11th Podcast

In this episode of the Podcast It's a long road I will describe to you what it is like to run in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, one of the largest and most popular Marathons in the world and in the series of 6 World Marathon Majors. 

Hello to all of you!

Today I will tell you about the unprecedented experience of running in America, in downtown Chicago, in my favorite Marathon so far where I ran on October 10, 21.

So very close to Berlin Marathon it was that of Chicago, only two weeks apart, not the best time to prepare for another Marathon, and to spend enough recovery time from one you've already run. But apart from the short distance, it was also the most episodic, stressful and at the same time the most fun and successful of all the races I had run up to that point.

First of all, my original plan was to run in the fall of 2020 Berlin and New York. Two marathons for which I had already booked the tickets and the travel package from the beginning of that year. However, the spread of the pandemic and the cancellations of all the major races in 2020 moved the participation to the following year, 2021. I did go to Berlin, but the new dates did not bother me at all, so I switched to the Chicago Marathon for October 10, a date very close to that of Berlin.

But then in March 2021, which I took for granted in the summer of that year when I was starting to deal with the travel procedures, America had issued a decision that prohibited entry into the country if it was done by citizens who had visited 14 days before Schengen area member country. Practically, in essence, it prohibited entry to America from the entire European Union, but not from other third countries such as Turkey, Bulgaria, Kosovo for example. Really strange decision, but it put a brake and obstacles on my way to visit America to run in the Marathon. So after contacting the embassy in both Athens and the consulate in Thessaloniki and after reading the decrees, I surprisingly confirmed that the trip from Kosovo where I was also working via Istanbul was possible.

After much thought and always having a fear that I might hit a door and not make it to America and all is lost, I contacted the airline and changed my tickets once again, this time from Pristina to Chicago via Istanbul. My wife would normally have come with me, but we made a joint decision that due to the specifics and uncertainty of this trip, it would be best for me to go alone. Traveling for so many hours alone and without your man is not the best thing, especially if I finally succeeded and arrived in Chicago, I would not be at all happy to move around alone and discover the beauties and sights of the new to me continent completely alone. But I had to do it and even waited until the last minute to make the final decisions. Also another factor of uncertainty for me was the condition of my leg and how I would fare in the Berlin Marathon. So after everything went well and I finally ran to Berlin, I was still within the deadlines to confirm or cancel my participation. I finally decided to go and whatever has to be done, let it be done. Anyway, all life is a risk in itself, what's wrong with one more?

In the two weeks leading up to Chicago Marathon, from a training point of view I took them at a very relaxed pace and of course always under the instructions of my coach. The first week after Berlin I did a total of 4 training sessions (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday) with total training time in 3 hours and 25 minutes. The first training at a relaxed pace and all the others at aerobic with the Long Run on Sunday being 1 hour and 10 minutes. In the second week I would do 4 workouts of a total duration of 2 hours and 20 minutes. Just enough to keep myself at a certain level for Sunday's race. Nutritionally I followed the same plan again as in Berlin with slight variations due to the long journey I had to make. Tuesday and Wednesday very low carb and carb overload with double calorie intake on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. That is, bananas, plenty of rice wafers, rice, spaghetti and plenty of bread with jam this time, for a change.

I had mentally prepared myself for any eventuality, even turning back without being able to reach my final destination. For my part, however, I had obtained all the required certificates, both with the travel documents and from my service for my place of residence and work. The flight was Friday morning from Pristina to Istanbul and from there I should be on the plane to Chicago within an hour. I only had a small suitcase and a backpack with me, which I kept with me just in case, because I thought that within an hour I might catch the next flight, but my suitcase might not make it. In the new huge airport of Istanbul and after writing some kilometers running I managed to barely pass all the controls and finally find myself inside the plane that would make the flight to America. I relaxed a little, but I still didn't know if I would manage to pass the final stage of the American services checks. Always in the back of my mind was the fear and possibility that something would go wrong and I wouldn't be allowed to enter the country.

