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…