Chicago Marathon Race Report
“The marathon can humble you.” — Bill Rodgers
It has been a roller coaster of a year. Last November, I PR’d by 10 minutes in the marathon and ran 2:57:03. I cried, more than once. When I see photos from the race, I get misty-eyed still. All this year I’ve been chasing that feeling — the elation that came from achieving a huge goal, on the heels of setting PRs at six other distances leading up to it.
Oh, you don’t care about all this backstory and the other 3,000 words of race recap coming? That’s okay. Click here for the TL;DR version.
I went into 2017 knowing it wouldn’t — couldn’t — be like 2016. Running is not linear.
“People conceptualize conditioning in different ways,” (Bruce Denton) said. “Some think it is a ladder straight up. Others see plateaus, blockages, ceilings. i see it as a geometric spiraling upwards, with each spine of the circle taking you a different distance upwards. Some spins may even take you downwards, just gathering momentum for the next upswing. Sometimes you will work your fanny off and see very little gain; other times you will amaze yourself and not really know why.” — Once a Runner
The year got off to a weird start. I PR’d in the popular 4 mile distance, then raced a huge 5k that was hugely short, bombed a 10k two weeks later, had an okay-but-not-great 10 miler two weeks after that, broke 19 for the second time ever two weeks after that but thought I could’ve run 18:30, then had a great half-marathon two weeks after that. I felt a lot of self-imposed pressure, like people were watching. And yeah, I mean, it’s a small running community so I’m sure they were, but not in any way that really matters.
I’ve known all year I’d be racing Chicago in the fall, because I finally qualified for the sub-elite program — a goal I’d been chasing since my early marathoning days. Now the American Development Program, qualifying means guaranteed entry to the race (no lottery; same low low $185 entry fee) plus some additional perks like a warmup area and port-a-johns. (I would pay for special port-a-john privileges, who’s with me?) For women, it’s 3:01/1:21 to get in — and Poppy was there too!
My summer training was … uninteresting? Unremarkable? That’s probably great for marathon training. I had some great workouts, and I ran super consistently without many big ups and no big downs I can think of. I ran every day from May 13 until the race, but to be fair one of those days was 1.5 miles so I’m stretching there.
I felt like I had a solid base and definitely some good speed — I ran 18:58 in the middle of a full training week as a workout in September. But, my mileage didn’t peak as high as last fall (66 compared to 76) and I only had three 20 milers (last year I had five 20s plus two 22s). My final tuneup half was in miserable weather conditions.
Basically, I had no idea what kind of shape I was in, and the forecast for Chicago was looking mediocre at best.
The weather at Chicago is the other reason I had avoided it. A friend ran the year they canceled mid-race due to heat; the next year it snowed. And here I was, staring down the barrel of a hot forecast.
Coach Matt and I had talked a couple of times briefly about the possibility of Chicago being a training run if the weather was bad, as a contingency. When we talked on Friday before the race, it had become more temperate and tolerable. On Friday, my official plan became: adjust minimally, run by feel. Don’t get caught up in the chaos at the beginning. And that was the entire plan. Coach Matt doesn’t give me paces for races. I normally know a range of pace that is realistic, and I’ll check HR as well, but I’ve gotten pretty good at tuning into my body and racing by effort.
And this is why when people asked me my goal for the race, I said, “No idea.”
I definitely wanted to break 3 hours again and prove to myself last year wasn’t a fluke. And of course a PR is always nice. But with the weather I was also willing to accept something in the low-3s if that was what the day gave me.
We flew to Chicago Saturday morning — we’re 6-ish hours away which seems like a waste of a day to me when we can fly and magically be there a half hour after we left because of the time change. (And our airport is tiny so we get there an hour before takeoff.) We took the train in from O’Hare, and left our bags at the hotel.
We Ubered to the expo, which was surprisingly small. I mean, the room itself was big but there weren’t a lot of vendors. Maybe because Nike took up half the space? I think we went to every booth and were still done in 30 minutes.
