On Sunday morning, roughly 20,300 women will line up to run the Chicago Marathon -- that's almost half of all participants. Those women who are racing, and not just running, will be chasing after the course record of 2:17:18 set by Paula Radcliffe back in 2002.
Radcliffe, the current world-record holder and former world champion, will be in Chicago for the 10th anniversary of that race, but she won't be running. She underwent surgery on her foot at the end of August, a month after she was forced to withdraw from the London Olympics. She has suffered from osteoarthritis in her left foot throughout her career and was told by doctors earlier this summer that she might never run again.
"That, for me, was the hardest thing when they said, 'You might not ever run again,'" Radcliffe admitted. "That broke my heart more than not being able to run in the Olympics. [I didn't like the fact that] it was going to be dictated to me rather than me actually saying 'OK, I don't want to do this anymore.' There's no way I wanted to finish on not even being able to take part in the Olympics. I at least wanted to wind it down on a positive note. What I really want more than anything is to keep running."
She refused to accept her initial diagnosis, seeking out more opinions and eventually returning to the surgeon who operated on her other foot in 2009. He believed there was still a chance to repair her degenerated joint.
"I went with quite an extensive surgery to give me the best chance of being able to get a fully healthy foot back again," Radcliffe explained. "I had a bone graft done and had some kind of bone growth that shouldn't have been there removed, and that's all looking really, really good on the X-ray. The longest thing is going to be the crack in the cartilage that I had."
After six weeks on crutches, she has now spent four weeks in a walking boot, which allows her to bike and aqua jog. She'll continue to build up strength in her foot and let the cartilage heal before returning to running. She has her sights set on racing in the London Marathon in April.
At 38, Radcliffe isn't likely to break any more records, but she says just the chance to keep running makes all the pain and hard work worthwhile.
"Just getting out there, getting up in the mornings and out the door running, it's a part of me," she said. "It's part of what makes me feel good and sets me up for the day. Imagining a life without that is not really one that I want."
When she's standing at the finish line Sunday in her walking boot, doing interviews on TV and radio about the other racers, Radcliffe knows she'll be aching to run.
"I'd love to be back here running it rather than walking around," she said. "But at this stage in the recovery, this is the best that I can do at the moment."
Since returning to Chicago on Friday afternoon, Radcliffe has thought a lot about her record-breaking race here 10 years ago.
"I definitely remember lots of parts of the course," she recalled. "I really remember Chinatown. I remember the way you run through the different neighborhoods and turn toward the Sears [now Willis] Tower two or three times before you're actually heading back to the finish. I remember how great the atmosphere was when I raced here, so I'm looking forward to at least being a part of that, even though I'm not able to race."
When the runners take off early Sunday morning, Radcliffe said, she'll share their race-day butterflies.
"Absolutely!" she said with a laugh. "I find that when I'm watching I get more nervous if I know people racing than when I'm racing myself. When you're racing yourself, you're in control, but when you're watching someone else run, you can't tell how they're feeling, so you get that much more nervous for them."
Nearly 8,000 of the women running Sunday will be doing their first marathon. Radcliffe thought back to her first race and said the key is to reject the fear and just enjoy it.
"It's definitely something you have to respect," she admitted. "I don't think it's anything that you ever truly, truly master, but I also don't think it's something you need to be afraid of. You should embrace it. It's an amazing experience. If you've done the training and the preparation, you should have faith in that."