- BLANKET GOAL: At minimum, set a new PR (3:55:19 or better)
- REALISTIC GOAL: Go sub-3:50:00
- OPTIMISTIC GOAL: Run sub-3:45:00. Would need a LOT of things to go right to do this.
In 2011, I decided to run the Chicago Marathon on a whim. I had planned on running a 20-miler that weekend anyway as a final long run before the 2011 Marine Corps Marathon happening in 3 weeks, but then 48 hours before the marathon, my injured friend Jason offered me the chance to run Chicago using his bib. I got irresponsibly drunk** at the Northwestern-Michigan tailgate the day before the marathon, barely slept, and then somehow staggered my way to a then-PR of 4:26:04.
(**Author’s Note: When I say “irresponsibly drunk,” I mean just that. I don’t mean “Drunk For Someone That’s About To Run A Marathon The Next Day,” or even “Properly Good And Drunk.” When I say Irresponsibly Drunk, I mean that if you took me in that state and plopped me in the middle of South Boston on St. Patrick’s Day, a local would likely come up to me, give me a slap on the back, and say, “That’s the spirit, boy-o!” I did not take the 2011 Chicago Marathon very seriously.)
Over the course of those 26.2 miles, though, I fell in love with the race. Hard. Me and the Chicago Marathon had chemistry. It was like I was studying abroad, the Chicago Marathon was a local girl I met that I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with, we hooked up, it was awesome, and I promised myself that I would return exactly one year later to the spot where we first met. Or something. But as I crossed that finish line in 2011, I knew that I would run again in 2012, but under my OWN name and bib. And hopefully with a bit more training under my belt, too.
As I mentioned in a post back in June, the 2012 Chicago Marathon would be my the first marathon where I followed a proper 18-week training program. To keep myself on track and hold myself accountable, I dropped coin on the Chicago Area Runner’s Association 18-week marathon training program, where I went on group long runs every weekend and sometimes attending mid-week speed training sessions. I read Hal Higdon’s book about marathon training, I switched my shoes from the Nike Zoom Vomero 6s to the Saucony Ride 5s after weeks of research/experimenting, and I watched what I ate. In short, I paid attention to everything that I had always neglected in the weeks/months leading up to every marathon I’d ever run.
The onset of plantar fasciitis immediately after my idiotic 3-fer on the last Saturday of July curtailed a lot of my mid-week mileage, but I was still able to slog through all of my long runs on the weekends. I ran two separate 20+ mile long runs in the weeks leading up to the marathon, the last being the CARA-sponsored Newton Ready to Run 20-miler that took 3 weeks before the marathon. Weirdly enough, following the right plan(s) and putting myself in a position to succeed throughout these 4 months leading up to the marathon actually gave me apprehension of sorts — for the first time ever, I wouldn’t have any excuses to fall back on. If I fell flat on my face, I would have no one to blame but myself.
However, my excitement greatly outweighed any anxieties that I was feeling. In addition to running in front of friends in a race where I felt I would do well, the weekend would also bring with it the chance to meet 2 loyal South Carolina readers of mine, who somehow discovered this blog before I even told my close friends about it. The incomparable T-Rex Runner Danielle is a blossoming Internet running celebrity who is more than worthy of a perusal or seventeen, and the indefatigable Kristen is a budding Half Fanatic who is continually working on making the half marathon distance her bitch. Neither had ever visited Chicago, and I was excited to share my city with both of them. Danielle would be running the marathon, while Kristen would be hustling about the city to spectate.
The day/night before the marathon was relaxing and enjoyable — Kristen and I went for a run downtown in the morning before heading to the race expo and the Shedd Aquarium, and then we met Danielle and her boyfriend AJ at Quartino downtown for a pre-race Italian dinner.
This sentence right here will be just about the hokiest shit I’ve ever written in this blog, but as I turned out the lights and crawled into bed that night, I felt as ready to run a marathon as I had ever been.
One of the hidden benefits of CARA marathon training was that CARA provided all the participants with a private gear check and warming/gathering area at the Congress Hotel, right across the street from the marathon’s start in Grant Park. With morning temperatures in the 40s (perfect for running, but less-perfect for just standing around in thin clothing), I was grateful for the controlled environment in which I could stretch out and gather my thoughts. About half an hour before my wave was scheduled to start (at 7:30am), I left the comforts of the hotel and made my way to the starting line. My half-marathon time at the Kentucky Derby Festival MiniMarathon had secured me a starting position in Corral C, which meant that I would not have to wait long to start.
