Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Great Day in the Second City: My 2013 Chicago Marathon Race Report

Last fall, in my ninth marathon, I finally broke the elusive 3 hour mark. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, finally meeting a goal I had set for myself three years earlier. After the glow wore off, though, I found myself adrift, directionless. I decided to make sub-3 my goal for Boston in the spring just to see if I could do it again but then a hip injury took any chance of that away. After a struggling through the finish in April, all I wanted was some time off from training.
Spring turned into summer and still I resisted setting a schedule: it wasn't until the second week of August that I completely committed to a plan for Chicago. Although I did every workout on my calendar, I didn't feel the same level of motivation I had in previous training cycles and was unsure what my goal for October really was. I worried that the running bug had left me. Fast forward to this past weekend and even on race morning I was full of self-doubt. In spite of a full calendar of summer races, I hadn't PR'd at a single distance in 2013 and going into Chicago I wondered if my days of improvement were over.
A great sign at Niketown
Though I was unsure of my own prospects, there was plenty to look forward to in the Windy City. My girlfriend was also running, her fifth time doing Chicago and her tenth marathon, and hoping to BQ. Her parents were supposed to fly out to cheer and spend the weekend with us, but unfortunately on Thursday her dad had to be rushed to the hospital with what turned out to be a pulmonary embolism. It gave everyone quite a scare and though he was released over the weekend, her parents were obviously unable to join us.  This meant that as we prepared to leave our hotel room at 6 a.m. on race day, we knew that the only friends and relative who would be watching would be doing so via electronic updates.
Even with the enhanced security, navigating the starting area was relatively easy and by 7 a.m. we had check our bags and it was time to part ways and head to our respective corrals. I was in Corral A along with my friend Helen and her boyfriend Alex, both also from New York. They were running with a sub-3 goal which sounded good to me so we agreed to meet in the corral by the 3 hour pace group. Unfortunately, it was far more crowded than I had expected and as the clock ticked closer to the 7:30 a.m. start, I couldn’t find them. Finally, just when I’d given up hope, I spotted Helen and managed to make my way over to her and Alex before the gun went off.
From the start I had one goal: keep up with Helen and Alex. Neither of them had run Chicago before so during the first two miles I told them when to expect turns so that we could prepare to run the tangents. These early miles through the Loop were packed with spectators. When I ran the race two years ago I don’t think I appreciated just how many people there were cheering so early. Thanks to the crowds on the course and on the sidelines, the early miles seemed to fly by—we had hit the 5k in 20:50, a 6:43 pace. Rather than worry about the pace, which I feared was too fast, I decided to simply follow Helen and Alex’s lead.
As we made our way north on La Salle, the course got more scenic and spectator signs got more creative. I slowed a bit—deliberately—but stayed under 3 hour pace. Helen and Alex would get a little ahead of me, but then I would catch up. When we made the turn into Lincoln Park, though, I let them cruise ahead. I could hear the 3 hour pace group behind me, chatting away. One of the two leaders told the other that they had gone out too fast and needed to slow down. It sounded like good advice to me, but I didn’t want to run with them so I pushed ahead. I hit the 10k in 42:01, meaning I had done my second 5k at 6:49 pace.
The jaunt north on Sheridan and then Lake Shore Drive seemed longer than I remembered, but shortly before the turn west we passed a retirement home and seeing those smiling seniors lifted my spirits. I also managed to spot Wrigley Field as we turned south, something I failed to do in 2011. I couldn’t see Helen or Alex but I was still enjoying myself, especially when I heard “Blurred Lines” blasting in Boystown. I passed the 15k mark in 1:03:08, a 6:48 pace for the third 5k.
Continuing south, I knew the 3 hour group was right behind me. I could hear people cheering for them (at one point someone with a microphone said, “Let’s give these folks a hand—they’re running a marathon in 3 hours! That’s crazy!”). Worried that they would overtake me, I concentrated on putting some distance between myself and them. Although I tried to take in the sites of Old Town, I began thinking about only one thing, making it to the half. I told myself that if I could make it to the half on pace, I would find a way to sub-3, though I was still sure I was running too fast and would eventually have to slow significantly.
Two great things happened in this long southward stretch. First, I saw my teammate, Atsede, one of my all-time favorite people, or rather, she saw me. I heard her yell my name and I gave her a big smile and wave as she snapped a couple photos; that gave me a boost. Second, as I crossed the Franklin Street Bridge back towards the Loop, I finally caught a glimpse of Helen and Alex which made me feel better about my pace. I also seemed to have escaped the 3 hour pace group, hitting the 20k mark in 1:24:08, now at a 6:45 pace.
Franklin Street in the Loop was electric but it was making the turn onto Adams that really energized me. The crowds were thick, the music was bumping (I believe I heard a techno remix of Asia’s “Heat of the Moment”), and I could see the marker for 13.1 in the distance. My legs had been sore for several miles, but I remembered them hurting more in Philly so I tried to brush it off. I hadn’t yet caught up to Helen and Alex, but they were within eyesight and I felt like things were going my way. When I crossed the half in 1:28:44 for the first time all morning I really started to believe that a PR was going to happen.
Shortly after the halfway point, the course passes Old St Pat’s, a Catholic Church that I remembered from 2011. Just like before, I crossed myself as I went by, figuring it couldn’t hurt. During the nearly two-mile trek west, I concentrated on not letting Helen and Alex out of my sight. The crowds began to thin noticeably and couple of runners in UT singlets commented that for the first time you could hear runner footfalls rather than cheering. It was nice for a bit, though I was happy to feed off the amazing energy of the Charity Block Party just after mile 14. As I made the lollipop turn back east, I finally caught up with Helen and Alex. I had obviously sped up quite a bit because I passed the 25k mark in 1:44:52, now at a 6:40 pace.
Sadly, I only got to enjoy running with Helen and Alex for a short time. After less than a mile with them, Helen began to slip back. I hoped it was only temporary but decided to keep running my own race. This part of the course through University Village was pleasant and I was feeling good enough to keep a brisk pace. I breathed a sigh of relief just after mile 18 when the course turned south on Ashland, knowing that I had run as far west as I would and I passed the 30k in 2:05:43, now at 6:43 pace.
I was shocked that I was running so fast so late in the race and also a little nervous. Knowing that I still had around 12k to go, I slowed down. My legs were tired, but no more so than they’d been earlier, I was just afraid of hitting the wall. I figured it was better to settle into a more conservative pace and finish strong than to try and maintain a faster pace and risk blowing up.
The miles along 18th Street through Pilsen were a lot of fun—the crowds were great and I’m pretty sure I even saw a mariachi band—but at this point I had forgotten the course route. I like to know where turns are so I can use them to break the course into segments, but I had no idea what was coming next. When I passed the 20 mile mark and knew I only had 10k left, I realized it was okay if I didn’t know what expect; all that mattered was staying focused on my race.
Around mile 21.5, the course turns south again and passes under the Chinatown Gate onto Wentworth. I passed the 35k mark in 2:26:54, now at 6:49 pace still feeling okay. The miles were getting a little tougher, but I still felt in control of my legs. I took a fourth gel between miles 22 and 23, hoping for a boost that would carry me through the finish.  Unfortunately, the excitement of Chinatown didn’t last long and soon I found myself slogging along the Dan Ryan Expressway. This was probably the worst section of the course. Still running south, I felt like I was moving away from the finish rather than closer to it. I just kept wishing for the turn onto Michigan Ave!
When we turned onto 33rd Street I knew I was heading east again—the right direction for the finish—but I had forgotten that the course jogged south one final time. I liked the brief stretch through Illinois Tech, though to my tiring legs it felt like a pointless detour. Finally, I made the turn onto Michigan Ave and could make out the downtown skyline in the distance. I began counting blocks, doing everything I could not to slow down more than I already had.
As I passed mile 24 at 2:42:27 I knew I looked at my watch and was almost certain that not only would I run another sub-3, but I would PR. This was reassuring but I’m now convinced that it was a dangerous thought. It allowed me to relax just enough to slow a little more. I hit mile 25 and could see the turn for Grant Park, marked by a jumbotron, in the distance. It seemed so far away that even when I passed the 1 mile to go sign I didn’t believe it.  

