Illinois (2013 Paleozoic Trail Run 25k)

02-PALEO

With my first 50k trail run just eight weeks away, it was time for a shot at half the distance to see how my feet would hold up.  In the days leading up to the inaugural Paleozoic Trail Run 25k, Chicago would experience every single kind of precipitation imaginable.  So it was with a sort of shrug and Ron Weasley face that Otter and I made the short, 25-minute drive from Chicago to Willow Springs.  The race would take place at the Palos Forest Reserve, a large recreational area perfect for riding bikes, trail running and picnics.  I had come here twice before to do some weekend trail running, but by no means did that mean I would recognize the course or be able to safely navigate my way through its serpentine paths.

Start / Finish Aid Station

Start / Finish Aid Station

The week’s mix of rain and snow had made it so that the path would be both muddy and icy.  As we got out of the car and walked toward the packet pickup, we got a taste of what the race would be like.  A thick layer of brown leaves was covering parts of the ground, which made for excellent cushioning from hard-as-rock ice patches.  The starting area was held next to a small lodge, where the organizers were setting up camp.  It was surrounded by mud of all textures, but mostly the soft and slippery kind.  It had been molded by hundreds of footsteps, looking like a frozen brown ocean in the middle of a storm.  I have started running with a local ultra group called the New Leaf Ultra Runs (NLUR), and many of them were at this event.

We huddled up with a few familiar faces and waited for the starting horn to blare.

It was fun to compare this race to my most recent.  In New Orleans, I was being ushered to and fro with exacting care by a large-scale, industrial event production company, bombarded on all sides and at all times with sponsor messages.  Today, I was in a park, the chatter of runners the only noise to be heard.  Three weeks ago, a huge colorful banner served as the opening gates for an event in which tens of thousands of people would participate.  Today, only a few hundred people stood in shivering clumps waiting for someone – anyone – to tell us we could start running.  It’s this kind of austere organization that makes you realize that trail and ultra-fanatics run for the sake of running and not for the bells and whistles.

The 50k started a few minutes late.  A group of us was engaged in a lively conversation when we were suddenly interrupted by a siren.  There was no warning, no welcome, simply a loud noise telling the 50k warriors to go.  About half of the crowd took off running over the sea of mud and into the parking lot, where they would round a corner and disappear into the trail system.  We lesser 25k runners would have to wait fifteen minutes before starting.  Those fifteen minutes were long.  Temperatures were in the mid to high 20s and a rude wind was rushing through the campgrounds.  We couldn’t wait to start.

Starting Mats

Starting Mats

Once running, it didn’t take me long to warm up.  I had brought a water bottle with me because most trail runs don’t pamper you the way road races do.  My fingers are always the first to go, but a few miles into the race was enough to flush blood into them.  At about 8-minutes per mile, I was running much faster than I ever have in this environment.  The trail was wide enough for about four people to run shoulder to shoulder but with ice, snow and mud, there wasn’t enough “acceptable” terrain for everyone.  So we were practically in single file for a long time.  About ten people ahead, I saw Jeff (aka RunFactory) with his black and neon green Brooks jacket, running comfortably in his element.  I decided to keep my pace and see how I’d feel in later miles.

That didn’t happen.  With very little elevation to slow us down, I soon found myself knocking out miles in the 7:25 range.  I would reel in runners, zip by them on their left, and continue finding that perfect path away from ice, mud and tall grass.  I wasn’t always successful and on more than one occasion, I’d get stuck in a mud puddle or slide like an arthritic marionette over an ice patch.  But I kept on, following the runners in front of me.  Around mile 4, I caught up with Jeff.

“On your right, sir,” I said as I pulled even with him.

“Hey buddy, looking good,” he said, his breathing suggesting that he was barely breaking a sweat.

“I’ll probably see you in a few miles,” I said as I put some distance ahead of us.

“I don’t think so.  I’m sticking to 8-minute miles to keep my knee from blowing up.”

I had originally thought it was pretty badass of me to match and beat the seasoned ultrarunner’s pace.  Turns out he was taking it easy.  Whatever, I’ll take it.

Somewhere around mile 7, we reached what looked like a main road and stopped.  There were some runners ahead of us, having crossed the street, but a car had pulled over to the side and the driver had stepped out with a map.  As we would soon find out, we were off course.  Some of us yelled to the people ahead of us to come back.  The helpful driver notified us that the entrance back onto the trail would be about 0.3 miles down the road.