Before the gun went off, I didn’t feel any of the usual pre-marathon doubts that sometimes creep into my mind. Thoughts like Crap, is this really happening? Can I do this? How am I supposed to run for all those hours? But on this day, no, nothing like that. Instead, it was just a feeling of excitement. Here I was, in the midst of 40,000 runners and over a million spectators, PROPERLY TRAINED for once, and about to share one of the most iconic marathon courses in the world with some of the fastest athletes in the history of distance running. I mean, how does that not move you at least a little? As my corral walked up to the start line, I vowed to try and run in the 08:30/mile range for as long as possible.
I crossed the start line and beamed up at the crowd of spectators above me, many of whom were leaning over the edge of the first bridge we encountered. The temperature was PERFECT (more on that later), the sun was hidden behind a benevolent layer of clouds, and the crowds were just as enthusiastic as I remembered. As we passed under the first extended bridge, I felt….warm. The temperature under the bridge shot up by between 15-20 degrees compared to in the open air, and…wait a minute….
Did I really have to pee?
Despite 3 trips to the bathroom between my 4:30am wake-up call and the 7:30am race start (with the last potty break being a precautionary trip just 20 minutes before the race), within a half-mile I found myself lined up against the wall of a bridge between around two dozen other runners that had the same idea. Thousands of runners passed mere feet behind me, as I tried to shield the world from a view of my dick in my hand. Reeeeaaaaal smooth, Otter. That’s one way to try and PR.
After my 10-15 second pit stop, I rejoined the long procession of runners and tried to forget the fact that I almost became a Megan’s Law-abiding citizen. Despite that
public indecency minor hiccup, the whole of my first 5K through downtown Chicago passed reasonably well. The course ran between all the tall buildings and over the river a time or two, and the crowds were 3-4 people deep at every step of this downtown portion of the course. I caught a glimpse of Kristen before Mile 2, which was much earlier than I thought I’d be seeing her. It helped that she was somehow 10 feet up in the air, well above the rest of the crowd. I clocked my first 5K in 26:43 (08:36/mile pace), which was right around where I needed to be for a 3:45:00 marathon.
As we cruised north at Mile 4, I found myself confronted with a bit of a Sophie’s Choice. Just like in 2011, there were some jovial Italian men handing out full cans of beer out of a cooler, and I had me a thirst to quench. In the 2011 marathon, I had to climb over the median to the other side of the street so that I could grab a beer, but this year I found myself already on their side of the road. The beer was in touching distance..
Should I stop to grab a beer? Should I keep going? If I was wondering whether I legitimately cared about my performance this year, I had my answer when I passed by these everyday heroes without breaking stride. Too soon, I thought. Talk to me again around Mile 10, but Mile 4 is too soon for a cold one.
Somewhere around Mile 6, I looked behind me and was startled to see the official 3:45 pacers running right up my ass. I didn’t know if they’d always been there or if they had gradually reeled me in, but I quickly fell in step with them and found their pace to be pretty agreeable. I let them cruise past me as I stopped to take some fluids at an aid station, but I never trailed them by more than 20-30 feet. Almost an hour into the race, I was feeling pretty good, and we were about to enter one of the most energetic neighborhoods in the city.
Come at me, Boystown.
MILES 8-11: Boystown and Breaking Away
I take for granted sometimes that I was raised in a tolerant household filled with love and acceptance for all races, creeds, and persuasions. But I’m glad that I was brought up like that, because I can’t imagine how shitty it would have been to not genuinely enjoy running through Boystown, the gay epicenter of Chicago. It was in Boystown that we saw the most densely-packed crowds outside of the start/finish portions, with throngs of spectators whooping, hollering, dancing, and basically doing anything they could to transfer their infectious energy to the thousands of runners streaming past. We passed a gay rifle-spinning brigade; I’ll freely admit that I didn’t know those existed.
As I breezed past the customary float of men dressed in drag and dancing to Lady Gaga, I lifted up my shirt to flash them, the glare from my lily-white German-Irish torso likely blinding them in the process. If I had scarred them, they didn’t let on, because the roars of approval I received made me instinctively pick up my pace.
Shit, I felt good. I was now 8+ miles into the marathon, and I felt good. Let’s see how far I can go with this, I told myself, and I kicked into gear and dropped the 3:45 pacers that had flanked me up to this point. Even though I hadn’t said a word to anyone in the pace group, I had still considered myself part of that herd for the past 4-5 miles that I’d run with them. From now on, though, I would be running alone.
Well, not totally alone, because I was still running between thousands of spectators packing each side of the street. At the Mile 10 aid station, I sought out my friend Marla, who I knew was volunteering at the Fleet Feet-sponsored aid station, and she handed me a up of water. I smiled as I thanked her for my beverage, and as she yelled after me, “Otter, I’m so proud of you!”, I beamed all the wider. Somewhere near Mile 11 I saw my good friend Dan Solera (a recurring character in this blog); I saw him waving his Costa Rica flag before he saw me, and I called out his name in passing. I vainly told myself that he must be impressed by how fluid I felt I looked, and I know it killed him not to be out running in the most perfect of marathon conditions. Everywhere around me, there was energy and love, and I couldn’t help but pick up the pace juuuuust a little more.
