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.

2013 Chicago Marathon Weekend

Once again, I did not run the Chicago Marathon.  It wasn’t because of under-preparedness or a lack of interest, but rather a product of planning out the year very far in advance.  By the time registration opened in February, I already knew that I would be running the Leavenworth and Portland marathons the weekend before.  Given Chicago’s perfectly flat course and reliably cool weather (and high price tag), it’s not a race that I would run for fun.  But over the years, marathon weekend has taken on the same snow-globe wonder as Christmas, so I have to participate in it as much as possible.  And so on Sunday, October 13, I was once again in the middle of the Loop as a spectator, waiting for the race to start.

Breakfast of (Soon to Be) Champions

breakfast-with-laszloBut my 2013 Chicago Marathon experience did not start there.  Earlier in the week I was contacted by Laszlo, a fellow blogger and half marathoner who was coming to Chicago for his first stab at the full beast.  Given my penchant for meeting fun people during my running adventures, I agreed to breakfast with him and suggested the great pancakes-and-eggs eatery Eggsperience.  His wife and daughters were sleeping in from the long drive from East Michigan, so it was just the two of us talking about life, how running has changed it and what he should expect during the monumental challenge that awaited him on Sunday.

Stalking a Living Legend

scott-jurek-chicago-marathon-expoFull on pancakes, I made my way to the Marathon Expo, where I waited coldly, stalker-like for ultramarathoner extraordinaire Scott Jurek to arrive at the Pro-Tec Athletics booth.  I made some Costa Rican friends as I waited.  I had brought a flag, which hung loosely by my side from a drawstring, which caught more than one eye.  Among those was a Costa Rican reporter, who took a picture of me for the paper (I’ve since checked and I didn’t make it to the print edition).  By the time Scott showed up, I was closest to the table in front of a crowd of adoring fans.  He signed my copy of Eat & Run, but not until I showed him that we had met before at the Garmin Marathon.  Steph told me that Scott most likely notified security of my presence after I left.  I will admit that part of me felt like Buddy from The Incredibles, except I hope to not become his nemesis in twenty or so years …

The Tables Turn

left to right: Jime, Chris, Steph, me

left to right: Jime, Chris, Steph, me

That night, Steph and I dined with Jimena and Chris, who hosted me in Kansas for the Garmin Marathon back in April.  Jimena was a high-school classmate of mine and her husband Chris was attempting his first marathon the next morning.  They had gone out to the Garmin race to watch me run in the spring, so I was returning the favor by escorting Jime to various different spectator spots.  Chris was still vacillating between joining the 3:05 and 3:10 pace groups, and I unabashedly endorsed the faster time.  If he was confident enough to BQ on his first marathon, then it was his duty to abandon restraint and aim for glory.  There’s no shame in going as hard as you can and with the weather forecast showing perfect conditions, there were few reasons to hold back.  It’s not advice that I would have followed myself four years ago, but I wasn’t teeming with such self-assurance.

Same Pose, Different People

chicago_marathon-02After seeing the elites rocket down State Street under the iconic red Chicago Theater lights with Chris not far behind, Jime and I went to LaSalle and later Sedgwick, where I managed to get three pictures of the same person in three disguises.  First came Laszlo, who after gushing about how much fun he was having, romped down the block like a kid in a toy store.  Not far behind was Marla, equally thrilled to be running her first marathon, strutting down mile 11 with a million-dollar smile.  Behind her in the second wave of runners was Louisville’s own Glenn, who took a half second to recognize me under my cap and beard before sprouting devil horns from his hands.

“I think they all posed that way because they think you would do that,” Steph would later tell me.  Maybe.

