So, I am probably the last person out there to offer up my Chicago Marathon story. 26.2 is a lot of miles to process. The drawback is that the mile by mile play by play is fuzzy and making way for a more general race memory. So, unfortunately you won’t get the most detailed report of what I felt during 3:33:55 hours of pure marathon goodness (and not so goodness). BUT I think you’re probably cool with that. Even though this is still over 3000 words long. It WAS 4,000 words long. And I think all of the pictures of the race (rather before and after the race) are on Aaron’s phone which is with him at work right now. So, you may have to check back tomorrow!
We arrived in Chicago on Thursday afternoon to temperatures much warmer than we’d been anticipating. Our hotel was about half a mile from the start line, so our cab drove us right by the starting area. I was amazed at how huge the marathon village was, and how many porta poties were lining the streets (this would seem like a lot less on Sunday morning while waiting our turn to pee). As I started unpacking, I realized that I had forgotten some essential items like running socks, pajamas, iPod shuffle, and toothbrush. Oops.
We went out for a 2.5 mile easy run along the lake front. Temperatures were still warmish, though not as warm as they had been the day before. The temperatures were predicted to get colder until Sunday.
Then we headed to the expo. I love expos. They combine running AND shopping! The expo was well organized and everything was labeled and easy to find. But wow, were there a lot of people, and Friday was the slow day. I’m scared to think what Saturday looked like! Nike had a whole store set up, and I bought myself a special marathon shirt (and some socks because I forgot mine). I also signed up for my 3:35 pace group, and got a 3:35 bib to pin to my back.
We did a 2 mile shake out run, however this one was much colder. But really, a few minutes in, I felt overdressed in my winter gear.
We opted to do the Art Institute Museum on Saturday morning. Coach Aaron wouldn’t let me wear heels, but my jeans are all too long, so I had to walk around Chicago in my running capris and running shoes. THE HORROR. Seriously. But the museum was huge and we were on our feet for easily 3 hours, so I’m glad I wasn’t in stilettos. We also carried a water bottle and focused on drinking obscene amounts of water.
I did insist on changing into boots for dinner on the condition that we eat at the pub across the street from our hotel. Awesomely enough they had a special marathon menu so I got my pasta carb loading fill! Aaron ate something with mashed potatoes (how does one carb load on a gluten free diet?). Bedtime was 9:30.
Why yes, carb loading included beer. This means beer + marathon = BQ! And one of the few moments I got cell phone service! Aaron was annoyed.
The alarm went off at 5 am. I did my pre-race ritual of showering (one can’t dominate marathons with unshaven legs), and ate some Luna bar and some banana and layered on the winter gear. We got out the door at 6:15. The city was dark but alive with thousands of shivering runners walking to the start. We felt like cattle. We may have moo’d.
The first thing we did was get in the potty line which was already pretty long (we waited about 20 minutes). Gear check drop off was easy, but at this point it was time to head to the corrals (they closed at 7:20, no exception), so I didn’t get in my second ritual pee. Aaron and I said our goodbyes as he headed to “B” and I headed to “C.”
This was post race, but it gives you an idea of what I look like when I realize that my husband is photographing me coming out of the porta potty.
I couldn’t find my pacers. And since everyone was wearing sweatshirts over their clothes, I couldn’t find any 3:35 bibs. I kept inching up until I found a nice looking man and asked if he’d seen the 3:35 signs. He said he was in the 3:35 group and as far as he could tell the people surrounding were all in it too. A few people turned and nodded in agreement, and grunted a “welcome to the pack.” I took off my long sleeve and tied it around my waist because I knew I would get warm pretty fast and I didn’t want to attempt undressing while running. I was cold in my racer back, but not miserable.
Looking around I also realized that Chicago was a pretty male dominated race. And let’s just say I was one of very few women wearing hot pink, sparkle headband, and a running skirt.
The race started, and while I was anticipating a good 10 minutes before we crossed the start line, we actually approached really fast (within 3 minutes). And we were off!
The first 3 miles
This is the official start line photo. I found Aaron (he has a red circle around his head).
So, the first thing you do is run uphill into a tunnel. Tunnels are dark. Tunnels also have dividers in the middle. Someone ran into someone who ran into me and I ran into the next person because someone didn’t see the divider in front of them until it was too late. Luckily nobody was actually knocked down in the confusion, but it was pretty funny to see. I guess you had to be there.
We emerged from the tunnel, and I looked down at my Garmin to see that it had lost signal. Fantastic. I spotted the pacers way ahead so I figured I would just hang out with them since I no longer had pacing function. It was awesome (and warm) to be running with so many people (over 38,000 at the start), but hard to get anywhere. I saw the pacers but I couldn’t actually get near them. Luckily, my Garmin got it’s act together pretty fast.