My 5K split at the 15K point (Mile 9.3) was 25:59 (an 08:22/mile pace), and my 5K split at the 20K point was 25:59 again. I was so locked in that I had run the exact same pace for 6+ miles in a row, all the while barely looking at my watch. Speaking of which, I wouldn’t be looking at my watch much at all past Mile 12, because as we runners re-entered downtown Chicago (and the tall buildings that came along with it), my normally-ultrareliable MOTOACTV went completely haywire. My display showed I was running a sub-06:00 pace at Mile 12.7 before I’d even passed the race sign for Mile 12, and at that point I sighed and realized that my wrist device would serve as little more than a pretty-looking stopwatch for the rest of the race.
And so, exactly like Luke Skywalker turning off his radar as he barreled his X-wing down the final channel of the Death Star before firing his lethal photon torpedoes down that vulnerable exhaust port, I switched off my watch’s display so that there was only a black, empty screen looking back at me. From this point forward, I would be running solely on feel.
MILES 13.1-18: Quickening the Pace
As I hit the halfway point, I briefly turned on my watch’s display to lance at my overall time — 1:50:52, which would have been good for the 5th-fastest half marathon I’ve ever run. Not knowing the actual pace at which I was actually running, I just ran at what I felt was an uptempo but comfortable pace, every so often asking someone around me what pace they were showing on their Garmin.
Mile 14 was the location of the Charity Block Party, where all of the many charity sponsors had tents to cheer on runners and pass out snacks and encouragement. It stretched for an impressive distance, and I couldn’t help but smile as I passed through (I did a lot of smiling this race. It’s my favorite). Now, I didn’t raise a dime this year above and beyond whatever my normal charitable contributions may be, but the volunteers cheered for me and called out my outfit/bib number just as loudly as if I’d raised a million bucks. I’m telling you guys, there are good people out there, even if the stories on the news or the political campaigns sometimes make you think otherwise.
Outside of the Charity Block Party, though, Miles 14-18 of the marathon have always felt like kind of dead miles to me. The crowd support thins out noticeably — this is explained by the fact that the course stretches west of downtown, where the neighborhoods thin out and there really aren’t any train lines that reach out there directly. My relative disdain for these miles is more of a compliment to the overall support for the marathon than you’d think, by the way — the 4 miles that didn’t have spectators standing shoulder-to-shoulder every step of the way stood out to me for that very reason, and that’s because the crowd support for the other 22.2 miles is beyond incredible.
Despite running on “feel” instead of running based on feedback from my watch, my 5K splits remained eerily consistent. I learned after the race that my 5K pace at the 25K mark was 08:20/mile, followed by a 08:23/mile pace for the 3.1 miles leading up to the 30K mark. Somewhere around here, we entered the vibrant Pilsen neighborhood, which is my favorite part of this course outside of Boystown/Lakeview and the Start/Finish areas. The predominantly Hispanic neighborhood comes out in full force to cheer, with flags flying and mariachi bands playing their instruments in full dress. Buoyed by the crowd energy (a recurring theme), I found myself feeling surprisingly fresh.
MILES 18-26.2: Let’s Do This
I pass all sorts of landmarks that stood out to me as places where I broke down in 2011. Running alongside the Illinois Medical District between Miles 18-19, I recognized the stretch where I started taking walk breaks last year; that would not be the case in 2012. As I passed a boisterous group of flag-waving South Koreans dancing to “Gangnam Style” around Mile 20 or 21, I stopped to dance with them for about 10-15 seconds. Yes, during what was shaping up to be the fastest marathon of my life, I stopped to take a brief dance break with the locals.
By the time I entered Chinatown near Mile 21, I was overflowing with confidence bordering on cockiness, my brass balls clanging against the sides of my legs with each stride (you’re all welcome for that visual, by the way). I even did a brief side-to-side shuffle for about 10 seconds near the pagoda so that I could better face the crowd, because I wanted to take it all in. At Mile 22, with no sign of the dreaded “Runner’s Wall” in sight, I looked down at the time on my watch and reasoned that if I just threw the hammer down and ran 08:00/mile splits to the end, I had a chance at breaking 3:40.
No, you fucking idiot, that’s the worst idea you’ve ever had.
Praise Allah that my inner voice was there to keep me in check. As I took more fluids at the aid station, I had to briefly remind myself just how good I had it. You have 4 miles left to go. You haven’t hit any semblance of a wall. You’re on pace to set a new PR by 10+ minutes and kill your goal. DO NOT DO ANYTHING TO FUCK THIS UP. I decided that there would be other marathons in the future to really test my limits — these last 4 miles would be more of a coronation than anything.