chicago_marathon-03Regardless, it was proving to be a beautiful day for runners and spectators alike.  Last year, clouds obscured the sun and drove my body to shivers for most of the day.  This year’s morning was bright and we were too busy yelling out people’s names, nationalities or identifying features (“GO FACEPAINT!”) to ever succumb to chills.  Costa Rica was the fifth most represented country at the race and they definitely made themselves known.  “I think if you’re running the marathon and from Costa Rica, you’re obligated to wear a shirt that says so,” Otter remarked after the race.  I believe him.  I yelled every single nationality I could see and few were out there in chicago_marathon-01such large numbers as Mexico or Costa Rica.  What I did learn from this experience was how heartbreaking a marathon can be for people with foreign or exotic names.  I’m sorry, I really am, but if you have “Valtyja” or “Jørgün” handwritten on your shirt, that potential moment of irrevocable indignity where I butcher your name is enough to keep my lips sealed as you run by.  I know that by mile 11 the runner might not have it in them to turn around and give me the stink-eye for soiling their moniker, but in the time it takes me to figure out the best way to pronounce it, they’re past my shouting range.  Plus, what if I try to be smart about it and end up looking like an idiot?  It’s possible that I’ll see “Georg” and think, “Ah, this dude is German,” thereby shouting “Looking strong, Gay-Org” just to have him turn around and say in perfect apple pie American, “It’s pronounced George, dick.”  Maybe one day I’ll shed those silly concerns and just yell everything I see on everyone’s singlets.  But that time will have to wait.

The Best Spectator Sign I Have Seen in Recent Memory

I was reading a recent recap of this race and the author mentioned seeing a Harry Potter-themed sign (“Accio Finish Line!”) and some politically germane zingers (“You’re running better than the government”), which I would have loved.  But the prize for the best sign I have recently seen goes to this brilliant collage.

breaking-bad-marathon-sign

PRs (Post-Race Pizza Reunion)

Later that night, as volunteers and Parks employees were taking the race apart in Grant Park, Steph and I got together for dinner with a group of runners and bloggers alike.  I had warned her ahead of time.  “You know those conversations that I’ll have with Otter or Marla about running where everyone else tunes out?  That’s going to be this entire dinner, all of it.”  Appropriately cautioned, we made it to the South Loop Gino’s East, where we met up with RunFactory Jeff, Zombiephile Glenn, Brew Crew Otter, Scott and Edna (the latter of whom, while cool people, I met at that dinner, so I can’t give them any relevant nicknames).  Glenn talked about his struggles in the middle miles of the race; Jeff begrudged the Achilles pains that kept him from running under 3 hours; Otter carped about the ascetic lowlifes that complained about his Hash House Harriers Beer Station at mile 23, forcing them to shut it down.  But they also talked about the amazing crowd support, the remarkably diverse and electrifying performances in each neighborhood, and how great it felt to see familiar faces and strangers on the sidelines cheering with equal fervor.  It was a fun dinner over a few delicious pies and, believe it or not, the conversation didn’t entirely revolve about running.  War stories were exchanged, drinks happily consumed and half-promises of future races offered.

left to right: Scott, Glenn, Otter, Steph, me, Jeff, Edna

left to right: Scott, Glenn, Otter, Steph, me, Jeff, Edna

Dennis the Course Record Menace and Rita Jep-Too Fast To Catch

The last thing I did before bringing the “holiday” weekend to a close was watch the recording of the morning’s elite race.  My pre-race favorite Moses Mosop didn’t take the crown as I had predicted, finishing instead in 8th (2:11:19).  The top prize went to Kenyan Dennis Kimetto (2:03:45), who broke the course record, became the third fastest man in history and ran the fastest record-eligible marathon in the western hemisphere.  Perennial runner-up Emmanuel Mutai was just seven seconds behind him, making the 2013 Chicago Marathon the first record-eligible race ever to have two finishers under 2:04.  Meanwhile, on the women’s side, Rita Jeptoo took first and joined the elite sub-2:20 group of female marathoners with a 2:19:57 finish, redeeming herself from last year’s performance, where she lost to Atsede Baysa by less than a second.

I can’t wait until next year.

Reflections on the Chicago Marathon (2006 – 2012)

I went for a quick run yesterday around 5 PM.  It was intended as a recovery from the previous day’s long effort, but it ended up tainted by frustration and resulted in a speedy dash, a way to purge the morning’s anxious energy.  Though the title of this entry might suggest it, I did not run this year’s Chicago Marathon.  It was never my intention to do so.  I watched as registration opened and I didn’t throw my name in the ring.  Registration closed and the race was run without me.  Yesterday’s run happened strictly because it was in my training log.  So I stepped outside and did a large lap around Grant Park on the shores of Lake Michigan, the spires of Chicago’s iconic skyline keeping watch over the setting sun.  As I ran past stuffed garbage bins, empty charity tents and barricades splashed with corporate logos, I saw the remnants of one giant party, one that I had in some capacity attended for the last seven years.