Making the turn onto “Mount Roosevelt”—the cruel hill at mile 26—I felt that I couldn’t go any faster (26 was my slowest mile at 7:18). I passed the 300 meters to go sign and almost laughed because it sounded like such an impossibly long distance to cover. Then, out of nowhere, I saw Helen. She had caught up to me. I yelled some words of encouragement and found a little extra gas in my tank. I couldn’t keep up with her but I was able to pick up my pace a litte. I could see 2:58:** on the finish clock as I crossed and threw my arms in the air. Despite my doubt, I managed another sub-3, a new PR of exactly one minute, 30 seconds: I ran a 2:58:13!!!
As elated as I was, the race wasn’t really over until I made it to my bag and checked my phone: my girlfriend also PRd and got her first BQ!  Although the weekend, my training, and even my race had unfolded differently than I had expected, it was a great day.
You know what? I’m still celebrating.


  1. Congratulations on such a big PR! It sounds like everything came together well in your fall training. You ran a smart race and have firmly claimed your spot in the sub 3 hour club. And congratulations to your girlfriend too! Hope to see you soon.

    1. wait a second...!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! how do you two know each other?!?!?!?!??!! unbelievable... such a small world!!

  2. OMG, I was hanging by a thread the whole post David!!!!! SO COOL that you run around Helen and Alex most of the race too, you're all so amazing!!! And so funny what you said about the 300 meter sign, ridiculous and so true!!! Congrats on another sub3 and a PR! You're a MACHINE! And congrats to M too!!