Monday, October 10, 2011

Chicago Marathon 2011

We're home!

This promises to be a post of epic length, so I will split the trip report in half this week: the race itself and the rest of the weekend.  First, the race!

Some background: I usually finish a marathon either wanting to run another one as soon as possible or never wanting to run one again, and I set my sights on the Chicago Marathon back in May within hours of finishing the Fargo Marathon.  I recovered from that race and then slowly built back up to start a new training cycle.  I joined the running club, started doing workouts in the evening to improve my heat tolerance and ran better mileage than I ever have.  And now that the marathon is done and I can't jinx myself, I can finally say it: I went the whole training cycle without catching one cold!  I got to Chicago - the broader start line, so to speak - feeling happy and relaxed and excited.  The temperatures crept up all week, but as the week went on, I felt more and more at peace with the conditions, and by the time the weekend rolled around, I had practically forgotten that the morning was shaping up to be warmer than ideal.

I took the bus to the actual start line on Sunday morning and got there with enough time to wait in line for the bathrooms and then jump into the seeded corrals (corrals A-D were reserved for the first 12,000 people in the field who had submitted qualifying past half-marathon or marathon times) with a few minutes to spare before the gun went off.  The low Saturday night was in the mid-50s by the lake, and by the time we started, it was a little warmer than 60.

Here's my view of the start line:

The first few miles took us through downtown Chicago, with thousands and thousands of people cheering for the runners.  (Overall, there were an estimated 1.7 million spectators along the course!)  The Chicago Marathon caps the field at 45,000 runners - about 35,000 more than I've ever raced with in a marathon before - and it was incredible.  I'm not used to seeing bibs at an expo going up to numbers like this:

There were 107 countries represented and I could hear so many languages around me in the starting corrals.  The spectators also were wonderful: carrying signs, waving cowbells, blowing airhorns and banging on drums.  One kooky sight: passing through the city's financial district and seeing the Occupy Chicago protesters waving their signs about corporate corruption enthusiastically right alongside the more light-hearted "Run Fast, Jerry!" and "We love you, Sandy!" signs.  This weird mix cracked me up at the time.  I saw Josh at Mile 1 - an unbelievable accomplishment, given how crowded it was then - and Mile 4 in the early stretch.

Here's Mile 1 from Josh's view:

And here's Mile 4:

The course meandered north as far as Wrigley Field and then looped back south through Boys Town, which featured some fabulous Lady Gaga tribute performers.  The course eventually wound through 29 neighborhoods, and I don't ever remember any real lulls in the crowds and energy.  It was an amazing tour of a vibrant, historic, wonderful city.  Here's a poster from the expo showing a few of the legendary neighborhoods:

I figured I could aim for a four-hour marathon - basically a 9:09 pace - based on my training this summer, a goal that wasn't overly ambitious.  I completed the first six miles a little slower than that pace, hoping I could pick it up as the race went on.  I felt strong through the first eight miles, and then very suddenly I felt not strong.  My legs were tired and my face was hot.  I slowed down and then slowed some more, but I didn't feel better.  By halfway, it was abundantly clear that it wasn't my day - and it was stunning to me how quickly and how early I felt so bad.  I kept feeling hotter as the course went along and my legs got more and more tired, and I started taking walk breaks.  I saw Josh again and I told him I was going to finish - it was just going to take a lot longer than I expected. 

I felt surprisingly positive despite the disheartening realization that I had a half-marathon of run-walking looming ahead and that I was already off-pace for four hours.  The miles ticked along quickly, and in spite of how tired I was, I still remember a lot of the neighborhoods and crowd support.  I loved the mariachi bands in the Pilsen neighborhood at 20 and the Chinese drummers in Chinatown.  I chose to tape "Becs" on my shirt instead of "Rebecca" because it's what my college cross-country teammates (and dear friends) nicknamed me and I wanted to pretend they were on the course with me.  The spectators were so kind to me.  I can't count the number of times one spectator singled me out and yelled encouragement that got me running again.  One of my favorites was a woman who was yelling, "This is what you worked for all summer long! All of your work comes together right now!" 

The temperatures got warmer and warmer, and there were so many spectators holding up hoses to spray runners as well as official cooling stations with cold sponges and big misters.  I started dumping cold water on my head at water stops, which helped a lot.  There was one house on the course advertising free beer early in the race, which cracked me up, especially when one dude near me grabbed a can and ran with it.  A similar station near Mile 18 did not delight me as much because of the smell of warm beer sitting in the air.  (Ew. I'm still cringing thinking about it.)  By the time I finished, I think it was 80 degrees and sunny. 

