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NewCityNet Marathon Ban

A fun, unhealthy alternative to Chicago's longest race

By Frank Sennett

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  On Sunday October 11, upwards of 18,000 runners will grind through 26.2 miles of closed-off streets to complete the Chicago Marathon. Exactly one week earlier, I am touring the same route by car in search of decidedly unhealthy fun. Call it the anti-marathon, if you must. I call it a breathtaking good time.

After picking up my friend K. at Marina City, a course preview is in order: We will proceed north from Grant Park to Belmont, only to double back into the Loop and detour through Fulton Market, Greektown, Pilsen, Bridgeport and Chinatown before tooling north again past the Robert Taylor Homes and the Museum Campus to a victorious finish at Buckingham Fountain. Along the way, we will denounce the marathon's clean-living spirit by embracing all the sins Chicago can offer.

0.8 Miles The brass plating of NBC Tower gleams wickedly in the midday sun, promising sleaze aplenty. Alas, it is merely a mirage: neither "Jenny Jones" nor "Springer" tapes today.

1.5 Miles Time for a cream cheese brownie and a Coke at the Corner Bakery. "I just want you to look at how much chocolate is on top of this," K. says, brandishing his s'more brownie. A slab of frosting as thick as my billfold rests atop a graham-crackery crust - "Not crisp," K. chortles, "but moist and succulent." The brown mound is drowning in a hailstorm of mini-marshmallows. Over the speakers, Frank Sinatra croons, "I'm as giddy as a baby on a swing." We may be expected to bus our own trays, but this is the anti-marathon, a slap in the face of pious good living. As I enjoy a backward glance at our wantonly sullied table, I bark my left shin against a concrete planter. Trainer!

1.6 Miles Daunted by this untimely injury, I seek professional ministration at Bare Assets II, a peepshow palace whose dominant design element is the concertina wire stretching across the booth tops. It is here that the weary anti-marathoner finds just what the doctor ordered: a $25 trip to the Shower Room, where a woman promises to "soap any part of her body and fulfill your wildest fantasies."

1.7 Miles It has been nearly a fifth of a mile since we have eaten last. Thank badness for the Bake For Me Café. Croissants, anyone?

2.3 Miles We can't turn west off Clark onto Monroe without running head-on into one-way traffic. We suck it up and add two blocks to our trip, detouring through the glorified alley known as Marble Court.

2.6 Miles The Cuesta-Rey smoke shop beckons with its promise of handmade cigars, but we can find no nearby parking on LaSalle.

3.6 Miles Nearly famished, we catch our second wind at the Howard Johnson diner over the Deuces Wild breakfast special - two eggs, two pancakes, two sausage patties and two strips of bacon. Diabolical.

4.1 Miles The shower room a distant memory, we are forced to stop at Near North News for some portable porn. Leg Show seems an appropriate choice. "Tessa Wants Your Peepee in Black Nylon," notes the cover line. Do joggers ever buy this stuff?

"Nobody buys this stuff," says the proprietor, "not even Clinton."

Clearly, at Near North News, the customer is not always right. So what do joggers buy?

"Cindy Crawford," he says. "That's a bestseller. Playboy needs to put her in again."

Back in the car, K. thumbs through the issue and observes, "Some of these women look pretty athletic."

We're sitting in a no-parking zone on LaSalle, slugging bourbon from a flask and looking at glossy photos of a busty redhead wearing crotchless pantyhose and a smirk. It's 2:35 on a Sunday afternoon. We check ourselves for shame, but feel none.

7.6 Miles At the first of two Baskin-Robbins ice-cream shops on the route, I down a two-scoop chocolate sundae while K. paces himself with a dollop of blueberry in a sugar cone. His lips turn a ghastly shade of azure, matching his tongue and teeth.

7.7 Miles We actually walk the half-block to our next destination, The Pleasure Chest, just south of Belmont on Broadway. K. fancies a green mesh dress. "That would slow up the whole race," he says, "because everybody'd be running behind you."

7.8 Miles It's back to the car for the hard trek to foot-long meatball sandwiches. Hard to believe we're only a third of the way to our goal. But I am energized when I discover the identity of the world's most precious commodity. Forget gold, platinum and diamonds as big as your fist: Subway's black olives should be kept in a safe-deposit box. Why else would the fast-food giant slice the shiny black orbs into eighths and then bestow only a few tasty shards onto each sandwich? I take a well-deserved break to find some answers.

Why so skimpy with the olives? I ask Agnes, a Subway customer service specialist at the home office. "They consider that a garnishment, not an ingredient," she answers. Far more satisfying is her follow-up response: "You as a consumer can request more olives at any time." I am tempted to abandon my appointed rounds to hector Subway employees citywide for extra garnishments. "I'm sorry," I would say, looking down at a sandwich night-black with the oily fruits of Greece, "but I _need_ more olives."

Agnes interrupts my reverie with the information that Subway mandates four olive slices per sandwich foot. The goal must be to go through no more than one olive per franchise per day. Each to come from one large can, conveyed around the nation by armored car. "You're not the only one who's asked that question," Agnes assures me, perhaps somewhat fearful for her safety. "I love olives. Olives are good."

