Because there is so much to tell about my marathon experience, this race report will be told in chapters so as not to take up too much of your probably more valuable personal time. Photos will soon be posted as well. Enjoy.
I’ve been told that I’m a half-decent writer and even if there is some truth to that statement, there is absolutely no way I could convey the intensity of the 2009 Chicago Marathon or even the whole marathon experience itself. This was such an incredible weekend and is something I hope to never forget. The drama unfolded as such:
To my surprise, the Top 100 corral was not unceremoniously tucked behind the elite runners or separated by a “red rover” type line of volunteers linking arms, preventing us from defiling the pristine elites with our sub-status filth. As a matter of fact, our whole corral was pulled to the very start line itself, separated from the elites by only a middle divider, essentially giving us the exact same start time as Wanjiru and Kastor, leveling the playing field in case there was a surprise among us (as there was last year with Wesley Korir who took 3rd from our corral). The visual in front of us was stunning. The sun lit up something like 6 empty Chicago traffic lanes all reserved for us. Beyond this initial stretch of pavement was the Millenium Park bridge arching over the empty street and absolutely crammed with media photographers grabbing the start line shot. Actually, every bit of visible area was littered with spectators, both sides of the streets, the bridge, and everything past that. Then beyond all that loomed Chicago itself, darkened by its own shadows like a fearless monster, its skyscrapers standing like the gates of hell daring us to discover what lies further within. And honestly, I had no idea what was to come. I stood one row behind the line, feeling a touch awkward at nearly touching the start line of one of the biggest marathons in the world…never even having run the distance before. The thousands of eyes that lined the street ahead were probably fixed elsewhere, but I couldn’t help but feel terribly exposed. I won’t lie though, a part of me loved it.
Then without much more fanfare the countdown started from 5 seconds and at “One!” an airhorn pierced the eerily quiet city air, sending the first line of 45,000 runners into the city streets of Chicago. It was finally on.
My goal was to hit the first 3 or 4 miles at 5:45 and then drop it down to 5:30 for most of the race, hoping to drop it even further in the last 4 or 5 miles depending on how I felt. I was engulfed by the Top 100 runners as we moved over the initial incline, under the bridge, and then descended into the short, dark underpass that spit us out into the city itself. The effort felt extremely easy as I tried to gauge whether I was running 5:45 flat or carried by the adrenaline to 5:30. A good deal of runners were passing me to start, but I kept my sights on Little and Davis, making sure I was still the appropriate distance behind them, knowing they would be a good gauge as to where I should actually be at this point. Soon enough, the pack had broken up and everyone started to settle into individual paces that we each felt wanted to hold the first couple of miles. Moving through some of the first turns I was hit by the crowds of people all around, already clapping and yelling at everyone flying by. Skyscrapers darkened the streets, the El hung overhead, and people were everywhere. It was almost too distracting as I kept a lookout for the first mile marker, making sure I was staying at the correct pace. Finally, I caught the clock and checked my watch as I hit the tape pressed to the ground. 5:38. Ok, a little fast, but not too far off.
That morning I went through my, by now, robotic pre-race ritual of dressing, breakfast, and light stretching before heading out the door. Normally I would be driving to the start with Michelle, but we determined beforehand that due to the layout of this race that it would be better for her and Colleen (my friend and host for the weekend) to grab their bikes and ride around the city catching me at certain points of the race. They were also going to meet up with my friend Nolen who would accompany them along the way as something of my own personal cheer squad. The meanest, most badass cheer squad you’ve ever encountered actually (Seriously, Michelle almost got in a fist fight with some guy for a prime photo spot). So, because they were going to ride to the start, I was left to my own devices on the subway, which afforded me the personal time to put my Epic Race Soundtrack through the paces. I said everything was pretty much the same as usual, but it became very clear to me that this certainly WASN’T the case, as I stepped on the subway platform with my headphones in my ears. I looked down the tracks to see the Chicago skyline and something came over me. Sure, it was probably the adrenaline of the music, but as I looked to the city a flash of goosebumps engulfed my whole body. I looked the other way and saw the train’s headlights coming down the tracks. I got on the train to find it was only partially full and I had no problem getting a seat of my own for the rest of the trip. I looked around to see other runners all in various forms of race preparation, some with headphones, some nervously laughing with friends, others just staring off ahead. I don’t know how I must have looked, but I caught other runners staring at me from time to time and I wondered if the intensity I was feeling at the moment was showing in my facial expressions. However I looked on the outside, I was undeniably focused and brimming with determination on the inside. I could not WAIT to run.
