It’s been nearly two weeks, so first of all, sorry to anyone who has been looking for a race recap. Chicago has been run, and it went really well!
The night before we left, I decided to emphasize a balanced diet. Pasta, bread, broccoli, lobster, and steak. Aww yeah! Before and after… So good!
C and I left for Chicago really early Saturday morning. We somehow managed to sit on the correct side of the plane – here we are on approach. Chicago awaits!
After landing just after 8 AM, we took the Orange line to our hotel. We were lucky; they were able to find us a room for immediate check-in. After settling into our room, we headed downstairs where there was a shuttle running from our hotel to the expo. The line was insane, so we opted instead to take a cab.
When we got to the expo I ran into 2014 Reach the Beach team-mate Josh, and we compared notes about how well everything was being run. We both agreed that the expo hall was much more spacious than what we experienced in Boston (2014), giving visitors a lot more opportunity to enjoy the expo. After that I went over and grabbed my number from this friendly volunteer, and then C and I did some browsing.
After a while, I received a text from Mom, who had made it from her hotel to the expo. She sent a photo, and I could tell where she was. I headed over, and texted her back when I couldn’t find her. “Take that photo again and I will be in it.” Guess what the next text was…
After a quick lunch (hamburgers), we headed back to the hotels. Mom and I walked to the starting area so I would know how to get there, and then it was off to our rooms to catch a nap. After that we headed out for Italian food and a little carb-loading for the next day’s marathon. Of course, Pedro the Goat came along with us…
We didn’t stay out super late, and we found ourselves back in our rooms by around 8:15. We spent some time talking through the course. My prior best effort was 4:51:29, and I knew I wanted to shave ten minutes off that time. I decided earlier that I would try for 4:30, with the knowledge that I could drop back by as much as 30 seconds a mile and still improve over prior efforts. We wrote anticipated times on each mile marker on the spectator maps we received at the expo so Mom & C could catch me a couple times. I went through my gear, made sure everything was laid out, and hit the sack for a 5:45 AM wake up. And blessedly… I slept.
I woke mostly refreshed when my alarm went off. Pedro seemed in good spirits, too.
I threw on my top and track pants, then went in search of coffee. C & I enjoyed a cup of Joe back in the room, and I finished getting dressed for the race. It wasn’t until this moment that I started to get excited / nervous. I hate half a bagel with peanut butter on it and a banana, and put my temporary pace time tattoo on my left forearm. Knowing that the starting corrals would close at 7:45 for an 8:00 start, I left our hotel at around 7:15. I was wearing my GPS watch, and two running belts. One had my phone and headphones, the other had an external battery to recharge my phone, charging cable, two tortillas from New Mexico, some trail mix, Hammerhead gel, and a bag of Sport Beans. In addition to my running gear, I was wearing a flannel shirt which had sleeves too short for me to stay warm. Here’s a photo of me as I was heading into the starting corral… happy, as I ate my next layer of breakfast.
A note about my apparel. I usually run my races in a kilt from J Walking Designs, but decided at the last minute that with the temperature heading for a high of 76 that I wanted to run a little lighter, and settled on some very short running shorts over Nike Pro compression gear. I love those kilts, but when I sweat a lot, and for more than four hours, they do get wet towards the end of the race, and I decided that less fabric would be better for a very warm day.
After making my way to my starting corral I found the 4:30 pace group. These were going to be my peeps; the people I would run with for as long as possible. A few minutes after I found them, we heard the horn blast and the first wave of the marathon started. The start of the race was now 30 minutes away… plus however long it would take us to walk from where we were to the starting line. I texted C and told her I guessed that I would be starting the race at around 8:12, figuring it would take twelve minutes to go from the horn blast to crossing the starting line. It ended up being 8:14, and my pace group hit the road at a sustainable 10:18 pace.
My watch, the Garmin 920XT, synchronizes with my telephone, and C and I had worked out how she would text me where she was located so I could watch for her. We also talked about her not trying to catch me until around mile 8. The start of the race was so raucous, and so crowded, and loud, that I did not notice when my watch vibrated with “M 1.5 L” telling me she and Mom had decided to catch me early… so we missed each other. They jumped on the train and headed north, and I ran along at an easy pace without knowing I had missed them. Let’s face it… with 45,000 runners, it’s easy to miss people.
