Loops and Troops: 2015 Veterans Marathon

As I waited for the cannon to boom in the tiny town square of Columbia City, Indiana, I forced warm air into my gloved hands and slapped my hamstrings to keep them from shaking. Although a cloudless sky surrounded the rising sun, it was just below freezing and I had already shed the hoodie Steve had given me earlier that morning. As a veteran of the US Armed Forces, my father-in-law had decided to join me for the Veterans Marathon and Half Marathon, but a bone spur aggravated by running both the Chicago and New York City Marathons relegated him to strict spectator duty this chilly morning.
.
2015-11-14 07.51.07After a moment of silence in memory of those killed in Paris the night before, the organizers gave thanks to the veterans in the crowd, who gathered to greet and salute each other just ahead of the start line. The town’s cherubic mayor gave a few words of encouragement and the starting cannon thundered through the air, releasing about 450 runners into the town’s sleepy streets.
.

The race was a 13.1-mile circuit that began in the town square and cut between plots of farmland. Marathoners would run the circuit twice, so I was treating this first lap as a preview. In between, we would run past a few country homes, barns, and grain silos. It was the exact opposite of my most recent marathon, the massive, machine-like Berlin Marathon, where every turn was a raucous celebration. Today, I was treated to the exact opposite … and it’s strange to say, but I enjoyed it almost as much, probably because it allowed me to zone out, to stop thinking.

Columbia City, Indiana

Columbia City, Indiana

I was completely focused on my stride, my breathing and energy levels. I didn’t have to worry about sidestepping past slower runners, quickly reading clever signs, or absorbing the cosmopolitan sights around me. It was just about running until you were done. Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy this straightforward, unencumbered approach to the sport, whose apotheosis is the endless desert run. But every now and then, something would shake me out of my reverie.
.
“Ugh,” I said aloud as the air around me took on the acrid smell of manure. I caught up to a runner with a bandana and had locked in with his stride. “Makes you want to run faster just to stop smelling this, right?”
His reply, which was a grunted “yeah,” hinted that he wasn’t available to talk.
.
I rounded the bottom of the race, which looked like a coat hanger, and sped back north to the finish line. This portion of the race, like almost every other stretch, was surrounded by yellow farmland and patches of forest shedding the last of their autumn colors. I passed a couple who I had been tailing for over a mile and hadn’t stopped talking the entire time. As I slowly passed them, the young woman noticed me.
.
This is what most of the race looked like, except with a clear, blue sky

This is what most of the race looked like, except with a clear, blue sky

.
“Man, I’m so jealous of that stride,” she said, her friend laughing.
“It’s all in these legs,” I replied and took a few leaps for effect. “But if you were to sit down next to me, we’d be very similar heights.”
.
It’s true. My body doesn’t exactly follow the divine proportions, unless god is a mosquito. At some point in my development, my legs and arms stretched out more rapidly than my torso, and I’ve had these stilts ever since. Some days I regret not becoming a runner sooner, as I technically have had this lanky frame since high school. I often wonder if I am destined to struggle as a swimmer on the day I inevitably tackle a triathlon. It was a lot to think about ten miles into a marathon and thinking is usually reserved for afterward.
.
2015 Veteran's Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2015 Veteran’s Marathon Google Earth Rendering

For example, I do a lot of it after a race doesn’t go my way.

I sulk for a bit, and let me head droop just enough to give me a dull ache in my neck. I try and tease out what I did wrong during training or what I could have done to guarantee a strong performance. Through all the excuses, I pick one or two and render swift judgment. I didn’t do enough long runs, or I should have cross trained more often. Surely these two culprits are to blame; next time I will make sure they don’t hamper my path to speedy victory. After a sensational implosion at Berlin, where I missed my target time by 26 minutes, I had plenty to consider. Ultimately, I decided that it was jet lag, combined with a hubristic first half that I couldn’t keep up.
.
Halfway done

Halfway done

But there was also that unnerving voice in the back of my mind that I couldn’t quite tune out. It was a frightening perspective that asked, in a sober and defeated tone, what if I’ve hit my limits? What if my standing marathon PR, which I earned in Fargo this May, was a complete fluke? What if my ambitions are too far beyond my abilities? Is this as far, or as fast, as I go?

