To Feel Like an Elite (13.1 Marathon Chicago)

No matter how fast I get, I will always be in the middle of the pack. I might approach the upper echelons of finishers in shorter races and crack the top 1% in a few half marathons, but for all the intervals and long runs, I’m simply not willing to make the kind of changes necessary to put myself in winning shape. It would require tripling my weekly mileage, culling all remotely unhealthful foods from my diet and potentially losing the enjoyment in the process. For those reasons, I am content with being a face in the crowd, competing against himself, at his own pace.

But at the 2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago, for a variety of reasons, I felt like an elite.

Elites Don’t Pay to Race

It all started with the organization reaching out to me with an invitation to run. I superciliously imagined the bigwigs huddled around a computer, typing out a search query with their index fingers, “Who is an awesome runner great guy decent writer wants to run top search results only” and having my blog explode off the screen in a smoky, crimson blast. Their eyes would water while the war-hardened general in the back of the room slowly removed his aviator sunglasses and, with a voice aged by strife and scotch, remarked that they had found their guy.

Or I was simply one of many local Chicago bloggers found by a team of interns.

Regardless, I was now signed up for the second half marathon I ever ran. It was exactly five years ago to the day, June 7, 2009, and I remember my stomach being electric with nerves. Would I be able to beat my only half marathon time of 1:49:34? Could I overcome the sun and humidity to start a chain reaction of PRs? Though it wasn’t easy, I managed to improve that mark to 1:47:58 before enjoying the post-race spread of beers and pizza.

Could 2014 bring back that magic?

Elites Get Special Transportation

The 13.1 Marathon Chicago takes place in Chicago’s south lakefront, starting and finishing at the South Shore Cultural Center (also known as the end of the lake front path, where I log 99% of all my training miles). To get there, the organizers had arranged for a host of buses to take runners from the heart of Chicago to the South Side. One cluster of buses had gathered at Millennium Park, about twenty minutes from my condo. With a veritable fleet of yellow school buses at their disposal, there was no need to deal with a rental car, traffic or bloated public transportation.

Elites Get the Red Carpet

Mama showing her credentials

Mama showing her credentials

In addition to being invited to run, the organization had also set up a VIP tent next to the finish line. My mom was in town from Costa Rica, so I pulled the classic “either you let my Very Special Guest inside your Very Important Person bunker, or we don’t have a deal” gambit. Without batting an eye, the organizers at 13.1 Marathon graciously acquiesced. Of all the races to be offered such generous perks, I was ecstatic that it was the one that took place while my mom was in town. After all, if she has to hear all about these crazy races, at least she can enjoy the spectatorship beyond simply watching people run.

Her review of the VIP tent was nothing but glowing. Since I had rudely awakened her at 4:15 in the morning and dragged her out on an empty stomach to watch people cross an arbitrary line on the pavement, her morning could have gone better. But while in the tent, she had some coffee, fruit and even a fresh omelet. With much help from the chefs and volunteers, I was happy to be able to pamper her.

Elites Get the Top Seed

before-the-raceOne thing I remember very fondly about the inaugural 13.1 Marathon in 2009 is that they had a very deep corral system. The majority of the race is run on Chicago’s lake front path, which is open to the public and can sometimes be very narrow if congested. Therefore the race prudently implemented from its first year a start system that included corrals A through N (it might have gone farther, but I don’t remember seeing O or P), each with a few hundred runners to ease overcrowding on the course.

I had targeted this race as my next PR attempt, so I was awarded a spot in the A Corral. The crowd of runners spilled behind us like the queue of a popular amusement park ride, wrapping around the Cultural Center’s entrance, flanked by terra cotta columns and gardens. Between the half marathon and the 5k, we numbered almost 5,000.

I was unsure of how the day’s race would go. I hadn’t done many speed runs lately except for a 5k the Saturday before where I fell 20 seconds shy of my PR. Despite the announcer raving about the gorgeous weather, I could have asked that it be about ten degrees cooler. And my half marathon PR had turned two years old in April, with few opportunities in the next six months for another shot. As things were, I wasn’t guaranteeing myself anything.

