The Meb Mob: 2015 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon

The morning of July 19, 2015 was very sticky. Intense thunderstorms had ravaged Chicago a few days prior in brief, but powerful bursts, with temperatures rising and dropping like the needle of a Richter scale. So as I walked to the Team Chance Charity Tent, I knew instantly that I would run the day’s half marathon at a conservative pace, perhaps throwing in a tempo mile or two. With the humidity reaching an uncomfortable level and sweat oozing out of my pores by just walking, it was a no-brainer. But as I neared the speakers of the starting line, I heard something that would change the day’s plan.

“And today we have US Olympic Silver Medalist and 2014 Boston Marathon Champion Meb Keflezighi pacing the 1:30 half marathon group.”

Well, shit.

How many times do you get a chance to run with the gods of the sport? Last year I caught a quick glimpse of the elfin Shalane Flanagan as she stomped through a few pre-race strides near our orange charity tent, but I didn’t get to run with her. She was blazing the trail 20 minutes ahead of me, ultimately winning the women’s race. This year, the organizers brought a professional speed demon and national hero not to compete, but to participate with the throngs of competitive amateur runners like me. There was no way I could pass up the opportunity.

Of course, that didn’t mean that Meb’s 1:30 pace sign waved away the moisture in the air or lowered the mercury, which had reached 80 before any of us had heard the starter’s siren. It was by far one of the warmest starts to a half marathon in recent memory, destined to be a race where it feels like your skin is melting into your shoes. A few minutes before the start, a group of volunteers escorted Meb into my corral, just a few people ahead of me. I knew he wouldn’t be tall, but it was still surprising to see just how short most elite marathoners are. As soon as he arrived, the corral buzzed with energy and he instantly began chatting with the fawning runners around him.

2015 Chicago Rock n Roll Weekend Chicago, Il     July 18-19, 2015 Photo: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun Victah1111@aol.com 631-291-3409 www.photorun.NET

That’s me in the very back with the red sleeveless shirt
Photo credit: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun, Victah1111@aol.com, 631-291-3409, http://www.photorun.NET

I decided early that there was no way I could run the entire race with him. My half marathon PR is 1:29:42, so to run just one second per mile slower would require near perfect conditions. So for the first four city-lined miles, which cut through River North, State Street, and both the Theater and Financial districts, I stayed within three people of the indefatigable Meb Keflezighi, winner of the 2009 New York City and 2014 Boston Marathons, 2004 Olympic Silver Medalist, and all-around nice guy. He was as gregarious as I expected, talking to multiple runners at any given time, sometimes in Spanish, but always with an optimistic, cheery tone. Having defied the odds by staying strong and remarkably consistent well into his late 30s and now early 40s, he’s already a running legend.

There was a veritable peloton surrounding Meb, which I called the “Meb Mob,” with runners weaving in and out of the core to try and get a quick chat with the Eritrean-born athlete. As we reached mile 4, he was in the middle of regaling a nearby runner with stories of last year’s Boston Marathon. I decided then that I couldn’t continue this pace much longer without suffering an early bonk. So after four memorable miles, I decided to slam the brakes.

2015 Chicago Rock n Roll Weekend Chicago, Il     July 18-19, 2015 Photo: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun Victah1111@aol.com 631-291-3409 www.photorun.NET

Again, me in the back in the red.
Photo credit: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun, Victah1111@aol.com, 631-291-3409, http://www.photorun.NET

The Meb Mob pulled ahead and I reduced my speed to my original goal of 8-minute miles. I was already drenched in sweat and more fatigued than I hope to be so early in a half marathon, so now it was time to simply endure. Almost immediately, every runner behind me zipped by as they continued their strong surge to finish in the 1:30s.

The next three miles took place within the city of Chicago, which featured more skyscrapers than spectators or bands. I don’t care much for on-course entertainment or distractions, but the sparse crowds and musical acts seemed to clash with the Rock ‘n Roll brand of event production. This was supposed to be a raucous party with fans and electric guitars competing for screams. In fact, the Expo the day before featured a soundtrack more akin to a rave than a rock concert, and the headlining act for the post-race party was Andy Grammer. I realize that rock songs in the Billboard Hot 100 are like parents at a prom, but it’s still disappointing to hear an EDM-remix of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” strung out across a half mile stretch of speakers where last year I heard Metallica’s “Sad But True.”

The first six miles of the course were unchanged from last year.

The first six miles of the course were unchanged from last year.