This transatlantic trip may take about 12 hours, I left in the morning but due to the time difference I arrived in Chicago again in the morning and so I had the whole day to myself. The good thing was that I had a similar trip and experience, since exactly one year before and shortly before universal lockdowns fell in all countries due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with my son-in-law Stelios, we traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia to another goal that the two of us have decided to make every two years 5 unique transatlantic trips to different regions of the world and to get to know strange cultures and different cultures of people. But this is a chapter that you never know, maybe we'll cover it in a Podcast episode at some point. So I arrive in Chicago and I felt a great sense of relief once I passed all the checks and was now ready to roam the streets of the big city without stress. My first concern is to go to the hotel and immediately after to the exhibition of the organization to get the number and untangle.

Chicago, or the “Windy City” as it is often called, is the capital of the state of Illinois and is located along the shores of Lake Michigan. It is the 3rd largest city in terms of population in the United States after New York and Los Angeles and is home to approximately 3 million residents. It is considered the home of modern industry, commerce and is a major communications, business and architectural center of the United States. Chicago has also become world famous for notorious criminals, such as Al Capone, who operated mainly in the 1920s. The most recognizable symbols of the city are the skyscrapers, Lake Michigan, the many shops and bars with unique jazz music, the its sports teams with prominent for the rest of the planet the Chicago Bulls basketball team and the great Michael Jordan. After the devastation caused by the Great Chicago Fire on October 8-10, 1871, the city began to rebuild rapidly and today it is one of the cities with the most and tallest skyscrapers in the world.

The EXPO was relatively close to the hotel at about a 40 minute walk. I will never forget my first impressions and the look on my face when I left for the fair and was now walking the streets of Chicago full of joy and satisfaction that I had made it. First, I was impressed with the people and their clothing, since I left Pristina in the cold and rain and arrived in Chicago with 26 degrees and 20 below, temperatures that existed throughout my 5-day stay there. Everyone was still in a summer mood even though it was October 8th. Second and most importantly everything was so big! The roads, the trucks, the cars, the buildings! What do I just say, what do they have here? Both in height and width! I had already provided a local phone card for my cell phone and with plenty of data it was possible to contact my home, where I immediately called them to show them where I was and where I was walking. Overall I remember being very impressed with almost everything. First with the buildings and how majestic and huge they were. I was in awe and couldn't take my gaze from above that was fixed on all those huge buildings tearing up the sky.

Many skyscrapers seemed from a distance to mushroom out of the ground and literally "scrape" the sky, hence the name "Skyscrapers". I really still can't fathom the size of these buildings and as then and now I still wonder, who lives in all these huge buildings? Are they offices and if so well do they have so many offices and companies or are they apartments and people live in them? But then again, does the other guy live with his family on the 100th floor of a building? And what kind of heating do they have? and what drainage do they have? and what lifts do they have? And at what pressure does the water reach their taps? And how do they make ends meet with the communal and common expenses of the buildings? What incredible feats of engineering are these all?

Almost disoriented and lost in this image of theorized buildings, time passed and I arrived at some point at the exhibition where the bad destruction was taking place. Hundreds if not thousands of people waited patiently in gigantic lines that stretched like a worm from end to end all the length and breadth of the building. We said everything was big in America, even the queues! After I ate for two hours waiting for my turn and I finally entered the exhibition to pick up my race number.

The exhibition is also impressive from all points of view. From pulse, from intensity, from volume. Unlike in Berlin, there were many more exhibitors here. But everywhere the same measures. Only vaccinated people were allowed to enter and wearing a mask was mandatory everywhere. I spent about two hours looking left and right at the various products and what impressed me the most was that apart from the clothing items, everything else was offered for free to all visitors. From beer, isotonic drinks, protein milks and many more. I filled my bag with as much as I could while also doing some shopping and especially some new products I was seeing which were chewable energy jellies so I took a couple to try at the race.

Before going to Chicago, as I usually do before a trip, I had made a daily plan of visits with the main attractions, so that during my stay I would have time to see the most important things and catch the pulse of each city as much as possible. . So for Friday the first day of my visit to the United States, given my travel fatigue, I had planned a short walk very close to the hotel, which was in the most central and convenient part of Chicago. Face card at Grant Park, starting point and finish of the Marathon. Really great choice from my travel agency.

