Illinois (2010 Chicago Half Marathon)

I ran my first ever half marathon last year.  It was the inaugural Magellan Developments Spring Half Marathon and it was a two-loop course along the lakefront running path from Monroe Harbor to past McCormick Center.  I had no idea what to expect time-wise, so although I ran it at a consistent, yet conservative pace, I felt like collapsing at the finish line.  A month later, I would try and improve my time at the inaugural 13.1 Marathon on the same lakefront path but several miles south, beginning at the South Shore Cultural Center.  I did improve my time and I felt the momentum of summer training pick up.

So when I ran the so-named “Hometown Race” in September, I thought, pshaw, a PR is in the bag.

But for some reason – the choices are many – I couldn’t pull off an improvement.  I shuffled the last four miles and crossed the finish line four minutes slower than my previous time.  I begrudgingly took my medal, scarfed down the requisite energy bars and hopped on the shuttles to go back to the city, my head swimming with questions about my performance.

A year later, I was back at the start of the Chicago Half Marathon, ready to tackle its flat course, which begins in Jackson Park, home of the 1893 Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World Fair), and then continues on a Lake Shore Drive devoid of all vehicular traffic.  With nine of 2010’s half marathons under my belt, I had a much better idea of what makes or breaks a race and I was feeling confident at the start line.  It helped that the temperature was hovering gloriously in the upper 50’s, complimented by a refreshing breeze under a cloudless sky.  It was time for vengeance!

The race began at 7:00 AM, thirty minutes earlier than in previous years.  The course runs north on S Cornell Avenue, reaching the Museum of Science and Industry before making a U-turn on S Stony Island Avenue.  After running the perimeter of scenic and tree-lined Jackson Park, runners enter Lake Shore Drive and begin the five-mile trek to the turnaround at 31st street.  Someone – likely yours truly – had managed to convince my ex-roommate Jason to sign up for this race as an excuse to improve his time.  I deliberately refused to comment on the actual course until his medal hung proudly around his neck.  Because honestly, the novelty of running nine miles on a highway wears off very quickly.  Even at its northernmost point, the race is still very far from the city, so your vistas are limited to the lake, highway and more highway.  To make matters worse, once you make the turnaround, your options for shade are very limited.

Last year, it was at precisely this turnaround that I began to lose energy and confidence.  I’m blaming it on my lack of a visor and a Redamak’s trip I made the day before with Ryan Pollyea, Louis Levine and Kristin Mays (“Bite Into a Legend – Bonk at Mile 9”).  But no such delicious burger trip had been made prior to this year’s race, so I felt great upon beginning my southbound trek.  With last week’s PR dangling like Crab Rangoon on a fishhook in front of me, I decided to floor it for the rest of the course.

In every race I’ve done, by mile 10 the outcome is certain: I’m either going to PR by a lot or my wheezing makes it clear that I won’t.  This time, however, I was definitely running against myself, either seconds ahead of or right behind my Disneyland time.   For the remaining three miles, I felt like I was being chased by the “ghost” of my previous time.  Yeah, that was a video game reference, get over it.

What I like most about this race is that the crowds of spectators get thicker and louder as you approach the finish line.  The last two miles are lined with many signs and cheers, which only make it easier to finish strong.  However, no amount of cheering could get me to run that last 0.1 miles any faster than a controlled stumble.  I would later check my time to learn that I had come within three seconds of my PR, having finished in 1:38:43.

And so came to a close my circuit of ten half marathons to commemorate 2010.  It was a great experience, one in which I was given many a chance to see old friends, see new sights and eat a ton of delicious fuel (read: food).  I wasn’t intending to duplicate this experience in 2011 but I’ve been known to make crazy impulse decisions, so who knows.  That said, the stars won’t have to align for me should a compelling local recommendation come up.  And with that, I had the Bank of America Chicago Marathon in my sights, all training aimed squarely at the mythical date: 10.10.10.

