Last year, when I ran my first marathon, my pre-race excitement and anxiety started early in the week. This year, the week going up to the marathon I was remarkably calm. Perhaps it was just all the carbs making me sleepy? Excitement finally started to kick in on Friday as I headed out to Chicago.
Expo and Packet Pick Up
We got to the expo around 4:00ish and I was really impressed with how quickly and easy I was able to get my packet AND how easy it was to switch from H to the G corral. They tell you on the site that you won’t be able to switch your bib at the expo but apparently they can. I had been a little anxious about switching corrals because of the pace group I wanted to was in G so this definitely was a relief. Didn’t spend a whole lot of time at the Expo – but it was definitely up there in terms of quality and was HUGE! I didn’t buy anything because I’m very superstitious when it comes to race gear. I think it’s bad luck to wear a race shirt until after you’ve run the race and I never buy any race specific gear until after the race is over. Maybe this is silly, but I have yet to not finish a race.
Pre Race Preparation
I did a “flat Debra” – laid out my outfit, gear, anything I intended to carry, glide, etc. I made my tailwind and set up the bladder for my Camelbak and laid out breakfast. Basically, all I want to worry about on race morning is getting up on time and pooping. While I was still very calm, I was certain I would be a bundle of nerves in the morning, and the last thing I need to do is worry that I have everything I need.
One of my friends had scored me a pre-race ticket to the Ronald McDonald House team tent, which had food, it’s own bag check and best of all…PORT-A-POTTIES!! Being able to chill before getting to the corrals there and not have to deal with lines for the bathroom was just HEAVEN and having friends there helped to settle my nerves and keep me fairly calm.
Finally, it was time to head to the corrals and I parted ways with my friends (since we were running different paces) and headed off to find the 4:25 pace group. They didn’t have a 4:20 group so my plan was to stay with or just ahead of the 4:25 group for the first half and then see how I felt in the second half – maybe I’d pick up the pace if I was feeling good.
As I was standing there by myself, waiting to start, the fact that I was about to run 26.2 miles AGAIN finally hit me a like a ton of bricks along with all the excitement (and anxiety) that comes with that realization. This was immediately followed by the feeling that I had to pee.
Too late – it was time to go. And it had begun!!
I’d run the first few miles as part of the Chicago Rock and Roll last year, so the looping through the downtown area on the first few miles wasn’t new to me. I’d decided that I was going to try something different, I was going to listen to the crowds and really try to soak in the race atmosphere and energy. Normally, I turn on music immediately for a race but I’d heard so much about the crowds in Chicago, I figured I’d give it a try.
I think that probably was the best decision I made all day. The crowds were pretty amazing. The first couple of miles ticked off quickly as my attention was really kept by all the cheering and signs and supportive faces. My Garmin was going crazy (as expected) from all the tall buildings downtown and claimed I was running a mid-9 pace, but I didn’t feel like I was going that fast. I was slightly ahead of the 4:25 group and they caught up to me – although I was pretty sure he was running a little fast because looking at my time according to my chip, I was 9:52 average pace for the first 5K.
Honestly, after trying to run with the pace group for a few minutes, I realized that running near the pacer is a really bad idea. There were a few super-obnoxious runners that literally would brush you aside to stay right next to the pacer. One of them almost knocked me down! That was quite enough for me. I let them pass and decided I’d just keep pace from afar. I didn’t need to waste any energy on being annoyed at rude runners.
At mile 5 we entered Lincoln Park and I made a command decision. I had to stop to pee. That feeling in my stomach wasn’t going away and I knew it would be easier to stop now than in a few hours. Running when you feel like you have to go to the bathroom is the worst and I had no intention of spending the next 3+ hours feeling this way. Even if it was going to likely cost me my A goal and I’d lose the pace group.
Fortunately, with no lines, it was a quick stop. Right before mile 7, I had my first spectator sighting – my 91 year old Grandmother was out there cheering for me and seeing her gave me a boost. My friend and Aunt was just before mile 8, so I headed through Boystown feeling pretty good. My legs were feeling strong and even though I didn’t believe the time on my Garmin, I could see that I was running a consistent pace. I was able to catch back up with the 10:25 pace group and settled in slightly ahead of them.
