Plans for running this year’s Chicago Marathon started several months ago, back when the race announced it was not only accepting lottery registrations, but also time qualifiers for the first time. The men’s cut off is 3:15, and having qualified for the Boston Marathon with a 3:09 but missing the roll down, I had a ticket into Chicago. (Mindy was in the same boat regarding Boston, so she too would be running Chicago! It was nice to know that we would be able to register together instead of taking our chances with the lottery.) Chicago has been on my radar for a while, but for some reason (probably the lottery) we’ve never run the marathon before. Having a history with the area, it’s my favorite place to visit that isn’t a tropical island. We were in Chicago the previous summer for a Pearl Jam concert at Wrigley Field, and several times before playing the role of tourists. This trip would be spent off the beaten path leading up the race and it was a great way to lead up to the race.
We flew out on Tuesday morning and were sent off with an amazing sunrise- we hoped it was a sign of good things to come. After landing at Midway we headed out to the suburbs to pick up a rental car for a few days. That afternoon we spent a day cruising around my old neighborhood, Wednesday we headed southwest from the city and visited Starved Rock State Park (with a stop at a Farm ‘n Fleet for Mindy’s sake), and Thursday we spent the day driving east and visiting the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Indiana and doing some produce picking in southwest Michigan. We stayed with friends in the city those first few days and just settled in like a home away from home. Friday morning rolled around and we transferred to a hotel downtown before heading over to athlete check-in.
Check-in was held at McCormick Place, a huge convention center slightly south of the downtown loop. The race provided several free shuttle pick-up and drop-off locations around the city, one of which was a few blocks from our hotel and next to Nike Chicago on Michigan Avenue. The ride took about 15 minutes, and after getting a rolling tour of the city we were ready to get our goods. As I said, McCormick Place is huge and there is plenty of space for the expo. Mindy, who was at Boston earlier this year said the number of vendors may have been the same, but Chicago had 2-3 times the space making it a good deal easier to navigate the booths.
We opted to pick up our bibs and shirts before checking out the various vendors and process couldn’t have been smoother. The race allows you to bring a paper confirmation sheet, or a mobile version which they scan to confirm your information. Once everything matches up, you get your bib and information on where gear check will be on race morning, then it’s off to the main expo floor to get your shirt/gear bag. We were there early on Friday, and while busy, it was only a matter of minutes before we had collected our swag. We toured the expo for a while, checking out the Nike booth, New Balance, North Face, Asics, and Newton- all of which had custom shirt designs for the race. Of course I grabbed a Newton shirt, as it was play on the Chicago flag and I’d be sporting my Newtons for the race. After getting our fill of pictures and deciding it was time to relax, we headed back to our hotel to relax before dinner.
Saturday morning we slept in late and decided to do some carb loading at The Original Pancake House. It was the perfect late morning breakfast and ended up lasting us until dinner with only a snack to bridge the gap.
After eating, we took the shuttle to the expo again to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. Then we rode a shuttle back to one of the other pick-up/drop-off locations, just outside of the Grant Park / Millennium Park area where the start and finish areas are located. We wandered the area checking out the start corrals and other areas we’d need to know on race morning.
We then headed up Michigan Avenue to do some window shopping, which of course turned into real shopping. It was our anniversary weekend, and I couldn’t let the weekend fly by without being a good husband! The Magnificent Mile has some of the best shopping around and after deciding her gift shouldn’t come from the Disney Store, I was able to find something that got the wife’s vote of approval.
We were headed back to the hotel when we passed by Holy Name Cathedral. There were a few people walking up to the doors, and as fate would have it we were just in time for the blessing of the runners. We stopped inside at just the right time, got blessed before our big race and continued back to the hotel to get ready to eat! Holy Name is amazing on the inside, so it was great to stop in for Mindy to see it, plus I could use a little “help from above” on race day – I was trying to break 3 hours after all!
After the blessing, it was time for dinner. The concierge at our hotel was fantastic, and he was able to get us into an otherwise booked restaurant we hoped to dine at based on a friend’s recommendation. We managed to snag a table at 5:30- a bit on the early side for most people in the city, but a normal thing for us the night before a race. We had some fantastic Italian food at Osteria Via Stato and highly recommend it if your’re in the city. After dinner (and dessert- who can resist bread pudding?) it was back to the room to lay out our gear and make final plans for race day.
