Coach Dan (2014 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon)

It was a beautiful morning in Chicago, whose moniker as the Windy City was not living up to the hype. A breeze would float by on occasion and move the slightly muggy air, making its way past over 20,000 runners waiting to start the 2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon. Temperatures were in the mid 60s, sitting comfortably with almost every other day of this beautifully mild summer, encouraging each runner to earn a fast time.

0720_rockrollhalfmarathon 01For almost three months, I had been the official coach for the Jackson Chance Foundation’s Rock and Roll Chicago Half Marathon Charity Team. I led weekly training runs, offered helpful running tips and generally made myself available for the group as it logs the necessary miles to conquer Chicago’s largest half marathon. Along the way, runners raised funds to help families with infants in the neonatal intensive care unit, providing them with parking, train and subway passes, which can help alleviate the financial burden of staying in the hospital.  For more information, please check out their official site, Facebook and Twitter.  For donations, click here.

Before the start of the race, I sat under our tent, meeting new runners and the organizers of the charity. In the middle of the gathering, I glanced away from our tent and past the trees that line Columbus drive to see a spritely young woman with platinum blond hair scorch down the sidewalk, her knees practically touching her chin with every powerful stride.

“Holy hell,” I said, my head trailing her as if hypnotized. “That’s Shalane Flanagan!”
“Who?” asked a nearby volunteer.
“Shalane Flanagan,” I repeated, knowing full well that I’d have to explain. “The top female American marathoner? Finished first American in Boston the last two years? 2:22 PR? Really, nobody?”

It’s moments like this that make you realize that running is still a niche sport. Nevermind that the marathon is currently booming; that it’s impossible to get into the world’s largest races, or that American Meb Keflezighi outright won the most recent and emotionally charged Boston Marathon – if the average person can’t recognize or even know the name of the country’s top superstar, then the sport still has plenty of room to grow.

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering (First Half)

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering (First Half)

A few more strides later, Shalane was back in the VIP tent, preparing for the longest race she’s run since this year’s Boston Marathon. I made my way to the start line, which was shockingly un-policed and unregulated. The actual entrances to each Corral weren’t readily visible, so runners were squeezing in between barricades with no one to stop them. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it wasn’t the chaos it could have been. Four years ago, when I ran this race, volunteers were extremely strict about runners staying in their assigned corrals. I’m guessing that many years’ worth of frustrated finishers’ surveys led to a more lax policy.

Minutes before the start, I recognized someone. Athlinks had listed him as one of my top rivals, and my friend Brian used to run with him as part of a Saturday morning bRUNch club. He had just squeezed through the fence and was wearing a neon green running cap and a red singlet, completely unaware of my approach.

“Excuse me, are you Ji?” I asked.
“Yeah, hi,” he replied, shaking my hand.
“I’m Dan, I’m friends with Brian.” He nodded with a smile, but before he could say anything, I chimed in: “You’re my nemesis.”
“Is that right?” he asked, laughing.
“Yeah. You’ve beaten me at every Shamrock Shuffle, even when I’ve trained like an idiot.”
“I think I remember Brian mentioning you now,” he said as if recognizing me from a crime alert or a police lineup.
“Every. Single. Year.”

I’m not sure if you can be someone’s nemesis if they never knew you existed in the first place. I admit that it’s a little strange to compare your times to someone you’ve never met, but it seemed like we were both improving at the same pace and he was always slightly faster. But now he knows who I am and I will be prepared for the 2015 Shamrock Shuffle.  In all likelihood, so will he, and by just that much more.  It’s on.

The race started on time, unleashing a torrent of runners onto Columbus Drive, the same starting line as a handful of races, the most prominent of which is the Chicago Marathon itself. The city’s towering skyscrapers formed a wall ahead of us, and we’d be running right underneath them. I like to knock on the Rock & Roll race series – and I have in several posts for more than one reason – but for this race, I need to reevaluate my stance. When I started running five years ago, there were only two half marathons in Chicago. Today that number is closer to fifteen. But only one (so far) goes through the streets of downtown Chicago, cuts directly through the Loop, runs on Michigan Avenue and finishes on Columbus Drive.