I saw some soldiers with amputated arms, and the crowd went wild every time they ran past. I saw a lady with a prosthetic leg. I saw people in wheelchairs. I saw people going out of their way to support other runners. Marathons restore faith in humanity.
I allowed myself to not worry about pace (pointless since maneuvering around people was impossible), and take in the sights. A huge shout out to the city of Chicago and the spectators! I felt nothing short of rockstar status because these cheering people with their crazy signs were amazing. Also amusing were the people starting to shed clothes. They would attempt to throw them into the crowd, but 75% of the time the clothing article would bop a runner on the head.
After trying to get myself next to the pacers for the first few miles I finally succeeded at about mile 3. Everyone was de-clothed and I could see the huge group of 3:35ers emerge. The crowd started thinning, and I finally got myself into a rhythm.
Miles 4 to 16
Crowd support was amazing. Every neighborhood/church/school had bands or DJs and motivation was high. So high that I suddenly found myself running sub 8 miles with no effort, and the pacers were somewhere far far behind me. I knew I needed to slow my ass down. But I couldn’t. The energy was too much to handle. I was on track to run a 3:30 marathon (noted that at mile 6 this is hardly confirmation of anything), yet here is where I made the decision to run a Boston qualifier.
Gangham Style was being played by three different groups (including a Korean church with nice Korean middle aged ladies in track suits doing the dance). Aaron, who at that point was about 15 minutes ahead of me, said that those same groups were playing that same song so it must have been on repeat.
The pacer bibs turned out to be quite the conversation starter. I had people come up to me saying I was ahead of schedule (as a compliment, not as a warning that I was running too fast). And indeed I was. While there were a few 3:35er’s I was surrounded by 3:30s and 3:25ers. But I was feeling great. Instead of wishing desperately to be done at the 13.1 sign, I was like, hey, half way done! Hooray! But I was still stressing that I was running too fast.
The course was awesome! So many cool neighborhoods and so many cool sights. For several miles, the Sears Tower was in view. And the weather was perfect. I was cold at a few points, but overall, I was feeling wonderful.
There was uphill. Not anything crazy, but there are rivers to cross and bridges aren’t at street level, so we did have to go up them. I figured if this is what the last hill at the end looked like, I should be in ok shape.
Potty break. My pre-race ritual calls for 2 stops at the porta potty, but I only had time for one. I had to pee the entire time, and while it was annoying, it wasn’t affecting my pace. I put it off as long as possible and was looking for a pee station right off the course (a few required some detour efforts). I had my chance at the mile 16 aid station. By the way, Chicago gets a HUGE thumbs up for their stations. They were almost every mile and 2 full city blocks long. A nice person yelled out where things were upon approach so no guess work was involved.
According to my Garmin, I was stopped for well over a minute which makes me sad.
I was still feeling good, and amazed that I was SO CLOSE to finishing. But, this is when crowd support went from super energized on steroids to non existent. I REALLY wished I had my music to turn on at this point, but alas my iPod was back home in Albuquerque.
And people started dropping like flies starting at mile 20. Up til this point I hadn’t seen anyone have any major problems. Now people were puking on the sidelines, stopping to stretch, and stopping to walk.
Meanwhile I was gaining a whole new crazy confidence. I calculated along the way that I needed to be at the 20 mile point by 2:40 to be on track for a 3:30. I hit 20 miles at about 2:41. CRAZINESS. I was going to pull this off!
Training at elevation made it so that I never felt out of breath or without energy in low altitude Chicago. But at mile 23, my legs said NO with the stubbornness of a two year old. My feet felt fine, but my calves tightened and I realized that I was ready to be done with this thing.
The whole race my pace had stayed pretty consistent Here it dropped to about 8:30 (the same as my pee mile) and it never came back down. But this was also when I had the most support from my fellow runners. A nice man came up to me and said, “way to go 3:35! You’ve got this!” Another lady came up and said something about girl power. But, despite the encouragement, the marathon became a completely personal battle. I had to make a decision to keep going or stop and no amount of course support or inspiration could do the work for me.
Last week Kelly left me a comment that said to “trust myself.” I decided that I would use that as my mantra, and in my time of need, that was the only thing my mind could come up with. Trust yourself. It literally got me through.
Regardless, at mile 25 I wanted to stop and walk. I was beyond ready to not be running anymore. But then I realized that if I kept going, I only had about 10 minutes left. With 10 minutes left I would hit my goal. If I didn’t keep going, I would literally miss qualifying by mere seconds. The prospect of coming in at 3:35:02 was far more painful than sucking it up for the last 1.2 miles.
