The short version: A brilliantly organized sold-out race where in I had a PB & BQed & forgot & then re-learned a few things about dehydration & cramping
So I have to tell you I was quite anxious even before the race started. But it’s not what you think. It wasn’t based the infamous hot weather that occasionally occurs in Chicago during previous marathons or my own performance concerns. It wasn’t even my on-going IT band issue which I had hampered my last marathon five months ago which thanks to my new friend this summer, the foam roller, it was under control. This was my 8th marathon and I had trained well and had a race plan that reflected my training. No, I was concerned about what it would be like to run in a huge crowd of runners. You see in February 2012, this marathon had 45,000 confirmed applicants in a mere six days. On the weeks leading up to the race, I imagined a tight elbow-jabbing stampede of runners bunched up at the start line. After attending a very crowded expo, my anxiety was peaking. In reality, it was quite the opposite of what finally greeted me on the morning of the marathon. When I finally entered corral “B” , I realized, that with each of the 12+ corrals holding 3000 runners, there was more than enough room for everyone to run comfortably. Combined with this, the roads at the start and for the vast majority of the race was 4 lanes wide so there was lots of room to run right from the start and not feel like you were going to shorten your stride or trip up in anyone else’s race. Moments before the the start of the race, the press of the crowd happened and then everyone started moving slowly walking to the start line mat and upon crossing, immediately the pace picked up and the crowds thinned with lots of room for each runner to run their own race.
A further note on the corrals. The organizers had arranged corrals with the Elites and then alphabetically A-M assigning ~3000 runners to each corral. There were two waves with Elites and A-E starting in the first wave at 0730 and then the second wave starting at 0800 F-M. The A-D assignment was based on submitted times and F-M had runners assigned based on expected finishing times, starting at <3:50:00 in F corral. However, there were no qualifying times for runners in E corral; the charity village corral. This setup lead to my hearing of some of the faster runners in corral F catching up with the back of the charity village runners some of who were walking, often in groups and therefore slowing their faster pace. My only suggestion to organizers would to either place these charity village runners within each of the corrals based on submitted times or expected finish times or to place the charity village runners further back in the corral sequence.
The temps were perfect for us hardy Newfoundland runners, around 4C at the start with hardly any wind (<10 kmph). I think it reached 12C by mid-day. With the morning chill, we were all prepared to shed our warm up clothes just before the start. While most of us ran in shorts and singlets, I decided to wear a compression shirt and arm warmers, which turned out to be perfect for me in these conditions.
I have to back up here and mention that most of us had signed up for the Balbo hospitality tent access which made the race that much more special for two reasons. With the $70 entry ticket, we were able to go to a warm Balbo tent before the race where light breakfast foods were available, private change areas, gear check area, port-a-potties, with no line ups and a escort to your corral. The second reason why the Balbo tent was special was its near location to the finish line and all of its post race amenities including hot lunch, a televised live feed of the finish line on TVs scatter throughout the huge Balbo tent, a separate medical tent, and lots of massage therapists.
My race plan for the flat course Chicago is known for was to run an even pace (ave 4:50 min/km) for a 3:24 finish. I had trained for this pace and I was ready. To add more support to my goal, at the Expo, I had chatted with the Nike Pacers and learned that there would be several 3:25 pacers in my corral (B) and located on the far right of the corral on race day. I found several of them just before the race but in the final moments just before the race began, I ended up moving to the center of the corral which by the time race began, I was more on the left than on the right side of the corral. This slight change in position had me running on the left side of the divided highway of Columbus Drive and then proceeding through the 400 m tunnel without any pacers in sight. This was not good as I especially wanted to run with the pacers through the tunnel as I had been told the tunnel would fool up my Garmin due to not receiving any satellite info inside the tunnel. Additionally inside the tunnel, I noticed that my watch went into auto-pause as it was no longer receiving a signal. Should have disabled this as I do every race but for some reason, I forgot. I stayed calm realizing this was a very small part of the race. Coming out of the tunnel, my watch resumed its normal functioning and I saw that my pace was about 15 seconds too fast and I adjusted accordingly. For the next 2k, I ran keeping my pace around 4:49. Then around the 5k mark, I started to see a bouncing little sign off to my right about 100m ahead of me so I speed up to read the sign. My little surge continued for about another 30 seconds until I confirmed the sign was the 3:25 group. I slowed down then and eventually caught up with the group in what seems like another minute or so. I must say I felt very calm at that point as I felt I had just secured my race plan. That feeling of confidence grew as, over the next several ks, I learned that the Nike pacer was named Roger and he had run 75 marathons and this was his 50th marathon as a pacer. Talk about someone who knows what a marathon means. Certainly further built my confidence that I was running smart.He kept calling out the mile splits, and then updating the overall finish time. These projected finish times varied only up 30 seconds or less as each mile clicked by. I knew I was on pace checking my watch occasionally and feeling very comfortable running with this group and I truly relaxed. I was able to see most of the 29 different neighborhoods and I was continually amazed by the number of people who seemed to be everywhere all along the route. Here were many performers including Elvis impersonators, blues bands, DJs, mariachi bands, the flamboyant performers in Boystown and the dragon dancers near the big Chinatown gates.
