Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Race Report: 2011 Chicago Marathon

On my way home from the Chicago Marathon I read race recaps in the Chicago Sun-Times. A woman who lost her iPod at mile 6 was quoted as saying, “I was inside my own head the rest of the way—it wasn’t a nice place to be.” Without judging this woman, I think she misunderstands the marathon. In a crowded corral one of the principal pre-race challenges is keeping other people out of your head—something you have to do it if you want to run your race. On Sunday morning, just before the gun went off, I was trying to do this in and really struggling. I don’t think I had really found that center when the race began.

Many people say if you don’t feel like you’re going too slow in the first miles of the marathon, you’re going too fast. Well, the first several miles of Chicago I felt like I was running way too fast. Nothing was clicking—my mind and body weren’t in sync (see above). Mile 1 went by in 7:13, a slow start, but while my brain was saying, it’s alright, you’ll make up that lost time, my body was saying, you need to slow down because I don’t want to do this.
As we circled south into the loop I got in a 7:00 mile 2 but my stride didn’t feel any more natural. I was already feeling hot, though more clammy than sweaty, and we were still in the shade of the city’s skyscrapers. I’ll give myself until the 10k, I said, but if things still don’t feel right, I’m going to back off. Mile 3, the first in our long march northward, went by in 6:46. I could see the 3:00 pace group ahead but didn’t feel up to catching them. Mile 4, also a straight line up LaSalle, passed much the same in 6:45.

In mile 5 we finally made the turn into Lincoln Park, one of the few geographic features of the course I knew I would recognize. For me this was one of the toughest parts of the race. When I had visualized myself running Chicago in the weeks before, I felt great in Lincoln Park but in reality I felt sluggish. Even so, miles 5 and 6 were both close to 3 hour pace. I hit the 10k mark and asked myself if I wanted to back off. I decided I would keep going for it and reassess later on.

The course went further north than I anticipated, with mile 7 passing me by well before the turn around. As soon as we curved back south along Broadway the course opened up in my mind—I could picture its component parts. I told myself, I just need to make it until we turn west. There were lots of people out on the course cheering us on and blasting music making these miles some of the most fun, but also the least individually memorable.

By now I was looking at my watch every mile and thinking, if I slowed to 7:03, could I still PR? How far off of a 3:00 pace am I? Shortly after mile 12 we crossed back over the Chicago River. Now I was thinking about mile 13, where the family of the friend I'd had pasta with the night before was watching. I’ve got to look strong for them, I told myself. I didn’t see her family but I passed mile 13 with the course clock reading just over 1:30.

As the half clock came into view a lot of the doubt I’d been feeling slipped away. Just after 13.1 I passed St. Patrick’s, a Catholic church with pipers playing out front and crossed myself for good measure—I never did make it to mass that day. I no longer had any recollection of what the course was going to do, but about this point I had a revelation. The reason I felt so weird, so uncomfortable and disconnected, was that I was actually racing. My mind and body were working together, just not in a way I had experienced before.

With the half behind me I broke the remainder down into increments and set a goal for each one. If I can get to mile x at y pace, I thought, then I deal with what comes next. With this attitude, the miles flew by. I had my mind focused on getting to mile 20. I need to get to mile 20 by 2:20, I decided, because no matter what happens, I can do that last 10k in under 45 minutes—at some point the plan had become PR, not sub-3. Sure enough, I got to mile 20 in 2:17:59.

The sun was beating down and the crowds were sparse but neither of those things mattered. As mile 21 went by bringing me into Chinatown, I thought, you’ve only got 5 miles to go and almost 40 minutes to do them in! I managed to keep a pretty even pace, not sacrificing speed the way I had in New York the previous fall. Mile 22 went by in 7:01 and mile 23 in 7:04.

Mile 24 was tough; I did it in 7:10. At some point a spectator yelled, “You’re almost there!” I turned to a woman running next to me and said, “I hate it when they say that.” “Me too,” she managed back. I knew I was close, but in the final miles with the speed slowly draining from your body, distance is an abstract, an almost meaningless concept.

I set mile 25 as my next goal, then the “One Mile to Go” sign as the one after that. 1600 meters from the finish I heard a voice saying, “Come on, let’s do this.” It was the woman I had made the comment to a little while back. We picked it up. It really hurt, but I kept saying things like, “We’ve got this,” and knowing I had someone running beside me pushed me.

We finally turned right onto “Mount Roosevelt,” a small on-ramp that would not so much as trigger an extra heartbeat at the start of an easy run. People had told me it would be a tough climb, but thanks to my new-found running companion, I barely noticed the incline. We passed the “400m to go” sign and rounded the corner. With the finish line in sight, I gave it everything I had and crossed it in 3:01:44, a nearly 3 minute PR.

Moments later my new friend crossed the finish line and I thanked her for pushing me. She said, “I could see you had it in you.” For all the mental games I had played with myself during the race, here was someone I had never met who was able to see something that I couldn’t and who got me to give that extra 10%. I owe at least 30 seconds of my PR to her.

I've gone on for far too long here, so I’ll wrap things up by thanking all of you who, like that mystery woman, have been able to see things in me that I haven’t seen in myself and have helped me to succeed in ways that I never could have without your support. Thank you, and it has been a pleasure running “with” you.