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Chicago Marathon 2018 Race Report

Sometimes races actually go to plan. 

That’s what happened at the Chicago marathon on October 6, 2018. I used to live in Chicago from 2005 – 2008 and had completed my first two half marathons at the time, it was my first introduction to endurance sports. I don’t remember my exact times, I think something like 2:05 and 2:01 – I was close to breaking 2 hours and never really felt that motivated to do so. I didn’t really like running to be honest. As virtually everyone knows, running is kind of hard plus I was having IT band troubles. Once I got my first road bicycle in 2009, I pretty much stopped running completely and started cycling as my fitness of choice. Jump forward to 2012 I did my first triathlon and I started to like running again. With a bit more fitness it turns out I’m actually a pretty fast runner and started placing well in races, even having a few second place overall finishes (“but if you ain’t first you’re last” …j/k). I had completed two marathons in 2013/2014 (3:30/3:21) and I knew someday I wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which has various running time qualifications depending on one’s age and gender. The main thing is as the older you get, the slower the time requirement. After the Salt Lake City marathon in 2014 I decided I would not do another marathon unless I had a strong shot at qualifying for Boston. When I turned 35 in 2018, I gained an extra five minutes of buffer time – instead of needing to run faster than a 3:05 I the requirement was now 3:10 (or faster). The Chicago marathon course is a flat plus the weather conditions are often favorable in early October. Thus, Chicago 2018 seemed like the perfect event for me plus a chance to race back at home. I was planning to try to run a 3:05 as a “safe” goal to have five minutes of buffer over my goal time. Things were good!

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At the expo the day before the race

But then life threw in some wrinkles and distractions, just like it can and does for anyone. Work got super crazy the month leading up to the race. On September 20 I totaled our car. Everyone was OK but it was a shaking experience. Finally, one week before the race I find out that they modified the Boston marathon qualifying times – it is now five minutes faster for all age groups. I now HAD to run at least a 3:05 to be even considered. No more five minute buffer. Did I also mention I’m still recovering from a stress fracture earlier in the year and never did a training run of more than 12.5 miles? Granted, I had lots of endurance fitness from training for my Ironman in July but we’re essentially just going off general fitness and endurance and very little run-specific fitness. Basically – there were a variety of minor things all adding up that I was certain would “ruin” my race and I was pretty certain I would fail.

The weather forecast was looking decent – high 50s to low 60s likely with rain. My race plan was to try to average 7:00 minute miles (easier math!) which would put me about 3 hours 3 minutes and 30 seconds to finish. IE – in order to run X time, you need to shoot for a little faster than X to give some buffer, plus maybe you can actually run faster than X? The strategy was to run 5-10 seconds slower than pace for the first 5-6 miles, then on pace for the next 15, and then really kick it up the last 5 miles. I decided to wear my Team ZOOT running singlet, arm warmers, REI running shorts (as I can carry 3 gels in them), 2XU calf covers, On Cloudflow shoes, and the finisher hat from Ironman Canada back in July. Wearing the hat was primarily from a mental perspective – while I am no longer beating myself up over it, I would consider my recent Ironman Canada a failure – it was far from my the best fitness I had on the day. There is an interesting book by Matt Fitzgerald, “How Bad Do You Want It”, which has a chapter called “The Gift of Failure”. The story is around pro cyclist Cadel Evans falling short numerous times from winning the Tour de France, and that only by “failing” so many times that was the motivator he needed to finally break through to win the race. While I am no Cadel Evans and this is not the Tour, I did think that wearing the hat would remind me of “failure” and I could use that as a motivator to keep pushing when things get rather difficult during the race. 

I wake up on Race morning just over 3 hours before race time and it’s thunder storming out. While running in the rain isn’t that big of a deal, standing around in the rain an hour+ before the race kind of sucks. Fortunately the rain let up pretty shortly afterwards and it didn’t rain at all for the 90 minutes before the race! I was staying up in the north Chicago suburbs at my sister’s house and my Dad drove me in the morning to a parking spot downtown (booked with Spot Hero) and it was about 1 mile to the race start. I walked with my Dad about halfway and then decided to start jogging to warm up. I dropped a few things off at the gear check – mainly just an extra T-Shirt and my pants I was wearing. I wore a long sleeve T-Shirt (and a trash bag as a makeshift poncho) to the starting line to stay warm. I did my warmups, did the necessary (multiple) toilet breaks, then got to Corral B a few minutes before they closed up. Even though there are 20x more people at this race than a standard Ironman triathlon, the starting area did not feel any more crowded – it was just fine actually. I toss my trash can plus extra layer at the starting line, we hear the elite racers announced, the national anthem plays, and then the horn goes off. I take my gel and we inch towards the line. I believe I crossed the mat at around 7:31:30.

The first mile actually was not super-fast like I was expecting, but rather right on pace, which is fine. It was, however, fairly crowded, but nothing like an Ironman triathlon mass swim start. After mile 2 I look down at my HR and notice it’s pretty high. I try to slow it down a bit but it turns out I still am going faster than planned – 6:45 pace for those! Whoops, that's a bit too fast. I notice the 3:00 pace group go by me and I start to stay with them but then realize it’s time to hold back. I fall back to where I should be in the 7:05-7:10 range I think (GPS accuracy isn’t always great due to the cloudy weather plus buildings). The first quarter of just about any race is always awesome – you are feeling great and there is lots of positive energy from the other racers and spectators. Speaking of spectators, they are EVERYWHERE. It’s pretty great. We head north towards Lincoln Park (where I used to live) and that was pretty cool. Every time we cross a mile marker I check my watch and I’m exactly on pace with where I should be. Mile after mile ticks off. At mile 7 I take my second gel of the day and things are going great. Around mile 8 I see two guys that used to run for Purdue (my alma mater) and are getting lots of cheers (“Yeah Purdue”, “Boiler Up!”) and so I decide I should run with these guys! We get near the halfway point and it seems these Purdue guys might be slowing a little bit and notice that mile 13 was about 15 seconds off-pace. At the halfway mark my time is 1:32:02, so I am about 30 seconds ahead which means I can run the second half about 1 minute slower and still make the goal. I decide to pick it up at this halfway mark and the next few miles are a bit faster.