Our mistake.

Our mistake.  And since this is MY blog, I choose to assign Otter’s trail a bright fuschia.

That was the first of many moments of disorientation.  With only one exception, I’ve never questioned whether I’ve been going in the right direction during a race (that one exception being my midnight leg during the Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay).  You either have groups of people ahead of you to follow or there are proper markers telling you where to go.  Today, that wasn’t the case.  We were told that there would be color-coded signs at every split in the path, telling us which way to go (red = left, blue = straight ahead, orange = right).  However, in many cases, these were nowhere to be found.  I was blindly following the people ahead of me who were most likely following the people ahead of them.

Once back on the path, I continued to eschew any pathfinding responsibilities by sticking to the (somewhat fast) couple running in front of me.  I didn’t know it at the time, but we were retracing our steps, going back to the start.  While I may recognize a place if I’ve been there before, I can’t do that if I’m traveling in the opposite direction.  In other words, teach me a route and I will be able to replicate it, but tell me to find my way back to the start and I’ll most definitely get lost.

The geeky ankle socks were my clean, dry pair into which changed post race.  So ease off.

The geeky ankle socks were my clean, dry pair into which changed post race. So ease off.

My right foot was starting to hurt.  It felt like my socks, which were pretty thick, had bunched up right at the ball and were pushing upward with every strike.  I stopped and took my shoe off to examine it.  There was no obvious problem, but just having it off for a few seconds made the pain go away.  But in that pause, I had lost the runners that were leading me on the trail.  Rather than rely on them for the course, I was now forced to actually pay attention to where I was going.  I still hadn’t learned that we were on familiar terrain.  Fortunately it wasn’t long before I reached the starting area.

The second loop of the race was more secluded and narrow.  I was told to follow the orange flags that had been interred into the ground, so follow them I did.  However, I didn’t see anyone ahead or behind me for a long time.  The trail was an unsightly mix of orange mud, snow and leaves.  It almost looked like I was running on soggy peanut brittle.  My pace slowed down considerably both because there were fewer places to run without difficulty and because my foot had started to act out again.  I cursed more than once as I hit an uneven patch of hard snow, forcing the inside of my foot down at a painful angle.  But onwards I pressed in search of the next orange flag.  There was more than one split where I had to guess where the next flag would be only to see it around the corner.

I was noticing an odd pattern.  With every uphill, I would start losing all hope of keeping a decent pace, only to realize on the straight-aways that I could run at that pace forever.  I decided I had to do more hill workouts if I was serious about joining the ultra clan.

Paleozoic Trail 25k DNF (ha) Medal

Paleozoic Trail 25k DNF (ha) Medal

I soon found myself back at the open starting area but stopped running because I didn’t know where to go.  Up ahead was the trailhead for the first loop, and to my right was a short dash to the finish.  I would have shot straight to it had my watch said something closer to 25K (15.5 miles) instead of only 14 miles.  Surely there was something I had missed.  But I had followed all the orange flags and they had brought me back here.

“I’ve seen you before,” said a cheery volunteer who was marshaling the course.  “This way to the finish!”

So after standing in place for about twenty seconds exchanging confused looks with other runners, I followed the marshal’s orders and began making my way toward the finish.  I looked right and out of nowhere, there was Jeff.  For some reason, we weren’t following the same path but were converging as we neared the timing mats.  He was running fast, the anticipation of finishing clear in his stride.

“Dude, what the hell, I’m only at 14!” I said as I joined him.

“Yeah, I’m a little over that,” he replied.  “We must have missed a turn.”

A sample of trail

A sample of trail

At this point there was nothing separating us from the finish line except a mud slick.  Given that neither of us had put in a particularly brutal effort at this race, I felt like it would have been rude to try and actually race each other to the finish.  So I kept up the pace, heading for the unexpected finish.

“Dude, you wanna hold hands as we cross?” Jeff said with a smirk.

“Ha, right,” I replied.  “Like girls.  We should also jump over the finish line.”