That said, it was fun getting to pick my bib up at Table Number 1 and have a bib with a ridiculously small number and no corral.
We were able to check into our room ahead of schedule, which was awesome. I went for a 15 minute shakeout run, which was a good reminder to turn off auto-lap on my Garmin. (It appears I took a swim in the Chicago River during my shakeout, and that I averaged sub-6 pace.)
My sister-in-law is in law school in Chicago, so she met up with us. We grabbed lunch then spent most of the afternoon at the Shedd Aquarium (I’ve done the Field on my past two trips there and love it, but hadn’t been to the aquarium yet. If you go, don’t miss the dolphin show!).
As we left the Shedd, there was an amazing rainbow over Lake Michigan. Bright and bold. In that instant, I knew the race would be okay.
We had dinner at Mama’s Boy, a newer Italian restaurant part of an old Italian family restaurant group — it was actually in the same building as our hotel! Happy dance.
I had laid out all my gear and packed my gear check bag before dinner, so I basically went to bed as soon as we got back to the hotel.
I woke up frequently throughout the night and gave in at 5:15, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. For breakfast, I had half a bagel with a Hammer Nocciola (chocolate hazelnut) gel on it at 5:30. I was also still on the drink-all-the-water train, although I also drank a little bit of regular coffee (I’m #teamdecaf) to perk me up.
At 6, C and I started jogging to the start, about a mile away. He said good bye to me near the security gate and headed off on his 20 miler/spectating extravaganza. I was expecting to see him at either 6 or 8 miles, where my sister-in-law would be, and that would probably be it.
It didn’t take too long to get through security, where they checked my gear bag and wanded me. I saw another girl with an American Development Program bib so we chatted as we worked on finding the tent.
When I got to the tent, at about 6:35, a race official informed us the timeline had literally changed at the last minute. We were supposed to have access to the tent, port-a-johns, etc., until 7:15. Tent opened at 5:30, starting line access beginning at 6:45. We had to be in the corral by 7:15 before they brought the elites in.
Now we have to be out at 6:50. YIKES. I had time to do a quick lap around the park, jogged past Salazar, Alia Gray, Chelanga … And then had to swap out clothing, grab everything that needed to come with me, hit the port-a-john, and then go stand in a chute between the elite tent and the start line for 30 minutes.
I drink my Hammer Fully Charged mix at 7 a.m. and take an Apple Cinnamon Hammer Gel at 7:15. Fortunately they let us use the elite port-a-johns and I had brought a throwaway shirt with me. I was definitely no longer warmed up. I did say hi to Matt Fitzgerald, and we got to see all the elites walk by, and yes, the sub-elite semi-fast people ogled them just as much as anyone else (probably more because we know who they are).
We listened to the National Anthem from the side chute, and loaded into the corral right after the wheelchair start at 7:20. I found myself standing maybe 6 rows back from the start, literally on the second timing mat, of the Chicago Marathon. A World Marathon Major. With 44,000 people behind me. Jordan Hasay was literally directly on my right. Holy crap.
I had heard another ADP girl talking and I thought we were going to go out around the same pace, so we chatted for a minute. My plan was to say I was going out at 3 hour pace knowing I’d be 10 seconds too fast through the first mile. It’s beneficial to pack up with some women early, because there were approximately 1000 men behind us expecting to run at least our pace our faster. (ADP for men is 2:31/1:11, so all the 2:32-3 guys were behind us in Corral A.) My goal was to not get trampled (thanks for that advice, Catnip!)
The gun goes off in the manner of all race starts, and we take off. Runners are zipping by me like I’m walking. Early on we go through a tunnel of sorts, and credit to Chicago for having course marshals making sure we didn’t crash into any curbs in the dark. For real.
I’m running with Emily, the girl I talked to in the beginning, as we fly through mile 1 in 6:31. OH CRAP. I wanted to be 6:40-6:45, heck, 6:50 would’ve been fine. With the useless GPS downtown, I was relying on feel and, buddy, I was feeling good. Shit. And I was still getting passed, and getting pulled along by other runners.