I had signed up for this race wanting to silence that voice. Although I spent the week after Berlin with Steph in Munich and later Brussels, happily eating sugar-cratered waffles and full-bodied Belgian brews, I knew I hadn’t lost all of my fitness. I built it back up in aggressive fashion during October and chose this tiny race as an act of vindication. As I ran over the timing mats of the first loop, I passed Steve and threw two happy thumbs up. I left the only crowd of the day behind me as I ventured back through the path already taken, determined to prove something to myself.
.
I ran past the now familiar landmarks; the warehouses, silos, and manure-caked fields were right where I had left them. Though I’ve run two other double-loop marathons, I don’t like them. There’s something paradoxically challenging about knowing exactly how far you have left to go. Even if you have a watch and it tells you how far you’ve run down to the hundredth of a mile, visualizing it makes it worse. Seeing “23.2” on your watch can become a hieroglyphic, a meaningless symbol that simply changes over time. However, zooming through that mental course like a hawk only to return to reality’s deteriorating plod can really leaden your legs.
.
Train tracks, then the poop fields, coat hanger, big hills, neighborhoods, and then we’re done.
.
Oh man, that’s a lot.

.
But again, I was trying not to think. I was keeping my head up, staring ahead and waiting for the next turn. The more I thought about the road ahead, the heavier my legs felt. The hills were far worse this time and every glance at my watch revealed a slow drop in pace. I couldn’t feel it in my legs or lungs, but running had officially become hard. Two out of three participants had stopped running at the half marathon mark, so I had no one to chase. With five miles left in the race, I was far from done. It was time to simply survive, the chorus of Symphony X’s “Legend” playing on repeat in my head:
.
“Rise and fall, although I fight like hell
There’s just no certainty …”
.
Just shy of the finish line

Just shy of the finish line

.
There were a few people I could chase, notably the first female. She was wearing a bright pink fleece zip-up, which made her an easy beacon to follow. We seemed to be losing energy at the same rates though, as she stayed just about a third of a mile ahead of me for the rest of the race. I slogged up the toughest hills and through the remaining bouts of déjà vu before reaching Columbia City’s small town square. With City Hall visible, I tried to keep going at an aggressive clip without my calves buckling. I saw Steve again as I reached the town plaza, but this time I didn’t have any positive gestures. I had just one loop around City Hall to run before earning a finisher’s time. Though my second loop was a few minutes slower than the first, I was proud of my 3:17 finishing time, my second fastest marathon ever, just a minute shy of my all-time best.
.
It was a great run, though not perfect. I had to struggle to keep an 8-minute pace for the last 10k after cruising at a 7:19 for the rest of it. I began to lose steam right around mile 21 as a product of running a maximum distance of 18 miles in the interim between races. Maybe I need to do more 20-milers at marathon pace, or expand my interval distances to 2-mile repeats. There might be some use in stretching my progression runs to 10 miles or beyond. More hill runs, that’s a must. Maybe I could take a crack at strength training …
.
veterans-marathon-medalAnd before I knew it, I was back to overthinking the result without really savoring the fact that Berlin had been a fluke, not Fargo. Despite the hills and short ramp-up, I ran within striking distance of a time I had suspected was an outlier I might never again approach. But now I’ve added a new time to the sample, adding a companion to the statistical improbability. Maybe the 3:17 is my new normal, like 3:26 was three years ago or 3:40 in 2011. Sure, it wasn’t the BQ I had declared I would earn at the start of the year, but it is an indication that I’m moving the standard in the right direction. My goal is still to achieve that Boston mark, but it won’t be done in large, magical improvements, but instead with steady, incremental change.
.
With my Indiana-shaped medal hanging in my collection, the Veteran’s Marathon has brought the 2015 long distance season to a triumphant close. With my 2016 goals still unannounced, it’s time to rest, relax, and nurse these proud, aching legs. Onwards!

Auseinanderfallen: 2015 Berlin Marathon

I walked calmly through the Berlin Tiergarten, a large, horizontal park that rests in the middle of the city, headed for Corral D and the start of the 2015 Berlin Marathon. There were runners around me but not as many as you would assume for a race that would soon have over 41,000 finishers. I was twitching a little, more from cold than nerves, though there were plenty of nerves. This was my target race for the year, the event that had dominated my workouts and preparation. All roads led to Berlin, and the event name itself was the mantra I would whisper whenever I felt tempted to skip an early morning workout. After a banner year full of personal bests and absolutely no injuries, I was ready to dominate the course. Friends and family were tracking my splits, some even staying awake well into the night to watch my progress. My first international marathon and third World Marathon Major had been hyped up considerably, and I was in no mood to disappoint anyone, least of all myself.

