The Chicago Marathon 2012 was my 3rd marathon. Back in January of 2009 I’d run my first at the Phoenix Marathon, finishing in 3:28 and realizing that (1) marathons were very hard on me physically, and (2) I need to put “qualify for the Boston marathon” on my bucket list. I endeavored to figure out how to manage the former and target the latter by running the Chicago Marathon in 2010, thinking that the 3:20:59 or under qualifying time I needed was challenging, but attainable. October 2010 arrived, and so did a heat wave, with temps in the 80’s on race day, and that race and my qualifying attempt went right out the window as I limped home in 3:37. Just to add insult to injury, the Boston Athletic Association soon thereafter lowered the qualifying standards by 6 minutes for my age group – meaning that going forwarded I would need a 3:14:59 to qualify.
Fast forward to January, 2012. I signed up for Chicago again. Same goal in mind, same determination to qualify, but humbled and realistic in knowing that this goal was a stretch goal for me, and something that may take more work and effort that I could put together in the 9 months leading up to the race. Since Phoenix in 2009, I’d focused entirely on running, put the triathlon bike on mothballs, hung up the swim goggles, and slowly but surely rode the roller coaster of committed single-sport focus: nagging injury after nagging injury, accompanied by slowly improving times across all the lesser (5k, 10k, half-marathon) distances. I loved the simplicity of “just running,” and started to figure out how best to manage all those nagging injuries. Since the start of this year I put in 1049 miles of training, started my marathon focus in May and averaged 50+ miles a week since July. I PR’ed my 5k and 10k in September, so I was feeling good, but I still knew a 3:15 was right out on the very edge of possible, and I would need the stars to align come race day to even get close to that BQ time.
Race day this past Sunday dawned crisp and cold with temps in the 40s but not much wind at all at the start. I’d been a little under the weather in the week leading up to the race, but I woke up feeling the best I had in days. I downed a PowerBar, half a bagel and some peanut butter and drove down to the Loop and parked in the same garage off Monroe we use for Symphony parking…so things felt nice and familiar. I walked to the bag drop area where I hit the porta pottie, dumped my bag and headed over to the B corral with plenty of time to spare. I had on a thick plastic garbage bag and nylon pants that I ditched a few minutes prior to the start, and under that shorts, a short-sleeve shirt, arm warmers, and a long-sleeve shirt that I planned to ditch once I got going and warmed up. I also had gloves and a winter hat and my baseball-style running hat, but went with the baseball hat right away and shoved the winter hat in my pocket.
The gun went off at 7:30 and I got to the start line a minute and a half later, and off we went. The first mile is hard because you go through the lower Wacker tunnel, so my Garmin is not reading and giving me an accurate pace, I didn’t have any feel for how I am pacing, and it’s a little congested and squirrely up through the first turn at .7 miles. My goal pace was 7:26 and I knew I needed to start there and stay there if I was to have any chance…but I went through the first mile at 7:43 and was instantly freaked because even though I wanted to avoid the classic mistake of going out too fast, I hadn’t meant to go out that slowly. I put the hammer down a bit and went through miles 2-5 averaging 7:13’s. I’d started at the back of the corral, and worked up past the 3:25 and 3:20 pace groups until I was right up behind the 3:15 pace group, where I had planned to stay. I did not want to run with them (too crowded) but wanted to run behind them with them in sight. I felt amazing. I was working hard but it felt easy.
My cheering section was supposed to be at mile 3, but I missed them (we had a little miscommunication on which side of the road to look for them on). I had another sluggish mile at 7:37 as we wound through Lincoln Park, but rebounded again at 7:18 and 7:21 through to mile 8 when I did see Mary and the girls and the rest of the crew. Big cheers and big smiles…and it gave me a chance to ditch my gloves and winter hat.
At this point I knew I was about 30 seconds ahead of my goal pace, and I knew I should try and conserve and hold back some, but instead I surged myself up past the 3:15 pace group by a little bit – it was a big group and they were slowing and surging around the aid stations – and it was annoying me so I decided to move ahead and try to stay ahead. I was taking Gatorade and water at every aid station, but my gut was cramping a bit and I was starting to feel a little flat so took a gel at mile 12, and passed the half-way point at 1:36:44. Perfect. I was up to 45 seconds ahead now. I clicked off the next 5 miles right at 7:24 pace – steady as she goes and about 2 seconds per mile ahead of where I needed to be. I saw the cheering section again at mile 18. I took another gel.
People have asked what I thought about for those miles.
What I was thinking was “I feel amazing, but I can’t possibly keep this pace, just make it to the next mile marker and hang on as long as you can.” Passing half way is a big step because you can then start counting down the remaining miles and mentally that is a boost. At mile 20 I hit Chinatown with its surge of enthusiasm, and shortly thereafter the doldrums before the final turn north onto Michigan Avenue at mile 23 ½ . I knew that whole last stretch would be into the wind that was strengthening out of the north and that I would need to have something left in the tank in order to stay on-track and not give back the now 1:20 cushion I had built up. I was waiting for the wheels to come off at any time, but I always felt like I had a little something left in the tank…an extra gear I could go to if I needed to.