Also right around mile 1, my HR strap went on the fritz. When I ran Indy last year, my GPS and my HR both didn’t work hardly at all, so this is apparently just a thing for me now.
The HR would continue to be erratic and largely not freaking right until mile 6. Okay, we can work with this.
Ease off the pace, relax relax relax.
Okay this is going to be confusing but I was splitting miles while breaking the race into 5k chunks. So bear with me — I’m giving mile splits for each 3 mile segment, plus 5k split times.
5k: 6:31, 6:39, 6:39 (20:34). Okay. Now I’ve got it. We have crossed the river twice and I have deduced crossing the river sucks. The grates are covered with carpet, and I’m not sure that makes it easier to run on. Also bridges = small hills, regardless of what anyone tells you. We’re headed north, and I turn my attention to staying focused and relaxed.
10K: 13:17 (user error), 6:41 (20:43). I totally missed the 4 mile marker, thankfully, because I spent all of mile 5 worried that I was running really slowly. We go through Lincoln Park in miles 5 and 6, and I felt less boxed in by crowds and skyscrapers. I take my first gel in here somewhere.
15K: 6:37, 6:45, 6:43 (20:50). There’s a couple tight turns in here and I see my sister-in-law and husband around 6.5. I see Anna again at 8.5 but C is already running back to the hotel so he can shower then meet me at the finish. (He had an hour head start since he ran while I was chute-standing.)
20k: 6:43, 6:38, 6:42 (20:47). AHHHHH consistency, my old friend. I am a metronome I take another gel. We run through Old Town which was really pretty. From 7.5 to 12.5 is basically a 5-mile straight shot south. I saw drag queens dancing in there somewhere.
25K: 6:48, 6:42, 6:48 (21:00). I go over the half marathon marker in 1:27:29, about 90 seconds off my half marathon PR. Little quick there champ. We turn west, and suddenly I’m starting to not feel so floaty any more.
30k: 6:46, 6:56, 6:52 (21:26). Oh boy. We have a long way to go, sister bear. It is sunnier now, and hotter. I take gel #3. I’m drinking water at every station, often two cups, and pouring some on my head, too. I’m cranky. And for all the crowds on the sidelines, I still feel remarkably alone. None of the runners are talking to each other, it seems like, and it would be hard to anyway because the crowds and bands and everything else are so loud.
35k: 6:58, 6:55, 7:07 (estimated, I missed the 21 mile marker) (21:50). I take my last gel around 21, I think. My recollection is pretty hazy. I have deduced I will want all four gels today, because the extra calories and electrolytes might be all that saves this train from crashing off the bridge.
Speaking of bridges, WHY ARE THERE SO G-D MANY? We cross the river again around 20.5. Just a 10k to go. I start using the kilometer markers to countdown. We go through Chinatown, which is also neat. Also loud.
40k: 7:07, 7:08, 7:39 (23:15). Yep. There’s a walk break in there, maybe more than one. I think there were four total before the end of the race. OMG send help. Why the hell am I doing this? But once I got past 16, I knew I wouldn’t drop and at this point I was really stuck. MORE WATER. On my head, on my face. We turn north at 23.5 or so and I know it’s almost over.
42k: 7:16, 6:59 for the last 1.2, totally did not split it at the 26 marker. I have figured out with two miles to go that if I average 8 minute pace for the last two miles I will still make it under 3. Oh boy. I have caught back up with Emily, as well as some other women I saw early on. I had planned to play the plusses/minuses game where I count people I pass and get passed by, but there was no way I could do those mental gymnastics. Let’s just finish this race. Fortunately they marked the 400m marks from the mile-to-go sign, which helped a lot. You know what didn’t help? Another bridge at 26. No wonder I missed the marker. We come off the bridge and make the last 90-degree turn and I can see the finish. I had flipped my watch to overall time at some point, probably 23-24 miles, and give it a check. Any possible sprinting needs to happen. I yell at a couple of other people around to push, and a couple of other people are yelling the same. I’m just a few meters from the finish and they announce Galen Rupp’s official winning time — an American!