2009 Chicago Marathon w/ Mama

It definitely got me thinking of what the race has meant to me over that time period.  In college, my only exposure to what was then called the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon was anecdotal.  Friends of friends had trained for months and had finished it, and that’s all I had heard.  At that point in my life, “running a marathon” was almost a talking point.  It wasn’t an actual feat, but a rhetorical device that you would use in conversation to suggest something difficult to the point of insanity, like “scaling Everest” or “circumnavigating the globe.”  So when someone would say that they ran a marathon, the magnitude of their accomplishment never actually effervesced from its conceptual pot.

It was like someone telling me they got a 1600 on their SAT or bench pressed 400 pounds.  I couldn’t ever wrap my head around that, so I’d nod courteously, say the requisite “wow” and move on with my life.

2010 Chicago Marathon w/ Papa, Steph & Mama

And then in 2006, I was dating a girl whose dad was a pretty intense endurance athlete.  His name was Steve and his athletic résumé was padded with enough rides, triathlons and marathons to make casual runners envious, and he was running Chicago.  Having graduated from college about five months prior, I had gotten a sense for the city and its neighborhoods.  I learned to navigate the bus and train system and had managed to translate distances into commute times.  So with this mental map of Chicago in my mind, I suddenly understood the true scope of the marathon.  I traced a line from the city center to Wrigley Field, then all the way over to United Center, back to the city, down to Sox Field, and back up.

2011 Chicago Marathon w/ Paula

I could see this course reproduced in my brain and it was then that I had a sort of epiphany of just how insanely far 26.2 miles really is.  Surely only a tiny amount of physically gifted demigods would be able to do this.  Anachronistically, I would have thought the entire cast of Thor would be the only people up to the task.  But as I stood in the cold (2006 was very cold), watching a bouncing sea of people brave the elements, I realized that I hadn’t given enough credit to those I already knew had finished a marathon.

We were surprised to see a good friend of ours mid-crowd.  We yelled her name and she spasmodically threw her arms in the air as if in the front row of a concert.  I remember thinking at the time, how good must it feel to see the finish line of a marathon?  It seemed to me a mythical moment, like a blind man suddenly being able to see (though after I read An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks, where he details that exact situation actually happening, I changed my mind about the wonder of such an occurrence).  At the time I never dreamt that I’d ever experience such a moment, and if someone had told me otherwise, I would have laughed at them, shrugged off such a ludicrous suggestion and returned to my chips and dip.

The 2006 race was won by Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, but only after a famous finish: he slipped backwards on the race decal just inches before the tape and ended up with a concussion.  Daniel Njenga was right behind him and finished thinking he might have taken the lead at the very last second.  After reviewing the footage though, organizers verified that Cheruiyot had crossed, adding to Njenga’s frustrating series of runner-up finishes.

The following year, I was still dating the same girl and her dad was back for another stab at the marathon.  I was not a single step closer to becoming a runner myself, but I was still intrigued by the idea of people running for such a long period of time, the “how” and the “why” being equal components of my curiosity.  But this year was a much different story.  In 2006 we had to seek refuge in a Starbucks because our fingers were about to snap off.  Not this time.  This was the fated year, the Chicago Marathon that lurks in the back of every runner’s head like one of those giant, blind Japanese salamanders.  I remember sitting under a tree in Grant Park, waiting for Steve to finish, sweating.  All I had done was walk and sit down and I was perspiring.  It was bad.  A lean, twig of a runner who had already finished was sprawled on the grass next to me, a small puddle of vomit bubbling on the grass next to him.  Obviously, if I was sweating just sitting in the shade, what were runners feeling?  I would later find out that they had black flagged (cancelled) the race, urging everyone still on the course to find a way home or walk to the finish line.  Steve managed to convince kind strangers into letting him use their cell phone so he could let us know the event was done.  Patrick Ivuti would go on to win the race in 2:11, much slower than the times the world had come to expect from Kenyans.

The year before, though cold, everyone at the finish line was walking proud with medals resting on their chests.  For a while, running a marathon seemed possible.  But those ambitions, flimsy at best, evaporated with the famous 2007 race.  So it wasn’t altogether surprising that when that same date came in 2008, I was sitting on a couch.  I was still with the same girl, watching TV at her apartment, which was on LaSalle drive, overlooking the race.  I remember glancing briefly out the window and seeing the steady river of hopeful runners, suddenly realizing that it was marathon day.  I stared at them for a few beats and then turned back to the couch.  Later in that week, I congratulated a friend of ours who had run and asked for his finishing time, which I did largely as a courtesy, almost a reflex.  He gave me a number that didn’t mean much to me (is that fast? what’s that per mile? what percentage is that?).  Though I had started running by that point, I hadn’t joined the cult of marathon, so his impressive finishing time might as well have been a string of 0s and 1s.  Had someone told me that Evans Cheruiyot won the race in 2:06:25, I would have probably looked upon that number with similar confusion.