 
A giant bubble of yellow balloons marked the start of the race. They rose into the faultlessly blue sky and disappeared over the trees of the Tiergarten. Just past the starting line was the Siegesäule (“Victory Column”), a large structure with a golden angel perched atop, around which we ran to the sounds of many spectators. We had about eight lanes to explore and jockey for position, but only one lane would occupy the streaks of blue painted earlier to indicate the tangents, or the quickest route possible. This was, after all, the world’s fastest course, where new world records are notched with astounding regularity. I quickly found these intermittent streaks and followed them, as if they were the footprints of favorite and eventual winner Eliud Kipchoge.


In those first miles, I felt like I was running from pack to pack, nudging myself into the folds of a group of runners only to slowly part them by exploiting the human instinct to keep some personal space. It wasn’t long before the width of the course was halved and I became acquainted with the impressively international field (though we would later debate whether 90% of it was made up exclusively by Germany and Denmark).

Aid stations came and went without much fanfare, which was one of the many subtle differences between this race and its American brethren. Big-city races portend imminent aid stations by loudly announcing them a few blocks early, with descriptions of what to expect. Here, I glanced right and realized I was mistaking a crowd of spectators with an aid station and immediately dashed to grab a drink.


In fact, it was this unassuming character that led me to accidentally drink a mouthful of warm sweet tea, mistaking it for an energy drink. I don’t know what was more surprising, the unexpected flavor and temperature or that I really enjoyed it. Uncle Greg, who was a few corrals behind me, would later admit to mistaking the caffeinated beverages for warm apple juice before drinking four of them.

The course itself was difficult to describe without giving a description of each mile. Whereas most races have discrete sections, Berlin felt like it would weave in and out of different parts of the city with a few unique stretches. Its course changed effortlessly from residential, tree-lined roads to large plazas with uniform architecture in just a few blocks. Large churches and museums would pop out as if from nowhere and with very few exceptions, all around us was the calming comfort of tree canopy.


It wouldn’t be until the last 2 miles that the course experienced a material change. It kept its parks and city landscape so consistently that it would be very easy to lose one’s self in the race and simply watch the approaching trees and spectators. Once in the heart of the city, the course zigged and zagged through wide lanes until the Brandenburger Tor filled my sight, and from there it was a quick quarter mile to the finish. Spectators and loudspeakers tore through the streets with shrieks so piercing they could have pushed a dead man to the finish.

Which was great, because I had been riding the struggle bus for a good ten miles by now.


You may have noticed that I hadn’t said a word about my performance until now. The reason is, Sunday, September 27 was not my day. Despite a picture-perfect training cycle, I could not convert my peak fitness into a peak time. Maybe it was the Friday evening arrival, or the time on my feet Saturday, or the fact that I only slept 10 hours over three nights. Or, more likely, I picked a goal time (3:04) that was too ambitious, too far beyond my lactic threshold to convert to a winning time. I had even etched the time on the Abbott World Marathon Majors wall at the Expo the day before, quipping “BQ or Bust” underneath.

And what a Bust it was.

The first sign of trouble was literally half a mile in, where a tiny stitch in my stomach emerged to complain. It went away in a minute, but it gave me pause as I ran around the Siegesäule. Eight miles later, I ran past Steph, her sister Janine, aunt Mindy and uncle Scott, feeling confident and fast. But just two miles after that confident display, I came to the unfortunate realization that I was trying too hard. Ten miles into a marathon, you should still feel good, but I was increasingly gassed. Five miles later, I was on my last gear, which I don’t ever have to tap until miles 18-20.


As I ran through the last miles, I had to choose which muscles to calm. If I ran, then my calves would seize up, but if I walked, then my lateral back muscles would tighten up into a fist of nerves. For large stretches of road, I had to run with my hand on my head, my elbow pointing to the sky. Later, my forearms would begin to generate the same high-voltage tension. It seemed that my muscles had decided to take on the shape of all the pretzels I had eaten in days prior.

