Local marathoner says running has lows, but the plateaus are high

Alan Brazil running in the 2018 Chicago Marathon.
(Contributed photo)

Staff Writer

Hyde Parker Alan Brazil was taking his daughter shopping for volleyball equipment eight years ago and, looking over the athletic equipment, had an epiphany.

“I just decided I would start running,” said the 50-year-old father of two. “Which took everybody by surprise, because I was a couch potato until then.”

He was a skinny kid but drifted into a sedentary lifestyle after graduating from college. He maxed out at 280 pounds.

Today, Brazil has run five marathons and 10 half marathons, but he said getting into shape took more than just getting off the couch.

“I’m still a work in process, but I say you can’t outrun a bad diet,” he said with a laugh from his office at the Illinois Department of Human Rights in the Loop’s Thompson Center, where he is the chief fiscal officer. A year and a half after changing his diet, he started shedding pounds.

He started small, with a goal of 30 minutes a day every morning, but he could only run five or six blocks before requiring a rest at first.

“It took me four months to break that habit, and I remember the day exactly,” he said, calling it an instance of mind over matter.

“They say that the first mile is a liar, because if you’re running 10 miles, you’re running 26 miles — whatever the case may be — that first mile can play tricks on you,” he said. A runner may start with too quick a pace and feel terrible. Brazil says it takes him five whole miles to get warmed up, but he reaches a plateau at a certain point and keeps going.

Asked to describe the metaphorical “wall” people report experiencing while running long distances, Brazil said it is a matter of the brain being unable to comprehend the distance it has gone.

“I’ve heard it said, and I believe it, that in the first 20 miles of a race, you run with your body, and the last six you run with your heart,” he said. “It’s kind of a gut check. You’ve got to dig deep.”

Another thing that helps? A running community which provides a wellspring of support.

Brazil runs with Men Run Deez Streets and Black Chicago Runners. Both groups run six to eight miles per week from October through April and specifically train for the Chicago Marathon in the warmer months, beginning with a 5K. They also have a regimen for the Chicago Half Marathon, which runs every September up and down Lake Shore Drive from Jackson Park.

Many of the United States’ most celebrated track and field athletes, from Jesse Owens to Wilma Rudolph to Carl Lewis to Allyson Felix, are African Americans, but black Americans also have higher-than-average rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

“A large measure of that is because of inactivity,” Brazil said, but “running is not expensive at all. I guess I could say it’s egalitarian.” (He cautioned, however, that it becomes easy to get carried away when buying athletic shoes but said it takes a while to get to that point.) Since he started running, Brazil has gone off all but one blood pressure medication and reports feeling significantly better. A kettlebell class keeps his core in shape.

Brazil said many other groups exist for black Chicagoan runners, including Black Girls Run and Women Run the World — “Whatever flag you want to fly under; you can fly nothing at all,” he said. “Our point is, we want people to be out there running. We’d be glad if everybody was a member of it and everybody was active.”

Brazil said spectators have noticed a higher proportion of African-American runners in the city’s big races, and the groups have started sponsoring water stations along the route. He said knowing that they are there waiting at a certain mile — not to mention friends and loved ones cheering runners on along the way — can give the encouragement one needs to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

The lakefront, Brazil said, with its knockout views of downtown, is the best place to run on the South Side. Training for the Half Marathon led Brazil, a lifelong Chicagoan, to spots along the Lake Michigan shores he had never seen before, like Northerly Island or McCormick Place-adjacent Burnham Harbor. And he greatly appreciates the resurfacing of the Lakefront Trail and the separation of its bicycle and pedestrian paths.

In addition to the marathons and half marathons, Brazil has run the 200-mile, two-day Reebok Ragnar Great Midwest relay race from Waukegan, Illinois, to Madison, Wisconsin.

“It’s fun because of the people that you’re with,” he said of the latter. “There’s nothing like that.”

It is now mid-January, and surely some Hyde Parkers are beginning to struggle with their New Year’s resolution to go to the gym.

“Just stick with it and be consistent,” says Brazil. “Just keep going, and don’t worry about not being able to do everything at once.”

“The best thing for me has been to do these things in a group” for the accountability and encouragement, he said. People in his running groups have become close friends and a key source of mutual support outside of athletics.

While there is “the wall,” there is also the mythical runner’s high.

“It’s one of those things where when you get it, you’re like, ‘Man, I want to find that again,’” he said. “I wish I knew what caused it, because, when you’re in that zone, then you don’t really feel anything. You’re moving perfectly; you’re breathing perfectly. The sun’s perfect. Whatever’s going on.

“It actually doesn’t matter. It feels like sun’s out and it’s 70 degrees.”