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.

Illinois (2010 Bank of America Chicago Marathon)

I’m glad I chose 2009 to be my inaugural marathon year.  Leading up to the event, I was afraid of another repeat of 2008 or worse, 2007.  As someone who doesn’t perform well in warm conditions, I was close to praying for cold weather.  Lucky for me and the 35,000+ finishers, the weather on October 11th, 2009 was chilly.  Starting line temperatures were in the mid 30’s, and by the time I finished it was still cold at around 45.  The day was overcast and there was no significant wind in any direction.  My long-sleeve shirt that I planned to remove stayed on the entire time and not once in the race did I find myself sweating.  It was the perfect way to ease someone into running additional marathons.  By teasing you with the easiest possible race, a flat, fast course in near ideal conditions, it was almost impossible to not fall into the trap of signing up for next year.

Mama and I upon finishing the 2009 Marathon, in 40 degree temperatures

Oh, if only we could be so lucky all the time.

This past Sunday was October 10th, the date of the 33rd annual Bank of America Chicago Marathon and, like three of the past four years, the event was held in unseasonably warm weather.  The ten days immediately before the weekend were all picture-perfect marathon days.  But no, for those three days, locals and visitors were treated to aberrant temperatures that cost the majority of the field new PR’s.  All throughout the week I was tracking the weather, watching both the projected Hi and Lo for Sunday slowly creep up like a game of Red Light Green Light.  It just goes to show you that ten-day forecasts are completely useless.  The so-called Hi of 62 that weather.com was predicting ten days out was as baseless as reading tea leaves.  I’ve learned to not put much faith in such canards but it’s so easy to want to believe in these meteorological soothsayers.

I kept a regular mantra throughout the week, repeating certain facts to myself in hopes of mollifying my escalating concerns.  It’s not going to be humid; the Hi will hit around 3 PM and you’ll be done long before that; your nutrition has been great this year so you won’t bonk until very late in the race, etc.  So did any of those hopes help me out in the end?  Let’s see how the day went.

The race began at 7:30 with temperatures neither warm nor cool.  Some estimates said 58, others 67.  I joined a 3:45 pace group and ran with them for the first four miles through the Loop before accelerating my pace around Lincoln Park.  Once in Wrigleyville, the race’s northernmost point, I was feeling great.  There was a constant, refreshing breeze, the shade was ample and the spectators were out in full force.  I saw Steph and my family in Old Town south of Wells & North.  My mom was waving a small Costa Rican flag while my dad taunted runners with a much larger one like a bullfighter.  It was exactly the kind of boost I needed – the sun was beginning to rise and I could feel the temperatures rising.

Somewhere around the financial district (mile 12), my right knee started to hurt as it did back in the spring of 2009.  Feeling it was like running into bad blood after years of avoidance.  I got angry.  But a mile later, it was gone.  I passed the 13.1-mile mark in 1:50, feeling confident and fast.  However, miles 14-17 would prove that my confidence was ephemeral.  By this point, the sun was out, the shade was limited and the breeze had stopped blowing.  I wasn’t going to be able to sustain my pace, so I slowed myself down to 9 minutes per mile.  I was able to keep that for about four miles, where my calves began to cramp just before Pilsen.  I slowed to a walk to relieve them and continued on my way.  Shortly after that, my quads cramped.  By the time I reached Chinatown, I was no longer running consistently.  Instead, I would run until something would seize up, then stop and walk.  After I saw Steph and my dad at the red gate in Chinatown, my right hamstring completely seized up and I had to come to a complete stop to let it settle.

From that point onward, all of my miles were in the high 11:00’s because my legs weren’t letting me run for more than a minute at a time.  At some point in that last 10k, I admitted to myself that a 3:45 time wasn’t in the books, and that a slower time than last year was very likely.  I decided that it was better to finish smiling than to continue to push hard and risk throwing up, fainting or worse.  It wasn’t until I let this sink in that I started to have fun again.  Miles 14 through 19 were painful and difficult because they were the first harbingers of disappointment.  But once I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t the only one suffering through the rest of the course, I managed to enjoy myself.  There is certainly camaraderie in misery and I felt it.  Everyone around me was struggling, limping or leaning on someone else to placate their legs.

Though I had earned some peace of mind, the race did not get any easier.  By mile 23, the sun was out and the long northward stretch up Michigan Avenue provided no shade.  With my body relegating most of its resources to cool me down, my legs were suffering.  But I kept my pattern of running and walking until suddenly I beheld the Roosevelt Street Bridge.  I had no idea I was so close to the end, so I took off, aches and pains be damned.  With that last-minute surge of energy, I climbed the bridge, whose sidewalks were thick with emphatic spectators, turned onto Columbus Drive and crossed the finish line in 4:05:22.  Even hitting the wall so disastrously, I was only two minutes slower than last year’s time.

Walking through the finish chute, I could feel the sun beating down on my neck.  Temperatures had climbed into the upper 70’s, at least 30 degrees warmer than last year.  Given that huge difference, I wasn’t too disappointed with my time.  I got my medal, banana and cold towel and walked to Buckingham Fountain to meet up with Steph and my family.

Later at home I would check friends’ times to read the exact same story as mine.  Everyone ran quickly and confidently for the first half and then slowed down precipitously in the second half.  Once again, I find myself thinking of those who chose 10.10.10 as their first marathon.  I hope they didn’t cross the finish line thinking, Never again!  Because the experience isn’t about the weather.  If it were, marathons would only take place in the spring and they’d be held in temperate cities with mild, dry climates.  Placing all your hopes of enjoyment on something as uncontrollable as the heat index is foolhardy.  Sure, it’s easy to go home sulking because the sun robbed you of a sub-4:00 time, but that’s not the point of this exercise is it?  Although the weather wasn’t ideal (truth be told, it could have been much, much worse), it was still fun.  I hope the overall slowdown didn’t build up the field’s defenses against the running bug because I plan on continuing this hobby for many years to come.

As for what’s next on the program, there’s the Hot Chocolate 15k on November 6 and then figuring out what 2011 will look like.  I doubt I’ll be able to top this year’s spread, but I’ll definitely keep it interesting.  There’s a possible marathon in Traverse City, a few half marathons to sprinkle throughout the year for good measure, and of course, looking ahead to 10.09.11.  Until then, I’ll be recovering.

Congratulations to all finishers!