I was more nervous on the morning of the Chicago Marathon than I have been in a long time. The logistics of the whole thing just really freaked me out. I was also putting a pretty serious amount of pressure on myself to run under 5 hours, which I haven’t done since March and had kind of started to believe I never would again. On the morning of the race, we woke up around 6 am, which really wasn’t too bad for a gigantic race that started at 8 (well, my wave started at 8). I got some really plain, awful oatmeal at Starbucks since they didn’t have bagels, and AJ and I managed to grab a cab from our hotel to about the center of downtown or so, saving us at least half of the walk to the corrals. In a mass of people, we eventually found Kristen, who was just as worked up as I was by all the people and the massive crowds moving towards the corrals. I was freaking out. It was then time to try and find JC, who thought he would arrive around 7:30. JC had promised to pace me to sub-5, but every time I tried to call him, the call wouldn’t go through and since neither of us was familiar with the city, we hadn’t scheduled a meeting place. PANIC. I kept frantically checking my phone for texts and eventually I was able to find him at probably 7:40. Cutting it close is an understatement.
We headed over to Corral G, which I had auspiciously lied my way into by
egregiously slightly altering my estimated finish time to something like 3:45 on the advice of Otter, who said the last corrals, including the one I was originally assigned to, were absolutely chaos. At first I felt really bad about lying – until I saw how many charity walkers JC and I passed during the race. It turns out that charity runners are put in the first wave (with all the fast people) regardless of their estimated finishing time, I suppose to give them more time to finish the race. While I appreciate the effort, it totally defeats the purpose of putting some people in corrals based on speed and not others, so I stopped feeling too bad about it. JC had been assigned to corral D in the first wave, which had been set to go off at 7:30, but he had moved back to run with me. At first, the volunteer at the gate of the corral did not want to let him in, even though you are allowed to move backwards in corrals, just not forwards. He sassed us, and I was way too worked up, so I looked him dead in the eye and said quite firmly, possibly through gritted teeth and maybe with a hint of a growl, “I will not finish this race if he is not with me. He is coming into this corral.” And the gate keeper slid right over.
Note: Please be prepared for maybe the worst race pictures I’ve ever taken and also the ones in which I look the most pale. I know that I’m really pale in real life, but in Chicago that paleness was magnified for some reason. You’ve been warned.
There was so much energy in the air at the race start, I guess just from the sheer number of people. It was pretty palpable and very intense, and I knew it was going to be hard not to go too fast. I told JC I wanted to run 11 minute miles, including walks at the water stops, for as much of the race as possible since that would put us on track to finish in 4:48, which would be good cushion for my inevitable meltdown later in the race. However, there was so much adrenaline at the beginning of the race that that plan went out the window.
We set out at the start just running whatever pace felt comfortable, which was probably about 9:30 or so. The crowds were everywhere and they were amazing! I couldn’t believe how many people there were cheering for us, and by some act of God JC and I were able to find Kristen and AJ in the mass of people at mile 2. This part of the course winds through downtown Chicago, which I was of course completely obsessed with, and I tried to just take it all in while not running over people, since space was sometimes an issue. At some point in the early miles, JC saw a group waving Canadian flags and decided he wanted one, since he had apparently lived in Canada for a year or two. This caused a lot of people to yell “GO CANADA” and cheer when we ran by, which we thought was pretty fun, so the early miles were spent trying to trade flags with as many random strangers as possible and elicit odd looks from people who thought you didn’t look like someone from XYZ country.
I am normally pretty good at identifying the flags of different countries, but we got confused and grabbed a flag from Denmark thinking it was actually Norway. Our friend Anders is from Sweden, so we wanted to carry the Norwegian flag to spite him, but it turns out the joke was on us. No one else appeared to know any better either, because half the cheers we got were “GO DENMARK!” and the others were “GO NORWAY!” so at least I’m not alone.