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering

Most half marathons in Chicago take place in Lincoln Park or the Lakefront Path, both of which are free, public areas that never close. Their paths are also about four shoulder widths wide, which can pose a challenge for large events, especially if runners have to share the course with cyclists, walkers and runners not affiliated with the race. So to run on closed city streets four lanes wide for the first seven miles was a treat. I didn’t mind that there weren’t many spectators in the Loop, or that we didn’t hear the distorted crunch of the first band until well past mile six. Say what you will about these races being expensive, as I ran, I could see where a lot of that fat payment went.

Runners left the bustle of the city and turned south onto Michigan Avenue, a 2.5-mile straight shot down to Dunbar Park, where we’d turn east toward the lake. The organizers had mercifully avoided Mount Roosevelt, the tiny hill that Chicago Marathon runners have to scale before finishing, which meant that the course had thus far been almost completely flat. I was running comfortably at a 7-minute pace, pulling runners ahead of me and slowly passing them. It wasn’t a warm day, but the air was thicker than it was during my last half marathon in Chicago.

Onwards I continued through the urban jungle, keeping a steady pace with the runners around me. There had been only one band so far, which I found odd. If you’re going to call yourselves the Rock & Roll series, then you have an obligation to your runners to deliver on your title. By mile 10, I had passed only about four musical outfits, and I remembered that even the music at the Expo leaned closer to Top 20 than true rock. Perhaps there are strict laws in downtown Chicago that prevent bands from setting up a stage, or local noise ordinances discouraging the organizers from peppering the course with loud rock bands. I was just about to give up on the musical element of this race when the organizers turned it all around.

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering (Second Half)

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering (Second Half)

By mile 10, we were at the lakefront path, winding in and out of my familiar training grounds. The tree-lined path provided plenty of shade and for the first time the narrow course felt just a little congested. I was also starting to fade. Though I was still keeping a fast pace, I could no longer do it elegantly. Runners that had shared the course with me for the last five miles were starting to pull ahead and my legs were starting to drag. Up ahead, I could hear loudspeakers blaring Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” with his wails threatening to short out the sound system.

Right as I passed these speakers, the song changed to Metallica’s “Sad But True.”

Aw hell yeah.

The sign behind me says "No Stopping, No Standing, No Parking, ANYTIME" -- a new personal mantra, perhaps?

The sign behind me says “No Stopping, No Standing, No Parking, ANYTIME” — a new personal mantra, perhaps?

I began playing the intro, flicking invisible drum sticks in the air, hopping off the toms, smashing the snare and sneering at the sky as if I were Lars Ulrich. The explosive opening riff kicked in and I sped up, keeping beat by hitting phantom high-hats, pumping my fist in the air with every “HEY” and gasping out the lyrics. The song and my cadence became one and I surged back to top form, leaving runners behind to watch me run and drum as if possessed. Just like that, running was suddenly easy, and I was cruising. Metallica were leading me over the sun-soaked path like a muscular Pied Piper.

The song stayed with me for a good half mile thanks to an act of brilliance. The organizers had set up speakers all along the lakefront path, spaced about five hundred feet from each other, all playing the same song at a thundering volume. It was such a simple idea, yet in this case it was flawlessly executed. Think about it – most people run with their own music already playing through snug headphones, so for the rest of us, any band on a course will only get about forty seconds of our attention. The most they can hope for is that the fleeting verse they played for us will become an earworm a few strides down the road.

So why not stretch out that music-driven exhilaration by stringing together a group of speakers and playing the same song for a meaningful distance? For me, it was like magic. My upper body was tingling with each drum break and I felt light as papyrus. I was reacquainted with the powerful effects of music and why so many people would rather forget their shoes instead of their MP3 player before heading out for a run.  Of course, it could have gone completely wrong. The DJ could have chosen to play Neon Trees or Imagine Dragons or Fun (ugh), and I would have been obligated to bash the speakers in with a nailbat. But from their dark, sepulchral lairs, the metal gods looked up to me and judged me worthy of power. In that half-mile, the entire Rock & Roll series was vindicated.

