Marathon number nine is in the books! And it was fan-fucking-tastic! I would go so far as to describe this as not just my best marathon, but my best race ever.
The plan after getting to Chicago was to hit up the expo and then take it mostly easy though the rest of Friday and Saturday. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on my feet. I just wanted to rest my legs and keep them fresh.
The expo was the typical big race expo affair, but we were lucky to get there early enough on Friday that it wasn’t completely insane yet. We did a lap, grabbed some free samples, and I met up with my friend Heather for a few minutes. After that, we chilled at our hotel until it was time for the Oiselle meetup. And that was about it for Friday.
Saturday was even more laid back. I went for a two-mile shakeout run with the wife which we ended at breakfast. I had considered going to one of the many group shakeout runs, but ended up skipping them all. The one with Meb was the one I really wanted to go to, but it filled up before I signed up. And when I woke up on Saturday, I opted for a little extra sleep over going to Bart Yasso’s run, which was also a mile longer than I had wanted to do.
After breakfast, we stopped by Target to buy some throwaway clothes—I didn’t have any at home, nor the luggage space to carry them if I did—and then relaxed until our delicious, and early af, dinner at Italian Village. Then it was an hour or so of foam rolling my legs before getting in bed! I got to bed by 9:15 which was 👌 for my 5:30 wakeup.
I woke up easily and felt well-rested and ready to go. I scarfed down a Dunkin Donuts
savory donut bagel and then I had to 💩! I never 💩 on race morning, but I considered this a good omen. One less thing to worry about in those late miles. Not that I often have to 💩 during races, but it has happened before. I had just enough time to get dressed and get my stuff together to head out of the hotel right according to plan.
The weather was basically perfect. Low 50s, hardly any wind, sunny. I knew it’d get a little warmer later on and I tend to prefer racing in the low to mid 40s, but I knew the weather was going to be a non-issue. Another good sign for the day!
I walked to the start, checked my bag, and got in line for a porta potty. I was feeling okay. No nerves. More calm and relaxed than normal. Before checking my bag with my phone in it, I sent a quick text off to the wife to let her know I’d be radio silence until I saw her at mile 17. She said “you got this” and I, without even thinking, said “I do have this.” And I believed it. I felt confident for the first time in two weeks.
The porta potty lines were long and I got out with just a few minutes before the corrals closed. I pulled off my throwaway sweatpants, dumped my hoodie, and made my way over. The corral was packed and I entered from the back. But I knew my goal and race plan had me running much faster than almost everyone in my corral (based on the way the corrals were broken out by previous finish times). I slowly worked my way up to the front, but it was tough. There was little room to get through, but I knew that’s where I belonged and needed to be. I knew starting in the front would help me have a more controlled start because I wouldn’t be fighting to get around other runners. I’d have some space to run my own race.
I finally got all the way up to the second row of people just as the corral before us was sent on their way. I ripped off my makeshift tube sock arm warmers, reminded myself of my race plan, and told myself, again, that I had this.
Miles 0 – 7.5
Once our corral got going, I stayed calm. I had a lot of adrenaline, but I repeated over and over in my head “stay slow, take it easy.” I had switched my Garmin to manual lapping so I could have accurate splits and really be able to assess how I was doing throughout the race without having to worry about the typical GPS inaccuracy. I made it my personal mission to not look at anything on my Garmin except each split on the mile. That was it, besides the occasional heart rate checkin on my Apple Watch.
Throughout mile one I felt great. Easy and relaxed. I felt like I was running slow. I know, you’ve heard this before. When I got to mile one, I saw a 7:48 and panicked for a minute. “Shit! I was supposed to run around 8:20! Did I just blow my whole race?EVERY TIME, AMY!” But I quickly pulled it together and eased back a little. It’s a long race, I could recover. Plus, I felt like I was supposed to in that mile and I was running this race by feel.
My heart rate was quite high, in the mid-170s, for the first mile, but I didn’t feel it. I was totally confident in chalking that up to race start adrenaline.
Miles two and three ticked off uneventfully as I eased myself in. Almost got taken out by a few spectators crossing the course a few times, but that was an issue multiple times throughout the race.
