The Chicago Marathon. The biggest race of my life to date. I don’t just mean that it was the largest field of runners I’ve run in, which it was, but it also meant more to me than any race I’ve ever run. Sure, I could say that my first marathon was a bigger deal, but this was my first Boston Qualifying attempt (spoiler: I got close, but didn’t make it) and I really put the pressure on myself.
I trained harder for this race than I have for anything else in my life. It’s not even close. I followed a plan from runyourbq.com as closely as I could given my schedule over the last few months. With four weddings and a two-week European vacation (which I will one day post about!) during training, I had some issues with scheduling that set me back a little. Luckily, I knew these things ahead of time so I worked my plan around them right from the beginning. I worked harder before my vacation and did a few short runs while away to help.
Overall, my training was pretty solid, it wasn’t perfect. I didn’t get in every run I wanted and I didn’t do enough injury prevention work, but luckily, I stayed mostly healthy. I consistently hit weekly mileage that I’d never seen before and in August I utterly smashed my personal monthly mileage record by 50 miles…only to break that again in September. My long runs were mostly good with the exception of my one 19-miler being cut short due to everything possible going wrong and my second scheduled 20-miler being split into 17-mile and 4-mile runs on the same day. I kept decent paces and even negative split most of them. My mid-week longer runs were on point as well. I was hitting 10-milers at ten seconds/mile under my half marathon PR pace and still picking it up by the time I finished.
I have never trained with this kind of focus and intensity. Preparing for this marathon was my number one priority. Even after going out for drinks with coworkers after work, I’d still come home and bang out a run.
The Chicago Marathon was my first chance to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I needed to be under 3:05:00 and that’s what I trained for. That works out to be a 7:03 minute/mile pace, nothing to sneeze at. Not only is this pace 45 seconds/mile faster than my best marathon pace to date (2011 Philadelphia Marathon), but it’s the same pace I ran my best half marathon in (2011 RU Unite Half Marathon). That’s asking a lot from my body. There was no question about it, I knew my work was cut out for me. I wanted this badly and I was prepared to do anything I could to make it a reality.
Going into the race, I knew my chances were about 50/50. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I worked my ass off in training and I had a good plan for race day. Still, I was more nervous than I’ve ever been for any race in my life. The anxiety was almost debilitating. I still can’t believe how nervous and worked up I got myself for this.
The Chicago Marathon expo was pretty solid. Thanks to a tip from a nice couple on our flight out, we made sure to get there nice and early to beat the crowd. Not only was there a free shuttle offered from a few hotels in the city, but the expo itself was very well laid out, easy to navigate, and well organized. We got all of our stuff and signed up for our pace groups in just a few minutes. I was impressed.
After the expo, we hit Target for a throwaway shirt and gloves, got lunch and then went right back to the hotel to rest our legs.
My Race Strategy
Since this was marathon number three, I was able to put together a strategy that tried to counter previous mistakes. Knowing that in Philly I hit a serious wall in the 19th mile, I wanted to try to avoid that. My plan was to park myself with the pace group for a 3:05 finish (which took asking the race organizers to bump me up a corral so I could start with them [more on this later]) and not let myself get ahead of them under any circumstances. This meant that at no point early on could I let myself get swept up in the energy from the crowds and think that I was better than my pre-race plan. I made this mistake in Philly and it really came back to get me later in the race.
On top of staying with the pace group, I wanted to plan my nutrition better. In the days leading up to the race, I did some hardcore carbo-loading, I really didn’t mess around. During the race, I wanted to make sure that I took water often, at almost every stop, and made sure that I kept up with energy gels before I felt like I needed them. I even practiced the energy gels in training to make sure my plan would work. I planned for an energy gel every five miles (starting at zero right before the race started) and then an extra one at mile 17.5 when they were handed out to runners. I made sure that I carried the same brand and flavor from training. I didn’t want to risk anything.
Race morning started off like most race mornings for me. I woke up early and started hydrating and fueling right away. I did try something new this time and took a quick shower to wake myself up a bit. I think it helped to get some of the tiredness out of me, but I had a very good night’s sleep (went to bed by 8:30p the night before!) as well.