I kept my pace through the next three miles, which run down South Michigan Avenue, away from the city. There would be no more crowds until the end of the race, save for volunteers at aid stations and a few gimmicky entertainment spots. I could hear squishing sounds all around me as we continued hammering the pavement on waterlogged shoes. The sun was out, rising before us as we headed east towards Lake Michigan. The next aid station seemed a bit threadbare, which spelled doom for slower runners. Without a volunteer to hand me a cup, I ran to the table and picked one up only to taste Gatorade in its purest, least diluted state. Though I clenched my cheeks and puckered for about a minute, it must have helped because I wasn’t feeling as gassed as I was when I left the city. In fact, I began to notice that I was no longer being passed. My consistent 8-minute pace was now the speed of the drained, flagging runners who had gone out too fast in the first half.

Just before we reached Lake Michigan, the course turned left, back toward the city. This is where I was treated to a good four minutes of Whitney Houston, which I only appreciated for the lyric “I wanna feel the heat” because the damp, warm air had slithered into my clothes. What little shade there was would soon be compensated by the McCormick Center service tunnel, which was bedecked in psychedelic colors, strobe lights and thundering speakers. It made that energy-pulling void a little more bearable, especially since it heralds the final 1.5 mile dash to the finish. Once out and under the race’s iconic inflatable guitar player’s crotch, we visited the last aid station before jumping on Columbus Drive.

It was a beautiful day for existing. Not as ideal for running 13.1 miles.

It was a beautiful day for existing. Not as ideal for running 13.1 miles.

The finish line beckoned, almost 0.7 miles down a straight line. All around the banner were trees, and behind them the city’s imposing skyscrapers erupting out of the ground. It was challenging to know when to start kicking here because everything ahead felt like a mirage and so much farther than expected. But I had covered the last mile at a tempo pace, so I felt comfortable in my new speed. I looked at my watch and saw I was close to finishing under 1:40, so I turned on the afterburners and pulled ahead of everyone I could see. The crowds got thicker, lining the seven-lane Columbus Drive until it was a deafening roar of cheers. I pushed all the way to the finish, leaving behind me a trail of salt and sweat, stopping the clock of my third Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon at 1:39:12.

It took me about forty minutes to cool down. I drank cold water, filled a damp towel with ice and rested it on my head, stood still in a southbound breeze – nothing was effective at halting the mutinous sweat from escaping every pore. I sat in the shade and let my heart rate lower, dabbed water on my ears and rubbed a cold sponge on my forehead. Eventually, but very slowly, I began to feel fine.

Team Chance

Team Chance

But though I might have been uncomfortable during the race and a little afterward, I made it out okay. For some people, this isn’t always the case. In the McCormick Tunnel, I saw a group of medical officials huddling around a runner who was lying on the dark pavement, looking shell-shocked and distant. But even he would still turn out alright. Some families don’t have this guarantee. This year, I was honored to be invited back as the running coach for the Jackson Chance Foundation, who once again assembled a lively and supportive charity team for the race. The foundation raises funds for families in the neonatal intensive care unit so they can afford the parking and public transit necessary to spend more time in the hospital with their critically ill infant. It’s an incredibly noble and generous initiative that provides real, direct and tangible help to those enduring incredibly painful situations.

For more information on the charity or to donate, please visit www.jacksonchance.org.

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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.

15 Responses to The Meb Mob: 2015 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon

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

  2. Wow! How cool of Meb! I knew he was cool, but that was really cool! Too bad the weather was not. That squishy sound of feet is like fingernails on a chalkboard for me, so reading this I can double feel your pain. Congrats on another solid finish through difficult circumstances! And good cause too. My mom was a NICU nurse for 30 years so I know all about the importance of neonatal care.

    • Dan says:

      It must be incredibly difficult (but also rewarding) to be a NICU nurse and deal on a daily basis with the incredibly frailty of life. I’m sure there are thousands of families who owe their lifelong happiness to your mother’s efforts; she should be rightfully proud. Thanks for reading, Jeff.

  3. G-Tang says:

    I tried running 20 sprints the same morning, halfway across the country in humid LA, and almost died. Amazing feat to run that distance in those conditions for 100 minutes.

  4. GREAT job! I would have done the same thing as you – all plans out the window and run with Meb as long as I could even if it meant blowing up later. Did you read the article about the guy who lead the Boston Marathon for the first mile? It was just a regular guy – he can run like a 2:30 marathon but ran over 3 hours that day because he went out at suicide pace just so he could run one mile with the running legends on their big day. I think it’s so worth it and would do it for sure!