I continued to run with such an incredible ease that I almost got concerned I wasn’t running nearly fast enough, but I figured whatever I might have been losing this mile was made up on the previous one. In front of me was a stretch of runners that held to the middle of the street in anticipation of the turns that would come ahead. Just then we hit the first aid station, a stretch of the road lined with volunteers in blue jackets holding out cups of first gatorade and then water. Like a painted blue picket fence they stood at the ready and changed the visual of the streets ever so briefly. Up to this point I have not practiced hydration or fueling for the race and drinking was one of my biggest concerns. Not the actual drinking process, but the concern that my stomach might not take to kindly to the sugary goodness down the line and start to revolt at the worst possible moment. It was too late for that now and before I knew it I had veered almost magnetically to the side of the road and grabbed some gatorade, which I successfully got into my mouth by pinching the top of the cup and tipping ever so slightly towards me. I took a few gulps of the sugary liquid and forcefully threw the rest to the ground before concentrating on the street ahead. Then suddenly, something seemed awkward. I looked around and realized I had passed about 3 or 4 runners during that aid station, unwittingly picking up the pace as I grabbed the liquid and concentrated on getting it down. This was, oddly enough, going to be a reoccurring process. Then before I knew it we hit the 2 mile clock and I re-set my watch to get my next mile split.
Crowd (out of) Control
I’ve run some races where the crowds were plentiful along the start line and then towards the finish, and sometimes there are even groups of spectators peppered throughout the mid-points of the course, but these latter are always a rare luxury. Most of the time I run races either in solitude or with the competition around me. It can be a lonely affair….not this time around. I knew of the Chicago crowds. I’ve watched the course promotion videos with the highlights on the more rambunctious neighborhoods. I’ve seen the drum troupes, dance squads, cheer stations, bands and costumed spectators. I, however, had never EXPERIENCED them. From the very start I was absolutely blown away at not just how many people lined the course, but how CONSISTENTLY and how LOUDLY. It took a strong dose of humility to not run all out through those first few miles when everyone is yelling for you right off the bat. Even further down the course the cheers and encouragement were so strong that it was hard not to run past pace. It was so insane to run through continuous BLOCKS of spectators, entire walls of sound. It wasn’t so much that I heard anyone yelling, but that I FELT it. The intensity was unparalleled.
Mile 3- 5
I continued to move through the streets with ridiculous ease, really feeling like I wasn’t even trying, not in my legs and not in my lungs. My breathing was in constant control and my effort was so routine that I could just enjoy the first handful of miles like it was a warmup. I cruised through mile 3 and checked my watch. 5:30. On the dot. EXACTLY where I wanted to be. I continued on through the streets and noticed that I wasn’t alone, but that there were a couple other guys right with me and not dropping or pulling away. We were all hitting 5:30’s. It was suggested that I try to find other runners hitting 5:30’s and just roll with them, so I was hoping these couple guys were trying to target 5:30’s as well. And sure enough, we effortlessly cruise through mile 4 at 5:30 and then mile 5 at 5:30. I was convinced these guys were looking to run the goal pace as me, and just like that I had found my new best friends for the rest of the race. For maybe the whole rest of the 26.2 miles we would take turns pulling each other down the road and that wasn’t the only benefit of running in a group for sure. For the time being though, our group of 3 or 4 moved down the road. As we pulled up on the mile 5 aid station I pulled a Gu packet out of my glove in an attempt to continue stocking my glycogen stores for the miles that awaited at the end of the race. I was carrying one in each glove (espresso and vanilla) and had 4 taped to the inside of my shorts. I wasn’t sure if I was going to take them all, but had them just in case. I pulled one out of my glove, secretly hoping it was the espresso as nothing feels better than a cup of coffee so early in the morning and right now this was the closest I was going to get to that feeling. And it was! I tore the top off with my teeth, squeezed the coffee tasting..well…GOO…into my mouth and grabbed a cup of water at the aid station to wash it down with. That wasn’t bad. With the same ease as before we continued running onto mile 6.
Two years ago the Chicago Marathon was cut short because the temperatures climbed into the mid 80’s by the early afternoon, causing all sorts of havoc on the course, even some deaths from over-exertion. The year after, although it wasn’t as severe, the temperatures were still high into the PR sapping territory, forcing better runners to scale back in their efforts. Granted, this is the Midwest and all, but such warm temperatures into October are a tad out of place and we all feared the continuation of this pattern leading into the race. However, continuous checks of weather.com kept predicting the almost ideal temperatures, 40’s – 50’s all day. As the race neared even closer those predictions changed a tad and we were looking at mid 30’s for the race start and never climbing out of the 40’s all day. Granted, these aren’t IDEAL racing conditions, but I’d take cold weather racing over hot weather racing any day. It might be the High School Cross Country runner in me, but I absolutely LOVE these sorts of temperatures. It just feels like my lungs open up and my legs gain untapped strength, so the temperatures didn’t faze me. That doesn’t mean I didn’t prepare. I walked to the start corral with a winter beanie, gloves, arm warmers, and a throwaway zipper fleeze over my singlet and running shorts. And while standing among all the other runners I decided to throw my beanie off ahead of time, then just minutes away from the start I tossed my fleece over the fence, leaving me with just my singlet, shorts, gloves and arm warmers. I felt appropriately chilled and ready to fly. As it turned out, the temperatures never got that far out of the 30’s during the entire race…if at all, and I never ditched anymore clothing. After the race other runners, including the top elites, referenced the cold temperatures as problematic for their performances, but I never once felt them a hindrance. I really only sensed the cold when the water or gatorade would splash out of the cups and soak into my gloves or arm warmers, but even that initial cold feeling faded quickly. I only felt one thing most of this race, running as fast and smooth as I could maintain for the entire distance. Cold weather be damned.