Close your eyes and imagine a race where all your family and friends are cheering you on, loudly with horns and drums and wild shouts of delight.
Now imagine you are running 5k, then 10k and this support does not end, seemingly increasing in volume and intensity along a 26.2 mile route, not stopping for more than four hours.
Now imagine that enthusiasm takes place on a gorgeous Sunday morning with an infinite amount of signs and cheers and food and drink (yes, beer was offered) and encouragement every step of the way.
But imagine that instead of family and friends, these shouts and cheers and music and passion are from complete strangers, an international brethren who have bonded in one goal, your goal, regardless of how fast, how slow you are going.
That is part of the feeling I experienced during almost five grueling yet exhilarating hours at the 2015 Bank of America Chicago Marathon, my first major marathon experience that now, looking back, was one of the coolest things I have ever encountered.
There were many highs and a few lows, mostly of personal regret as injuries and other responsibilities that I quite enjoyed all summer, essentially derailed the dreams of a lightning fast training cycle. Those hiccups and an eventual case of procrastination (fear) led to an inevitable result that was 49 minutes slower than my previous marathon.
Despite this disappointment that has long since evaporated, when I think of the Chicago Marathon, I recall an outstanding city better than I could have imagined, a thriving running culture and a race that, despite 45000 fellow competitors, was surprisingly uncongested – save for a 20-minute walk to the start line after the first gun sounded.
If you ever dare to take a chance on a world-class marathon complete with the international field that can run twice as fast as you, stick your name in the lottery this upcoming spring and take a chance on something you will always treasure.
It’s expensive, it’s something you will never forget and definitely, you should go.
I will recap some of it and I have posted a bunch of photos. It’s long and probably tedious but it will serve as a personal diary, much like my quest to cracking four hours at the P.E.I. Marathon in 2013.
So here goes:
The whole Chicago concept was my brother’s idea, throwing our names in the Chicago Marathon Lottery, where each of us had a slightly better than 50 per cent chance on success. The deadline to register for the lottery (free of charge) was in March and the results were revealed in April.
Looking back, that family connection was one of the neatest aspects to it all. While we have run together in smaller races, we had never run the big one together.
As it turned out, we both made it into the 45,000 person field. When we got word, we had a week to decide and given that we were selected, it seemed crazy to pass on the opportunity. So we paid our money (in gulp, US Funds of course) and we were in.
The setting was mid April and we had lots of opportunity to get in shape for this flat and fast course. I have pieced the rest of this tale in a series of notes. Here goes:
- As it turned out, we coordinated our flights to meet in Montreal on race weekend, which meant a 6 am journey from YSJ and of course, an even earlier wake up call. As it turned out, Kent met a fellow participant on his flight – a Catholic priest from Montague, the first bit of good karma we figured and a symbolic twist of fate that would make our devoted church-going mother feel at ease during Canadian Thanksgiving.
- After a routine flight, the 45 min shuttle into the city was nice, with an extensive and highly entertaining description of Chicago to our fellow passengers by our gregarious driver – “Chicago is the greatest city in the world – except in the winter,” he mused. We listened attentively to the proud boast that would make any tourism agency proud. George’s details included yarns of sports, industry and Jimmy Hoffa, the only person in the city who could do and go where he wanted in Chicago – except for Oprah.
- We learned of the curse of the Billy Goat, the various ups and downs of the economy, the must see architecture river tour (we did not take that tour), the impact of the Greek community on the city’s history and the lack of respect for taxi drivers, who our shuttle driver says are the root of all the city’s accidents.
It did not quite matter – that much – when George dropped us off at the wrong hotel, a fact we did not discover until his tip was paid and he was off to meet the next flight. Ultimately, though, we walked just a few blocks to the proper spot, just off Michigan Avenue, part of the aptly named Magnificent Mile, less than two blocks from Nike Chicago, close to the transit system and lots of shopping for those who were so inclined.
- After we settled, we watched the Blue Jays playoff game at this pizza house in the heart of the city and enjoyed a bonafide Chicago Deep Dish Pizza. Well worth the experience.
- During training, it all got off to a nice start, and with a base I had underway, and strength built up from Fit Body Boot Camp in Saint John, I was making early training goals distances easily, albeit it slow. I was ok with that because I have learned the paces pick up when you are well into training. However, one Saturday afternoon, early in the process, I went out for a quick 8km. A nice sunny day, not too hot and with 2km left, I felt a pop in my right calf. I tried to run through it but ultimately, it led to 2.5 weeks of pain and an unwelcome interruption in training.
- The major goal for us on Day 1 was the Marathon Expo, which was, in a word, huge. A massive display of goods and services were on hand for the runners ,who quickly made their way to their allotted lines to get their treasured bib number and their race day info. Considering 45,000 people needed to get these numbers in a short period of time, it was very effective. We toured and toured, amazed by the size of the crowds, the facility and the number of booths that had something for everyone, including two day-long 45-minute speaker series from some of the most respected runners in the United States.