You know it’s sad, but true.

This is what the McCormick Tunnel feels like.  It kills me in every race in which it is featured.

This is what the McCormick Tunnel feels like. It kills me in every race in which it is featured.

Unfortunately, Metallica didn’t last for 21 more minutes. The song ended and was quickly replaced by a boppy, techno offering, which meant that the extra jolt of energy vanished from my bloodstream and I buckled cold turkey. To make matters worse, up ahead was the McCormick Center’s West Tunnel, also known as the Soul-Sucking Maw of Hell. There were psychedelic lights installed on the inside to add some much-needed zazz to this particular section, but it wasn’t enough to keep the energy up. Once out of the tunnel, I dragged myself under the crotch of the ubiquitous Rock & Roll inflatable guitar hero before reaching mile 12.

The last mile was a straight line on Lake Shore Drive, followed by the final stretch on Columbus. The second I spotted the finish line, I picked it up, squeezing every last bit of energy out of my legs. I proudly wore a red “COACH” bib pinned above my normal racing number, and I felt a duty to finish strong.  Coaches need to practice what they preach, so I rummaged through my racing arsenal for that secret, extra gear and began kicking.  I inched closer to a flat 7-minute pace, passing fatigued runners and 5K walkers eager to finish the race. The finishers chute was packed with spectators – finally – making each kick feel easier. With the city open before me, I crossed the finish line in 1:32:33, about 23 minutes behind Shalane Flanagan, and made my way back to the charity tent.

Excellent hardware.  See below for the real-life image.

Excellent hardware. See below for the real-life image.

Though the Rock & Roll Marathon series are an easy target, I have to say that I had very few gripes about this event.  I even tried to forget that I lived in Chicago, to wonder what I would think if the city were brand new to me. I’m confident that I would have loved the race all the same. It began in the heart of a beautiful, architecturally rich city, escorting runners past the Marina and Sears Towers, the Chicago Theater, over the river, under the CTA tracks, alongside Grant Park, through the South Loop and into the Lakefront Path. The last 3 miles gave us a pristine view of the skyline as it crept ever closer, with blue skies reflecting off towers of steel, stone and glass. In terms of showcasing Chicago, this race is second to the city’s October marathon.

All of this leads me to one last observation. The southernmost point of this course was about a quarter of a mile away from the northernmost point of the 13.1 Marathon, usually held in the first week of June. If someone could combine the two courses, there would be another marathon in Chicago. With the only 26.2-mile race in town soon to be a luxury for the super lucky or the fabulously wealthy, it’d be nice to have another option.

Chicago's Cloud Gate (more affectionately known as the Bean), the inspiration for this year's medal

Chicago’s Cloud Gate (more affectionately known as the Bean), the inspiration for this year’s medal

I want to thank the Jackson Chance Foundation for giving me the opportunity to use my love of the sport to help others achieve their goals and contribute to a very special cause (an extra special shout-out to Missy, who recommended me in the first place and practically one-woman-show’d the day’s events). It dawned on me during the weekly Tuesday evening runs that I wasn’t just another runner – somewhere between my first 5K and today, I’ve learned enough to be able to help others in making it to the start line. I loved the experience and hope to keep the privilege should the Foundation sign up for next year’s race.



About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

26 Responses to Coach Dan (2014 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon)

  1. Pingback: Race Schedule & Results | Dan's Marathon

  2. Pingback: Race Medals | Dan's Marathon

  3. A well-run race, Dan. And it’s pretty awesome that you’re now a coach and mentor, giving back to the community.

    It was definitely a warm and humid day for a half. Still, I did enjoy the race and ran more by effort than a specific pace target/intent to shoot for a PR.