But I was starting to believe…and starting to think it was all possible, and while my legs were now feeling the effects, and I was sore and tired…that mattered less as I realized that with now only 2 miles to go, no matter what, I was not going to let this opportunity slip through my fingers.I saw the cheering section for the last time at mile 24. I ditched the arm warmers, and their yelling and enthusiasm washed over me.
I tried to tuck in and draft off of other runners around me to save energy, but did start giving back a few seconds per mile from 24-26.
Finally, off in the distance, I could see the giant American flag that they hang over the course at the final right-hand turn at mile 26. It seemed like it took a day to run that last stretch up to the turn. I kept looking up at the flag and the looking to see where the buildings on the right ended to gauge where the turn was…hoping it would just hurry up and get to me. After the turn you hit the only hill on the course. It’s only 200 meters long and really not that steep, or long, and it is stretch of road I’d tackled in other races many times before and I knew it was a final hurdle that would not be my undoing. The crowds were thick and loud and I reached the top and saw the 200 meters to go sign and took the final left-hand turn to the finish.
There is a picture in my head…a finish to this race I had played out in my mind endlessly since the 2010 Chicago Marathon. This visualization has 2 versions. In version 1 it is a picture of me turning that corner and staring down the finish straight to the finish line and then glancing down to my watch. And that watch would read 3:15:00. And I would know that I had come up short, and that on that day it was simply not meant to be. I would live to fight another day, but on that day, I had not been able to reach what I was seeking.
In version 2, it is a picture of me turning that corner and staring down the finish straight to the finish line and then glancing down to my watch. And that watch would read 3:14:00. And I would know that if I sprinted from there I would be able to cross that finish line in 50 seconds and the dream would be realized.
But on October 7, 2012, as I reached the top of the hill and took that turn, and saw that finish line, and looked at that watch, it did not read 3:15:00, it did not read 3:14:10…it read 3:13:03 and I finally knew for certain that the stars had aligned for me that day and that something I barely though possible was going to be a reality. As I passed the grandstands I fumbled to take my headphones out so I could hear the crowds and crossed the finish line in 3:13:53. Mission accomplished.
I was in disbelief, elated, just completely blown away. I always thought I could get that BQ time, but I really this would be the year to get me half-way there. I’d run a 3:20 or so, and build on this next year and try again. But a 15 minute PR? It might be possible, but I’d need the perfect race. It just turns out I had the perfect race.
My garmin file is here. Ignore the HR line – I threw my HR strap off at mile 2. It was just making me mental.
I also charted out my pace relative to my goal and have pasted that in below.
The weather helped. It was cold – mostly cloudy – not too windy. If it had been hot this probably would not have been possible. What else made the difference? It was a combination of dozens of little things. I hadn’t missed a training run all summer. Not one. I hadn’t made every time interval (just go back and read about my Bad Day) but I had put in every ounce I had into every mile. I ran in rain. I ran in storms. I ran in the middle of the night with a failing headlamp. I ran in heat…and this summer that heat was often unrelenting. I took care of my body. I did over half my miles (including 80% of my runs over 14 miles) on traiIs to soften the pounding on my legs (if you ever want to know anything about the Des Plaines River Trail – I know every inch of it from Chicago to Gurnee). I wore compression socks almost every night. I got fitted into better shoes (thanks Pom!). I ate better, and in the last week before the race I ruthlessly cut down my diet to drop another 2 pounds, knowing that I could save nearly a minute of time over the 26.2 miles per pound lost. I trained with the nutrition that I knew they’d have on the course. I stretched…I foam-rolled…a iced…I soaked…I ice bathed…and my plantar fasciitis, tight IT bands, ankle tendonitis, and hamstring strain that have forever haunted me instead slowly faded away.
I’m not an amazing physical specimen. I’m not a natural-born runner. I needed all those little things to add up to one special day…and they did.
All summer Mary and the twins put up with all this running, and the ridiculous logistics of trying to manage her training schedule, my schedule, and the kids’ schedule – but it was their encouragement and support that I thought of most during those 26.2 miles and provided endless inspiration.
On race day the cheering section was amazing: Mary, Sarah, Courtney, my mom, my sister Allison and her family (Josh, Nolan, Andrew), Aly Sander and Matt, and Mary’s cousin Martha. I felt blessed and inspired to have them out there for me cheering me on. It makes a difference to be able see and feel that support.
So it’s on to Boston, but I’m waiting until 2014. 2013 is too close. Now I’m off to find some other items for the bucket list…and also to check the results page one more time, because I keep going there and staring at it…not believing that it all really happened.