The first 3-4 miles of this race are loud with strong crowd support, you need to take it in and store it for later, but you can’t let it go straight to your legs or you’ll blow your whole race. I just kept repeating my race plan in my head and kept telling myself I had this. Step one was getting to the northern most part of the course and hitting that turnaround at Addison (~7.5 miles). Then step two was getting to the Willis Tower and the halfway point. Step three was the Oiselle Cowbell Corner at 17 where my wife was. Then mile 20 and finally the finish. I had everything nice and broken out in my head. One step at a time.
I took water at each stop and tried to slow myself just a little as I drank to focus on getting some down, but I was still a bit splashy with it. Still out of practice, I guess. As I approached mile six, I realized I forgot to take my first gel. My marathon plan is typically to take one every five miles and this works for me. I gulped it down and set a mental reminder that I couldn’t make a habit of forgetting them.
When I got to the first 10k, I realized a new mental tool to add to my arsenal. Make each 5k a mental checkpoint. Each 5k had a timing mat and I knew my wife was tracking me. “Just get to the next checkin with Danielle.” In my head, I made this a big deal, almost as a way to connect with her telepathically throughout the race. It also meant that I was hitting mental checkpoints constantly throughout the race. This helped all 26.2 miles tick off like nothing.
Throughout this first portion of the race, my legs were back and forth between feeling great and feeling “ehhhh.” I knew going into the race my legs weren’t likely to feel good. I knew my IT band could be an issue. I knew there could be a lot of tightness and muscle soreness. It was never too bad, but it was always in the the back of my mind “okay, when is this going to get bad?” At a couple points here and there, I thought I felt my knees get weird and my left calf was tight for a mile, but nothing lasted or stayed consistent.
My pace throughout these miles was pretty consistent in the 7:55 to 8:05 range. I was hoping to for a less variation, but my effort level was very steady and I made very minor adjustments with each mile to keep myself on track. Besides being a little fast in miles one and two, I was right on plan.
Miles 7.5 – 13.1
Once we looped around at the top of the course and started facing South again, I used the Willis Tower as my North Star. I knew from running the course before that it’s the visible center of the course and it’s where the hallway point was. Whenever I could see the tower, I’d look up and say “Okay, you’re X miles away. I’m on my way!”
These miles were super uneventful. There is a lot of crowd support through here so I focused on keeping my effort on track and my pace right where it was supposed to be. I was really locked into where I wanted to be and overall feeling great. Legs kept having their moments of feeling weird, but still nothing consistent. To sound like a broken record, I just kept repeating my race plan in my head. I was not going to blow the day by not following my plan.
Throughout the first half, I slowly caught up on the pace groups in the corrals in front of me. 3:45 and 3:40 from each the C and D corrals (they had overlapping pace groups). I didn’t speed up to get around them, I just ignored them and ran my own race. My only thought was “whatever you do, don’t catch up to the 3:30 group.” The 3:30 pace group started in the C corral and had a nearly five minute headstart on my corral. If I caught them, I was running way too fast.
As I crossed the half, I was feeling confident. 1:44:29. Slightly fast for my 3:30 goal, but within a safe margin, I felt. I wasn’t trying to bank time, but I had an extra 30 seconds to work with in the second half, if I needed it.
Miles 13.1 to 17
“Okay, just get to Cowbell Corner!” That was my mantra here. I just kept on doing what I was doing.
At one point, a guy dressed like Mario passed me. Not long after that, I nearly slipped on a banana peel. Fucking Mario Kart out there, I tell ya!
Through this section, I started to have my doubts. Nothing major or self-destructive to my race, but they were there. I knew I was doing great so far, but my legs were starting to tire. I knew my long runs had been the weak part of my training so when they started feeling a tired here, there was some concern, but I still had energy and lungs for days. I expected this disconnect between my upper and lower body going into the race so I just kept to my plan. I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy day and nothing was at a point where I felt like I should ease back.
Sometime in mile 15, I got my first side-stitch. Ugh! But, hey, you don’t get to nine marathons without learning how to run through them, right? I switched my focus to my breathing for a few minutes. Deep breathes in and let it all out as the foot on that side comes down to the ground. It worked.
Normally, at the halfway point of a marathon, I switch from water to Gatorade. It’s another thing I’ve had success doing. But I was still splashing water on my face while drinking and didn’t want to risk having sticky Gatorade all over me. Plus, my hydration levels felt great. I typically try to take water at almost every stop for marathons (yet, almost never for shorter races), but I stopped taking water almost entirely in the second half. I paid close attention to how I was feeling and I was feeling confident I was hydrated enough given my current sweat rate. And when I had the option, I was sticking to the shadier side of the street.