    • Dan says:

      Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve had ideal conditions for a half (and this race didn’t deliver), but nonetheless, you’re right, it was at least serviceable weather. Great course, awesome city, and Grant Park is the best place to lounge afterward. Next time I see you on course, I’ll be sure to say hi!

  4. Jen says:

    Great race, Dan! And it must’ve been that much sweeter to run as a coach and see your trainees cross the finish line. What you say about music is so true — the right choice, and it’s life-giving; the wrong choice, it’s completely deflating. I’ve started 2 marathons in the past year (MCM and Big Sur) where they’ve chosen to play Avicii at the start. UGH.

    I never knew that athlinks identified your running nemisis (nemises?). Time to go see who mine is…

    • Dan says:

      Thanks! The old Athlinks made it really easy to see your rivals. Their new site makes you jump through a few hoops first. You have to login, click on “Athletes” at the top, Sort by “Head to Head” and then sort the list by Wins or Losses, depending on whether you want to feel good about yourself or find someone to beat.

  5. tootallfritz says:

    I had to explain who Shalane was to several people as well. So sad.

    I thought it was a great race. I would have loved more music earlier but they did pack it in on the Kakefront path. I also liked the lights in the tunnel under McCormick.

    And lastly, I was disappointed that we didn’t run Mt Roosevelt. Kinda felt like something was missing. It’s not Chicago if you don’t run Mt R before the finish!!!!

    • Dan says:

      Ha — I think you might be one of the few people who bemoaned the straight shot down Michigan avenue without a detour up Mt Roosevelt. I was seriously thinking to myself, Dammit, here it comes, and then my face lit up when we kept going south. Though yeah, it’s a rite of passage for many runners (even for those running the much shorter Shamrock Shuffle), it was great to keep the course as flat as possible.

  6. It’s pretty wonderful that the simple act of putting one foot in front of the over, over and over, can amount to so much. If you’re lucky, then you learn something about yourself. If you’re really lucky, you get to teach others. Congrats on a solid race and extra congrats to getting your team across the line, all for something bigger than yourself.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks MB. I hope next year more people opt for the weekly runs, because the experience really was something special. And maybe next year I won’t throw in a trail 50k in the middle of group-training commitments!

  7. nashrocks says:

    Found your blog through Chicago Running Bloggers. This race report was incredibly well written, so much so that I just had to comment about it. Now I plan to go through and read more of your writing.

  8. MedalSlut says:

    I originally misread how you came a mere 23 seconds behind Shalane Flanagan, and was like ‘Dayum, his nemesis is TOAST at the next Shamrock Shuffle’! After the Edinburgh debaucle, however, I think it’ll tale more time for the RnR wounds to heal, so despite your rave review of the race, I need more time before I consider entering another.

    Congrats on another solid race, and I am expecting a fist pumping finishers’ photo from SS 2015 after you leave Ji in your dust. Metallica shirt is surely a must-wear.

    • Dan says:

      Dude, if I were running half marathons in the 1:10s I don’t think I’d even have a blog (or scratch that, I’d like to think I still would — writing is integral to my being). And I used to have two Metallica shirts (one from their tour in 96), but they’re both classic, cotton, oversized 90s t-shirts that would absolutely SUCK during a race. Find me a form-fitting Metallica t-shirt and we’re in business.

  9. Amy says:

    Yoda Dan! I had no idea that “The Bean” wasn’t actually called The Bean. Arizona is the only RnR race I’ve done, and I have no qualms about it. That course does have a band every mile, but last year half of them were on set breaks when I went through. They also have a headliner concert (B52’s one year and a very adorable American Idol type named…? I forget…the next). It was the first bigger/higher profile race I ran, and I remember thinking that this was the way all races should be with huge expos and Olympians and medals and hoards of cheering spectators. Chicago’s version doesn’t look so bad either! Glad you mostly had fun and enjoyed mentoring some people along the way!

    • Dan says:

      Yeah, I believe that the artist, Anish Kapoor, reacted very negatively to everyone calling it The Bean. I mean, it is a beautiful sculpture of warped steel that reflects everything around it in seemingly infinite directions, often disappearing into perfectly blue skies, distorting the appearance of reality and in turn, serving as a visual metaphor illustrating the fallacy of perception.

