I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Race Report: Chicago Marathon 2009

I’m somewhere in Chicago, in process of running my 20th marathon (or ultra). I’ve got a fresh feeling. The temperature is cool (if not cold). There’s a bit of sun in the sky and a bit of spring in my legs. I decide I might as well take advantage while I can. I tick off three brisk miles with an 8:55, an 8:50 and an 8:54.

That 3-mile stretch would turn out to be the fastest 3-mile section I would run all day. But this is not bad news, this is really good news, because that was miles 20, 21 and 22.

Wall? What wall? Nobody showed me any walls.

I did run miles 3, 4 and 5 in almost exactly the same 3-mile split, 26:39. So, 20-22 was only tied for my fastest of the day. The legs did, finally, get heavier in the last 4 miles of the day (Mile 25 split at 9:30; 26 split at 9:37), but none of that detracts from the glory I felt in those late miles when nearly everyone around me was hitting that wall and slowing down.

And that, all by itself, neatly sums up this marathon for me. It was a strong, steady effort from start to finish. I held a remarkably even pace throughout, and performed rather well given the fatigue and training interruptions I’d faced in the previous months. My 3:58:17 is a personal Chicago course record...

…and a year ago, I would have been ecstatic with that result. Not that I’m not happy with it. I am – very much in fact. But my good feelings are tempered with the knowledge that I can do a great deal better. Sure, 3:58 is my second best marathon ever, but it’s nowhere near the 3:44 I clocked in Kenosha back in May. 14 minutes may not seem like so much, but the average pace is 32 seconds faster per mile. A 3:44 finisher is nearly 2 miles ahead of a 3:58 finisher. More than 4,000 runners crossed the finish line between 3:44 and 3:58 at Chicago this year. (I was 10689th, overall.)

And my 3:44 in May wasn’t a fluke. That was the real marathon me, finally exposed, hindered neither by a too-busy racing schedule, nor by oppressive weather conditions. I can run a lot more marathons like that, and better.

It was nice to break 4 hours. It was nice to get my 2nd best ever. It was nice to finally run Chicago again without summer-like conditions. It was nice to not be sure what condition my legs were in, and still turn in what felt like a (mostly) effortless race. But nevertheless, that wasn’t the real me out there on October 11th.

I still learned a lot. Every marathon is a lesson learned on some front.

My expectations were so modest for the race that I felt NO pressure. I had NO nerves. NO anxiety of any kind. It was great to be so mentally unburdened. For the first time at a road marathon, I was really just out for a good, fun time. I’ve brought that approach to some of my ultras, but at the road marathons, I always pressure myself to hit certain goals. Ironic, then, to have none this time and to do so well by comparison.

That even pace, start to finish, was a new thing for me in a marathon. The closest I’d come to it before – unsurprisingly – was during my 3:44 PR, but even there, I pushed a little too hard in the middle and suffered a little too much at the end. These were my 5K splits for Chicago: 27:36, 28:30, 27:58, 28:04, 28:17, 28:23, 27:39 & 28:54. I crossed the halfway mark in 1:58:17, and covered the second half in exactly 2 hours. Of course, because I had no speed goals, I only aimed for comfortable pace and thus ran a notch below my ability. That certainly helped me run evenly, but perhaps I can recreate that feeling in the early miles and actually run a negative split somewhere in the future.

My burst of energy in the 19th mile was a pleasant surprise. My legs felt strong and it was a real rush to suddenly realize I had enough left to shift up a gear. But mostly importantly, I was just in a really good mood at that point in the race. The positive vibes gave me a charge, and I channeled it into my form. Straight back, high chin, quick steps, and I powered my way through Chinatown, all the way to Sox Park.

Oh, and for the first time at a road marathon, I had to stop and pee during the race. This might seem like a frivolous thing to mention, but it was really unusual for me. Stranger, still, that even though I waited in line for a port-a-potty 20 minutes before the race – which I never do – I had to go again just 2.5 miles into the race. I’ve decided the cold weather somehow had something to do with it. I resisted the temptation to slip between spectators on the sidewalk to water the bushes, and waited instead to pass a bank of toilets on the course. I finally found a village of them at the 5 Mile Marker. I lost 1:08 to my pit stop at the start of Mile 6 (Yes, I timed it.)

It was ironic, that after two consecutive years of out of the ordinary (and oppressive) heat, this year we got out of the ordinary (and frigid) cold. Overnight temperatures before the race dropped into the 20s. At start time it was barely 32 degrees. Most of the other runners in my corral had stripped off their extraneous layers by the time the National Anthem was sung (millions of goose bumps never looked so sexy), but I was too big a coward to even drop my sweatpants until just before the start gun. Even then, I was still freezing. I wound up running the first full mile of the race while still wearing the sweatshirt I bought at Goodwill. I finally pulled it off and tossed it to the sidewalk after a mile and a half. (Though, I really wanted to spy a spectator who looked under-dressed and offer it to them. Alas, I found no one who fit that description.)

I have a few other random observations, most coming from the perspective of a runner who’s now run the same course four years in a row:

-The new placement of the Seeded Corral Gear Check was a nice change. This year it was set right next to the entrance of the Seeded Corrals, instead of on the south side of Grant Park. The convenience of having the gear check right at the Finish Line was gone, but it was a relief that I didn’t have to fight my way through the pre-race crowds to the side south of the park to check my gear, and fight my way back to the north end to get to my corral. So much less stress this way.

-Boystown is always the coolest neighborhood to run through on race day. Broadway is narrow and packed with people. It’s like a long cheer tunnel. And whether it’s true or not, it feels like all 3 miles are downhill. Plus, the Boys of Boystown always turn out with the most interesting sidewalk entertainment.