But a year later, I was a different person.  A series of impulses led me to sign up for the 2009 Chicago Marathon, an act that, all hyperbole aside, would change my life.  I would write about it now, but I think the words I wrote in my personal journal the day after I finished my first marathon accurately capture the wonder I felt:

“Yesterday was, without a doubt, one of the best days of my life.  … the Open corral behind me was teeming with eager runners, hats and sweaters flying in the air towards the sidelines.  It was at that point, as the sun crept over the horizon, obscured by thin clouds, that it started hitting me.  This is happening, I said aloud.  This is really happening.  Seven months of training, racing, logging and daydreaming all lead to today.  Every athlete in this corral, all the others ahead and behind me, have worked very hard to get here, and will all strive to do their best.  I was so caught in the majesty of the moment that I forgot to start my stopwatch until about nine seconds into the race. “

2012 Elite Breakaway Group, featuring eventual winner, Tsegaye Kebede

My mom had come to Chicago to cheer for me.  A few months prior, I had sent her a copy of Spirit of the Marathon because I felt she had to truly know what I was about to do.  I suspected that she, like me three years before, would use the phrase “run a marathon” as a means to win an argument or a simile to make a point.  I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to say the documentary heavily influenced her decision to fly out to Chicago to yell encouraging words at me during my maiden run.  I handed her off to the same girl I had been dating for over three years now, who had become an expert spectator (this was also the trip where my mom first met my future parents-in-law).  After wrapping themselves in several layers to survive the cold, they stepped outside with noisemakers, signs and balloons.  Four hours after starting, I was just shy of the finish line, and my long-standing suspicion was confirmed.  Seeing the bright red banner just a few minutes away was a truly Homeric experience.  I felt like Odysseus beholding Ithaca after his stormy voyage.  It was the cathartic experience I had anticipated and I spent the rest of the day with a stupid smile stretched across my salty face.

The late Sammy Wanjiru won that year after a mindblowing race in the Beijing Olympics.  Proving that his performance in August was no fluke, he ran Chicago to a course record of 2:05:41 and established himself as one of the greats at the young age of 22.

3-time Chicago Marathon winner Liliya Shobukhova (in green) zooms by the Fleet Feet aid station on her way to a 4th place finish, picture courtesy of Marla Brizel

Crossing that finish line was a game changer.  Despite not being able to sit or even think about sitting without inviting a muscle cramp, I was convinced that my marathon career had just begun.  A year later, I would be back on Columbus Drive at the 2010 race, with much more mileage in my legs, scores of PRs under my belt and a ravenous hunger to dip under four hours.  But 2010 was a warm year, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t qualify for the club.  But that didn’t stop defending champion Wanjiru from running the race of his life against Ethiopian rival Tsegaye Kebede, both vying for the World Marathon Majors title worth $500,000.  The two traded first and second several times in the race’s last miles, giving spectators a historic race that is still talked about today.  But it was Wanjiru who took the title after surging on the Roosevelt Bridge to win the 2010 race in 2:06:23.

This year, my dad came along and we bought a few Costa Rican flags to add to the cheering experience.  We thought, why spend all that time waiting for just one person when you can have runners yell enthusiastically at you instead?  Just like the year before, that trusty girlfriend of mine, with whom I now shared an apartment, was practically handcuffed to my parents for the day, dragging them to different lookout points in the city (this was also the year where my dad met my future parents-in-law and we thus had our first “family” dinner).  Frustrated by my 4:05 finish but no less determined, I knew I’d be back.  It was the first marathon that I ran where I try to improve, and in the absence of said improvement, I practically had no choice but to continue.  And best of all, I’d only have to wait a year.