      … but yeah, it sort of looks like a big ol’ Bean. It does deflate the structure’s cosmic significance. But it has become one of the city’s most photographed attractions, so I like that it made the medal.

  10. Mike says:

    Tough to imagine a much better way to spend a summer morning. This brought back still-vivid memories of a beautiful October Sunday spent marathoning through the streets of Chicago (the year before the lottery kicked in, whew). That red “COACH” title emblazoned above your number suits you well, it’s like – what’s the opposite of a Scarlet Letter? Hopefully the weekend was an immense success for the Jackson Chance Foundation, and all the JCF runners will follow Coach Dan’s example by making this a lifelong habit and paying it forward.

    LOVE that picture of the Bean with quintessential Chicago soaring in the background. Tip o’ the cap to the RnR organizers for showcasing it in their medal design.

    I wouldn’t call myself a Rock ‘n’ Roll race aficionado (I’ve only run two), but the single reason I’ll always value their races is the reason you mentioned – they’re among the few events that enable you to run through the heart of the host city. Despite growing up just north of Dallas, I only gained a real appreciation for the city by running 13.1 miles through its streets at the inaugural Dallas RnR Half in 2010. ‘Twas a terrific experience, and not once during the race did I bemoan the higher-than-normal–but-still-lower-than-Disney entry fee I’d paid to be there.

    When you mentioned Shalane striding by, I really thought you were going to say that you ran her down for a photo op. Shalane running Chicago, Meb leading the half marathoners in San Diego… have the RnR folks reversed their decision not to host and pay elite athletes?

    Ah yes, the music… so important, though during marathons I tend to retreat into my own head and stop noticing sometime after mile 20. Ozzy and Metallica are solid choices to encourage leg turnover (though cadence-wise, I might’ve chosen “Holier Than Thou” if we’re going Black Album). But no “Happy”? You must have heard “Happy” somewhere along the course, at least once.

    And far be it from me to ever go metalhead purist on you, but “Crazy Train” is actually Ozzy’s solo debut from his post-Sabbath days.

    Rock onwards!

    • Dan says:

      I went ahead and corrected the Ozzy reference (but with the strikethrough function, which I rarely use, to denote a mistake in a field I should know). But yeah, it was quite the invigorating stretch of epic. Had they kept those speakers going to the finish line, throwing in some Rise Against, In Flames and Kamelot, then I might have notched a 1:26 before fainting and visiting the Dark Lord himself for a few minutes.

      And it should be noted that, with the exception of Vegas, the RNR series can be affordable if you plan very, very far in advance. I paid $100 for this race but I signed up in June, like an idiot. It also bears reminding that Disney race fee eclipse RNR’s and even with their early bird “specials.” Alas …

      Thanks for the comment, Mike. Hope your feet are back to form!

  11. Nice work, Coach! Way to set a good example and that’s a great time. PS, I would’ve recognized Shalane in an instant, so I feel ya on that.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks Jeff — I’m just about to finish reading your 24h experience, which is a lot to take in at 9 in the morning on a Monday. It’s making me tired already! But yeah, it’d be nice to have Shalane be a readily recognizable face these days. Though that just means that if I see her randomly on the street, there won’t be a crowd surrounding her to get a picture. Tradeoffs, right?

  12. dwill says:

    Great race, Dan. Congrats on your finish. Awesome job with your charity as well.
    I enjoyed running amongst the skyscrapers especially with the cooler than expected temps. Chicago was indeed a great host. Hope I can make it back sometime. Cheers,

    • Dan says:

      Thanks! If you liked this race, then you should try and run next year’s Chicago Marathon – it’s twice the distance, but ten times the exhilaration!

  13. Pingback: The Meb Mob: 2015 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon | Dan's Marathon

  14. Pingback: I Can Fix This: 2016 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon | Dan's Marathon

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