At one point, I found myself running near a woman who had a sign on her back that said, “My name is Cynthia. Tell me I’m doing a good job.” I remembered the kind words of Team In Training teammate Zac who had asked me to find someone who needed encouragement on the course and spread some love… so I checked in on her. How was she doing? Okay, but nervous. First marathon for her. I told her she looked great, and I couldn’t wait to see her finish.
At about the six mile mark, I overheard another runner complaining how crowded it was. The person she was talking to said, “Oh, it will pass, it’s just the 4:30 pace group. There are so many of them, they’re really clogging up the course.” I knew I had been frustrated with trying to stay with my pace group leaders, so I could totally relate to the sentiment. I was feeling really good, and it felt like we were running slow, so I decided to try to get just a little bit in front of my group. I ran the next mile about 30 seconds faster, felt great, and decided to settle in around this pace. A mile later, I ran into Mom & C, got some hugs, and carried on.
And then I blew my stretch goal of running a 4:30 marathon. I was feeling good, was in front of my pace group, and when I saw one of my pace group runners go past me at mile 9, I wondered what was going on. She didn’t have any of the 4:30 runners with her, and she was moving about 45 to 60 seconds a mile faster than she should have been. Intrigued, I decided to follow her. After a couple of moments, we caught up to another 4:30 group (they were more on pace for 4:28). She talked to them briefly and kept up her hurried pace.
It turns out she had left the group behind in a preplanned bathroom pit stop. After a couple miles, she pulled off and ducked into a bar. I slowed back to my regular pace, but at this point, the damage was done. I had been running 45 seconds a mile faster than I planned for a couple of miles, and during that time my pulse went from the low 150s to the low 170s. I noticed this when she came off the course at mile 11, and my pulse would not drop below 173 from that point forward, and averaged around 180 for the final 15 miles of the race.
I didn’t know it at the time. I did know I was not ready to sustain 9:30s for 15 more miles, so I settled down closer to my target pace of 10:18, and carried on. About three miles later, my Vastus Medialis muscles (quads, just above the inside of the knee) started to give me notice that they would be the first thing to break down. I maintained pace and soldiered on, and looked forward to seeing my fan club at mile 16. Turns out they were closer to 16.8, and I feared I had missed them, but there they were… rubber chicken and megaphone in hand. Sweaty hugs were delivered, and off I went, still feeling pretty darned good.
…but not much later, I knew I was in trouble. The muscles that had been giving minor protests were now hurting, and my upper legs were starting to twitch a little bit. To have my quads starting to give this early was not expected. Over the next two miles, my upper legs continued to worsen. By mile 20, I was in some consistent pain. Mile 21 would end up being the last one I ran close to my target pace. I clocked a 10:33. Mile 22 was completed in 10:59, and 23 in 10:56.
It was about this point that the “faster” 4:30 pace group passed me, and I tried to keep up, but could not. I was losing control of the race. I knew I didn’t train this hard to quit, and that Mom & C were just a quarter mile away. I pressed on, and when I saw them, I confessed that I was hurting. I stayed with them maybe an extra two seconds, afraid that if I stayed in longer I wouldn’t be able to start running again, and took a deep breath. 23.3 miles down, 2.9 to go. I finished my 24th mile at an 11:18 pace.
In mile 25, my calves started to give up. They first began hurting, then feeling like they were being stabbed by needles. I tried concentrating on my arms. My arms feel fine, just keep swinging them. Then both calves tried to cramp up completely at the same time, and I let out a cry. The muscles were spasming, and I felt like they were rippling on my legs instead of pushing me forward.
It hurt so bad that I started slowing to a walk. I got to the point where I was going to start walking, and when that footfall hit, it was like time stopped for me. I thought of how much work had gone into this race. How I had run over 470 miles over the prior 18 weeks so I could give my best effort. I thought about whether or not I could give a little more. Just a little. If I didn’t have 26.2 in me, fine, but I asked myself to commit to running a little more. One more wheelbarrow. Just one.