A special shout-out to the members of Team Trisha who ran this race in memory of Trisha Apte.  For more information, please visit the group’s Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2200445849.

Random Stats and “Awards”

Fastest: Disneyland Half – 1:38:40 (7:31 pace)
Slowest
: ING Miami Half Marathon – 1:57:09 (8:56 pace)
Biggest: OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon – 30,994 finishers
Smallest
: Wisconsin Half Marathon – 1,945 finishers
Warmest
: ING Miami Half Marathon – 73º, 97% humidity
Coldest
: OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon – 46º, 65% humidity
Flattest
: Tie, Chicago Half Marathon, OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon
Hilliest
: Go! St. Louis Half Marathon
Best SWAG
: North Shore Half Marathon – Backpack, towel, wristbands, flip flops for everyone!
Worst SWAG
: Wisconsin Half Marathon
Best Medal
: ING Miami Half Marathon – Awesome, golden double-spinner with palm trees!
Worst Medal
: OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon – Thin, bland grey slab of boredom
Best On-Course Entertainment
: OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon
Best Expo / Packet Pickup
: Disneyland Half Marathon
Most Enjoyable Course
: Boston’s Run to Remember
Most Scenic Course
: Tie, Madison Mini-Marathon and North Shore Half Marathon
Best Post-Race Snacks
: Tie, Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon and Madison Mini-Marathon
Race with Most Friends
: Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon – 11
Race with Fewest Friends
: Wisconsin Half Marathon – 0

State 7: California (2010 Disneyland Half Marathon)

Like many kids, I was obsessed with Disney movies and theme parks when I was young.  However, unlike most people, I never really outgrew them.  I went to Disney World for Spring Break my senior year of college, I think “Toy Story 3″ is so far the best movie of the year, and I think my biggest reason for having kids is to live vicariously through their inevitable obsession with the mouse.

So it shouldn’t be at all surprising that my heart stopped beating when I found out about the Disney Endurance Series.  Racing … through Disney parks?  Yes, please.  It was with this puerile enthusiasm that, not long after the marathon, I started coordinating a Labor Day plan to visit LA and run the fifth annual Disneyland Half Marathon.

But first, let’s rewind a bit.

Last year, Steph, my roommates and I took a weeklong vacation to Newport Beach, California.  It was the second time we do it, thanks to Marriott’s attempts to sell Paul a timeshare.  We would get an impossibly cheap deal on a villa in exchange for Paul attending the hard sell.  While there, we reunited with our dear hedonist friend, Gerald Tang.  Liquors were combined, games were played, fun times were definitively had, sudden nakedness optional.

Prior to arriving, I had convinced Jason to run a 10K with me on the second day of the trip.  The both of us were therefore holding back on drinking.  Gerald, though, went out with his friends until 4 in the morning and somehow still got up to run a 48-minute 10K.  Like a machine.  Eight months later, with this impressive display of raw athleticism still fresh in my mind, I decided to ask him if he wanted to run the Disney half with me, an event that was still ten months away.  Like a true beast, he agreed without preconditions.

Before the race, there was plenty to do in LA, including watching Northwestern’s opening game against Vanderbilt (a 23-21 victory – go ‘Cats!) at Barney’s Beanery with a motley group of alumni.  After eating my sixth meal of the day and topping off the day’s copious caloric intake with some late-night gelato, it was time to get my brief pre-race sleep.

The Disneyland Half Marathon began at 6:00 AM with a wave start.  For some reason, I had been placed in Corral A, which should never be the case.  To be placed in the same group as the eventual winners is a clerical mistake.  So I stayed in Corral B with Gerald only to find out that A was for anyone wanting a competitive time, or faster than 2 hours.  So once we were running, it was definitely a game of negotiating our way through some slower crowds.  Fortunately, the roads were wide enough to do this.