8.0 Miles At La Baguette bakery, the self-serve setup forces us to burn calories we were holding in reserve for the stretch run. K. selects a cheese croissant "for the carbos," while I indulge in a puff bursting at both ends with cream. These we eat while lounging on a bus bench out front. Within seconds, a Broadway northbound rolls up and the driver throws open the doors. He looks at us expectantly, and then with a hint of anger as our asses remain planted. I lick my fingers. The doors close. Life is good.

The departing bus reveals a new temptation: Smokey Joe's. "Chicago's original hippy shop," open all of three months, lies directly across the street. Bob, the young counterman, welcomes us into the shop, which advertises both "smoking accessories" and "novelties." In the latter category, the boxer shorts sporting fake buttocks recommend themselves to the maverick jogger - perhaps to go with the Pleasure Chest dress. But we are here for the accessories, specifically the honey-bear bong smiling out of a back display case. A notecard next to the chubby little cubby offers the usual "for use with tobacco only" disclaimer, adding that smoking the stuff through water filters out half the carcinogens. Convinced by this authoritative claim, we also purchase a packet of rolling tobacco and a lighter. I fill the bear from the handy water cooler next to the cash register.

"Only about a third of the way up," Bob cautions. A true friend to the tobacco enthusiast, he adds, "I'm gonna give you guys two free screens." Just outside, on the corner of Broadway and Surf, we proceed to fire up a bowl. The water-cooled smoke crawls deep into my lungs. Two tokes later, I experience a delightful head rush.

As we pass the cheery bear bong back and forth, passersby take notice of our actions without making eye contact. Some frown and shake their heads. Most manage a half-smile and a furtive nod. Only one man, an urban outdoorsman if you will, stops to pass the time.

"Two young gentlemen enjoying themselves," he says from behind a broad grin. "It's cool."

"It's a mellow groove," K. agrees.

"That's exactly right," says our new friend as he eyes the bear somewhat covetously. As K. and I pass the honeypot between us, the man tells a long story about being hassled by the cops in an alley and then offers the following wisdom: "I always say, rich man want to be poor, get himself a Cadillac and a 'ho; but a poor man want to be rich, get himself a Cadillac and sell that bitch."

Yes, I reply, exhaling a stream of smoke, we are all brought down by our own hubris.

Sniffing at the air, the streetwise gentleman smiles again. "Maybe all you've got in there is cigarette tobacco," he says.

Maybe, I agree.

"Maybe?" he repeats. He laughs as he walks away, the most observant man in the neighborhood.

As we reload the pipe the proprietor of Smokey Joe's opens the front door and says, "Do me a favor, OK, guys? Don't do that out here."

8.3 Miles A smoking mishap has left one of my pant legs dripping with bong water, but still we are welcomed into The Wieners Circle, home of the char-broiled cheddar burger. Does the stand expect a lot of jog-by traffic during the marathon? "Yeah," says a woman wearing a ketchup-stained T-shirt that reads "Wiener Girl," "We'll be handing out cheese fries. 'Two dollars! Two dollars!'"

We order cheddar burgers, along with an order of the cheese-glopped fries, before heading across the street to Frank's for Manhattans.

8.4 Miles "Sorry, no cherries," the bartender says. We persevere. Could this be The Zone veteran marathoners speak of with such reverence?

The pool table proves too tempting to resist, but we console ourselves with the thought that eight-ball is the least athletic sport around. I sink one solid before K. runs the table. I feel as disheartened as an under-trained Oprah being passed by a wheelchair racer.

9.2 Miles Just in time to catch the end of the self-serve Bloody Mary bar at Stanley's Kitchen & Tap, we load our three shots of vodka with enough spices to wake a sedated rhino. "We get lots of the runners in here," says a bartender who looks like William H. Macy. "But only after the race. Last year when I came in during the marathon, it took me twenty minutes to get across the street." Maybe it's the Skyy, but the rest of our anti-marathon goes by in a whirlwind of excess consumption.

11.0 Miles Hooters does make a tasty hot wing. An order tides us over during our second detour around Monroe, and then around Adams, where the bridge is out just past St. Pat's church. We're adding miles to our trip.

14.9 Miles At Fannie May Candies a woman asks, "How far do they run? I couldn't even run a mile." We consider a chocolate soccer ball, but the pound of almond bark is half-price…

16.7 Miles The bubbling Frymaster signals that another order of wings is ready at Smoked on Taylor. I top these off with rib tips and a liter of Coke, but pass up the beef-and-sour-cream-stuffed potato. Jim Fixx and Florence Griffith Joyner would be so proud.

17.8 Miles "Whip cream cakes" reads the neon sign in the 18th Street Panaderia. We're there.

20.5 Miles The Pink Squirrels at the Three Happiness Restaurant act as pleasing Pepto-Bismol substitutes.

22 Miles I don't know if the burned-out windows of the Taylor Homes will give Sunday's runners a late surge, but they sure make me drive faster.

28 Miles We blow by Buckingham Fountain on our way back to Mile 7.6, where we cool down over a jumbo popcorn during a screening of "Blade" at the Broadway Theater. Our large Sprites are fortified with a half-pint of Captain Morgan's spiced rum purchased at a liquor store across the street. "Tastes just like cream soda," K. whispers as Wesley Snipes nails a vampire to a wall with a pair of silver stakes.

Still buzzed, I take it easy on the drive home. "One difference between the marathon and the anti-marathon," K. observes, "is that in the anti-marathon you don't want a police escort."

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