Inside Grant Park, among others, the most important attraction and a landmark for the city of Chicago is the Buckingham Fountain and a little further on Millennium Park (Millennium Park)

The next day Saturday after I woke up early I did a little last 20 minutes easy little run around the hotel, I got ready and had my breakfast which was 6 slices of toast with 6 slices of turkey, tomato and lettuce, and I also took an anti-inflammatory for my leg. Later before lunch which was chicken with lots of pasta, I would eat 10 rice wafers with jam and a banana. On Saturday I intended to spend most of the day on the streets of Chicago and see as many things as I could. So in turn I visited the Art Institute of Chicago, the famous Navy Pier and from there I continued and entered the city center on the most famous and busiest street in Chicago which is none other than Michigan Avenue and the Chicago Magnificent Mile (Magnificent Mile). Michigan Avenue is one of the most attractive avenues in America, and Chicago's famous Magnificent Mile is a section of Michigan Avenue north of the Chicago River, with many galleries, boutiques, restaurants, cafes, hotels, historical monuments and luxury stores.

I admit that for me it was one of the most impressive streets I've ever walked and the huge buildings that spread around me had fixed my gaze. I also can't remember how many times I walked with my head held high staring at the incredible feats of engineering piercing the sky and how many photos I took with my cell phone. Really enchanted by this whole image, the many shops and the crowd of people moving around there, I felt like I was in a fairy tale, not with dragons, but with tall buildings that I had only seen in movies until then. Basically, I still didn't believe I was where it seemed so far to me, and even more so I was tested by the fact that the next day I would run through the streets of Chicago, covering 42 kilometers and thus I would have the opportunity to see literally the whole city.

The time I had at my disposal was short, but the places I wanted to visit were so many that I necessarily left some of them out of my tour. Later in the afternoon I took the boat for the architecture cruise on the Chicago river, which ended up being probably the coolest thing I did there. The ticket is a bit pricey, but it was worth it because it is probably the best, most interesting and fun way to enjoy the Windy City.

During the cruise I also ate my afternoon snack which was 6 slices of whole grain bread with jam and 30 grams of whey protein. I should also add that throughout the day I drank various isotonic drinks. From there obviously tired from walking all day I headed to the hotel where I ate my early dinner which was 10 rice wafers with jam, took an anti-inflammatory and after getting all my clothes ready for tomorrow I went to bed and very much looking forward to the next day long day!

The Chicago Marathon is held every October and is the fourth largest race by number of entries worldwide. The first race was held on 23 September 1905, with only 12 entries of which only 7 finished. The first race in the current series took place on 25 September 1977 and has been held every year since, except for 1987 when only one half marathon was held, and the 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2008, the race has been organized by Bank of America, and is officially known as the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. We had a record participation in the year 2019 with a total of 45,956 athletes, while in recent years the participation has consistently reached close to 45,000.

In this Marathon I said to change a couple of things. First of all for the first time I would not take the ice pack belt with me. I had checked the route well and noticed that it had a total of 20 filling stations and all of them had water and isotonics. The second change I made in relation to Berlin was the shoes. I had recently bought a new pair of shoes which I had already worn in training for about 60km so I chose these to wear for this race. The race started at 7.30 in the morning, particularly early I would say, but for me that was the best, since I also like waking up in the morning, and later the temperature would be particularly high and close to 27 degrees.

I got up at 4.30, made breakfast bread with honey, ate a banana and a cereal bar and took one last anti-inflammatory for the problem I continued to have with my left ankle. At 5.30 I drank as I usually do 500ml of water with electrolytes and another same bottle half an hour before, as well as a gel a quarter of an hour before the start of the race. With me I would have 4 gels, a chewable energy that I would try for the first time, 5 saltsticks and a magnesium. My goal was to drink water and isotonic at as many stations as I could. More or less, the preparation I do for the matches is the same, so everything is done almost mechanically and without any particular stress and rush. From the window of the hotel I could slowly see the athletes gathering at the starting line, although early some were already warming up, but I fortunately had the luxury of my hotel being right at the start and finish of the race and so I had the advantage of going out from the hotel exactly one hour before the match starts.

I entered Berlin a little scared, for many reasons which were justified. I came from a car accident and refrained from training for 2 months, I had insufficient preparation, my leg was in particular pain and due to the pandemic I had time to run a race, let alone of this level and with the corresponding stress of a possible failure. But here in Chicago things were completely different. I managed a relatively good time to finish two weeks ago, my leg with the same treatment didn't hurt at all and my spirits were high, both from the fact that I did it a few days ago, but also from being in Chicago and ready to do 2 out of 6.