We took the recommended transportation to and from the Expo but traffic tie ups and looooong waits took the fun out of the return trip for sure. We turned in early after a long day, content with a little TV and a somewhat normal sleep.
- My brother signed up for an online training program, specifically for the race and the participants met on Lake Shore Drive for a 20-minute shake down run on Saturday morning. The area was alive with runners on this picturesque morning, and it was neat to take part in the final prep run with this particular group of runners, whose abilities ranged from the super fast to the average Joe. The session basically dealt with a few final tips, some warnings about the impact of the heat and some last minutes words of encouragement. Then a 25 minute run before a send off. The lead was Greg McMillan and his website is here if you are interested.
- Midway through training, I had recovered but I was worried about falling behind and then another 3 weeks off, ITB hit my right side and I tried to get through it but it was a painful period where I was reduced to short runs, just a few times per week and my regular Boot Camp workouts. If I had not paid, I may have altered things.
- The marathon coincided with the start of the Major League Baseball playoffs and the city was alive with Cubs’ fever. Unfortunately, Game 3 of the National League Divisional Series was on the Monday, shortly after our departure but we managed a quick tour of the area (the Stadium was closed to tours because of construction) but we got a sense of the area and managed an iconic photo in front of Wrigley Field and managed to purchase some garb at the Officials Chicago Cubs store.
For those who know of travel from PEI to the Mainland before Confederation Bridge, the Old Abby was a staple in the minds of many Islanders. Well, it is drydocked in Chicago and after the Saturday shakedown run, we were welcomed aboard and enjoyed some pasta. It is located at the Columbia Yacht Club
and on this day, complete with summer temperature and hot sun, there were kids from the sailing club that housed its administrative offices in the old car bay. Upstairs is as you remember, with comfortable seating in leather chairs, complete with a viewing room, a bar and restaurant area and of course access to the outside deck, where many of us as kids, dropped pennies off the side in an attempt to get one on the ledge. My uncle Lawson used to work on the ferry for many years but what I did not know is that he was part of the crew that sailed the vessel to Chicago when it was purchased in the early 1980s. On this day, there was a wedding reception planned for the boat, and people we just arriving when we were leaving.
- After our meal, we tackled a trip to the Expo again, this time so my brother could get some swag from his training group people and to try and get a few shots in neat areas. We used the Subway and it was a much better than the hour long wait endured the day previously.
- We went to see the Blackhawks play the night before the Marathon and the anthem – described by many as the best in sports – lived up to its reputation, with the United Center rocking from the first note and rising to great heights by its conclusion. The home team won 4-1 over my beloved NY Islanders and after each goal, it was another massive celebration. If you were not wearing a red Hawks jersey you were in the minority by far. The most popular player on this night was controversial forward Patrick Kane, who owned the ice and dominated every shift.
- As the game went on, we decided it would be best to leave early to get a jump on the taxi situation and both ways, it was swift – not in the ‘Hey we got there, great,” but, “Man, that as a tad frightening.”
- In addition to our friend the Priest, there was another runner from NB who we met – Debby, competing in her first Chicago Marathon. On Sunday morning, we walked to the starting gates together, shared stories of our apprehension and then parted. She did a great job as she fought through a major cold the day before the race and managed to complete the course the next day.
- Originally, I knew my time would be way off my personal best, but in training, I was going a decent clip toward a possible 4:10-4:15 finish – if everything aligned correctly. Early on in Chicago, sparked by the mass start, the excitement and the passion of the fans, I went slightly faster than I had intended but not too much.
After arriving in time and getting through security and finessing the start coral, we waited. We were in Corral E, the fifth of 10 or so gates. Amazingly, just prior to the start, people started throwing away their warm up jackets aside. Minutes before the procession to the start line (15 minutes or so), jackets, hoodies and sweat shirts were flying everywhere, like popcorn popping in slow motion. I was on the left side and managed to avoid getting hit but one unsuspecting girl got smacked right in the head with a wayward hoodie, as she was unaware of the potential problems as she walked closer to the front of our gate.
- I went without a Garmin and as it turned out, that was good as the high buildings and tunnels associated with the race screwed everyone’s timing, pace and distance. Many had the total event at more than 43.5 km and the paces were way off what they intended. I clocked my time by mile and kilometre markers and early on, it was utterly fantastic.
- After 90 minutes, I was feeling remarkably good – too good as it turned out. I was slightly under the time but was invigorated by the crowds. After the 15 km mark, I consciously slowed and from there, it went to slow gear. The first time I had to stop was for a washroom and while there were plenty around it was somewhere just before 20 k that I found a spot with no major lines that had at lest 3-4 minutes of waiting.
In the first few miles, I marveled at the support, including a police officer high-fiving everyone around as we went under the first tunnel. Since we were at the half way point for starters, he had been high-fiving with great gusto for 20 minutes and he showed no signs of slowing down.