The course runs around the perimeter of the park for the first mile and a half before ushering runners inside via a secret side entrance.  Once inside, I was a kid again.  Characters such as Sebastian, Genie, Woody and Mike Wazowski lined the course, themed music being consistently piped through the park’s secret network of speakers.  It was impossible to wipe the stupid grin off my face for the two miles that came after – especially when you’re running next to Space Mountain to the tune of Star Wars’ Imperial March.

Once out of the park, the course runs down Ball Road, detouring to Cerritos Avenue before reuniting with Ball and back to Cerritos until the Honda Center.  Right before mile 5, I looked ahead of me to find Gerald running … ahead of me?  How did that happen?  I couldn’t help but think, if he beats me, I’ll never hear the end of it.  I caught up with him, gave him a motivational thumbs-up, and continued on the streets of Anaheim.  There was very little to see for the next three miles – just open highways, some dips, a few hills, but nothing as awe-inspiring as a Disney park.  The on-course entertainment was par for any world-class course, but since entertainers rarely make or break a race for me I largely ignored them and focused instead on my pacing.

At mile 9, the course enters Angels Stadium.  I did not have high expectations for this, namely because I don’t like baseball and certainly don’t care about the Angels.  However, the crowd of spectators who had shown up to cheer was huge.  It was difficult to not enjoy their enthusiasm – certainly not when you spy yourself on the jumbotron.

Me, Gerald

At this point, I was still feeling great, and hopes of a PR were high.  Temperatures had stayed in the low 60’s all morning and a thick fog had obscured any debilitating sunlight.  With Mickey, Goofy and Donald waiting for me at the finish line, I decided to kill it to the tune of a sub-7-minute final split, crossing the finish line at the Disneyland Hotel in 1:38:40, a new personal best by almost two minutes.  But the most shocking feat of the day belonged to Gerald.  Not only did he finish the race without a single injury, but he managed to clock in at 1:42:57 without any serious training.  It is not without evidence that I suspect that he’s a Chinese-engineered spy robot.

Gerald, Chris, Erin, Me

After the glee of earning a PR had worn off, we drove back to Marina del Rey to meet up with Erin, Chris, Val and Gerald’s friend Mandi for some celebratory food and drinks.  It was a splendid West Coast Getaway weekend, full of old friends, great food and lots of loud conversations about orthopedic surgery.  I’m glad I got to enjoy some quality time with these kids since it’s tough to know when we’ll see each other again these days.  But one thing is certain: my circuit of ten half marathons comes to a (hopefully) triumphant end next weekend with the Chicago Half Marathon. Until then!

Wisconsin (2010 Madison Mini-Marathon)

In February 2010, Leo Garcia and Lindsey Finn got married. It was a small ceremony on Southport, in the decorative private room of Qué Rico. Though small, it was far from quiet. Nearly every guest was handed the microphone, willingly or by force, to deliver an improvised speech inspired by the newlywed couple’s exchange of vows. I was lucky to have both the microphone and an acoustic guitar handed to me by surprise, allowing me to serenade the misfits with an amateur rendition of that late 90’s one-hit wonder, “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry. I didn’t pick the song on the spot. A few weeks earlier, Steph and I found ourselves at an open mic with Leo and Lindsey and their Improv group “Jessica”, where I was thrust on-stage to play and sing whatever songs came to mind. When you’re three or four beers deep, you tend to forget how to play a lot.

But I digress. It was a great time and Leo and Lindsey’s longtime Chicago friend, Ryan Hopker, officiated the wedding, gracing the evening with a charming and humorous tribute.  So, at the risk of sounding like Michael Scott, you could say Ryan and I had the most “screen time” of the wedding if you don’t count the bride and groom. There’s no real relevance or significance to this – just a fun way to segue into the weekend I spent with these three hooligans while running the second annual Madison Mini-Marathon.