As I had written 2 days before the race to my coach, I intended to enter this time and do a time under 4 hours. A bit of a bold venture, but I felt that I had it, that I could do it, and that I would repay myself and all the trouble I had taken with this trip, with a good time. On the other hand, the possibility of failing was particularly stressful for me, and I tried to dismiss some scattered thoughts that came to my mind. I wanted so much to make my coach and those who believed in me proud, but also my family and especially my wife who was so accommodating and well-intentioned and never gave me the slightest problem in any part of all my madness. On the contrary, he always supported me and encouraged me to continue, even though the financial burden on the family was particularly great.

My goal in this race was not to be afraid at all and to run 5.20-5.30 min/km throughout the race. 6.30 in the morning I left the hotel and started slowly towards the starting line. Lots of people everywhere now. A real celebration of sports that started in the early hours of the morning and while it was still dark. Countless people were going right and left looking for the entrance to the starting line. Once inside, I headed to the area where the bags are delivered. After I messed around and with that right next to it was a Gatorade tent where they were giving out literally countless amounts of isotonic and energy gels for free. The joy of every athlete. I had already taken mine and placed it in my pockets, but you never say no to another shot of pre-race energy. I drank some more isotonic and tried the chewable energy jelly for the first time and I must admit I really liked them.

The weather although October and 7 in the morning was perfect or should I say warmer than I expected. After visiting the toilet a total of 2 times I stood at the start line at 7.20. I was in the first wave of athletes in the last corral E. Unlike in Berlin where I started after an hour and a half from the first athlete, here I started only 20 minutes after the start. The closer we got to the start the more anxious I became, which I once again noticed in my heart rate. From where I was at 70 as I got closer to the start I was getting up to 100. I let my mind freer and tried to focus more on the images around me and not on the race while taking deep breaths to calm myself down. I was thinking about other things than the race and the trick caught on. Heart rates dropped and I would finally start the race with low heart rates.

It was only a few meters until I had to turn on the Garmin. Last pictures as I walked and the race started!!!

Hundreds of athletes poured like a torrent in front of me and I, in a crowd of other athletes, tried to catch the pace I wanted. Although there were many runners, there was such ease that at no point do I remember being disturbed or disturbed by other runners. Also what I noticed this time was that most of the athletes were restrained and not so carried away by the crowd and the flow of the race that they developed great marathon speeds. I really enjoy watching the other runners. I've said it before.

I love looking at everyone's gear. From the shoes they wear, to their hats. I also like to observe what they say or do. Their movements throughout the match. That's where you finally realize how many different runners already exist. Some ran really galloping like goats, some on tiptoe, some with the whole foot, some with the heel, some dragged their feet, some had a particularly strong and noisy tread, others had a strange movement in their hands, but and throughout their body. Some others were arguing loudly about something that I personally don't like at all and it throws me off, that's why I'm moving away. So many runners, so many shoes, so many accessories, so don't listen to anyone. Everything is subjective, especially in shoes. The only criterion you will have is your tread and only that to choose the shoe. From there everything has its own technology and they all do the same job, so after you see what pressure you have then it's purely a personal choice which one fits you better and which one doesn't.

I felt exhausted right from the start of the race. Impressed by how many people were lined up left and right and cheering. From the pulse and volume they had, to the signs they held. I tried throughout the journey to read as many as I could. Truly the ingenuity of some with what they wrote was incredible. Where do they think of all this I wonder? Also, as I've said before, I especially like to shake my hand with the little kids who so patiently raise their hands and wait for the athletes to "high five". The look of joy on their faces really pays off. Even more incredible were some guys with improvised bands, in strange costumes, some others were dancing somewhere else, while in some areas the music was particularly loud, which I personally like and it turns me on. 

As I said I entered the race strong. I did the first 5 km in 26:51 and 5:23 min/km, almost 3 minutes less than Berlin. The 5th kilometer was even done in the best time of the whole race in 4:48. I felt good and without any problems, although for a marathon it is too early to draw conclusions. My energy planning for the saltsticks was the same. Every 7 kilometers. The magnesium somewhere in the middle of the route, the gels every 8 kilometers, the chewable one I would say somewhere after 30 and whatever else I take from the route such as a banana, a chewable gel and of course water and isotonic from the filling stations.