By the time I reached the finish line, I was almost thirty minutes late for my date with 3:04. I had suffered through a spectacular bonk, one I had not experienced in many, many marathons. I unraveled completely, from my energy levels to my individual leg muscles, such that the world was a shimmering haze for much of the walk from the finish line to gear check. Although the race winner Eliud Kipchoge had to deal with his insoles falling out of his shoes around the same time that I bonked, his 2:04 world-leading time showed that he was able to convert the challenge into  a formidable victory.


And yet, it was not a complete disaster. I did finish, after all, earning a medal for my first overseas marathon, and in a respectable 3:31 time if you don’t see the laughably enormous positive split. And though my body was buzzing with tightness and fatigue, I wasn’t at all injured. I had given myself a few blocks during the race to mope about the situation. It baffled me that I couldn’t run at this pace for a marathon despite all indications suggesting I could, and I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of starting all my responses to “How’d it go?” with “WELP …” But at the end of the day, I was in Germany with family, and I had to make up for the many beers I skipped during training.

Plus, this was my 30th marathon. Over the years and that many races, I’ve learned to accept the cold fact that from training, to the taper and race-week nutrition, anything can happen. Sometimes it’s magic, sometimes it’s tragic. But I always find that, with a few exceptions, every finish line crossed is an accomplishment. And when just beyond that finish line is your loving wife with two beers, bratwurst and sauerkraut, then all memories of miles 18-24 vanish.


As I write this post on a train headed to Munich, I feel emboldened by my shameful slog through Berlin. The world’s fastest course opened its arms and streets for me, but I couldn’t make it happen, though not for lack of trying. It had been years since I had felt such a takedown over this distance and it reminded me of what it was like to try big, courageous things again. I didn’t play it safe, I didn’t ask for a small improvement, and that impudence forced me to confront once again that which all marathoners have to accept:

Respect the goddamn distance.

IMG_0105

For the first time in many years, I don’t have any pending race registrations. My future running plans are a blank canvas, ready to be filled with the next big goal. Maybe fast Majors aren’t my thing. I seem to do better in smaller races, where I can chase someone a block away and not have to constantly weave in and out of crowds. Or maybe that’s me making excuses again. The point is, there is another race out there, one that will get me that BQ, or at least nudge me closer to it. I just have to choose it, and tweak the master plan a bit to ensure that I stay strong and fast over every stride.

As for Berlin, I loved it. Every grimace, expletive and muscle spasm across the course was worth it. It annoys me that if I ever want to run it again, I have to subject myself to a lottery or pay through the nose for a packaged tour. But that is a problem for another time. For now, I have places to see and many delectable morsels of food to try. Ausgezeichnet!

The Tune-Up: 2015 Fort2Base 10 Nautical Miler

I’m not exactly a sucker for weird distances.

The yearly Get Lucky Half Marathon has a 7k race near me that I’ve never run, the Polar Dash had a 14-miler in 2014 and a 15-miler this year (which leads me to wonder how long they’ll be able to keep that up), neither of which I’ve run, and there was a 4-miler in the city that I never added to my calendar. Call me traditional, but I like benchmarking my abilities against standard distances that I’ve run repeatedly in the last six years. The idea of an “automatic PR” never really called to me.

race_1265_photo_24474354

But my father-in-law put it best when he said that Fort2Base was an opportunity to run a race with different units of distance. Anywhere else in the world, a half marathon is 21.1 kilometers and you’ll see markers at every kilometer. Short of running a race measured in leagues, light years, parsecs or Planck lengths, there aren’t many reasonable options besides miles and kilometers.

The family can get quite silly on command

The family can get quite silly on command

Enter Fort2Base, a point-to-point race that starts in Highland Park’s Fort Sheridan and ends in the Great Lakes Naval Station, which sports two races of 10 and 3 nautical miles. My in-laws had put together a large family trip to run it last year and the rave reviews convinced me to slate the race as my August speed test. The fact that I would achieve an instant PR was a footnote in the decision making process.