Three strides later, he repeated the question and I realized he wasn’t entirely joking.  And so it was that we finished in a fit of airborne, feminine glee.  The chatter at the finish line was all about distances, with everyone throwing out numbers, none of which seeming to coincide.  Some runners were coming from the right, others from the left, all with a look of slight disorientation, but none with real concern.  They were out here to run and no amount of logistical mishandlings was going to stop them.

I ran back to the car and put on a change of dry clothes.  While my intention was to stay for a while at the finish and take some pictures, I could only tolerate the chill for about ten minutes before I decided to head back to the car and wait for Otter.  When he finally showed up, I learned that he had run closer to 16 miles.  A few minutes later, a fellow finisher and very attractive girl would tell us she ran just 12.  It wouldn’t be until later that I’d see where we all went wrong.

You'll note that Otter did observe the Correct course, while Jeff and I totally punked out.

You’ll note that Otter’s glitter trail and the Correct course are the same (GOOD KID BRING HIM HOME TO YOUR PARENTS), while Jeff and I totally punked out (HOODLUMS).

As it turns out, there was a large loop of mostly single-track trail that I missed.  While I will admit that I felt like an idiot for having cut a large 1.5-mile loop from the course, I assure you it was completely accidental.  Seeing that the esteemed trail maestro did the same thing was a little validating.

“It’s the inaugural year,” Jeff said at the finish line with a smile and a shrug.  His sentiments were shared by a lot of people, including yours truly.  And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder how much scorn the event would receive were it a standard road race.  Runners can be a snarky bunch and for every easygoing participant you have a handful of mudslingers who take to message boards and fulminate with zeal.  Though the race organizers don’t get a completely free pass – even the most forgiving runner will openly note the mistakes made at this event – the type of runner that signs up for this race will not go home scowling.

The next morning I felt surprisingly good.  Trail runs normally wreck my legs but I was heartened by how good they felt, as if all the packed snow had never existed.  Then again, I did miss out on the single-track trail segment, so perhaps I didn’t get the true beat-down most trail adventures provide.  While the good feeling in my legs was unexpected, even more so was this text I received from Otter:

“Haaahahahha, you won the 25K”

This picture will weed out those of you who only click on my posts for the pictures.

This picture will weed out those of you who only click on my posts for the pictures.

What?  That can’t be right.  There were many people ahead of me and … oh, right.  I cut the course.  Whoops.  As of this writing, the organizers are trying to figure out how to post the results given that everyone ran their own distance and the start/finish line lacked any modicum of order.  Still, it’s pretty cool to see your name at the top of a finisher’s list, however completely false as it may be.  The truth is, I have a lot of work to do if I’m ever going to win even an age-group category at future trail races.  Fortunately, the Paleozoic Trail Run “25k” was a good stepping stone towards that goal.

Next weekend, it’s back to the fast lane on hard pavement.

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 HalfMadness Half Marathon)

I’ve been keeping a good race semi-streak going for the last few years.  I’ve done at least one race per month since March 2009, with only two months off (February 2010 and August 2011).  So earlier this year I took a glance at my racing schedule and noticed that, with the exception of crewing Leadville, I had no chip-timed races scheduled for this month.  One quick search showed that Jeff “RunFactory” Lung was signed up for a race in the nearby town of Batavia called the HalfMadness Half Marathon.  I asked him to sell it to me, and sell it he did.

Of course, I told Otter I was running a half just an hour away from Chicago and he succumbed to his crippling FOMO and signed up as well.  About a month later, Jeff would pick us up from the South Loop and drive us out to Batavia for the 11th half marathon of the year, simply because it was there.

The race started on time and all logistics leading up to it were smooth sailing.  Packet pickup was relatively fast and efficient, gear check was easy to find (and given recent news from New York Road Runners, soon to be a luxury), and there was a short line for the ample supply of bathrooms.  Jeff and I lined up in the start chute towards the front of the field of about 1,000 runners.  He was out to PR and had an aggressive strategy mapped out on a wristband.  I had yet to fully recover from the previous weekend’s altitude run and was a bit foggy from two heavy Belgian beers I had consumed the day before.

But like any half marathon, I was out to run as fast as I could, in spite of all challenges.  To add to everything, it was about 73 degrees at the start, which is much higher than my desired temperature.