But with all that said, let’s delve into what really makes elite athletes elite:

Elites Are Fast

2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago Google Earth Rendering

2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago Google Earth Rendering

I’d like to say that I tore out of the gates like California Chrome, but the narrow chute kept us from pushing the pace. Once out of the Cultural Center grounds, we began running north toward Jackson Park, where the famous 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was held. Today, very little of that grandiose event remains except for the Museum of Science and Industry and a small-scale replica of the gilded Statue of the Republic. It is a public park with plenty of running paths, ponds and harbors, whose ample greenery made so that much of the early miles were run in the shade.

The Chicago South Shore Cultural Center, where the race begins and ends

The Chicago South Shore Cultural Center, where the race begins and ends

I deliberately held back the energy in that first mile, hoping to warm up to a faster pace later on. Miles 2 – 4 were run inside Jackson Park between sidewalks and dirt paths. The crowd had already thinned considerably, with large empty patches between runners. This made for an easy chase game and I loved how easy it felt. In fact, I was trying to avoid sneaking glances at my watch because I couldn’t believe what it was telling me.

In an ideal world, the entire race would somehow take place in Jackson Park. Its perfect combination of paths and trees made for a beautiful run that at no point suggests you are in a bustling city. However, the race does eventually spill out to the popular lake front path, where it soars north for three miles before turning back toward the finish line. The sun was out in full force, rising over Lake Michigan to my right, not a single cloud daring to obscure it.

These paths were familiar to me. They are my long run courses, my Sunday morning ritual grounds. While I enjoyed the familiarity, there was a downside to knowing exactly where I was and how far I had left to run. I tried to not let unnecessary thoughts creep into my head – I’m usually dead tired when I reach this point – and focused instead on maintaining my relentless pace. The mental jukebox was cycling through power metal songs to keep my feet turning quickly. I kept picking new runners to pass, wondering how far away the 1:30 pace group was.

Finishing in 2009, my second half marathon ever.

Finishing in 2009, my second half marathon ever.

I realized at the turnaround that I had been running with a slight tailwind the entire time. While the breeze was welcome refreshment, it was enough to require a stronger push. Onwards I kicked.  Aid stations came and went and I was pulling unusual moves – skipping some stations completely, not walking at any of them, and dousing water on my head instead of drinking it.

I was hungry for this time. In recent years, my shift towards marathons has made me a little more complacent with my performance. With such a long distance, I’ve been a little more forgiving of under-performing. But as I snarled toward the finish line, I became reacquainted with that powerful animal instinct that seemed to consume me in those halcyon running years when almost every half marathon was a chance to push the engine to its bolt-busting limits.

Perhaps this really is my favorite distance, I thought. I miss this, a lot.

I ran back through the same paths, chasing the 1:30 pace group. Only on one occasion did I have to squeeze in between the runners coming toward me and a few early-morning walkers on the path. Cyclists were not terribly happy to have to defer so much path space to a large footrace, and more than one vocalized their discontent. A runner ahead of me, clad in a white bandana and green shorts, didn’t handle it so well. “On your left!” a cyclist barked and passed him. The runner then spat an expletive to his back and vigorously picked up the pace. There was no way he could have caught the cyclist, but he still shot out ahead of me with an ax to grind.

iPhone shutter speed made so that my mom captured my shadow about to finish.

iPhone shutter speed made so that my mom captured my shadow about to finish.

I kept my pace, conceding a few seconds per mile as the race continued. The sun was still out and the pace was starting to hurt. I felt less like a train moving powerfully and smoothly and more like I was dragging a rickshaw cart. Even so, I passed the runner with the white bandana and surged forward. A few miles from the finish, as we ran practically on the beach, the adrenaline that had been pumping through my chest and stomach suddenly felt a little thick, as if it were about to rise up and shoot out of my mouth. Time slowed and I was overcome with fear, annoyance and resignation. Was it finally going to happen? After so many races, was this the one where I’d literally leave it all out on the field?