  5. That’s SO awesome that you got to run even in Meb’s vicinity AND listen to the smooth jams of Whitney Houston at the same time. I think you’re really selling “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” short. The weather sounds miserable, though. It’s been over 100 here for the vast majority of days since June and suffice to say, I’m over it.

    • Dan says:

      You know, I complain about the heat in Chicago, but I know it pales in comparison to the true heat pits of the South. It hasn’t gotten above 93 or so all summer here, so to be consistently above 100 sounds like pure misery to me. I live in Chicago for many reasons, and the weather is one of them — if putting up with a winter that frosts your breath onto your eyebrows means enjoying a summer that keeps it below triple digits, show me where to sign.

  6. Amy says:

    I could definitely hold a 6:50 pace for one mile (maybe two if I was truly motivated) if it meant running with an athlete like Meb. How exciting! AND you have a picture! I’ve only run one race (a 10K) in heat like that and it was completely miserable. I’m glad that you came out of it without the aid of medical professionals. I’m kind of out of the loop, but it seems to me that RnR races are really starting to lose steam. I mean, I love Whitney as much as the next person, but yikes. Hope Berlin training is going well!

    • Dan says:

      Given that you live in New Mexico, I’m very surprised that you’ve only run ONE race in intense heat. Do I not know anything about NM? Or is it the lack of humidity that you’re citing? Because yeah, Shiprock was hot but the sweat sizzled off the skin as soon as it saw the sun. Anyway, hope you get back in the loop soon – you love running too much to let it slip away. Thanks for reading 🙂

  7. Mike says:

    Damn, if only the weather gods had shown mercy, you would have been perfectly set up to chase down a PR while matching the 2014 Boston Marathon champ stride for stride. Despite that, a 1:39 in 80+ degree heat and crazy humidity is a strong showing. Having Meb as a pacer may actually provide me with the motivation to enter my first RnR race in over 5 years, just to see how close I can get to 1:30.

    Seems last weekend was an interesting study in contrasts – while Meb was being treated like a conquering hero by adoring fans hoping to bask in his aura for even a few seconds, our nation’s fastest-ever marathoner was at the Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half as a spectating Fitbit ambassador, walking among the crowds virtually unrecognized and with no shortage of personal space. Ryan Hall and I passed each other several times during the post-race festival, and he was having no trouble blending in with the crowd. Hall’s marathon PR is 3:39 faster than Meb’s… and yet Meb’s won NYC, he’s won Boston and maybe more importantly, he finishes every freaking race he starts, no matter how tough the going gets. The next event where Meb rips off his bib mid-race and slings it to the ground like a petulant child will be the first. Like I said, a study in contrasts.

    So do you feel like the heat training in Costa Rica and now Chicago is making a difference? I love training in the heat out here in SoCal (“How far can I run while drinking no water” is always a fun summer training game), and I think it significantly aided my own training for Berlin last year.

    Gotta agree with Amy, the RnR series really seems to be losing steam and, even worse, its own identity. Sad but true that this seems to be one race series destined to end not with a bang but a whimper. Especially since the series does such a nice job of attracting new runners to the sport.

    And clearly you recognize this, but it looks like given your height, you’re forever destined to fill out the back row of group photos!

    • Dan says:

      I’m not sure about how well I would have performed had the weather been great. I don’t handle pace groups too well, which I’ve learned time and time again. For this race, I felt GREAT running ahead of them, keeping Meb’s recognizable voice just behind me. But when I was actually running WITH them, I felt much more gassed. It’s weird. You’d think the opposite would happen.

      Oh, the golden Ryan Hall and his seemingly perennial Get Out of Jail Free 2:04 time in the wind-aided 2011 Boston Marathon. It’s like a security blanket at this point, or the Key to the Marathon City that he now has indefinitely. I don’t mind him being an ambassador to the sport or having many sponsorships, as long as he can justify them by performing. Hell, even pacing a competitive marathon (3:00) or a half (1:30) would earn him some goodwill in my book (though it’s not The Book, so I guess that’d be too much to ask).

      I think we may have already seen peak RnR. This year’s race had 12,000 finishers, while last year’s had just under 14,000 and 2010’s featured under 19,000. Granted, 2010 didn’t have a 5k and 10k race, but I think spreading themselves too thin might be part of the issue. Alas …

      Thanks for reading, Mike.

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

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