We began the race by running through and around Fort Sheridan, a former military barracks that has since been mostly transformed into a residential community and cultural hallmark of the North Shore. The stone water tower, once the largest structure in Chicago, kept watch over a large, oval-shaped park. I remember this monument fondly, as it was a key part of the North Shore Half Marathon, which I ran in 2010. As we traced our way around it, I saw the first mile marker at about 1.15 miles, the exact distance of one nautical mile.

Once out of Fort Sheridan, we hopped on the biking and running path that sticks to the northbound Metra commuter rail. We ran on this trail, in a nearly unbending, straight line for another eight miles. However, I soon learned that the mile markers weren’t nautical miles as advertised, but standard miles. In other words, that first marker was long. With an annoyed grunt and a quick headshake, I got back to running.

Cresting the top of Hero Hill

Cresting the top of Hero Hill

Under grey skies and with a gentle tailwind, I was rocketing through the course. By mile 7, I was behind a gentleman in American flag shorts and the first female, who seemed to be locked in stride. I passed them and briefly enjoyed my lead, for both had yet to turn on the afterburners. At mile 9, we left the tree-covered path and entered the Great Lakes campus for one large loop before finishing. The station’s red brick clock tower stood as the area’s centerpiece, overlooking the many spectators in the grassy field that unfolded in front of it.

Not long after entering Great Lakes, the course took a service road toward the lake, where it plummeted until we reached the shores of Lake Michigan. It was there that I crossed the 10th mile in 1:06:36, a PR at the distance by over 90 seconds. However, my legs were heavier now, and my lungs were starting to burn. The acidic buildup couldn’t have been more poorly timed, as just ahead was Hero Hill, the upward climb back to the campus.

In just under thirty seconds, that climb put another four miles of pain in my legs. I reached the top gassed but no less motivated to finish strong. A few strides later, I encountered another obstacle as I came face to face with a rapidly advancing wall of rain.

Mid-downpour, just past mile 11

Mid-downpour, just past mile 11

Any part of me that wasn’t already covered in sweat was soon drenched. The sound of raindrops bouncing off me was oddly like rubber, as if I had fashioned a shirt out of a tent. My spongy footsteps found it impossible to avoid puddles and I had no choice but to splash through what remained of the course. I couldn’t help but think of the many times I’ve promised other runners that it will never rain so long as I’m still running.

And then, just as soon as it arrived, it was gone. The skies never truly opened to reveal the late August sun, but it seemed for the moment that only one mercurial storm from the west would be visiting us today. One final turn and we were on the edge of the large, open field that acted as the clock tower’s welcome mat. I didn’t have a sprint left in me, but I pumped my arms with every last ounce of energy. Hero Hill and the sudden downpour had siphoned off a lot of time from my pace, but I was not going to complain about my 1:19:08 finishing time. It was good for 18th overall, and 3rd in my age group.

Once the race was over, I exited the finisher’s chute and positioned myself along the barricades to cheer for the rest of the field. Among my in-laws, the usual diehard runners were part of the field, several of whom will join me in Berlin in just over four weeks, either as runners or spectators. But the true surprise was Steph, who signed up for the 10-nautical miler, fully aware that there was a shorter distance available to her. Though she justified it with far more colorful language, I want to believe that she threw down because it was an opportunity to have a shared experience with the family, even if it did involve a sport that she doesn’t hold in such high regard.

The back features the Great Lakes Clocktower in symmetrical fashion

The back features the Great Lakes Clocktower in symmetrical fashion

Once everyone had crossed the finish line, we took the ceremonial post-race picture and made our way back to the hotel.

Much like the North Shore Half Marathon, this race sells itself on a beautiful, tree-lined course with one gut-busting hill. We were lucky this year to have nearly perfect weather, which is not a guarantee in mid-August. The icing on the cake is the high quality of the t-shirts, bibs and medals. And if that weren’t enough to sell you on signing up for 2016, the race pictures are free! The cynic in you might think that you get one or two blurry shots, but I managed to find ten excellent pictures. If most typical race photography services are feeling generous, they will charge you $20 per digital download, so this $200 value was not lost on me. Big, much deserved props to the organizers for partnering up with Gamefacemedia for this generous perk.

All told, if you need a good fitness primer for a fall marathon, a great tech tee to use during training, or a new standout medal with beautiful details, Fort2Base fits the bill.

Finishers!

Finishers!

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

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

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

Well, shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team Chance

Team Chance

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

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 301 other followers