The first four miles of the race cut through quiet neighborhoods with very few spectators making noise.  However, in their place were large trees providing lots of shade.  Every now and then we’d run in the sun, but it was always short lived.  Given that temperatures rarely decline as races continue, I was glad that I could slide through the shadows.  The beginning of this race was reminding me a lot of the North Shore Half Marathon in Highland Park, namely with its residential character and threadbare population of non-runners.  There were only a few points in the race where we’d see large crowds, but local support doesn’t make or break a race for me.  I continued to keep a steady pace around 7:10 and hoped for the best.

Jeff started out fast, as I expected him to, but I never lost sight of him.  He kept on receding ahead of me, gaining distance, until around mile 5.  Right before this point, there was a pretty steep downhill that sliced through the town and then ushered runners onto a path next to the Fox River.  I really liked this part of the race for two reasons.  First, it was very pretty and that by itself is great.  Secondly, it would have been pretty easy to do a typical out-and-back section here, but race organizers decided instead that we’d cross the river and return on the other side.  For some reason, I really like races that are designed to be one large circuit and don’t resort to easy out-and-backs to add distance.

Finishing, Old Style.

But my enjoyment of the race began to wane and the race itself was only partly to blame.  By mile 5, I knew I had bitten more than I could chew.  I felt like I was trying much too hard to keep up the pace.  I wasn’t surprised.  I haven’t done that many speed workouts in the last three months and here I was pretending it was still May.  It didn’t help that the next three miles would be mostly uphill.  My only hope was that I had reeled in Jeff.  At the sixth mile he had a 20-second lead on me, and I had reduced it to 15 seconds by mile seven.  But two miles later, after a combination of a few hills and aid stations that were too far apart, I started to flag.

It wasn’t a bonk in the traditional sense, but I could no longer confidently stride at the same pace.  I kept looking at my watch, telling myself to not go over 8 minutes.  That was the threshold.  Kill yourself if you have to, let that queasy feeling in your stomach explode out of your throat, but don’t go over 8 minutes per mile.  By this point, Jeff had taken off, unbeknownst that his potential rival had given up the fight.

I kept moving forward, creeping dangerously close to the 8-minute barrier.  I clocked mile 11 in 7:59 and kept going, the course now entering a thin bike path, surrounded by trees.

(Left to right): Me, Jeff, Otter

All of a sudden, I felt great.  I couldn’t quite explain it in the moment, but the gasps and grunts of the past three miles were gone.  I felt light on my feet, confident.  While I wasn’t quite invincible, I felt newly invigorated.  At the time I thought, maybe it’s the thin path, creating the optical illusion of speed.  That’s somehow feeding my brain the idea that I’m capable of picking it up, which is making me actually faster.  Maybe this is that elusive second wind, or that spectral runner’s high that people like to talk about like the ghost of a local legend.  But something was happening, because I ran the twelfth mile in 7:39 and the thirteenth in 7:27.  I even had enough to sprint through the finisher’s chute, clocking a 1:36:14.

This has never happened, I thought.  After every wall, I’ve never been able to get it back together this quickly and sustain it for this long.  What is it about today that is giving me this sudden surge?  Did I really “dig deep” as they say to do?  Did I overcome my pain by pushing past my limits?  Had I reached new levels of badassery?

“Dude, those last two miles were downhill,” Jeff told me at the finish line.

So that explains it.  And later when I looked at my Garmin readout, I noticed the definite plunge from miles 10.5 – 12.5.  I guess I’ll have to earn my entry into the kingdom of the most excellent by other means.

I stayed for the post-race party, which I rarely do, because Jeff said it’s pretty fun.  And he did not lie.  Not only was there unlimited pizza, but in addition to all the staple post-race goodies, everyone got a free Samuel Adams beer.  It’s usually Michelob Ultra who hands out the free beers after races, so it was nice to down a brew with actual flavor while waiting for Otter to finish.  I’d love to go into his story and what made this particular race special for him, but I’d be spoiling what promises to be a very entertaining story.  So I’ll just wait until he posts it and link to it here.

A completely new situation waits for me in the next few months.  I’m not referring to my upcoming wedding (which will be awesome), but to the four marathons and zero half marathons I’m running between now and January.  The time to be fast has ended, and much like this time last year, I’m switching gears to tackle and conquer endurance.  Let’s hope I can get through this without hating myself too much.

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!