But it seems like for every cold year we get, we need two warm ones.  2011 was, for all practical purposes, a repeat of the last year but only in terms of weather.  Moses Mosop would go on to win the race in a new course record of 2:05:37, showing that the heat couldn’t stop the Kenyan dominance of the sport.  Equally used to training in warm temperatures, my cousin Paula had chosen Chicago to be her first marathon and brought her family in tow.  It was another weekend of fine dining, sightseeing and covering the entire city on foot.  It was the first time I would finish the race in under four hours, but only barely.  Paula’s family was with my former-girlfriend-now-fiancée at the usual spots, enjoying the warm weather and taking unusually long bathroom breaks.  It was once again a very fun race, but the third time around I felt like part of the magic was gone.  Maybe it was that the marathon was no longer the merciless behemoth of years past, or that it was once again a hot year and my spirits weren’t as high as the mercury.  Perhaps it was time to start seeing other races.

So when it came time to sign up for the 35th running of the Chicago Marathon, I didn’t.  The reasoning was simple: I was getting married just two weeks prior!  With all the insanity that inevitably surrounds preparing and executing a wedding, I knew I wouldn’t want to escalate the stress by adding high-mileage weeks.  So I made plans instead to run the IMT Des Moines Marathon on October 21 … and I also ended up running the Crazy Horse Marathon on September 30, just a week after saying my vows.  What can I say?  It’s an affliction.

The point is, I had set up my schedule in such a way that running Chicago would be, to put it as scholarly as possible, bad.  That doesn’t mean that the Friday before the event, I wasn’t on Craig’s List on a purely investigative mission to find out what a last-minute bib would cost.  With the city slowly preparing for the race, I couldn’t help but feel extremely jealous.  During all of my training runs in the last week I had to watch as city organizers built stages, set up tents and put up signs in Grant Park, all the while knowing I wouldn’t be participating.  To make matters worse, the weather was going to give all runners the VIP treatment.  Just my luck to sit out on the year where the start and finish are both in the 40s.  But I didn’t let my seething envy take over and instead, I returned to the Chicago Marathon as a spectator for the first time in five years.

Triumph!

I was at the Randolph Street Bridge at 7:30, watching the pace car and official motorcade lead the elites through the first mile of the race.  Javier, a close friend of mine’s brother, was running his first marathon and I had gladly volunteered to escort his girlfriend Andrea to the different spectator points for the day, with a few additions of my own.  We saw runners exit the Wacker Drive tunnel and cross the river just before the first mile marker; we walked to State/Lake and saw them enter the heart of the city and past the Chicago Theater’s famous sign; we hopped on the Brown Line and cruised over the course, getting a few shots of the field going up LaSalle Drive, crossing the river again.  We joined the crowds at the Fleet Feet aid station on Wells street and saw the elites fly by us as if on a conveyor belt.  I yelled every name I could find on people’s shirts and gave a shout-out to any countries proudly decorating the same space.  With a Costa Rican flag tied to my chest like a large bib, I got just as many shout-outs from the many ticos running.

Although I definitely felt like I was missing out on a perfect race day, I was having a great time.  I got to repay the favor that Chicago has done for me the last three years by encouraging as many runners as I could to “keep it up” and that they were “lookin’ good” and “gettin’ it done.”  I loved how everyone’s reactions would become less emphatic as the miles added up.  Ebullient responses turned to simple thumbs up and by the end of the race, as we stood in the bleachers lining Columbus Drive, no amount of cheering could elicit even a head turn from the exhausted masses.  I saw a few familiar faces, but largely I was there to see everyone turn south from Mount Roosevelt onto Columbus Drive and behold the Finish Line.  Every year, a large chunk of the field is made up by first time runners, all of whom round that final bend towards the final stretch of an epic journey.  We saw calm and collected strides, sprint finishes, hands thrown up in the air and a few unfortunate runners who had to stop completely to massage tight hamstrings.

What we didn’t see because it happened hours earlier was Tsegaye Kebede overtaking his countryman Feyisa Lilesa to take first place in the race with a time of 2:04:38.  That was not only a Chicago Marathon course record by almost a minute, but the fastest marathon ever run in the US.  It also made Kebede the 9th fastest marathoner of all time.  Though I’d need a translator to verify this, I’m pretty sure his 2010 duel with Wanjiru played more than once in his mind as he scorched those last miles up Michigan Avenue.