I cross the line. I make ugly faces. I shake hands and congratulate everyone around, especially the women. Some are ebullient, having broken 3 for the first time with a big grin on their face. I remember that feeling, and I’m genuinely happy for them even though I can barely walk.
The finish was surprisingly devoid of spectators (my husband would later tell me it was impossible to find your way in), and the area all the way to Buckingham Fountain so empty. I am sure as the number of finishers grew, it became necessary to have all that space and that it was more exciting … but it felt like a let-down. I shuffled along, stopping for finish photos twice. And a beer, which became remarkably hard to carry. (These are actually good, considering how bad I look in the finish line ones.) I really just want to change clothes — I’m soaked — and sit and see my husband.
Coach told me to jog a 5 minute cool down. I attempt. My calf cramps immediately. I decide against it.
And where the hell is the ADP tent? I asked three or four volunteers before someone knows what I’m asking for. Pro tip: the answer is, BEHIND THE GIANT STAGE WHERE THE LOUD MUSIC IS COMING FROM. Jesus.
Hallelujah for the ADP tent, though. We left our gear bags there and volunteers sorted them by bib number and were grabbing them for us before we even got inside. You guys rock. I grab water and change clothes under my heat sheet. I worry about Poppy’s abdominal muscle cramps and laugh at her cursing before I realize it’s her — we hadn’t met IRL. My husband arrives and gives me my sandals and whatever else I had in my second gear bag (aka the stuff I wanted but didn’t want to carry while jogging a mile to the start).
We wander around the finish party area for a few minutes. I had a ticket for a free beer somewhere, and a wristband that also had something to do with free beer, but I couldn’t really figure it out and kinda gave up. C, Anna, and her boyfriend Marc (also part of the cheer squad, thanks Marc!) wander out of Grant Park and start the (mile) walk back. For real, I probably walked 1.5 miles immediately after the race, so count that as my cool down, thanks.
I shower, and then we basically drank and ate for the rest of the day until 11 p.m. or so. I was trying to be fun but in hindsight I probably should’ve given up much earlier in the day.
Home. As a sub-3 hour marathoner, again.
Things I’m happy about: Breaking 3 and proving to myself last year’s race wasn’t a fluke. Fighting to the finish. Finishing marathon 13. Finding out I was in marathon PR shape had the conditions been favorable. Placing in the top 100 women at a World Marathon Major, and in the top 1000 overall. Running in a big race sub-elite field.
Things I’m disappointed about: Walking. Going out too fast. Not running a PR.
I’ve run not much at all this week, and won’t next week, either. Then we’ll start to build back up. I’ve got a few small races through the rest of 2017 — a Thanksgiving Day race, a trail race, and hopefully Club Cross Nationals. Nothing major.
If you made it this far, thanks. It’s been a joy sharing the journey with y’all this season and I truly appreciate all the comments and well-wishes along the way.
Not hot, fast, loud, lots of people, hot, slow, too many smelly bananas, lots of bridges, 2:59:26, top 100 female, top 1000 overall.
- Stayed at the Hampton Inn Chicago Downtown, about 1 mile from the start. Lots of dining nearby, nice hotel, great service. The Italian restaurant downstairs provided a $14 pasta dinner in the lobby, or you could eat at the restaurant. They had breakfast ready before 6 a.m. plus additional grab-and-go fruit, water, etc. in the lobby race morning. Lovely outdoor terrace on the second floor, pool, gym.
- Ate at …
- Cantina Laredo
- Mama’s Boy
- Rock Bottom (post-race beers & football)
- Eataly (always worth a visit)
- Drinks at …
- Island Party Hut (on the River Walk and exactly like you’d imagine)
- The Violet Hour (speakeasy swanky awesomeness)
- Blackbird Restaurant