So, I sucked up (after taking the last water station very slow). And wow. A mile has never felt so long.
Somewhere near the end
I saw a sign that said “only 800 meters to go!” I HATE 800’s. Not helpful.
We turned a corner and there it was. THE HILL. It was humongous. Much bigger than the rest. At the top was the mile 26 sign. But I had to get there first. I felt like I crawled. It was the longest minute? 30 seconds? of my life.
I felt a huge relief in my legs and I knew that I had reached the top. The course turned and the giant FINISH sign came into view. I couldn’t move any faster, but I ran in (no sprint possible). My life turned into a movie with the Rocky soundtrack playing in the background (in my head) and the roar of the crowd somewhat muted behind my racing heart. I crossed the finish in 3:33:55!
The crossover was pretty uneventful. I know I was happy. My goal was met. But I didn’t have the energy to be super excited about it. A girl that came in right behind me screamed BOSTON! And I wanted to turn around and give her a Boston Sister high five. But I didn’t because I needed to focus on forward motion. I didn’t cry at the end. Strangely, aside from complete contentment, I experienced very little emotion until hours later.
Aaron spotted me pretty fast (hot pink does have it’s advantages), and we proceeded to go through the longest post race walk EVER (about a mile worth of walking). We did get our medals and our space blankets, but it would have been ok with me if the walk had been shorter.
Aaron had such a strong and awesome first 21 miles. He was holding a really fantastic pace and should have come in right about 3:10.
But then he got muscle cramps. He had already run through the world’s ugliest blister (2 inches in diameter and YUCKY to look at), but running through muscle cramps just isn’t very easily done. His last 5 miles involved a lot of walking and stretching. And at the end of that hill at mile 25.9, a medic asked if he needed her to walk him in, so apparently he looked pretty pathetic.
He politely declined (people actually started cheering for him when he got moving again) and made his way to the finish in 3:27:21.
When he found me after I finished we had to stop on about 3 occasions during that long, long walk for him to sit down and stretch.
He wasn’t in good shape. He was understandably frustrated and really has been playing out what he could have done differently in his mind. But he still had an awesome finish time that he’s happy to brag about!
Gear check pick up was kind of a cluster-f and it took a good 20 minutes for us to get our stuff. Not impressed. It was arranged by bib number and bib numbers were arranged by pace, so each line was bombarded by people finishing at the same time.
After that, we still had another half mile walk to the finish line festival. We redeemed our free beer ticket then started the long walk back to the hotel with all the other limping people.
About an hour after finishing my left calf tightened to the point that I couldn’t walk on it (and couldn’t for the next few days). And my stomach which thankfully held up so nicely during the race, decided to go crazy on me in grand style for the rest of the day. I may have reached my goal but I paid for it.
Chicago organizes a great race. I’ve heard some complaints, but my experience was fantastic! Volunteers, aid stations, the course, the signage, everything was spot on (they did run out of medals for the last few finishers but I think most of them were in past the cut off time).
The crowd was so amazing, and I appreciated all the support, all the signs, all the costumes and all the music.
I was amazed at how my legs just knew what to do and did it and at a much faster pace than I thought I could do. I don’t think I would have been able to go faster at the end if I had slowed it down during those sub 8’s and if I had slowed down, I probably wouldn’t have met my qualifying time, so I’m happy that I ran faster than advised. And really, my pace was so consistent throughout which really makes me happy.
I don’t think this will become a lifestyle. I still enjoy halves far more, and I’ve never had such a long recovery period. I’m still walking with a limp and trying to get my calves to loosen up. And even though I am already forgetting the pain, I remember thinking how wretchedly awful it was to be at mile 25. I’ve had some mean thoughts during the later miles in races, but I’ve never hated my whole existence as much as I did toward the end of the marathon. It did make for a very sweet feeling when I pushed through it anyway but really, humans aren’t designed for this.
BUT, I will run Boston in April and earn my Unicorn (more on that tomorrow).
Thanks again for all of your amazing support this weekend! I thought of all of you each time I passed a time sensor, knowing that you were getting a text message or seeing my little stick figure along the interactive map! It helped me so much going in to know that you were coming along with me. It was a great experience and I enjoyed getting to share it with you all and with Aaron, obviously the best running coach ever. I questioned him many times throughout training. We were running too much. We were running on courses that were too hard. We were running in the heat. But in the end it helped me have a relatively uneventful and goal crushing marathon.
It was the proudest moment of my life to cross that finish line under my goal time, and THAT was worth all the training and pain.