Javier (blue, center) on his way to a smoking fast 3:34 finish

Not running this race made me realize how much I love the sport and the fanatical culture that surrounds it.  Despite not participating in the running, I had just as much fun being part of the aura, the glow that comes with attending an event like this.  Kathrine Switzer, the famous woman who snuck into and finished the Boston Marathon in 1967 before women were allowed to participate once said, “If you are losing faith in humanity, go out and watch a marathon.”  It’s like watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, except it happens every weekend all over the world.  But in large races like Chicago, it truly becomes a gathering of humanity, both participants and spectators alike.  Everyone comes together with one purpose: to support the thousands out there who decided to do something great.  With the booming voices of a million fans, nobody is too slow or not fit enough to put one foot in front of the other and make that greatness happen.

2012 Chicago Marathon Medal

For me, it was additionally special because it allowed me to give back, albeit in a small way, to an event that has accompanied me through many meaningful moments in my life.  In 2006, Steph and I were spectators who had only been together a few months, and this year I was doing the same but fiddling with a wedding ring that I still haven’t quite gotten used to.  And yes, you could frame anyone’s story with any recurring event – Christmas, birthdays, 4th of July.  But the Chicago Marathon, besides simply occurring every year, has demanded a lot of me and in turn has become an essential part of who I am.  Not only does it hug an amazing city, but it winds in and out of many places that practically explode with memories.  I could never run it again and still look back on it with nothing but fondness and an eager desire to be out there with everyone, either as a runner or a fan.

But if this message from a close friend in Costa Rica is any indication – “Maes, corramos la maratón de Chicago el próximo año” – then I will be at the starting line next year, ready to run through the beating heart of the vibrant city I call home.  Lucky for me, it’s just a year away.

Congratulations to all runners, but particularly those whose recaps I will soon enjoy reading, namely Otter, T-Rex, Jeff and one (or more?) of the Bad Angels.

Illinois (2012 Polar Dash Half Marathon)

And we pay money to do these?

New Year’s Eve was approaching in Chicago and the winter was being wacky.  There had yet to be any significant snowfall, it was not uncommon to have days in the 50’s and frankly, everyone was loving it.  But with such strange weather comes a sense of foreboding: any minute now, it’s going to get bad.  Really bad.

The Buildup

But January 1st came and went and the warm spell stayed.  Chicago wasn’t alone – large swaths of the Rocky Mountains found themselves completely dry, many ski resorts covered in artificial snow, the real thing having forgotten to make its grand entrance.  So when the forecasted Hi is in the 50’s and a new half marathon rolls into town, you sign up and gleefully anticipate a fast time.  Team Ortho, a Minneapolis-based group that promotes health through research and organizing races, brought their Monster Dash Half Marathon to Chicago in 2010, and in 2012 brought their winter-themed Polar Dash Half Marathon.  I saw an ad for it, caved, and signed up for the first race of 2012, scheduled for January 14.

And then, right as I received my confirmation email, winter was released from its frosty prison and rushed into the area with its chilly embrace.  Weather stations and channels everywhere were reporting an imminent snowstorm, winds ravaging rural areas and creating enormous snowdrifts, traffic and highways being crippled and scrolling capital letters skating on the bottom of television screens.  The worst of it happened about two days before the race.

With this unwanted reminder that January in Chicago is supposed to be awful, the Chicago Police Department asked that Team Ortho cancel the running event.  Instead, they postponed it to the following weekend, January 21.  The response on their Facebook page was vitriolic.  But at least they postponed it.  It’s standard practice to allow races to cancel for weather-related reasons and their responsibility towards runners is nothing when it comes to refunds or consolations.  But given that it was the inaugural Chicago race, I’m sure they felt obligated to do everything possible to make it happen, hopefully for a date with weather that doesn’t threaten lives.

But as the week went on, it was becoming apparent that the new date was going to be exactly the same, if not a bit worse than the original one.  Another large snowstorm slammed the Midwest and Rust Belt on Friday, covering the Windy City in as much as 6 inches of snow.  There were no notices of cancellation, so I assumed the race was still on.

Race Day

Ready for some cold business.

It had been a while since I had woken up at a normal time to race.  I was up by 7 and spent about an hour putting myself together.  I had never put on so many layers to go for even a training run, let alone a race.  But the phone was telling me that it “Felt Like” 6 degrees Fahrenheit, and I wasn’t in the mood to die.  I put on a compression layer, a tech shirt on top and a windbreaker to keep my torso and arms warm.  My legs were also triple layered and I chose to opt out of wearing long tights because they get really uncomfortable after 7 miles.  A black compression balaclava completed the outfit and I was out the door by 8:30, the start about thirty minutes away.