The entire route was the ultimate city tour, as the race stretches through 29 different neighborhoods and dozens of local and historic landmarks. A real dance partnered by towering skyscrapers that embraced you and danced to your beat for most of the route. We started by going north for a bit, then went down south and then up north again on a long straight that was just under 10km long and went through Lincoln Park. Somewhere in the park we had reached the 10 kilometers of the route and the second 5th went even better after coming out in a time of 26:27 with 5:18 min/km and a tenth time of 53:18.

26:11 and 26:36 were also the next 2 fives with a half marathon time of 1:52:04 with an average of 05:27 min/km. Right on target I said and because I was feeling good my psychology had soared. I didn't stop for a minute, however, to look at the buildings and the city of Chicago all the way. As well as the countless spectators who I wondered woke up from 7am to be there at the match and cheer non-stop. I was impressed by a couple of old people with some kind of bells in their hands who were ringing them with such passion and fury that they showed that they were living with great intensity throughout the race and if nothing else this enthusiasm and vitality could not be passed on to you. I really enjoyed them!

27:17 and 5:28 min/km were my next five until the 25th km. Right inside my target. I was thinking that if I continue like this I have the record, but of course everything is judged after the 30th kilometer. That's where the big battle is fought between what you want and what I can do. That is where all the negative effects start and you are now fighting with yourself and your thoughts. From there on, you have to show yourself strong and overcome yourself. With 28:56 the next five until 30 and an average of 05:48 was when I started to run out of strength and fatigue and negative thoughts made their appearance. 02:42:18 was my 30km time. I had no complaint. It was fine and within my target, although the performance dropped a bit.

I was also impressed by the fact that it had many gas stations, but more by how close they seemed to be to each other. As I said before I knew it would have 20 stations so that meant that about every 2km you could have power. However, the fact that each station stretched for several hundreds of meters, you had the impression that when one ended, after a while the other would also have new supplies. At each station he had full isotonics and water. First the Gatorade isotonics and after a few meters the water stalls stretched out, all on both sides of the road. I did not miss the opportunity to grab something from each station. A little more energy never hurt anyone!

As it always happens, the next 12 kilometers were also the most difficult and the ones where you meet many limping, receiving medical help and walking. It is from there that you see rescuers running, athletes struggling and struggling, legs dragging and the sounds of ambulances piercing your ears. Images and situations that also have a negative effect on your psychology, but you have to look strong and overcome them. Banish those thoughts and negative affects and think only of good things and the ending. This is what I do. I'm thinking more and more about the time I'll finish, and more and more about how proud and strong I'll feel. Gels, isotonics and whatever else I had loaded my energy system and as I always say "Come on, what's left? Nothing. A simple daily workout remained and nothing else! It's now a matter of ten"

However, my pace dropped a bit. I was at 6 min/km and the next 5th came out with 30 minutes. I wasn't daunted though. Another 7 were staying and I felt that I could stay here. I can finish at this pace and be in the skies and with a new personal best. That's what I told myself and I also put on a pair of green sunglasses that were given out in a stand at the end of the match for free. The glasses, of course, because in this race I wasn't wearing anything extra on me, a little later they bothered me and I threw them away. I don't know but I wanted to get a clear picture of everything. I didn't want filters in my eyes. I felt that I live even better and more intensely the whole way if I don't wear glasses. I thought I was seeing more clearly and more "alive".

Kind of like my wife who when I'm driving and as usual she's scared for no reason, she takes off her glasses to see better and pay more attention, as if she's the one driving! This immediately came to mind! Somewhere before the 30th kilometer he had the Gatorade chewables, and then for 4 stations he had a banana where I ate a total of two pieces. From about 38km onward you entered Michigan Avenue and you now knew that the finish was as close as ever! As I got closer to the finish, there were more and more people, more and more shouting and more and more strength I got. With 5:55, 5:53, 5:51 and 5:38 I took the last 4 kilometers.

Crossing Michigan Avenue and reaching the finish line, my joy was indescribable, and that's why you'll see that instead of dropping my pace when reaching the finish line, I picked it up out of my longing and impatience. After passing a very small slight uphill before the final stretch, here's the wonderful finish line! Once again I couldn't hold back and got emotional while shouting out loud “Yeah dude you did it again! Good job!!!" and raised my hands in celebration.