As I approached the overpass for 290 right before mile 17, I knew it was time to get myself to the left side of the course for my wife and everyone at Cowbell Corner. Once I got over there, I noticed another pace group up ahead. I assumed this was the 3:35 group from corral C. Good timing for catching them, I felt. Anyway, I locked my eyes on the side of the course looking for everyone. Typically, I’m pretty oblivious to the the course around me, but I was getting tired and I need to see some familiar faces. About 50 feet out from them, I saw a big Oiselle sign and immediately sprung back to life. I soaked the excitement in and flew by with a HUGE smile on my face. So much energy!
Miles 17 to 20
I took so much of this energy in from Cowbell Corner that I went from running 7:55 to 8:00 miles to running ~7:47 for three miles. I was a little worried after the first mile, but I was feeling good again. I knew I was late enough in the race where I didn’t have to worry too much anymore about getting too fast. If my legs were feeling good with it, I could let them do what they wanted.
Sometime early in this three mile stretch, I got a bad cramp right in the middle of my chest. I focused on my breathing again while saying to myself “welp, this is where I die. This is probably something serious and I’m going to be that runner that dies at a marathon. Fuck it, legs are feeling good and I’m not pulling them back.” I ran through it for a few minutes and it went away. NBD. This happens to me in marathons a lot.
As I crossed mile 18, I stayed focused on my 5k checkpoints. “18.6 is 30k, just get to there and checkin with Danielle.” I was still using this mental trick and it was working.
Before I knew it—no really, it happened so quick—I was at mile 20. “Okay, here’s where things get hard. Stick with your plan. You got this, you’re fucking killing it, bitch.” Yes, I call myself bitch when I’m running. Anyway, I was confident and knew that almost nothing, short of an injury-related thing, was going to stop me from at least getting my B goal of 3:35. Even if I bonked, I had that on lock.
Miles 20 to 23
After crossing 20, my focus was getting to 22 and getting retribution from four years ago when my race fell apart right at the 22nd mile marker. I was not doing that again! I kept it steady. As I crossed mile 22, I forgot to lap my watch. Only mile all race I missed lapping exactly on the mark. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I realized it at about 22.25 and thought about lapping it there and then again at 23, but decided to just wait until 23.
In the 22nd mile, I started to get a really bad side stitch on my right. It was super painful to the point where I had to grab at it. I thought “welp, this is it. This where I fall apart…again.” I wanted to walk it out, but I refused to give in. I pulled back on my pace a little, but not much. I was determined to not give in until my body refused to keep going. “Four miles to go. You can deal with this for four miles. Okay…you probably can’t, but you’re going to fucking do it anyway.” Miraculously, I eventually worked it out within a mile and regained my pace and resolve.
Mile 22 was also where the “you’re almost there!”s started. I sorta wanted to punch every one of these people, but I let it go. I I was not letting this distract me.
These miles are where I really started to fall back on my half marathon from three weeks ago. I haven’t raced much in the last two and a half years so my race experience is a bit rusty. I drew as much as I could from this one race and used it as a reminder of what I could fight through.
I also thought about the elites who had just come through here not much more than an hour before me. I wondered who won and what it felt like for them coming down this stretch.
And when I needed to, I went to old faithful. I imagined myself running at him along my normal route. “Five miles left, just gotta get home from Port Liberte.”
Once I hit 23, I knew I had this race locked down. No, not just the race, my fucking A goal. I was going under 3:30 and absolutely nothing was going to get in my way. The question now was if I could hold on enough to finish in 3:28:XX. I knew I was on track for a negative split, but I wasn’t doing exact enough math in my head to know how close it was.
I fought these miles. My legs were tired and sore, but they kept on going. They kept doing what I was asking them to do. As much as I was hurting, I was never miserable. I was never begging for the misery to end. And I never bonked. I was focused on that finish and what had more left, the course or my legs. There was a lot of crowd support in the last 5k, but it barely even registered in my brain. I was in my own world focused on staying as strong as I could.
I hit mile 24 and my confidence grew even more. “This. Is. Yours. Finally. You’ve got your BQ. And you’re going to get your sub-3:30. All your marathon goals are happening today.” I briefly went back to imagining myself running at home. “Okay, you’re passing Ellis Island now. 2.2 to go.”