We were a little late getting out of the hotel room, but since the start was only a few blocks from out hotel, it wasn’t too much of a problem. Though, my wife started in wave 2 which meant we needed to say goodbye pretty early. That sucked.
When I checked my bag, I decided that I didn’t need my throwaway shirt or the mylar blanket I had brought with me (compliments of the Philly Marathon) so I stuffed them in the bag and handed it off. With just my gloves and makeshift arm-warmers that my wife fashioned out of tube socks, I was off to the porta potty for one last chance to empty my bladder. The lines were long so I did my warm-up while waiting, but things started feeling like they were getting down to the wire in terms of time. I was afraid I wasn’t going to make it to the corral to find my pace group before the race started.
The first two corrals in Chicago are reserved for runners who have already run a certain pace or better and can prove it. The remainder of them are self-seeded based on your own projected finish. My best time got me into Corral B, but the pacer I needed, 3:05 finish, was only in Corral A. Luckily, I was smart enough to contact the race organizers well in advance and ask if there was any way I could get into Corral A given my desire to run with that pace group. They told me it wouldn’t be a problem as long as there was room…there was.
Once I got over to the corral, it actually wasn’t too hard to find my pace group so I was able to squeeze my way up to them and get situated.
Finally, the nerves let up. A strange calm and focus came over me. I was ready for this and there were going to be no distractions. I ditched my arm-warmers and I was ready to go!
The First Half
The race started right on time with no delays, always a plus! We were off!
This race has a massive start with an insane amount of energy. There are tons of spectators everywhere. It’s utterly amazing, but the energy is dangerous. Couple that with the tight bunching of runners in the first few miles and it’s easy to get swept up in that and kill your whole strategy right away. I wasn’t going to let that happen to me. Again, I was focused on my goal.
While it normally takes me two to four miles to really settle into any run, I didn’t have that problem this time. I felt good right away. I knew it was going to be a good race.
I let the pacers manage my pace while I just worried about sticking with them. Unlike other pacers I’ve run with, this group was right on time with miles averaging between 6:55 and 7:05. One of the pacers was also very vocal with coaching us. While there isn’t much a pacer can say during a marathon that a non-first-timer hasn’t heard already, it’s easy to forget this stuff come race day when you’re in the midst of it all. Having someone reminding you to take water at every stop and to make sure you’re breathing deep and running tall, among other things, helps a lot. It also helps a ton when the pacer knows the course and can provide a heads up for every upcoming turn and water station, as well as warn you about high energy cheer areas that can stealthily boost your pace or the dead zones that can kill your morale later on. This kind of thing can really help you stay focused on your goals.
The first half of the race absolutely flew by. There was a ton of energy and the miles were just ticking off. As we passed each mile marker, I couldn’t believe another mile was in the bag. I was feeling good. No, I was feeling great! I was on pace, my legs were good, my lungs were good. I was taking water at every stop and switched to Gatorade somewhere shortly before the end of the first half. Things were looking good and I was feeling good. I had a little bit of pain in my hip flexors, but it was short-lived and never really hit a point of concern.
As we started to approach the halfway mark, I knew it was time to start mentally preparing for the second half of the race. The first half is the easy part of any marathon and I had heard the second half of this course can be kind of quiet. I wanted to make sure I was ready for this.
We came around the Willis Tower and hit the half marathon mark, I was in the zone. I watched the clock as I went by and took a second to congratulate myself on a new half marathon PR of 1:32:01. Not bad, but I didn’t think about that for long, I didn’t want to lose focus.
Miles 13.1 to 16
This section of the race was supposed to be pretty barren of spectator support from what I had heard, but it never really felt that way. There seemed to be plenty of support there.
For the most part, this section of the race as a continuation of the 13.1 miles. I kept myself locked on and stayed right in the middle of the pace group. I was still feeling great and the pace group was still right on target with 7:02-7:04 min/miles.
Miles 17 to 21
Around mile 17, I started to feel the fatigue a bit. My lungs were good, my energy levels were good, and my mentality was still good, but my legs were starting to let me know that they were getting tired. I knew I was starting to approach the hard part of the race. With my legs beginning to tire, I started to fear hitting miles 18 and 19 where I had seen Philly fall apart on me. I just tried to keep strong and focus on the pace group.