There was a crowd already huddled around the start area, almost everyone shuffling back and forth to keep blood flowing.  I noticed only three other runners in shorts, and I made sure to point them out and high-five them.  Contrary to weather reports, it was still snowing and there was a noticeable wind coming off the lake and scraping our limited patches of exposed skin.  After trudging through snow to get to gear check and then the warming tents, my shoes were already a bit wet.  Organizers had posted on their page the night before that paths were being cleared, but with snow still falling, I was skeptical.  There was no way this would be a pleasant experience.

“$&%# this stupid idea,” Otter’s text read that morning.

The first two miles would further confirm his sentiment.  I could barely feel my toes despite my wool running socks and my fingers, which were padded by two layers of gloves, were frozen.  For about a half mile, I actually ran with my hands in my jacket pockets to try and warm them up.  But that didn’t last long, as it was messing with my balance.  Every step around Grant Park up until we reached Shedd Aquarium was covered in a thin layer of slush, which added a hint of trepidation to every footfall and slowed me down.  There were also parts during these miles where we were running almost single-file with the person in front of you kicking snow into your shoes.    Finally, winds coming off the lake were blowing snow into every runner, frosting everyone’s left side with a thin sheet of silver.  Sometime during this struggle, as I discovered that Lake Michigan had been replaced by an endless sheet of wrinkled ice and snow, I found myself thinking, why am I doing this?

Wading through snow at the hot chocolate tent

Once at mile 2, the course has made its way to the lakefront running path, which had been decently cleared, but was still very narrow.  Passing runners was a game of speeding up and getting back in line.  A large chunk of them was running the 10k distance and I was looking forward to their turnaround point to give me some more elbow room.  However we soon learned, much to our dismay, that we wouldn’t be so lucky.  I should have noticed it earlier when the mile marker flags were “off” somehow, but it was made completely apparent when everyone made a U-turn around mile 3.5.  My guess was that they didn’t clear a path far enough down the lakefront because too much snow had accumulated.  So, at the last minute, the organizers had turned the half marathon into a two-loop course.

I’m not a huge fan of that.  My first ever half marathon was a two-loop race and even without the knowledge of what other races could be like, I found myself wishing it weren’t.  There’s something about retracing your steps but with more fatigued legs that can be psychologically challenging.  You know what’s coming and how much you have left because you’ve already done it.  The tiny corridor that we had around Shedd Aquarium would have to be passed not twice, but four times now.  It wasn’t the most heartening news but what choice did we have?

Start / Finish

At the 10k mark, I crossed the finish line, ran under the blue “Polar Dash” banner, past the frozen volunteers holding medals and started the second loop.  There were much fewer people this time around and fortunately, I didn’t come up against the back of the pack runners at all, except for a few 10k walkers, but they were easy to sidestep.  That said, the path was still slushy and the wind still sliced through us.  The good news was that my fingers and toes were now warm.  However, the water stations weren’t handing out cups, but rather small bottles.  Not wanting to be wasteful, I held onto the bottle for the rest of the race and took sips whenever I felt like it.  But I did notice that whatever hand was holding the bottle would get colder, as it wasn’t curled into a fist.

By the turnaround at mile 10, I was feeling fine.  The three layers of clothing were keeping me warm but not suffocatingly so.  It wasn’t a PR day by a long shot, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t get a decent time.  I started picking it up slightly, or so I thought, and after throwing my water bottle in a trashcan, started my dash to the finish.  Once back in Grant Park, the race goes under Lake Shore Drive and then rolls uphill for the final 0.1 miles.  Feeling relieved, I ran under the blue banner for the third time that day, finishing in 1:41:56.

2012 Chicago Polar Dash Medal

After getting my bag I went to the race’s warming tents and changed into dry clothes.  I didn’t feel like I had just run a half marathon – in fact, my legs felt fine.  I have two reasons that might explain this.  The first is that the snow and wind made me a more cautious runner and the resulting slowdown kept me from overdoing it.  The second reason is that maybe the arctic temperatures acted like an ice bath on my legs, providing an almost therapeutic post-race polar massage.  I’m not putting any money on it, but who knows, it’s a possibility.

And so went the first race of 2012 — cold, damp, full of hiccups but ultimately successful.  Next week we’re shocking the body by running alongside Miami’s palm trees in 70-degrees.  Onwards!