And so, I kept running. At the time I didn’t know if that counted as walking or not. Later, when I looked at the data from my watch, I decided that no, it does not. My watch registered a pace of 12:57/mile. I continued to register 180 steps a minute. I think what happened was my steps just got shorter, but I kept on hustling. I saw a sign that said “800 meters” and kept at it. That’s just half a mile. Two laps around the building at work. Piece of cake. Surrounded by people who were walking, I kept on running, heading east toward Millennium Park. Finally, it was time to turn north, and we headed to the finish line.
With 400 meters to go, I couldn’t believe I had only run a quarter mile since the last sign. My quads were no longer a problem, my calves were screaming so loud. Every step was an agony, and I feared that my muscles would seize completely and stop flexing at all. It was about this point that instead of talking to myself, I found myself yelling at myself. “Come on! You got this! Finish strong. There’s no quitting here. Come on!” I admit, I got a few weird looks from the people around me, but I didn’t care. Finally, the finish. With both hands on top of my head, looking like I was trying to keep my hat from blowing away, I crossed the line.
I shaved 16:29 off my personal best, and learned how to run in pretty excruciating pain at the same time. I looked around, saw finishers and smiling volunteers everywhere, and suddenly, I felt amazing.
This is how it is with me. I have never experienced a runner’s high during a run. After a run? Bring on the endorphins! My brain rewarded me for stopping the run by flooding my bloodstream with happiness. I got my medal (and a photo of the woman who gave it to me), and told her she was awesome.
I went and got my heat blanket. 72 degrees and I need a heat blanket? I think so. I don’t know why, but they had them, and I took one. I walked up behind someone else in line, and asked if someone wouldn’t give the superhero in front of me her cape, because she had surely earned one. Everyone was smiling, and then it was my turn, and the man who gave it to me said, “this one gives you the power of flight.” I told him that might have come in more helpful 13 miles ago…
As I proceeded down the line, I collected some after race goodies. Protein bars. Assorted healthy snacks. Gatorade protein shake. A beer. Oh, wait… how about another beer? Thanks, don’t mind if I do! I was on cloud nine, and told everyone I came in contact with that I appreciated them volunteering and helping make the Chicago Marathon such an awesome race. I probably said thank you to over 100 people. It wasn’t enough… that was an amazing volunteer crew.
One that tired some people out hard core…
So that’s how Chicago went. We went back to the hotel and I let some people know how I did.
I took a nap and we went out for deep dish pizza. The next two days saw me walk 18 painful miles, but just muscle soreness, no real damage. By Friday, I was ready to run again, after only four days off. Good stuff. It was an amazing experience.
Stuff I learned in Chicago:
- For traveling marathons, there is something to be said for showing up two days early. Going to the expo on Friday, then taking Saturday as a mostly “off day” before running on Sunday? Sounds dreamy. I want to try this.
- When you have a plan for your pace, and that plan is more aggressive than anything you’ve done so far, stick to the plan. Especially at mile 9, on a day that ended up being 20 degrees warmer than you hoped it would be. Don’t dig deeper than you plan to in the first half of the race; you’ll regret it.
- A close corollary to the prior bullet: Pay attention to your heart rate monitor. Keep it low in the first half of the race. When you start acting like an idiot, and your pulse spikes, slow down again, genius!
- Maybe a smaller marathon would be a good idea. That doesn’t mean shorter (less than 26.2 miles is NOT a marathon)… it means fewer people. Running with 45,000 people makes for a very crowded course.
- Running over 30 miles a week consistently helps.
- Getting in a 22 mile run three or four weeks before the marathon helps.
- Running track workouts helps. Being aggressive once a week is a good way to build speed.
- Having a hotel less than a mile from the start and finish line is AWESOME.
That’s it. Thank you Chicago, what an amazing city. And thanks again, volunteers, you were awesome. Mom, it was so cool to have you come see me race, I loved spending time with you before and after the marathon. To my wife, thank you for being so amazingly supportive. Last, thank you to everyone who gave to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society as part of this race; we raised over $5,000 together. Nice job, everyone!