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3:05 pace group catching up to me. Also, it was raining out

Starting around mile 15/16 I hear some cheers for the “3:05” pace group and realize that it will likely be less energy if I run with them. So I let them catch up to me and stick with them the next three or so miles. Any time I would start to fall back a little bit I would focus on my form and catch back up and in fact pull ahead a little bit. To be honest, focusing on my form almost felt like cheating! After a little bit the pacer says: “we’re about a minute up and coming in hot. I’m going to slow down a little bit but you guys keep going. Remember to relax your shoulders and focus on your breathing.” Good advice! The next couple of miles do go well but then I remember around mile 20 the rain starts to pick up again. Mile 21 is Chicago Chinatown and things are getting pretty hard. I remember coming here many times for Dim Sum with my family. Around this time I also start to dig deep into the memory banks for motivation, thinking about some personal things that won’t really make sense to anyone else. Around mile 22 the 3:05 pace group does catch up again and I decide that I’ll run with them for the rest of the race and will NOT fall back. I remember each of the last few miles getting progressively harder to stay with the group, so I hyper-focus on running form which is about the only way I can stay with the group. Miles 23 and 24 go along and there were times I was falling back a few steps from the pacer to which I would basically sprint to catch up. I did this probably half a dozen time in these miles. There were so many times I wanted to just drop back but then I thought about the Ironman Canada hat I was wearing and remembered the feeling of failure that I would not accept again. I didn’t really look at my pace but at each mile marker I could see how I was doing – and I was still about 30 seconds ahead of the goal, so I knew I was on-target. Finally I get to the mile 25 marker and at this moment I decide I’m going to leave the 3:05 pacer group (which was only a few people left at this point) and move ahead. However, we’re on Michigan Ave and there happens to be a direct strong headwind! I really focus on my forward lean and but my form is really getting ugly. What I really loved was that the race also has signs indicating how far to go. At 1 mile to go I look down at my watch and saw 2:57:15 or so, so I knew that as long as I could run a 7:30ish last mile I would make my goal no problem. Next is 800 meters to go and I had a little under 4 minutes – I can do this! Round a turn and then go up a small hill – 400 meters, almost 2 minutes to go… 200 meters … I’m going to make it! More lean and then cross the finish line …

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Finisher chute money shot!

3:04:35!
1724th place out of 45,000 finishers

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Crossing the finish. Apparently I shouldn't have ran right behind this guy if I wanted my own finisher shot!

Wow, I did it, I fucking did it! I can’t believe it. I sometimes get emotional after races. Today was no exception and I cried. It’s funny – I knew I was likely capable of running the time “on paper”, but there are just so many factors in endurance sports that it’s difficult to actually achieve. I feel like it’s always the same story – good buildup, primed for a good performance, and then slowly things start going wrong and I don’t perform to potential on race day. Not today! After composing myself a bit I hobbled through the finisher chute, grabbing a Goose Island 312 beer and slowly, very slowly, made my way to the gear check and eventually made it to the running reunite area to meet up with my Dad. Then we walked almost a mile back to the car … very slowly. 

Reflecting, even one month later, I’m still pretty stoked about this. I’m really happy at my effort and how I refused to drop back from the pace group. There were so many times I wanted to fall back and I’m so glad I persevered. It’s also nice to know that the training works. I’m still amazed that for not having a traditional “long” training run (or runs) of 20+ miles in this buildup, I ran the second half of the marathon only 32 seconds slower than the first half. My HR graph was also basically perfect! 

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Mmm, delicious 312 beer

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With my Dad post-race

I’ve heard a saying that often times after a bad race you have a great race – and I’d say I  achieved that. I really think I had the best possible effort and outcome I could have hoped for. Often times after a race one might think: “I think had X minutes/seconds faster in me”. I had maybe a few more seconds but that’s it, I was 100% maxed, which is the goal! When my boss brought up my time at a cross-team meeting, I received so many kudos from my colleagues, it was really quite nice. I received way more kudos than on my six Ironman triathlons, I think because running races are much more relatable and many people have run at a 5k or even a half marathon to compare.

 

As for the Boston Marathon, my time meets the threshold to qualify for the 2020 edition, but it’s unknown whether beating the goal time by 25 seconds will be enough. My guess is probably not, but at least I can be in the conversation. Crazy to think if I had run just 1 second per mile slower I wouldn’t have made it. Either way I’ll find out in September 2019.

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Look at those pretty even splits! 

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Pretty damn good HR graph if I do say so myself!

The race is also super encouraging as it makes me think I am still capable of more – I haven’t had a “good” running race since 2015 when I ran my 1:23:50 half marathon. It makes me think that running a sub-3:00 marathon is possible, or at least improving on my Half Ironman run PR (1:38). Either way – I think I know I’m capable of more, which is awesome. Next year I don’t plan on doing any standalone marathons, but again focusing on the Half Ironman distance and hopefully snag a spot into the 70.3 World Championship in France. That will take both hard work plus a little bit of luck, but it’s a lofty goal worth chasing!