But the moment passed. My stomach regained itself and I kept pounding the pavement towards the end. There was just one more road to navigate before the sharp turn into the finisher’s chute. A shirtless runner passed me, the only one besides the angry runner with the white bandana to do so since the first mile marker. He was cruising confidently so I didn’t give chase. But just then, as I ran under the red, shingled gate of the South Shore Cultural Center, White Bandana passed me. Not wanting to concede another place, I picked it up and for the third time in the race, left him behind me.

photo 5I looked at my watch and realized that the long-elusive goal was almost mine. The course reached the beach and I made the final turn, my eyes darting immediately to the digital clock above the finish line. I began celebrating, my arms springing into the air as I crossed the timing mats in 1:29:42, my first time ever under one hour and thirty minutes, my scream rising above the music and the announcer.

Once back in the VIP tent, I enjoyed a few celebratory beverages with my mom while sweat unceremoniously dripped off my shorts and soaked into the grass. My elation was not lost on her. Though she may not have understood every detail I rattled out about my performance, she knew I had done something special. I ran at a pace that would normally reduce me to a sputtered lurch by the fourth mile, yet somehow today it had felt easy for ten of them. Had I been holding back all these months? Was I capable of much faster? What if the weather had been ten degrees cooler and the course boasted fewer turns?

But I knew I wouldn’t have another shot at a speedy half marathon for a while, so I simply enjoyed my new accomplishment. This PR had not only broken through a psychological barrier, but renewed my interest in the half marathon and stoked the fires of confidence. There’s something about breaking new ground that can jolt you into dreaming the impossible.

Just how far into the 1:20s can I go now?

2014-131-marathon-chicago-medals

I want to thank the organizers of the 13.1 Marathon Chicago for inviting me to run their race, treating me like an elite athlete in the process. In addition to being a top-notch event, it was a day steeped in nostalgia and a chance to demonstrate how far I’ve come as a runner.

And now, it’s time to slow down.

The Second Race (Chicago 13.1 Marathon Giveaway)

Disclosure: I was contacted by the marketing arm of the Michelob Ultra Chicago 13.1 Marathon with an invitation to run the race and promote it via Dan’s Marathon.  I ran this race in 2009, when Chicago went from having two half marathons to four, and remember it quite fondly.  I accepted their generous offer and will be giving away one free registration at the end of this post.

131chicagoRecently, a friend told me they were thinking of running a half marathon and asked if I thought they should.  I said Yes, and will always say Yes, especially if it’s a distance they’ve never run before.  I can’t imagine ever discouraging anyone from challenging themselves to achieve what their body has evolved to do with such grace and economy.  Of course do it, and do it with dedication, purpose and alacrity.

Because everyone knows that the first race of any distance is special.  It marks the maiden journey into the unknown and brings with it a swarm of nerves.  Many a runner has reached the starting line with frenzied hands and a jittery body, darting looks left and right, letting out exasperated sighs in anticipation of answering the important questions.

Did I train enough for this?  How fast should I start?  Are my time goals reasonable?  Did I eat enough this morning?  Is this weather too cold or just perfect? 

It’s a collection of emotions that I remember very fondly of all my first races, but most notably my first half and full marathons.  There was no way to guarantee that I’d return to the starting line strong or a broken shell of a once confident runner.  But these nerves and even doubts are part of the magic.  In fact, I’m very easily drawn to posts titled “My First Marathon” because of that vicarious desire to re-live those restive moments of near panic as the 26.2-mile journey unfolds ahead of a debutant.

Running the 2009 Chicago 13.1 Marathon

Running the 2009 Chicago 13.1 Marathon

Of course, once you cross the finish line, you know you’ve done it.  The mystery is solved, questions answered and challenge achieved.  Most likely you won’t even think of anything because your thoughts are being drowned out by music and your own barbaric screams.  But though training may have felt like forever, the moment of triumph is fleeting.  The race is over, you did it, and you don’t get another first chance.

So now we make room for the second race, which I find equally important and just as momentous.