Otter had told me that one of the best parts of the entire race was somewhere near mile 7 through a neighborhood called Boystown, which is aptly named due to the high concentration of gay men in the area. And he was right. It is totally amazing. All sorts of people were shouting things like “You are FABULOUS! You go girl!” from every direction and I just felt like the prettiest princess at the ball. There also were several performers including the R.O.T.C. and some men in drag cheerleader outfits dancing to “M-I-C-K-E-Y.”
I could not possibly have been enjoying myself more at that point. We had stopped for a quick bathroom break around mile 6 and my legs, heart and stomach were all feeling good. It seemed to be all systems go. I knew Kristen and AJ would be waiting for me and JC around mile 12, and another Maniac, Jennifer, would be around mile 13, so these miles flew by. I had stuffed Oreos into my sports bra (in a plastic bag…I’m civilized) and had planned to use them as fuel in this race instead of gels, since that has only ended poorly for me and my stomach recently, and it seemed that everything was working like a charm. I had also picked up a Japanese flag and was enjoying the confused looks on everyone’s faces as I ran by.
My stomach has been getting upset in each race starting around mile 12, and this race was no exception. By the time we reached Kristen and AJ, I was ready for Sprite, which they had brought me. However, they were carrying Sprite based on the original marathon spectating plan, which had me seeing them around mile 6-7, not 12, because 12 was too close to 13, where I would see fellow Maniac Jennifer, who had also brought me Sprite, so we were basically on Sprite overload. I grabbed some more Oreos from Kristen and AJ and stopped to admire the wonderful sign Kristen had made me and had been talking about for months.
I was definitely ready for Sprite at mile 13, because my stomach was really unhappy even though my legs were feeling great. And there was Jennifer like a beacon of light, wearing her Maniac shirt and right next to the mile 13 marker, just like she promised. For some reason, I found that so refreshing.
I was really happy with our pace up until that point. We hit the half at something like 2:16, even with our bathroom break and walk breaks, so I was pleased. I told JC that at this point it was survival mode and I was going to be walking at every mile marker to drink my Sprite, and he was good with that. Otter told me that miles 14-19 were the “boring” parts of the race with the fewest spectators, but maybe I’m just used to tiny races because there were spectators EVERYWHERE. Each time I drank Sprite, my stomach felt a little bit better, and we were able to maintain our 10:30 average pace even with walk breaks at each mile marker. I thought to myself that surely there was no way I could maintain this pace for the entire race, but I wanted to give us a solid cushion for the inevitable decline, because I was determined to finish this race in under 5 hours.
Somewhere around mile 18 was the best moment of the entire race for me. We entered a Korean section of town (maybe?) and we heard the world’s most amazing song, Gangnam Style. If you’ve never heard it, please take a moment to appreciate its greatness and watch the Youtube video below. Yes, I know it’s in Korean. That makes absolutely no difference.
But you know what’s even better than Gangnam Style on its own? GANGNAM STYLE WHEN A WHOLE GROUP OF KOREANS IS DANCING TO IT. JC and I spent way too much time doing the dance from the video with these people, but I so do not care. It was amazing.
As each mile passed without the epic collapse, I started readjusting my goals. I set the mini goal of making it to mile 20 by the 3:30 mark, because I figured that if we did that, we could walk the entire last 6.2 miles and still finish under 5 hours. Clearly you can see what type of confidence I have in myself. Guess who hit mile 20 at 3:29? Boom. At this point, I decided to reevaluate my goal of finishing under 5 hours, since clearly that was going to happen. My new goal became to finish under 4:46, which was my time at Myrtle Beach and the fastest AJ has ever seen me run. I really wanted him to see me have a good race since pretty much everyone he comes to, I end the thing on the brink of death, which may be a contributing factor to his growing contempt for marathons. Well, that and the fact that they require him to wake up at obscene hours and he barely gets to see me. Either way.
My Sprite was keeping my stomach in one piece relatively speaking, and I was feeling pretty strong, which continued to shock the hell out of me. Somewhere around mile 21 or 22, Anders ran up behind us, bringing all his usual enthusiasm and looking equally surprised at how well I was running. He kept telling me how strong I looked and I just kind of nodded because even though I did feel good, I just couldn’t really believe it was happening.