Ryan, Lindsey, Leo

After a loquacious drive to the state’s capital and a pit stop at an Olive Garden for some last-minute face-stuffing, we settled in our hotel room. Leo let me know that cots were made illegal in Wisconsin around the same time as Prohibition and as such, I’d have to share a bed with Ryan, whom I had technically just met four hours earlier. But since the conversations in the car ride ranged from nationwide referendums on gay marriage to making fun of the three different waitresses we had at Olive Garden, I’d say the ice had already been confidently broken.

The four of us made it to our start corrals early the next morning, ready for the 7 AM start. The weather cooperated halfway, for while the temperature was hovering at 70, the humidity was – this is an actual, reported figure – 100%.  By mile 2, my sunglasses were so fogged up, that I took them off and held them for the rest of the race.  It also doesn’t take a long walk around Madison to notice the city’s hills. It wasn’t going to be a day for PR’s, but that didn’t stop Leo from booking from the start at a cheetah’s pace. The course starts on Langdon Street, just a few blocks away from the shores of Lake Mendota.  From there it turns onto Wisconsin Avenue and heads straight towards the famous Madison State Capitol. After a dash down the ostensibly more famous State Street, the course begins to take runners away from the University of Wisconsin campus by hooking onto a pedestrian path and eventually a residential neighborhood.  The course would soon reach the marshy shores of Lake Wingra, replacing the urban rush of the city with the serenity of a mountain trail run.

Also, the hills of a mountain trail run.

Any true trail marathoner will laugh at my definition of “hills”, because the vertical gain on this course wasn’t anything to highlight.  However, when you’ve been training in Chicago, the slightest change in slope is a climb. The hills of Arboretum Drive were gradual, fortunately, but by Mile 6, the humidity was starting to weigh me down and my once ambitious pace started to languish.  After rounding out Lake Wingra, the course once again enters the tree-lined streets of Madison neighborhoods.  Water stations were spaced out roughly every two miles and I was worried about the gap between miles 7.5 and 9.5.  Fortunately, a budding philanthropist had a little tray of Gatorade in Dixie cups on his front yard with his parents, looking on the runners with as much curiosity as confusion.  Without his important contribution to my hydration, who knows how much more my pace would have suffered?

Around mile 10, the course re-enters the University of Wisconsin campus via Walnut Street, passing the McClimon Memorial Track, the Nielsen Tennis Stadium and … the Class of 1918 Marsh. I suppose the majority of those graduates will be more likely to remember the end of the First Great War than their honorary swamp. After a brief out-and-back detour, we were back on the shores of Lake Mendota, running on damp gravel for the remaining few miles. Even at mile 12.9, it still looked like we were in the middle of the woods. After a quick, but surprising uphill, the course veers right, shooting runners onto Park Street, where they hug the Memorial Union for the final 0.1 mile sprint. With my finishing time of 1:44:29, I took my medal, drank my complimentary finisher’s beer, and searched out the rest of the party.  Upon getting everyone together, we learned that two of us were bleeding, but I won’t say who or where.

The rest of the weekend was a fun combination of New Glarus beers, Middle Eastern cuisine, 90’s rock anthems and the joys of a meager 1% sales tax. That, and trying to convince Lindsey to run a full marathon. Leo unequivocally says he will never run one, so I’ve decided to coax his wife instead.  We’ll see how that turns out.

As I was finishing up the half marathon plan for 2010, two things were happening. First, I had started preparing for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Runs were getting longer and mornings earlier.  But the other development was that I had already been planning further adventures in 2011 …

Illinois (2010 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon)

While training for last year’s marathon, I made a conscious decision to not run the Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon, which up until last year was known as the Chicago Distance Classic. After all, why would anyone want to run 13.1 miles in the middle of summer? Isn’t Chicago always a scorching wasteland during Lollapalooza? So in the interest of sanity, I abstained from running only to experience cool temperatures and soft lake breezes during the entire weekend. Fair enough, life can be surprising, so I would wait until next year.