Miles 24 and 25 felt slow to me.  The end of the course is a two- or three-mile straightaway up Michigan Avenue back toward the finish before two quick turns up to the line.  I made the first turn and then the second, and on that turn, runners can see the finish line 200 meters away down a gentle hill - much like Twin Cities Marathon at the cathedral.  It was a glorious moment to me and when I saw some finish line footage on the news later that night, I teared up because the emotion at that point was so vivid.  I crossed the finish line clenching my fists in some fist-pumping triumph at 4:56, more than an hour off my personal best time.

I can't find the words to describe the race without making it sound like I'm tremendously disappointed with the results - but I'm not.  It's true that I worked very hard this summer to get ready and was frustrated when my body imploded on race day in a way I've never experienced.  This was my slowest marathon by far of the seven I've run, for no really obvious reason besides the weather, which was hot but not extreme. 

But even as I was struggling through the race, I knew what I would remember about my first Chicago Marathon was not my finish time but the experience: the spectacular crowds, the neighborhoods, the energy, the spectators, and all the love and support I got from people back home and in Chicago with me.  My intention is not to put an aggressive Pollyanna spin on the experience, and I can't deny that I'd rather be writing about finishing under four hours instead of finishing under five.  It's just that I arrived in Chicago expecting to measure my morning in hours and minutes and left with something immeasurable and completely different.  Even though it was one of my hardest marathons - on a flat, fast course - it was exhilarating to be around tens of thousands of runners and a city essentially throwing its arms around us in a big bear hug, whether we finished in two hours or six.

So, some important thank yous:

1) to the race officials and volunteers: thank you for the Gatorade, for the encouragement, for the sponges, for making us feel safe on the course, for making us feel special, for countless "Come on, Becs!" cheers

2) to the lady outside the church at Mile 22 handing out bags of cold grapes: I love you!

3) to my friends and family who encouraged me all summer and this weekend: there are no words for how much your support meant to me.  I thought of you all so much during the race.  Guess what?  The only time I ran into actual momentary physical trouble was when I took time at Mile 19 to think of people who planned runs and time outside to coincide with my run, people who were rooting for me around the country.  I felt overwhelmed by such powerful emotion in that minute that I couldn't get a deep, real breath, and I had to actually work to put you all out of my mind to focus on the task at hand.  But don't worry - the spectators yelling my name were channeling you.  It was an incredible moment that I'll never forget.  

4) to my best coach and cheerleader, Josh, who became a newly minted Chicago transit expert and rode a million trains to see me in five spots along the course: well, there are no words for you, either.  I was so grateful for his advice before, during and after the race.  The athletes he actually coaches are lucky to have him, because he somehow managed to calm me down, pump me up, remind me how ready I was and say just the right words of encouragement mid-race.  He is a gem.

I'm home now, and I'm totally beat.  I'm sore.  I will rest and regroup and get back to life without three-hour long runs on Saturday mornings and checking weather forecasts for cities other than St. Paul.  Today, I'm thinking I'll gear up this winter for a half-marathon in the spring before focusing on that pesky marathon distance again next fall.  But for the next few days and weeks, I have serious catching up to do: on walks, on playoff baseball, on reading, on soup-cooking. 

Readers, it's a funny coincidence that my Chicago Marathon report marks the 100th post on Miles and Laurel, a project I started with a personal essay about the Fargo Marathon in late May.  I wasn't sure that I could sustain this thing, but it turned into an outlet in which I practice writing but also get to record my daily life, connect with people, and be a little creative.  I've had so much fun with the blog, and I am grateful for your comments, page views and emails about my little stories.  Thank you for supporting this project and for reading this book of a post in particular!

Tomorrow we'll discuss the rest of Chicago: the food, the hotel, the food, the city, and the food. For now, it's naptime.


  1. This post made me you so much!!!

  2. So sad I couldn't be there to cheer you on! Glad you had a good experience, even if maybe not in the way you intended...

    I want to run a 10k in the spring...maybe we can work something out? :)

  3. i'm so proud of you recca! wish i could have been there to cheer you on. chicago has a special place in my heart and it brings me joy to imagine your feet moving through so much of it. mwah. -sj

  4. Rebecca, you are such a talented writer - this post was a joy to read. Can't wait to read about the rest of the Chicago trip! And congratulations on your finish, even if you were off your goal time - you've accomplished something many of us could never dream of doing!

  5. It's true, I did dominate the Chicago trains.

    But you dominated the pavement, you're awesome.

  6. Awesome post, awesome run, awesome girl. Congratulations!