Anders of course sped away and left us in his collective dust, but JC and I were still making really good time, so again, I started to reevaluate my goals. It seemed like I was definitely going to finish under 4:46, so why not bump that down to under 4:40? That would make my 3rd fastest marathon time ever, so we decided to go for that. Still, we stuck to walking at every mile marker and I drank my Sprite. That Sprite was a fucking lifesaver. Coming up to Mile 24, we caught up with Paul, who was having trouble with his knee. He said he was going to run it in with us, and I told him about the walk break policy, which he was cool with. However, at this point it was starting to occur to me that if I kept my pace up, I would come very, very close to running my second fastest time ever – under 4:35. Even at mile 24, it still didn’t seem possible.
At mile 25, it came time for a “T-Rex” and I was more determined than I’ve been in a very long time. I had seen a sign a few miles back that said “Beast Mode” and I thought to myself “Beast mode is nothing compared to T-Rex mode. It’s game time.” And I took off like a bat out of hell. No joke. Once I knew running under 4:35 was in my sights, I had to do it. Kristen and AJ were supposed to be waiting for me around mile 26, which was a huge crowd of spectators. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find them, so I just kept envisioning them being super impressed by me sprinting by. Of course, mile 26 is at one of the only hills of the race, but I would not let my speed suffer. I kept looking behind me to make sure JC was still there, and he looked just as surprised as I felt that we were running so fast.
As we rounded that corner to the finish line, I passed so many fools. So, so many. In fact, I don’t think we got passed the whole last 1.2 miles of the race. JC and I had planned to jump across the finish line, but I was concerned that the preparation for that would throw off my time (since when do I care?), and I actually don’t remember exactly what we did across the finish line. I’m pretty sure I did some type of Jersey Shore fist pump because I was SO excited when I realized I had run a 4:34:56, my second fastest time ever!!
Walking through the finisher’s chute was like a death march. I was all of a sudden really tired and feeling nauseous and sore, but still so proud of myself. JC couldn’t believe how fast we had gone and how much we had blown away the sub-5 hour goal. We started walking towards the Runner Reunion Area, which is where I was supposed to meet Kristen and AJ, but I quickly realized that was REALLY far in the opposite direction of our hotel. I have to say, for a race this big, it was exceptionally well organized. Everything started on time, the spectators were the best I’ve ever seen, the volunteers knew what they were doing and were plentiful, medals and food and beer were great, etc…but the Runner Reunion Area needs to be moved to the other side of Grant Park. That is my sole complaint. I eventually got sick of the smell of the beer I was carrying for AJ, and I gave it to a random man on the side of the fence. He didn’t want it, so I told him to find someone who does because I couldn’t carry it anymore, and he very helpfully agreed. Perhaps a homeless person would have been a better candidate, but no matter.
I ended up saying goodbye to JC, who had to go to gear check, and finally found someone who would let me borrow their phone to call AJ. I met up with him and Kristen over at the Congress Hotel, which was apparently a good selection on my part because there was a post race party there, although I just chose it because it was really big and easy to see.
Oh, and Otter? Yeah, he ran a 3:41, for a monster 13 minute PR! Maybe if you read his blog you will be fast too.
And even though they didn’t end up making it to mile 26 after all and therefore missed my epic sprint to the finish, AJ was still incredibly proud of me for running so fast. He had had a great time spectating minus the arctic chill, so I feel like I had sort of evened the score after putting him through the torture of New Hampshire and Maine the weekend before.
I can’t say enough good things about this race, and not just because I ran it at a blinding speed. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. While I’m not typically a fan of the big marathons, this is one I would run again and again. All that aside, this race gave me so much confidence in myself. My Ironman training is paying off. I’m getting faster. I’m slowly working my way back to the T-Rex of old, and maybe one day soon I’ll be even better than I used to be. So don’t judge me for using Double Stuf Oreos and Sprite as my pre-race fuel, ok? There’s no dignity in marathoning.