That, however, was during the decade’s mildest Chicago summer. With the predictable exception of Lollapalooza, which never fails to attract insufferable highs, there were very few nasty days. In other words, it was a very distant relative of this current summer. I know I’m always in the minority when I complain about the heat, but really, this hasn’t been the best summer to run. As the heat goes up, so does my frustration, my pace and the amount of detergent I douse on my laundry, so it was only natural that I expected to run this year’s race with a more conservative pace.

The morning of August 1 wasn’t too bad. Temperatures were in the upper 60’s, with faint signs of cooler airs drifting about and the sky couldn’t decide between sunny and just barely cloudy. I arrived at my start corral with Jason, who had to sneak into mine because he had been grossly under-seeded at registration. If Competitor was as strict about their packet pickup policy as they were enforcing their corrals, then he would have been the ideal target for a zealous rejection from a volunteer. But that didn’t happen. Not long after the national anthem, Brandon Conrad joined us and minutes later, we were off, running up Columbus Drive, just like most every race that starts in Chicago’s Grant Park.

Although the Chicago Half Marathon, a different race held in September, claims to be “the hometown race”, I believe that name more accurately describes Rock ‘n Roll. The closest the former gets to the city is 31st street, while the latter begins in the heart of downtown, traversing Grand Avenue, State Street, and Michigan Avenue. By mile 7, runners have passed many famous landmarks, crossed the Chicago River four times and scaled the infamous Roosevelt Road Bridge. It was also around this time that I realized how confidently I was running. Maybe I would register a formidable time in the low 1:40’s after all.

However, overconfidence in any race can crash into you like a ton of bricks. For although the sun had become obscured by thin cloud coverage, I began to feel my energy drain a mile later. Once out of the city, the race turns onto Lakeshore Drive before detouring on 18th Street and onto Fort Dearborn Drive. After passing a misting station, the course shoots through a tunnel next to McCormick Center. What seemed like a bit of reprieve from the sun turned out to be the opposite. It was dark, damp and started the process that would result in many runners hitting the figurative wall. Nobody liked that tunnel.

Once out, the course continues on the Access Road until about 39th street, where it turns around, giving runners a hazy view of the city. It was here that the day’s humidity became depressingly apparent. With energy levels spiraling downward and temperatures slowly creeping up, I had to brace myself for the remaining 5K. From here on, the course follows the lakeshore running path, passing McCormick Center, Soldier Field and rounding Shedd Aquarium before merging back with Columbus Drive for the final stretch. Although the ice cold sponges at mile 10.5 were a godsend, I could not forgive the fact that their last water station was at mile 11. I was lucky to have known this, so I crumpled a second cup of water and ran with it for a mile. By mile 12, the water was warm and not very refreshing but hydrated me nonetheless while many other runners kept struggling, searching for the next water station in vain.

Liz, Me, Jayne, Jason, Otter

At the end of the day, the Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon was a bit of a letdown and not just because I finished in a less-than-stellar time compared to my previous efforts (1:49:06). For all the sparkle and hype, I didn’t feel the palpable energy in the air. The organization’s intense focus on celebrity participation was a bit irritating, the price tag exorbitant, and when will they learn that nobody likes Cytomax? The crowd support was great while in the city, but once out there were very few people to mention. And the bands? I guess they were good, but since you only hear them for 10-25 seconds at a time, they don’t really add to the experience that much. The best part of the race (besides the first four miles) was probably the heavy hunk of metal you get to flaunt upon finishing.

I’d almost guess that many people resent Competitor for taking away their Chicago Distance Classic. The race still sells out because people love to run, but in clichéd terms, it’s just not the same. I have very little to support this theory, especially since I never ran the Distance Classic. I could be wrong. Maybe it was the 6:30 AM start time that had runners in such subdued spirits. Who knows?

As for next year, the race will be held three weeks later on August 21. Whether I run it will depend on peer pressure – if as many of my friends run it again in 2011, then so be it, so will I.

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