Entropy at mile 21

“It is marath-ON!” So declared Dustin Shaw as he slipped on his volunteer jacket and rejoined a circle of his friends, all huddled together like penguins against the stiffening cold. Shaw and a motley collection of local high school and college students had gathered at the volunteer station at mile 21 of the 35th annual Chicago Marathon, along a lonely stretch of South Archer Avenue next to Connie’s Pizza. Along one side, bare concrete walls ran the length of the street. Flat brick buildings lined the other. Traffic from I-90 rumbled overhead, while the orange line train rattled by next to the course. Up above, a young blonde woman wearing a pink bra smiled coyly from a billboard for “Pinkmonkey: Chicago’s most elite gentlemen’s club.”

The day began at dawn, with the careful creation of order–tables set up along the empty street, bananas sliced and piled, cups of water, and Gatorade stacked in economic grids. First came the trickle of wheelchair competitors, who drew great applause from the lines of volunteers but asked for no aid and left no mess. Then came the elite runners, the lead pack of lean East Africans followed by counterparts from all over the world, who would take the occasional water here or energy gel there, dropping a few empty cups and wrappers that were efficiently swept aside.

As the stream of runners thickened, their overzealous hands–grabbing and snatching for much needed hydration–sent liquids whirling in dramatic arcs. Cups and banana peels flew around like shell casings, accumulating on the sides of the road. “The ground is sticky, and the soles of my shoes are covered in lemon-lime,” lamented University of Chicago student Lily Dasso. Charity runners, weekend joggers, runners dressed as cows, ballerinas, and superheroes labored along together in a throbbing mass. Dance jams like “September” and “YMCA” blasted away in the background. There was no halt to the reigning chaos.

As the race stretched into its fifth hour, a runner collapsed just past the 21st mile marker. Race directors quickly channeled the tide of marathoners to one side of the street to make room for the EMTs. Friendly volunteers continued to offer drinks and cheer competitors through, while a pair of hands could be seen performing CPR on a bare chest amidst a circle of blue-vested responders. Fortunately, the man was revived and taken to a hospital. For the rest, the race continued–5.2 miles to go.