Seriously, the miles were flying by. It wasn’t easy by any means, but they were just coming and going pretty fast. It was probably around mile 10 or 11 that I started to feel some twinges in my quads. Nothing terrible and not completely unexpected – I had been running now for close to two hours, after all.
The halfway point of the race is over the river (again) and at the beginning of Greektown. I knew that miles 14 – 16 wasn’t the prettiest stretch of the race and might be a little thinner in terms of crowd, so I put my music on for a little bit. My legs were starting to hurt more and I thought the music might help energize me. The miles started going by slower and I think it was probably close to mile 18 when I watched the 10:25 pace group pass me by. The pain in my legs was spreading and I just was really struggling to stay at the pace I’d been maintaining.
Somewhere between 18 – 19, I decided that I was going to defer the NY marathon, that I wasn’t going run the Baltimore Running Festival the following Saturday, and that I probably was never going to run ever again because RUNNING IS STUPID. I had gotten very frustrated, was in some serious pain and my body was trying to convince me that I needed to stop and use the bathroom again.
Right before heading into the Pilsen neighborhood, I started walking. After taking a few steps, I thought about how much I’d given of myself this summer to marathon training, how many hours I spent running (6 damn days a week) and how hard I’d worked. I thought about how it would feel to not PR after working so hard, and then I thought about how it would feel to have to blog about it. I thought about every person who would ask me how the race went and how I’d have to retell this story over and over again because I felt the need to tell anyone who would listen that I was running a marathon.
It only took me about a minute to start running again. I simply could not bear the thought of not PRing and I wasn’t ready to give up this fight. I turned off the music again and focused back on the crowds as I ran through the colorful Pilsen neighborhood. I was running slow but I just kept moving. I saw countless “Embrace the Suck” signs over the next few miles and every time I did, I muttered it to myself. I told myself multiple times (out loud) to “just keep going…you can do this.” I also let out exclamations of pain and whimpers from time to time. Don’t ever underestimate the relief you can obtain from letting out a wail of pain.
I got to Chinatown and I knew that I had people at mile 23-ish which wasn’t far off. Right before I saw them in the crowd, I realized that the pain in my legs had become bearable. Apparently, I’d “worked through it!” I certainly wasn’t ready to dance a hora, but I had stopped canceling all of my future races in my head.
Seeing my friend and Aunt at mile 23 made me happy. Also knowing that I only had a 5 K left at this point definitely was helping, too.
I was still running slow but my plan was to pick up the pace at 25 and give it everything I had to finish strong. When I saw the big 25, I dug deep and PUUUUSHHHHED! The faster I ran, the sooner I’d be done. I had no idea how fast I was running, but I clearly I’d left some gas in the tank and now was the time to use that up. After I finished and looked at my splits, I saw that my fastest stretch of the race was that final 1.2 miles.
I knew there was a small hill right before the finish line – and just like at Marine Corp, I’ve never been happier to run up a hill – because I knew the finish line was right after. I crossed the finish line and had that moment where I wondered if I was going to be sick – which means I’d definitely put in a good final effort. Thankfully, that feeling passed.
My finishing time was 4:32:39. This was a 23 minute PR and my “C goal.” However, what I realized at some point in those last few miles is that while the time/pace is certainly important and a key performance indicator, it’s not the only one. Being able to work through pain and muster strength when you need is something I’ve worked very hard on for the last few months and today it showed how far I’ve come since last year. For me, I think my mental game is what I need to focus on improving. I think the pace will follow if I continue to do that.
Post race was super fun. Ronald McDonald House team has you walk into the tent on a red carpet with people cheering for you the entire way – followed by a celebratory glass of champagne. That was such an awesome way to be greeted – the RMH team has totally spoiled me for a certain level of treatment pre and post-race.
Chicago was a GREAT race experience! Last year, when I finished the marathon I swore up and down I’d never do another one again. However, I’d definitely consider running this one next year.