October 11, 2011 7 Comments
The Chicago Marathon is a special one for me. Not only was it my first marathon ever in 2009, but it’s the hometown race. It’s a race that doesn’t just cut through one of the greatest cities in the world, it takes me to many places of personal significance. It runs past apartments in which I’ve lived, in front of many restaurants where I’ve dined, under train tracks that became very familiar through daily commutes, and in between hundreds of thousands of spectators, some of whom are familiar faces. It’s a race that almost effortlessly reminds me of the vibrant life of the city, with runners flowing through the streets like blood through its arteries. So it wasn’t at all surprising to find that after last year’s discouragingly hot race, I didn’t need much convincing to sign up for the 34th annual marathon. And, just like last year, runners basked in ideal conditions in the weeks leading up to the race only to watch the mercury creep up in the days prior. As more weather forecasters predicted unseasonably warm temperatures, I could hear a collective sigh echoing through the city.
It seems like all runners of this race, both newcomers and veterans, sign up, train for and run the city’s largest race with a nagging fear. As if the idea of training all summer to run 26.2 uninterrupted miles were not intimidating enough, there’s an additional source of trepidation for these runners and it is the memory of the 2007 Chicago Marathon. Organizers were caught off guard that year by spiking temperatures and high humidity, sending hundreds of runners to emergency rooms. Aid stations were reported to have run out of water with thousands of runners still to arrive, forcing organizers to cancel the event just over three hours into it. Everyone else still on the course was told to walk either to public transportation or to the finish line, which unnerved the more experienced runners who were used to the brutal conditions. The short-term effects were typical: dehydration, nausea, dejection and regret, especially for those runners who sought to run a marathon as a one-time only accomplishment. Over the years though, the heat had long-lasting effects. On the positive side, Bank of America improved its organization, provided more water and medical stations and instituted their flag system to notify runners of degrading conditions. On the flipside, Chicago has quickly developed a reputation for having unpredictable weather, often in the extremes, during marathon week. For this reason, runners are now much more cautious in the days prior to the race and during the event itself.
2008 was another hot one, though not quite as brutal. 2009 was the polar opposite, with start temperatures in the low 30’s. Last year I was hoping for a repeat but was woefully disappointed with another 80-degree day. And this year, as we all know, was another unusually hot day. But I stepped to the starting line with a hint of optimism, sparked by low dew points and a cool lake breeze.
Earlier that weekend though, I was giving my family a tour of the city. My cousin Paula, who ran her first half marathon at the 2010 ING Miami Half Marathon, was in Chicago for her first attempt at the full distance with friends from her running club in Costa Rica. Her parents and her sister were also here to support her on this monumental task, so I gladly played the role of tour guide during the weekend. They got to see the enormous Health and Fitness Expo, the intricacies of Millennium Park, the changing autumn leaves in Lincoln Park, the resplendent waters of Lake Michigan and dined at just a few of Chicago’s plentiful culinary gems. If this is starting to sound like an advertisement, my apologies, but I just really love the race and its host city and was hoping that Paula would cross the finish line thinking similar thoughts.
But if anything was going to hinder those efforts at selling Chicago, it was going to be the weather. The first eight miles of the course are mostly northward, so the lake breeze coming from the south wasn’t being felt too much. I was already covered in sweat and I hadn’t even reached the 15K mark, which isn’t the best indicator of long-term performance. Fortunately, once the race turns around at Addison and Broadway, ushering runners straight into the loudest and zaniest part of the race (Boystown, whose theme this year was Lady Gaga), we faced those cool winds directly. From that point until the halfway mark, where the course stops its southward trek and juts west, running felt effortless. I ran an easy 1:52 (8:35 pace) half marathon, almost exactly the same as my Bayshore time, which I felt was a reasonable compromise between ambition and hesitance … though perhaps I erred on the side of too fast.
I kept comparing my pace and the weather to the year before. In 2010 I started to slow down at mile 16 and hit the wall hard with several muscle cramps at 20. This time, I was cruising past 16 with no problem. But that’s the thing with the Chicago Marathon – up until mile 16, there have been plenty of buildings or trees to protect you from the sun. Once past Little Italy at mile 18, the course goes south on Ashland towards Pilsen, one of Chicago’s most famous Latino neighborhoods. At that point, there isn’t much shade and today the sun was out without a single cloud to obscure it. And so begins the story of this marathon’s slow decline into lassitude.
At mile 20 I registered my first 9:00+ minute mile and didn’t speed up back into the 8’s for the rest of the race. With the sun beating down on me, my legs were starting to drag. I was still running, but my walk breaks at the aid stations were getting longer and that urge to keep going was getting harder to muster. I was encouraged by the fact that I hadn’t gotten any cramps or spasms and that it seemed like running under 4 hours was in the bag. But as any marathoner will attest, forward motion doesn’t get any easier and that elusive second (or third) wind is a myth. Chinatown does its job in energizing me for about a half mile, but the worst part of the entire race comes immediately afterward. The southward slog down Wentworth Avenue has very few spectators and runs alongside the Dan Ryan Expressway, where no buildings or trees can help you hide from the sun. It’s basically the grayest and bleakest part of the course.
With my body continuing to wear down, I started doing the math: how slow would I have to run to not break four hours? When my quads tightened up at the same time at mile 24 and walking became more painful than running, how slow would I have to go? When a walking break became a sudden spasm in my left hamstring at mile 25, as if my muscles had snapped like guitar strings, how long would I have to wait to not hit that threshold? When I climbed up the Roosevelt Street Bridge at mile 26, doing everything possible to just keep going … but by then I was at 3:56 and my first sub-4 hour Chicago Marathon was finally secured.
My official finishing time was 3:57:16, almost eight minutes faster than last year under very similar conditions. I took my medal, went to my gear check tent, laid out a towel and slept under the delightful cover of trees. Steph, my aunt, uncle and cousin were in Chinatown, waiting for Paula to run by on her maiden voyage through the 29 neighborhoods of the iconic city’s signature race. It wouldn’t be another hour until she would cross the finish line with an encouraging mix of elation and delirium. She didn’t suffer as much as most first-timers do because she trains in San José, Costa Rica, nestled at around 4,000 feet with crazy humidity and ubiquitous hills – Chicago’s dry, mild heat and pancake flat course offered no serious challenges. I’m sure her experience has led her one step closer to that second marathon – the one where most of the magic is gone and you don’t run to finish but to improve.
So now I’m thinking ahead to next year. There’s a very good chance that I won’t be running Chicago for many, many reasons. None of them have to do with the race itself, but rather with the other races that happen in October that I forego to focus on Chicago. There’s the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, the Crazy Horse Run in South Dakota, the Portland Marathon, and the famous Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. October is a prime month for big, fun races and it seems like even experienced runners can only pick one to avoid getting injured or overwhelmed. Doubling-up is possible but you’d have to be careful with your training and your performance at one of the two events might suffer at the expense of the other.
And that’s exactly what might happen to me this year as I battle against muscular atrophy while training for the world’s largest marathon, the ING New York City Marathon on November 6.