Just like early on in the race, one of the pacers was very vocal with reminding us to stay strong and breathe deep. His coaching went a long way during these miles.
Unfortunately, after passing the marker for the 20th mile, I had to face reality, I wasn’t qualifying for Boston in this race. I could fight to stay with the group for a little longer, but I couldn’t keep it up for another 10k. I tried a few tricks like doing short little surges to try to snap my legs of out their funk, but they did nothing.
By the time I completed the 21st mile, my calf muscles were spasming badly. I started to fear that my legs would just altogether lock up on me and I wouldn’t be able to finish. I even took a banana at the next aid station! Anyone that knows me well knows how serious the situation must have been. I hate bananas more than any other food out there! Ugh! But I was willing to try it to get myself to that finish line.
I wasn’t happy about having to drop off at this point, but I knew I had run a good race up until this. I did everything right and according to plan. My training was good. Everything was good, I just wasn’t strong enough yet.
These miles were tough. Really, really tough. I was in bad shape and my calves were twitching almost the entire time. I kept with my plan to stay steady and take Gatorade at every aid station, but I was deteriorating rapidly. My legs were done and wanted nothing more for this race to be over. By this point, I was being passed left and right by other runners. Even though this section had some amazing spectator support, it didn’t help much. It sucked, but at least I knew I could still get myself across the finish line with a great time.
The darkest point of the race happened right as I crossed the 24th mile marker. I looked up down the road and could see the Willis Tower off in the distance. This is pretty close to the finish line and it was soooooo far away from where I was. Those last 2.2 miles might as well have been another 24 miles as far as I was concerned.
I soldiered on in autopilot knowing that with each step the end was getting closer and closer, but my pace crept into the low-to-mid eights. I lost a minute per mile during this section.
As I got to the one-mile-to-go marker I wanted so badly to push and finish strong, but there was nothing left in my legs to give. I tried to pull in the energy from the massive amounts of people along the road, but my legs just wouldn’t go. The only markers left were the ones displaying the distance left in metes. I just focused on getting to the next one.
I came around the second to last turn with 26 miles behind me and just the point two to go. All I had to do was climb what was probably only the third hill of the course and then coast to the finish line. I got myself up the hill with only a few other runners passing me and rounded that last corner to see the finish line staring at me just about a 100m or so away.
I didn’t have anything left for a push to the finish line so I just kept on with what I was doing and got myself over the timing mat with the tank on empty. I could barely make my way down the finishers’ area on my legs. I stopped to bend over a few times which prompted people to run over and ask if I was okay (I was, I just hurt a damn lot). I was hurting, but I ran a hell of a race.
Then there was beer being handed to me…and I ate another banana. I hated every bite of the banana, but that beer was awesome.
I got myself across the finish line in 3:08:53 which, to be honest, is an utterly amazing time to me! I wanted so badly to qualify for Boston, but I’m just not quite there yet. Very close though! This is a time I can be happy with and proud of. It proved to me that shooting for a BQ time wasn’t a crazy or completely beyond reach. I proved to myself that I belonged in Corral A and that BQing is possible for me.
In the end, my average pace was a 7:12 minute/mile, about 35 seconds/mile faster than my previous best and I beat my previous personal best marathon time by over 15 minutes. That’s incredible! Heck, I even have a new half marathon PR!
I placed 1449 out of 37,455 finishers (according to the unofficial race results page).
Looking back, I feel like I had every right to make a BQ attempt in this race and I left absolutely nothing on the course. I gave everything I had and stuck to my plan 100% until my body broke down. My pace was right on target and my training was the best it could have been with the time I had for it. The only reason I fell short is because I’m simply not there yet. I need to keep at it.
I worked my ass off for this time and I’m proud of it.
Overall Race Impression
Without a doubt, the Chicago Marathon is one of the best races I’ve ever run. I might even venture to say that it’s my favorite. The course is amazing. It’s flat, fast, and winds through some of my favorite parts of Chicago. This race is amazingly well organized and put together. There were so many water stations that it almost seemed like too much! Add in the fact that the weather was completely perfect for a marathon and I can’t complain about anything. I would definitely run this race again!