In those last two miles, the focus was on that stupid quarter mile hill as you hit mile 26. That last slap in the face from the course. It’s not even a huge hill, but I remember it completely crushing my soul four years ago. Not this time. I was going to fight with everything. And that was all I thought about from the 24th mile marker on.
I passed mile 25. Still had it. I the “one mile to go” marker. I was somehow staying strong. I felt slightly better than I did with this much left in my half marathon three weeks ago. But it hurt and I was putting down 100% of what I had left.
“Okay, the turn into the hell hill is almost here.”
“Let’s do this!”
I fought up the hill. I gave what I had knowing I didn’t need to save anything. I lost a few seconds on my pace, but not much. Less than I thought I would.
I got to the top of the hill and made that final left turn. There was the finish. Waiting for me. I had it.
To be honest, when I saw the finish line, my first thought was “huh, this race kinda flew by. I can’t believe that’s 26.2 already.” I mean, I was hurting, but the race seemed to just fly by. I gave what I had down this last stretch, but I think most of my remaining energy was trapped in my smile.
I stopped my Garmin as my body crossed the finish.
I literally screamed out loud. And then I cried. Good thing I was wearing sunglasses. All I wanted was to get to my phone and see what my actual chip time was. I hardly even cared about water.
I made my way through the long finisher chute grabbing water, Gatorade, and beer and then got to my phone. 3:28:41 here too.
“Holy. Shit. What?” I was honestly in shock for hours.
After I got my checked bag and texted my wife. I went through my dozens of texts and Twitter/Facebook notifications from people who were tracking me. I was almost too excited to function. My legs didn’t even feel that bad. I guess since I never hit my breaking point, they weren’t 100% wrecked.
I changed in one of the changing spaces and then made my way over to the post race party to find Danielle and get another beer in my body. I was walking pretty much fine. Sore, yeah, but not stiff.
This race was what happens when just about everything goes right and I focus on my race plan. It was a “best case scenario” situation. I’ve been on the other side where just about everything goes wrong and that’s pretty much the worst. This was the opposite of that and it was great.
Going into the race, I was not confident about my decision to go for 3:30 from the start. I knew it was a risky plan, but it still felt like the right decision. I never would have dreamed I’d not only hit that, but also hit my stretch goal. This was the first time I’ve ever negative split a race that I was racing. I typically suck at that. I also can’t believe I never bonked.
I was nervous about pacing myself on my own. I usually try to start marathons with a pace group to keep myself controlled and have something steady to focus on late in the race. I didn’t have that option this time around as the pace group I wanted was two corrals ahead of me. In the end, this seemed to work out really well. I was free to make my own adjustments in relation to how my body felt rather than be forced into what the group was running.
I’m a bit stuck on trying to figure out why this race. My training was fast, but it was low mileage and I didn’t do any cross-training or speedwork. In terms of marathon training, this was about the least work I’ve put in. To be fair, this was planned from the start of training. this wasn’t supposed to be a BQ race. I was focusing on just building back up. And then I spent all of taper dealing with making sure my IT band and quads were even going to be able to do the race at all. I was really aggressive with rehabbing everything, but it never felt right. And, again, my long runs. My longest run was only 17 miles. I had a 20-mile day, but it was split between a couple runs. My 19 and 21 milers were complete busts.
I guess, in a weird way, the issues with my leg forced extra rest during taper to allow me to go into the race recovered and ready, even if I didn’t feel like it. It also may be that my body responds better to lower mileage marathon training, which would go against everything I’ve ever believed would get me here. I’ve always felt like my body needed high mileage training to be able to stay strong late in a marathon. I might have been wrong?
I also had a solid race plan with many pre-planned options to handle anything the race threw at me. And I kept repeating that plan over and over and committed to it like I never have before. I made it gospel. I never let the race get away from me. I stayed in control of it.
No matter what, I couldn’t possibly be happier with this race. It was as close to flawless as I’ve ever been. I negative split. I PRed by 16 minutes. I got my BQ by more than 11 minutes. And I had fun and loved it. I finally feel like I have a PR that is mine. 3:44 is quite respectable and I’ve always been proud of it, but it felt dated and I knew I could do better.
I love the Chicago Marathon. Both times I’ve run it have been amazing experiences. It’s such a well put-together event that runs like clockwork. Crowd support is fantastic. The city is fantastic. It’s a big race, but it’s a great race.