Illinois (2011 Bank of America Chicago Marathon)

Paula, Me, Tía Ale and Tío Daniel

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.

Actually, Paula, I run alone.

Rocking out with Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes

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.

The expert spectator and this year's clients

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.

Nati's artsy picture of Paula at mile 21.5 (Chinatown)

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.

Victory

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.

Florida (2011 Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon Relay)

Upon completing the 2010 Disneyland Half Marathon, I knew I had to sample the rest of runDisney’s series of endurance events.  When they unveiled the Wine & Dine Half Marathon last year, I was intrigued (but also a little saddened because it replaced the Tower of Terror 13K, which I also wanted to run).  However, it took place the week before the Chicago Marathon and even amateur distance runners know that you don’t run 13.1 miles the weekend before you run 26.2 – that is, unless you want to hurt yourself.

Space Mountaineering

But then in February of this year, Steph found herself in an odd predicament: she had a free flight on American Airlines that was expiring but no plans to go anywhere.  Just days before the reward was set to expire, we were at a bar with some friends, when one of them, a marathoner herself, asked me if I knew about the Wine & Dine race.  I said yes, and I thought it was a neat idea to hold a nighttime half marathon that ends at a food and wine expo.  That made Steph’s head turn and, in what has been one of the most shocking moments of our relationship, showed actual interest in running it.  Granted, she wasn’t talking about running the half marathon but instead splitting it into a relay with me.  But still, she’s a swimmer and a reluctant runner, so I decided to make it happen before she could reconsider.

With plane tickets and a race registration under our belts, we needed a place to stay.  That’s where our good friend Paul came in.  Because of his preferred status with Marriott, he is constantly being inundated with timeshare offers in exotic locations.  He has organized two very fun and successful trips so far to California with these absurdly cheap deals, where the only catch is that you have to attend an aggressive sales pitch.  These can be awkward conversations that end in the salesperson calling the next twenty years of your life meaningless and/or asking you to abandon paying for your parents’ healthcare.  Those were real situations and that’s why Paul’s a trooper.

Of course, any trip to Disney World and its surrounding second-tier theme parks draws a crowd, so with us came our friends Ryan, Liz and Marla to add to the festivities.  We spent Saturday at Magic Kingdom, celebrating the park’s 40th birthday by tearing through the galaxy in Space Mountain, thwarting Emperor Zurg’s battery-based galactic takeover in Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, cavorting with melodious ghouls at the Haunted Mansion and waiting for almost two hours to watch as Kaylie and Amber let over 160 Fast Passers board Splash Mountain for every 10 people in the regular line (we call class warfare).  Oh, and we also watched in bitter disappointment as Stitch stole the essence from what used to be the awesomely terrifying Alien Encounter and turned it into a cutesy gigglefest.  Not cool, Disney.  Stop paying attention to weeping kids and their angry parents!

(left to right): Liz, Paul, Steph, Me, Marla, Ryan

But despite a few logistical hiccups – it was actually more like a comical series of delays – it was a very fun day.  Later that night, Steph and I made it to the parking lot of the Disney/ESPN Wide World of Sports complex to get the race started.  I don’t know if Disney is hyper-punctual or too overeager, but we did so much waiting for what seemed like no reason.  Though the race started at 10 PM, we were told to be at the start by 8, which meant that Steph got to nap for an hour and a half before lining up at the start.  Meanwhile, I boarded a shuttle that took me to the relay exchange in the parking lot of Animal Kingdom where I would wait for almost two hours.  Fortunately, it was 70 degrees with a tiny breeze.

The exchange happens around mile 4.8, where runners doing the relay split off from the group and enter a chute.  Their corresponding runner sees them and after a brief celebratory high five or a hug, continues the race.  Even though I was getting anxious to run, I was enjoying seeing these brief moments of elation and camaraderie.  I’ll admit, I come close to tearing up whenever I see people finishing marathons with their parents and seeing father-daughter relay teams was no different.  Since the race utilizes a wave start, I assumed that Steph would be in the later waves, so I was anticipating making the switch around 11:15 PM.  But then at 10:55, lo and behold, she emerges from the trees with the rest of the runners and into the relay chute – turns out she started right at the front of the pack by mistake.  Whoops.

After seeing that she was fine and just wanted to stop running, I made my way out of the relay chute to join the rest of the pack.  Steph had run the first leg at her own pace, so when I entered the crowd of runners, I was definitely doing my fare share of side-stepping.  I was feeling amped, energized by having spent an entire day looking forward to the race and encouraged to run fast by the cool air around me.  My first mile was basically spent exiting the Animal Kingdom parking lot, followed by two miles on Osceola Parkway, heading to Disney Hollywood Studios.  I was running comfortably at a 7:30 pace, passing literally everyone I could see, slowing down only for the occasional rolling hill.  Around my third mile, I started suspecting that perhaps I should be running slower, but that thought was banished when the course turned right onto East Buena Vista Drive and into Hollywood Studios.  The sight of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror sent enough adrenaline into my legs to carry me another ten miles.

And that’s why my fastest miles were the next two.  Call me childish, but running through these parks is a blast for me and the organizers did a great job with the Hollywood course.  It started by running a loop around the famous dilapidated hotel of horror, giving runners a few seconds to behold the giant guitar that marks the entrance to the Aerosmith Rock ‘n Roller Coaster.  It then cuts right into the heart of the theme park and wraps around Mickey’s wizard hat from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” where energetic music was being piped in from every speaker in the park.  From there, it turned under the Pixar Studios arch and entered the Back Lot Tour, where costumes and props for many Disney movies are allegedly made.  The course then continued onto the Streets of America and to my surprise, every building had been draped in bright Christmas lights with “The Christmas Song” echoing through the streets.  Finally, it heads towards the park perimeter and exits into the parking lot.  From there, the race runs on a path alongside various ponds and Disney hotels before reaching the Avenue of the Stars, a street that hugs Epcot Center and ushers runners into the finish chute.

I finished my leg in just over an hour and our relay time for the half marathon was 2:00:42.  After collecting my medal, I found Steph waiting for me, ready to enjoy the expo.  We met up with our friends inside shortly afterward and treated ourselves to craft beers, a few tasty morsels of food, but more importantly, a negligible wait time for Test Track.  They also went on Mission: Space, but I decided to sit that one out because I’m not a fan of rides that spin you mercilessly.  So instead I had another beer.

All in all, I loved this race experience.  The 8.3-mile relay leg fit perfectly into my marathon training program, so I treated it like a fast tempo run and never came close to exhaustion.  The course was delightful and, had I not signed up for this weekend’s Chicago Marathon, would definitely run the complete half marathon in future years.  Since it has the same (admittedly pricy) registration fee as other Disney races but grants you access to Epcot’s Expo and select thrill rides, it’s definitely worth the money.  The organization, though a little demanding of your schedule, is still exactly what I’ve come to expect from Disney: top-notch and, in a few moments on the course, absolutely magical.

But now it’s time to get through the last nerve-wracking week of the marathon taper.  It looks like it might be slightly warm this year, so I might as well start hydrating now.

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