A coronation. I remember saying that exact word to myself. Never in my life did I imagine that I would view the last 4.2 miles of a marathon as anything other than a merciful end to a cruel death march, but here I was, still feeling great. My mantra (every runner needs a mantra, by the way) became a rather uninspiring-but-practical repetition of “Run within yourself.” I knew that I could push the pace faster, but at what cost? No, the potential risks outweighed the benefits. I told myself that, if anything, I would instead dial it back a bit. No point in being a hero.
At Mile 23, there were hashers handing out cups of beer. Knowing now that a new PR was safely in the bag, I grabbed a beer and drank it down to the last drop. It tasted warm-ish and horrible and skunky as it went down, but the aftertaste resembled sweet, sweet victory.
The next thing I knew, I found myself at the Mile 25.2 marker. This is just one of the many awesome things that the Chicago Marathon does — right past the Mile 25 marker, they have another sign at Mile 25.2 to let runners know that with their first step past that sign, there is officially less than a mile to go. Once past that sign, all of the thoroughly obnoxious spectator shouts of, “YOU’RE ALMOST THERE!!” suddenly take on a new relevance. It’s like those jackasses are no longer lying to me, because I am almost there. At the 800-meters-to-go sign, I consciously revved my engine and started picking off runners in front of me.
Mount Roosevelt, the cheeky nickname given to the uphill stretch of Roosevelt Road that runners must ascend immediately before the downhill finish, loomed in front of me. This 400-meter stretch has maybe a 3-4% incline and would barely merit a mention on a short training run, but after running 25.5 miles of ultra-flat course, ANY uphill can feel like a mountain. Last year, I ascended Mount Roosevelt with tears of pride and joy welling up in my eyes. This year, I simply muttered “Can’t stop, won’t stop” to myself over and over like a crazy person as I passed runner after runner.
As I crested Mount Roosevelt without breaking stride, I unleashed one of those uber-dorky white guy fist pumps. You know the kind I’m talking about: not the awesome-looking fist pump that Tiger Woods throws out after sinking a long putt, but rather the kind of fist pump that his caddy gives instead.
I stormed down the final stretch of Columbus Drive with my chest swelling with pride; I even had enough left in the tank to throw down a finishing kick of sorts. Was I really covering the same steps as Khalid Khannouchi and Sammy Wanjiru before me? I sure as shit was. As I crossed the finish line, I broke out the Gangnam Style dance one last time, which didn’t quiiiiiiite turn out like I’d hoped for:
I looked down at my watch — 3:41-something! As it turns out, I ran a time of 3:41:34, with no 5K split any slower than a 08:43/mile pace. I had eviscerated my previous PR of 3:55:20…now it was time to find a beer.
The Chicago Area Runners Associate came through in the clutch again — back at the Congress Hotel, they had rented out the 2nd floor ballroom, which featured plenty of chairs and places to stretch out and most importantly TONS OF SNACKS AND BEER. I ate everything in front of me and drank down more than a couple 312s, and I was happy for all of it.
I’d somehow walked right past Kristen and AJ at the finish, and they came to the Congress Hotel to keep me company until Danielle finished, who would still be another hour behind me. I fetched everyone beers (free with a medal!), until eventually I started handing my medal to AJ so that he could fetch his own beer at his convenience. We ate and drank in the nice, warm hotel and it was amazing.
Danielle joined us at the Congress Hotel a short time later, after doing something truly incredible — just one week after running back-to-back marathons on a Saturday and Sunday, she turned in her second-fastest marathon time ever. The good news kept trickling in, too — my friend Kat ran her debut marathon in under 4 hours, recording a final time of 3:59:54. My friend Jeff qualified for Boston with a time of 3:03:27, which is just unfair. Everyone had trained hard, but the weather and the flat course also brought out the best in everyone.
A few more beers later, it was time to say goodbye — I didn’t want to leave the race complex, but I knew that all good things needed to come to an end.
Who knows if I’ll ever run faster than 3:41:34 — I’d like to think that I’ve broken through another glass ceiling here, but if I never run another marathon in my life, I’ll be damn happy with that time. I’m halfway through my slate of 4 fall of marathons now — I’ve knocked out the Grand Teton Races trail marathon and now Chicago, with just Des Moines and New York remaining in 2012. While I had 5 weeks between the Grand Teton race and Chicago, I’ll have only 2 weeks between Chicago and Des Moines, and then New York is another 2 weeks after that. I do some really dumb things sometimes.
I don’t know yet whether I’ll be running Chicago again in 2013 — there are SO MANY great races worldwide that take place in or around October, and I’d like to focus on doing well in just one of them. And then past 2013, only time will tell if my back holds up well enough to continue running marathons.
If 2012 was to be my last Chicago Marathon, though, then I wouldn’t have changed a thing.