10/15/2014 04:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My First Chicago Marathon at 3:45:40

By Katherine Dempsey

Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" blasted through the loudspeakers as I waited in my designated wave of runners on Sunday to compete in the 37th Bank of America Chicago Marathon. A whopping 40,802 people finished the race.

I set a personal record of 3:45:40 -- the perfect reward after four months of training. But, even more importantly, I experienced a grand journey through the Windy City and observed Chicago spirit at its finest.

Although my tired body prevented me from completely soaking in every sight, I remember the soothing sound of cowbells ringing out, coming from onlookers. I recall seeing people with pompoms at one point, cheering us on. Though I know not every cheer from every spectator was directed at me, I felt like bystanders wanted me to succeed, and that motivation proved invaluable.

As race winner Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya crossed the finish line in an amazing 2:04:11, I was at roughly mile 11. I didn't know that participants had already wrapped up their 26.2 miles, but I knew I'd make it. The crowds, including my personal fans (okay, my parents who came in from Virginia) celebrated our victory over every mile.

I ran my first marathon last year on a fairly-hilly course that started and finished in Middleton, Wis., and only meager crowds came to watch. Last year, I ran through hilly fields with meager crowds, but spectators lined Chicago's flat course at every point. And the crowd support helped me push through those tough later miles. The live band playing what sounded like "Back in the USSR" and humorous signs -- "May the course be with you" -- kept me engaged and upbeat. We ran north to near Wrigley Field before heading south to Pilsen. The course cut through neighborhood after neighborhood of the city's diversity.

The day before the race, I picked up my bib number F22351 and then sat down with executive race director Carey Pinkowski. He talked about what makes this marathon great, and after participating in the event, I completely agree with his comments. "There's this energy, city-wide energy, that's amazing," Pinkowski said.

I hopped on the Red Line of the El before 5:30 a.m. to get to the starting line in Grant Park on Chicago lakefront and other participants joined on the train all along the way. To me, our common undertaking unified us.

Running a marathon brings people together; the event provides a feeling of fulfillment and feeling of community that's difficult to express in words. When I first arrived at the Howard stop and saw a man wearing running shoes, I asked him if he would be running that day. He said he was trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and although I wasn't shooting for Boston, I instantly felt a connection. When I finished the race, I glanced at people stretching on the ground, thought about my aching legs, and identified with their pain. But, the incredible sense of accomplishment far outweighed my physical discomfort.

Strangely, nervousness didn't plague me much before I crossed the start line. When I lined up with the others and watched the clock count down, I felt calm. Perhaps this peacefulness contributed to my good performance; I tried not to take everything too seriously, and I had fun on the course.

I met runners from Oregon, Mexico, Canada and more. Michael Tona, who lives in New Jersey, visited Chicago for the first time this weekend. I met him at the race expo and followed up with him after the race. He used Sunday's marathon to prepare for the TCS New York City Marathon in three weeks and said he enjoyed checking out the Windy City neighborhoods. Chatting with him reminded me that some race participants had never even set foot in Chicago, and I can't think of a better way to explore it than by running the marathon.

Charity runners made up another cohort of marathoners. Kristen Bullerman, a health and wellness coach who lives close to Wrigley Field, came out to support Action for Healthy Kids. I met her, like Tona, on the way to the race expo and phoned her to check in post-race. During the last 2.2 miles, thinking about her mother -- who died from bile duct cancer in 2012 -- helped her press forward. "I just thought of all the pain that my mom went through," said Bullerman, 31. She finished in 4:48:01.

Along the course, volunteers handed us Gatorade and water, helping me avoid dehydration. When I crossed the finish line, a woman (presumably a volunteer) noticed my tired legs and came over immediately, walking with me to ensure I felt all right. The pain later eased, but I'm grateful that she took precautions. Just a day earlier, I had talked with Dr. George Chiampas (the race's medical director) about the medical side of the race, which I witnessed firsthand when I finished. The woman who came to my assistance seemed to truly care about my wellbeing, and I greatly appreciated her help.

When I reunited with my parents, emotions took over and I cried, mostly out of joy after the feat I had just accomplished. I'm proud that I ran a good race, but I'm even prouder of Chicago. This city put on a first-class event, and I hope to someday give the course another try.