Fleeting, fast and scattered thoughts paraded through my mind in a few seconds and all together formed the puzzle of success that I was so proud of! Thoughts like how proud I made some people who believed in me and especially my family, thoughts about my awesome performance, thoughts that I'm ending this streak with my head held high, thoughts that my hard work, suffering and financial burden they did not go to waste, thoughts that I succeeded! All of that came and got even bigger when my name and my nationality came over the loudspeakers as I crossed the finish line. It is something that cannot be described in words, it is something unique that only finishers in general in any race can understand.

You never finish a marathon or an Ultra the same person. I have the impression that every time you learn something more about yourself, every time you become a better person, every time you come out even stronger and richer! Just like life is. We must never give up and dream to the finish line.

Final official time was 3:55:18, a performance that was a personal record! Total place 5,979 out of a total of 26,112 athletes, 4,330 place among men out of a total of 14,228 men and age group 467 place out of 1768! Not bad! AAA and also among the Greeks with the official results I came first since I was the only Greek who managed to run!

My heart rate average was 163 bpm, lower than the Berlin marathon 15 days before. There I had a heart rate of 167 beats/minute with a maximum. What I also found is that compared to Berlin, here I moved almost throughout the race at a tempo pace, i.e. a little above my aerobic part. In Berlin for a very long time and especially after the 13th kilometer I was always in the Race Pace zone which meant for me constantly above 166 beats/minute. As I saw my stats at the end of the race, in Chicago I only went into my upper zone 4 times, while most of the time I was moving in the lower part of my tempo and closer to my aerobic zone.

During the whole route I was followed from Greece through the application, my wife as well as my friend George Karagiannis who did not stop sending me messages while I was running.

After I finished I received my medal, took some commemorative photos, ate an apple and a banana and drank a cold beer provided by the organization, but I passed the isotonics because I literally had enough of them. I will never forget how eagerly I drank and how much I enjoyed that beer! I contacted my wife to tell her the news and that everything went well, but also George who had been bombarding me with messages throughout the race. A little later, of course, I also contacted him coach to tell him the news and to him who replied:

"Congratulations George, Really incredible performance, superior to any calculation and in fact so close to the previous marathon and of course with all the adventures you went through. Really impressed!! Your leg is definitely a priority now. I look forward to hearing from you about this and the doctor's advice.

Good return

After I got my bag and threw something on myself, I sat for a bit among the other athletes and watched everyone else as they finished. I observed their expressions, their effort and joy painted on their faces. I felt exactly as they did. Tired, tired, but proud and happy. 

The next day surprisingly I was very well and hardly caught at all. The best thing I thought since the whole day, which was also the last one, I intended to spend outside in Chicago observing the rest of the sights I had on my schedule. First stop was the Field Museum of Natural History and then I went right next to the John G. Shedd aquarium. I stayed there for two hours and crossed almost the entire aquarium looking, I admit, with quite a lot of interest at all these strange creatures of the seabed, in a very beautiful and very diverse exhibit. From there I headed downtown to my last stop for this trip. In the impressive skyscraper Willis Tower (Willistower).  

Only positive and beautiful images can you take and store in the suitcases of your memories and soul from such trips and really the short time I visited and lived in the city of Chicago, I tried to listen and feel as much as I could the rhythm of the city and generally of all this country. I still have two more trips to the USA before I complete the 6 marathons and I believe that in the end I will have an even better picture and more experiences. 

As far as the competition is concerned, Berlin may have been a good high-level event, but the big difference I felt comparing the two events is that the Germans were, I would say, "tighter". Of course, it could be the pandemic, the various restrictive measures and the surrounding atmosphere that was somewhat strange due to the corona season, but I had the feeling and impression that the organizers in Germany had a slightly different mentality, but also the people in America themselves were a bit more "crazy" and more "supportive". It could be my gut feeling and I could be wrong, but overall I found myself feeling more "free" in Chicago, more hungry to explore, and more impressed by the strange architecture of the city I ran 42 kilometers through. 

That's it for today, Thank you so much for listening!

Until next time, Be well, be healthy and always do what we love and what makes us feel good.


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