Monday, October 14, 2013

Chicago Marathon Race Report

After a year off from racing I targeted this year's Chicago Marathon as my next Boston qualifying event. As luck would have it, shortly after moving to Tennessee I met another guy, Will, who was also going and we began training together. Wanting to get a jump on the 18-week, 55-70 mile per week Pfitzinger plan, we began training on May 5th, adding a full 6 weeks to the schedule. It didn't take long to realize my new training partner - who was shooting for a sub-3 hour marathon - was going to either break me or make me a better athlete.

Over the course of the relatively mild summer months we picked up company here and there. Chris Getman joined us early on, and Andy Johnson, Chris Blaylock, Josh Bolin and David Gibson made the occasional appearance. But over the long haul it was Jonathan Thatcher that trained with us regularly. Between his dry British humor and Will's cerebral wit we never had a dull run. I can't tell you how thankful I am to have met all these guys, because let me tell you, if you don't have some good people around you 18 weeks can feel like 18 months. It's a grind that goes much easier with good company


I flew up to Chicago on Friday night, which initially I thought I'd regret because of the cost. Hotel rooms don't come cheap, especially around marathon time inside The Loop. But in the end I was very happy I got there early and didn't have to worry about making the trip on Saturday. That, and I was also excited to reunite with my good friends Tim and Amanda, who'd flow up earlier in the day themselves.

Saturday morning the three of us got up and walked a couple miles across town to meet at Fleet Feet for a shake out run with Bart Yasso. A couple of hundred others did the same, and we all took a slow jog across town to run along the Lakefront Trail. It was a beautiful morning with great views across the bay, but if I were a native I'd probably avoid it on the weekends because of tourists like us that couldn't help but stop and take photos.

After the run we had a leisurely breakfast and then headed back to the hotel and got cleaned up. Will got into town shortly after noon and we took the shuttle over to the expo. It was at this point it became clear that we were getting what we paid for, which was a lot. Everything about the expo, from the transportation to the packet pick up was seamless and well organized. This experience would extend to the race itself, where everything - and I do mean everything - went off without a hitch. If something went wrong with this race neither I nor anyone I was with knew anything about it.

We wrapped up the day by going out to Pizano's on Adams Street downtown. If every race has its glitch, this was ours. In a really bad way. Knowing there would be hordes of runners looking for a last-minute carb fix on Saturday night, we made plans to get to the restaurant at 5pm. When we arrived we were told it would be about a 20-30 minute wait for a table. Fine by us, and when it actually took until 5:45 to be seated we didn't mind.

We each promptly placed our order and were told by our waiter it could take 20-30 minutes. Again, no big deal. Before we knew it, though, it was 7:15 and our patience was wearing thin. I called over the manager and asked why we'd been kept waiting for an hour and a half. She apologized, saying it was like this every year on marathon weekend. What? How could they allow this to happen every year? Anyway, she assured us our orders were currently cooking and that she'd knock 25% off the bill. So, we hunkered down.

Long story short, another half hour passed and we still hadn't received our food. Again we called over the manager, who insisted we should stay and that she would comp our entire meal. The food came about five minutes later, at which point we wolfed it down, tipped our waiter and then got out of there. Free food is not worth the stress and tension we experienced that night, so I'd advise you try elsewhere if you're looking for pasta the night before the race.

Race Day

Despite the events the evening before, I got a good night's sleep and woke up at 4:30. Following through on my by-the-book carb loading I downed a couple packets of oatmeal I brought along and was ready to head out on time at 6:15. Will and I headed downstairs where we ran across Tim and Amanda acting as photogs for the dozens of runners hanging around in the lobby. Since they were scheduled to start 30 minutes later than us, they stayed behind a bit longer.

Will and I walked down to Grant Park, cleared security, which consisted of bib checks and cursory exams of our clear plastic gear bags, and made our way to the gear check. Will, who was wound like a top, was more than ready to get into race mode, so we wished each other luck and parted ways. I stopped by the port-o-lets and then high-tailed it to corral B, managing to walk through the gate at exactly 7:20 when it was supposed to close. Everyone around me was talkative and in good spirits, and a few minutes before the start excess clothing started flying from left to right over the fence where volunteers were waiting to collect it for charitable organizations.