-Toughest section of the course? I think it’s a tie between the desolate, West-side hairpin on Adams & Jackson, and the long march up Michigan Avenue for the last 3 miles of the race. Even when the weather isn’t cooking us like morning bacon in a frying pan, it’s still a long damn way from the bottom of Michigan back to Grant Park. (Though the mile markers did pass a little more quickly this time around.)

-For my second marathon in a row, I ran without carrying my own water bottle. I gave it up in Kenosha in the interest of trimming my running weight. Whether it’s real or psychological, it does make a difference. There are plenty of water and Gatorade stations at Chicago. I took advantage of those, stashed 3 or 4 gel packs in my shorts pockets, and I never missed my bottle. I’ve decided that, unless the neat is bad (or I’m on a trail ultra), I don’t ever need to carry my own bottle again.

-And one last note: Laura came out to follow me around the city once again, but this year she did it without a bike, depending instead on the CTA to get her around. She said she missed the mobility of the bike. The CTA was useful, but not nearly as versatile or speedy as getting herself around on the bike had been the year before. Good to know, I think, if you have cheerleader friends who have the wheels and are game.

So, Chicago was a nice bookend to my running year. My 2nd sub-4 marathon of ’09, and a happy conclusion to an unexpectedly long stretch of unsatisfying training. I have yet to decide what my 2010 racing calendar is going to look like. I still have a lot of decisions to make. But before any of that, I’m going to rebuild my training plan. It’s time to diversify. And maybe – just maybe – a whole different kind of race on the calendar…

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Chicago Results & Lessons Applied

Well, this week has dissolved into a particular kind of chaos, so there won't be much time for race report writing. To be certain, when it does come, it won't be a terribly long one anyway. I've now run 4 Chicago marathons, 8 road marathons in total, 2 trail marathons, and 10 ultras. That's 20 marathons and ultras in all. Point being: The sheen has worn off a bit. Especially for a course I've now run 4 years in a row. I still have some things to share, and some interesting details about my race, but I can give you the short of it now: I finished with a 3:58 and change. That's a course record for me. It's only the 3rd time I've broken 4 hours, and it's the 2nd fastest marathon I've run - though it's still far off that great 3:44 I ran back in May.

So, I'll be back with more, but for now I've got to muddle my way through the MASSIVE task I've been handed at work. It's not just a pile of stuff, there's genuine fear involved. The good news is that I've been able to apply my gained wisdom as a newly minted 20-time marathoner to the problem - and I'm not just being quaint, this is a mind-set that really is saving my sanity. I'm reminding myself every day to just take it one step and one mile at a time, not getting ahead of myself, or thinking about the end too soon. I just need an even pace, a calm head, patience and determination, and I WILL get to the finish line. (Wish me luck...)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

This Might Hurt a Little...

I’m slightly astonished to acknowledge that Chicago Marathon time has rolled around once again. It’s been a very busy summer, filled, for me, with many things that had little to do with running. I’m a little surprised at how humdrum it feels to be marathoning through Chicago again.

This is a small landmark for me, of sorts: My 20th Marathon or Ultra, all since my first in Chicago, 3 years ago.

On the flip side, I think, as much as anything else, all that racing and the training that leads up to it has resulted in a level of burnout that I’ve been feeling lately. (Indeed, I plan a significant change in my running routine beginning in the weeks after Chicago.) I still want to run marathons and ultras – very much, in fact – but I’m admitting that I need a little marathon hibernation to get the spring back in my legs – and my passion – again.

But before all that, there’s the little matter of my 4th Tour De Chicago this Sunday morning. We are finally rid of the oppressive heat that has plagued the race the last two years, but alas, we’ve slipped back to the opposite extreme: start time temperatures are predicted in the high 30s, a frost warning has already been issued for the region, and even flurries are possible on Sunday night. Alack for a simple, dry, overcast, even-keel, 50 degree day.

I can handle the weather, but my expectations for my performance are still low. To be sure, there will be no magical 3:44s for me this Sunday morning. Truthfully, a sub-4-hour result will be a significant accomplishment.

I’ve copped to this already, but my training over the summer left much to be desired. I had interruptions in my schedule yes, but most of my struggles were tied to lethargic, unresponsive legs. Sometimes people call it “Dead Legs”. This has been especially true since my attempt at the Burning River 100 on August 2nd. I felt it before that race, but have been plagued by it since. Even a gentle, weekend 12-miler would devolve into a staggered, helpless walk after 3 miles. There were no other nagging aches or pains, no creaky knees or sore muscles howled at me, the legs just had no life when the time came to do the distance. My weekday runs never seemed to suffer. I even managed my tempo runs without too much undue stress, then the weekend would come and I’d crash and burn. It’s not a problem I’ve ever dealt with before.

In the end, I was forced to take 11 days completely off with NO running at all. I felt the only choice was to think of my weakness as an injury and take the time off to heal. Regretfully, my time on the Disabled List ended only 2 weeks ago. It came during a time that should have been the peak of my marathon training. This can’t have a great effect on my race, but whatever I lost, it must be preferable to the handicap I was fighting before.

The good news, is the extended rest seems to have made a difference. I’ve been far stronger on my runs this last 12 days. If only I still had 3 or 4 more weeks before the race, I think I’d be in great shape for the event. But I’m playing with the hand I’ve been dealt. It’s easy for me to imagine a strong, well-paced race for the first 13 miles, and then a horrible, horrible bonk in the last 6 or 8. We’ll see.

Back in May, my 3:44 was the sum total of 26 miles at 8:34 average pace. Sunday, I’ll be aiming squarely at 9 minute miles. Modest. Conservative. And yet, still, possibly a gross overestimation of my relatively poor condition.

I’ll try to enjoy myself, Sunday. And then the winter reconstruction shall begin.