At this point I’d best tell you that three marathons ago, I finally solved cramping issues that had plagued me for my first four marathons. During training for # 5, I had come across an electrolyte tablet (Nuun) that seemed to keep my cramping at bay.The result was that I had run in my last three marathon drinking Nuun and had no incidents of cramping. So for the past two years, on long training runs and in those marathons, I faithfully carried four bottles of Nuun. However, about a month ago, I started experimenting with Torq on long runs up to 35k and found that while it was sweeter, it appeared to do the same job as Nuun. So, on an impulse when packing for Chicago, I packed Torq powder and gels leaving the quick-dissolving Nuun tablets at home. I also had a new belt with only two bottle holders that I should not have brought but I did, leaving the four bottle one at home. So that was what I had on my waist on in Chicago. In my painful hindsight, I noticed that with the cooler temperatures, I wasn’t feeling as thirsty as usual and that lead me to somehow forgetting to drink very much at all. And continuing down this path, I somehow forgot to drink most of the two bottles I was carrying and instead I found myself doing as most of the runners in the pacing group did and took a gulp of water or Gatorade at maybe every other water stop. You know where this is going , right? It was around 37k mark that I started noticing cramping starting in both calfs and only then did I realize that I had made a major mistake in my race hydration. Then to add insult to injury, my Garmin died almost around the same time. So now I didn’t know how fast or slow I was going and with each slowing gait, the 3:25 group was slowly gaining distance ahead of me and soon disappeared. Not a good scenario and even worse reality. I tried to remain calm and recalled a blog I had read just the day before about a guy repeating that “this is my year” as a mantra helped him focus on his training and his expected outcomes so I continued to stay focused on making this my year to run a good race in Chicago. I knew that I had enough time to get under 3:30 if I could maintain a fast jog pace which quickly becoming my run’s only reality. I also knew, based on previous experience, that if I stopped to massage my legs, I might not be able to start again. I also tried, but way too late, to drink some electrolytes. I crammed in a piece of banana but nothing really changed the way my legs had decided to mess up my normal running stride. I was so much slower in those last 5k as I later calculated my pace to be 5:49 from that point to the finish. But I didn’t know that at the time and so just kept on checking the occasional posted time on course clocks and knew that I was more than a minute behind the gun. As I approached the finish line, it was coming up to 3:30:00 and I knew I had my PB and a BQ (my chip time was 3:28:19).
Part of my race in Garmin: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/231652594
After receiving my finisher’s medal and receiving my recovery blanket, I slowly made my way to the Balbo hospitality tent, which I was thankful for not being very far from the finish line. In the tent, I didn’t even have to line up for a massage, where two massage therapists worked on me for about 40 minutes. They told me I was very dehydrated and had me drinking a couple of bottles of water while they took turns working on my very tight calfs and quads. As with every marathon, I learn something and what learned this time was not to forgot some hard learned lessons. After the massage I just kept drinking water and had hot soup in the tent. We sat around on chairs watching the race on the big TVs, drinking soup and hot coffee and eating great sandwiches
Another great part of this race that made it extra special was that I traveled to the race with a great bunch of fellow Newfoundlanders, whom I had the pleasure of the last 4+ months to have trained with and then to witness their PBs, BQs & in the case of Janet A & Josee H, the more incredible feat of qualifying for the very challenging New York Marathon.
After this marathon, like all others, I am reminded of why I run. It’s simple really; I love that it makes me feel so alive.
With no more training to focus on until spring, I will now run weekly with my running club, Athletics Northeast (ANE), through the fall and winter with no speed sessions except for an occasional tempo if the weather conditions are right. This approach will have me both properly recovering and also building my base miles so that, come next spring, I can start a whole new season of racing with dreams of a whole new series of PBs. I’ve also just signed up for a weekly strength training program which can only help improve my core strength which will ultimately improve my running form.