Unlike other large races I've been to where corrals are released every X minutes, this one just let everyone in wave 1 trickle out onto the course. It was immediately evident that the organizers had done a good job of positioning runners according to ability, as there was no need to weave around slower participants. The only people I questioned being so close to the front were one guy who was juggling three balls and another that was dribbling two basketballs. I mean, c'mon! Now you're just mocking how hard it is to run a marathon! ;)

Quite honestly, almost the entire race was a blur. There were so many people along the course cheering that it made everything go by very quickly. Even though it winds through 29 different neighborhoods, with few exceptions could I tell you where I ran. Ones that do stand out, however, included The Loop where people were 5-6 deep on the sidewalks, Chinatown, Lincoln Park, and Little Italy. It was truly amazing that there was maybe only one section of less than a mile where it got somewhat quite. Otherwise it was a huge street party the entire way.

For me personally I felt great and my confidence was soaring. I started out trailing the 3:25 pace group the first 5-6 miles and then slowly pulled ahead because I felt so good. Through 19 miles I did exactly what I wanted to do, which was to hit splits between 7:35-7:45/mile. In the middle of my 20th mile, though, I began to feel twinges in my left hamstring that I knew signaled cramping. As if on cue, it started to charlie horse right as I came upon a first aid station. I hobbled over to it and pleaded for the volunteer for give me some salt. She casually walked to the other side of the tent while I had a mini freak out. I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, but she thought I was there seeking serious medical attention. Of course, it probably only took a few seconds, but she finally gave me what looked like an S! cap and a large cup of water. I downed it and jumped back on the course. The cramp passed and I was able to make up for some lost time, but still I sacrificed 25 seconds.

The next few miles were text book again - 7:40, 7:32 and 7:36. I had great energy and even entertained thoughts of finishing a couple of minutes under my goal. But then at mile 25 my other hamstring started to cramp without warning. I stopped and tried desperately to stretch it out, but it wasn't loosening. Someone asked if I was ok, and when I replied I needed some salt she pointed across the street at another first aid tent. Again I did a controlled stagger and pleaded with the aid worker that was on duty. She gave me another pill but had no water, so I had to slowly jog to the next aid stop. I'm sure it had more to do with stopping for a minute than taking a salt pill, but whatever the case my cramp relaxed again and I was able to push on.

Miles 25-26 I lost another minute combined. Still, I thought I had a chance and tried to pick up the pace. All of a sudden I saw a sign that said 800m to go. I glanced down at my watch and saw that it registered somewhere around 3 hours 22 minutes. Holy crap! I only have 3 minutes to run 800m minutes at the end of a marathon! I started running with everything I had left, being escorted the entire way by a woman who was doing the same thing while panting like Monica Seles. I kept waiting for my legs to cramp again, but they didn't. I was able to push all the way to the finish, running a 6:55/mile over that distance. I crossed the line and stopped my watch. 3:25:04 it read.

I wasn't sure what my (un)official time was until after I'd cleared the finish chute and collected my bag at the gear check. I stopped by the information booth, where the volunteer informed me my time was 3:25:03. Yes, I missed qualifying for Boston by 3 seconds. :p

Post Race

Despite missing my goal I still feel pretty good about my race. It's a 2-minute PR, and if it hadn't been for the cramping I'm pretty sure I could have finished around 3:23. That alone is enough to give me confidence I can succeed next time around.

Major kudos to those that went with me and did great things at Chicago.

. Will, who broke three hours with an outstanding 2:59:25.
.. Allison, who passed me near the end and finished in 3:23:25.
... Jenny, who I ran with briefly run up until I cramped the second time. She killed it with a 3:24:48.
.... David, who ran in memory of his brother, Daniel, and in the process blew away his previous best with a 3:26:43.
.... Amanda, who not only had a great time of 3:54:36, but also had a great race experience.

..... And last but not least, Tim, who finished his first marathon in 5:27:06. Above all others he impressed me with his dedication and transformation into a marathoner. You talk about determination, this guy's got it in spades.

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