The first race gets all the glitz and glory.  The medal earned a larger space on our mantles, the story likely racked up a greater word count and certainly attracted more accolades from our peers at the inevitable post-race bar party.  The second race isn’t regaled with the same attention and fondness and is often simplified to our desire to “do it again.”

However, I think there’s much more to it.  The second race is the one where most of us have already vanquished our demons of uncertainty.  We know how to show up to the start line healthy, fit and hungry for a fast time because we’ve done it already.  A few tweaks may have happened along the way and our average run time may have changed slightly, and there’s very little doubt anymore that we’ll finish.  But there is a chance that we’ll come up short.  Our previous best might kick harder.  It might not be our day.  That’s the chance we take when we come back.

The second time around, it’s no longer about achievement, it’s about competition.

First broken PR.

First broken PR.

Competition is what fueled me in that second race.  I learned that my body could run 13.1 miles during my first half marathon, but this time I was there to see how fast I could do it.  Because the second race is the first I ran against myself.  Though there may have been thousands of other racers out there, I only cared about my performance and I was intimately dialed into my efforts.

There’s something remarkable and subtle about besting one’s self.  We run with the rabbit of our first run scuttling nearby, an undeniable testament to what we can do.  But this is the second race, and it’s no longer about what we did but how much faster we can do it.  We are not playing it safe, staying behind our delicate lactate threshold, but instead pushing the envelope.  Running faster and harder may push us past our abilities but we won’t know until the race is over.  It’s almost as if we long for those daunting feelings of unpredictable outcomes that might not haunt us the second time.  If we can’t get our fix of uncertainty one way, we’ll find it elsewhere by raising the stakes.

Therein rests the true appeal and significance of the second race.  It not only gives us a chance to test ourselves against what we’ve already achieved, but the way in which we attack that challenge may say a lot about who we are as athletes and people.  Do we take the measured, conservative approach and simply add a few seconds to our pace per mile?  Or do we bet it all and hope to delay a premature collapse?

Do we rest our hopes on small, incremental change, or audacious, explosive progress?

The Chicago South Shore Cultural Center, where the race begins and ends

The Chicago South Shore Cultural Center, where the race begins and ends

Much like my running exploits, the 13.1 Marathon series was new in 2009.  I was very much a naïf in running shoes at the time, completely unaware of proper form and unlikely to name any famous marathoners, but I was acutely tuned into one number: 1:49:34.  My fastest and only half marathon time – the original PR.  Weather conditions were near perfect and I held nothing back.

The course started at the South Shore Cultural Center on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Chicago’s iconic skyline kept watch on the horizon behind a thick canopy of green.  The course would be flat, very fast and quite scenic.

2009 13.1 Marathon Chicago Medal

2009 13.1 Marathon Chicago Medal

I put up quite a fight through Jackson Park, around the Museum of Science and Industry, and back on the lake path, improving my mark to 1:47:58.  But I struggled at the end.  Passion and drive were just barely enough to overcome my lack of experience, which I learned as I staggered through the finisher’s chute.  A friendly volunteer asked me a few questions about my experience as I strove to break out of the haze of fatigue.  I might have answered her questions far too quickly for her hand because Gatorade and rest were calling my name like sirens.

I would have to train for ten more months to beat that time.

Thirty-four half marathons later, I still remember that race very vividly.  It was the first time I had triumphed over my own achievement, left the rabbit in the dust and felt the rush of tangible improvement.  Since then, I have seen my personal bests improve by as little as six seconds to as much as four minutes.  Personal bests aren’t guaranteed – they require a mix of intense training and optimal conditions – but I’ve never felt more ravenous for a challenge than on that second race.

On June 7, I will return to the Chicago 13.1 Marathon to once again attack my PR, which now stands at 1:30:47.  I will be giving away complimentary registration courtesy of the 13.1 Marathon series to a random commenter, to be announced on March 31, 2014.  To participate:

1. Comment below with thoughts on your most memorable second attempt at a race of any distance and why it was meaningful to you.
2. Include your email or website so I know how to contact you.
3. You may comment more than once as long as it furthers the discussion.
4. If you want to comment but wouldn’t be able to make the race if you win, please let me know.