- In addition to the police officer, there were approximately one million fans en route, many with signs (see this link, this link and this one) . ‘Smile if you peed a little’, ‘Go Random Stranger’, ‘You got this’, ‘The beer will be worth it’, ‘You run better than the government’, etc. Others straddled bridges, crowded into street corners and jammed into whatever spot they could find.
- As I approached the half way point, I knew whatever faint hope I would have of making it through without major distress was gone but I wanted to go as far as I could and try to beat my training, which got me to 30 km about three weeks before Chicago. As I passed the halfway point, I was at 2:06.03 and despite all my hiccups, I was feeling relatively good. I slowed some more and took some liberal walk breaks at the water stations, averaging about 10:17 per km as I crossed the 25 km mark. But then…..
- The volunteers were among the nicest I have encountered, representative of the city itself. They were out in full force, ready to assist and on race day, they numbered in the thousands, from security to those passing out water and Gatorade, those handing out medals and directing us after we finished the race.
- A great source for tips and general conversation is on Runner Worlds Forum and they have one chat set up for the Chicago Marathon, with regular discussion on general running and much more as the event nears. One of the biggest areas of
pre-race chatter in the final days prior to the event focused on the temperature, which was forecast to be quite warm for early October – and it was. Average times in most divisions and definitely overall were slower in 2015 because of the heat.
Somewhere between 25 km and 30 km, I slowed and eventually stopped for water and then I feared the worst – a DNF, when I had a massive cramp in both quads. The pain was nothing I had experienced before and it took a good few minutes of me massaging both legs ferociously before I attempted to even walk. It was not a pleasant experience and easily the low point of the race. I thought about quitting. After a pretty significant break, I walked gingerly for about 100 metres and then attempted to run, first 30 seconds and then I walked again. The next time I ran, I was able to go 1 minute on before I stopped. The fans kept me going as did some sort of realization that a finish, even slow, was a finish.
- My average time per mile at the 5 k splits read as follows 9:29; 9:26; 9:22; 10:05 (10:17 half) 10:50, 12:27; 12:32; 12:26; 12:05.
- So after the cramps and the realization, it was a fight to go two minutes on, 30 seconds off, or 1 minute on, 1 minute off. I still managed to enjoy the setting. If you ever see those cycling races where the fans crowd the cyclists to the point of almost impeding the race, I did experience that to a degree in Chinatown. Lots of neat photos and one of my favs at MarathonFoto.com.
- As it turned out, the temperature WAS one of the main stories of the race as it was unseasonably warm on the weekend. The race started at or around 60 degrees and quickly climbed toward 70, then 75. The heat had an impact, more than I would have thought, despite my training woes. When I eventually finished, it was 75 but I was happy to cross the line and enjoy a free cold beer in the first few strides after I got my medal.
- In the final few kilometres, the crowds grew, if that was possible, lining both sides of the street and grouped into VIP pods in the middle of the main street. Everyone was cheering. That took us to the final section, a 150 metre climb which represented the only real hill of the course. After months of wondering how it would go, all of a sudden it was over.
- In the final 5 weeks of training, I hit the long distances required, in good but not great pace and shortened the taper to two weeks, not three. It was like cramming for a test at the last minute…with predictable results.
- But not so fast. As we trudged along after the finish, a time in mind and our medal in hand, it was about a one mile walk to a legitimate resting area, where the massages were and where a band played. Along the way, there was a photo booth, a few free beer!, a place to eat but most importantly, a place to rest.
- We snapped a few photos, walked with the masses and slowly made the trek back to the hotel, about another 1.5-2 miles.
- Nike was one of the big sponsors and they had swag and oodles of staff on hand to help out with your memorabilia needs. After the race, they engraved our medals. Nice, albeit a little long – 30 minutes – to be standing on our feet after the big run in the middle of a line in a store.
- Motivated by the hotel restaurant’s proximity, we ate there for supper, got a few more souvenirs at a near by shop, packed and got ready for the 6 am ride to the airport the next morning.
- This trip would not have happened without my family, who supported me in the training and the crazy thought of even going for it. They were in my mind throughout but most notably at the end when it was over and I thought about how much they had sacrificed for me to chase this medal. I really can’t properly explain what they did and how much I appreciated it. Thanks to Jaime, Avery and especially Kathy.
Here are a final few thoughts if you go. Book in the heart of the city; It is pricey but worth it in terms of convenience. The morning of the race, the one mile or so walk to the start line helped ease the nerves and it was a walk of thousands in the same boat.
- That said, if you go, leave the hotel early on race day (we left at 6 am and really only had 15 mins to spare before our gate closed). I can’t tell you how many people I saw racing to the start line and entering the start facility as the race started. The total was in the hundreds.
- If you go, take the subway everywhere; it’s cheap, easy to learn and most importantly, much faster than anything other offering.
- Finally, go for it. Take a chance on the lottery; It is free and even if you get in, you have a week to opt out.