable of doing another one, which is why just days after I finished the race I signed up for the LA Marathon in March. I haven't told my bunions, knees or hips about the race yet.

With this particular race I will have an added motivation to finish this one -- raising money for iPads that will be used in my autistic son's public school kindergarten classroom. If you want to join me, read more.

And I'm open to most music suggestions. Well, except for jazz and speed metal.