My goal heading into this race was a sub 3 hour marathon. One second under or 5 minutes under, but under 3 hours was the goal. I had set a PR in May of 3:03 at Mountains 2 Beach Marathon, but I knew I could be faster. At that time I was working overnights, which is horrible for training as far as I’m concerned. I also sprained my ankle two weeks before the race while trail running- never a good strategy before a big race. Working normal hours leading up to Chicago and avoiding the trails since May, I felt pretty good about my chances. A month prior to Chicago we were in Ventura for the Ventura Marathon and 1/2 where I set a PR with a 1:22 half, a pleasant surprise since I registered the day prior at the race expo. A few weeks later I won a local race, a small 5 miler which again added to my good vibes headed to Chicago. Going into the race I knew I could easily hold, and even push the pace for the first half, but holding on to the second half has always been my downfall. My training for Chicago was actually the first time I followed a training plan as prescribed. I may have flipped a workout to a different day, but I was diligent about getting them in. My main focus for race day was also to follow a plan- don’t go out too fast! I had to remind myself constantly leading up to the race not to push the pace the first 13.1. Having notched the 1:22 in Ventura, holding myself back to 1:30 for the first half was going to take some self control. I must have told myself 100 times the night before a comfortable first half equals success. If I could stay relaxed I would give myself the green light to push it the last 10k- assuming I wasn’t out of gas.
After pinning bibs and charging our Garmins, it was time to organize nutrition for the race. My plan was a to fuel with Hammer Gels and on course water stations. I was planning to take a Hammer Gel at around miles 4, 8, 13, 17 and 21. Since I like to carry an even number of gels, I tossed and extra gel on my pile, another Tropical w/ caffeine just in case I needed an extra little boost. (Plus, the extra would cover me just in case I had butterfingers and dropped one!) I also filled two capsule holders with 1 of the following; Endurolyte, Anti-Fatigue, and Endurance Amino. My plan was to take those at mile 8 and 16, in addition to my race morning dosage. After nutrition was squared away, I made sure to lay out all my gear for the morning and double (maybe triple) check it. Then after watching an episode of the Amazing Race, it was time to turn out the lights and get some sleep as race morning would be here before we knew it.
Sunday morning started with two iPhone alarms and two wake-up calls from the front desk- better safe than sorry. Breakfast was a few scoops of chia seed pudding with a raspberry Hammer Gel, a quick and tasty snack! After getting our race day outfits on, we added a layer of sweatshirts and pants we bought at Goodwill for the hours leading up to the start.
The weather had been perfect for running all week, and race day was no exception. It was mid-40’s race day when we woke up, and I think temps during the race peaked around 55. The extra layers were nice while standing at the bus stop waiting for our ride to Grant Park. Right before hopping on the bus, around 90 minutes prior to the race, I had my cocktail of Race Caps Supreme, Anti-Fatigue Endurance Amino and Endurolytes. A short ride later and we were in the mass of people streaming into Grant Park.
We were able to easily drop our gear check bags and then wander around the corrals. Mindy and I were in different corrals, but the entrances to A and B were so close that we were able to hang out together until just a few minutes prior to the start. Once in my corral, I worked my way over near the 3:00 pace leader as I knew they would keep me restrained the first half of the race. After a lovely rendition of the national anthem the wheelchair racers were sent off, and a few minutes later it was our turn- all 45,000 of us.
(What follows is a quick overview of the course itself, if you’ve done Chicago, or just want to skip to my race details, jump down a few sections…)
After passing through the start line the course heads north on Columbus Drive headed through an underground portion before popping runners back into the daylight where we cross the river for the first time. A left turn on Grand Avenue and then another left on State Street has runners headed back into the heart of the downtown area. This is the quintessential Chicago scene that people expect- towering skyscrapers all around you, the overhead train tracks, etc. You run past the Rookery Building and many other landmarks before heading north and starting our trek toward the Lincoln Park area.
Runners head up north via LaSalle and then turn off the main roads to cut through the scenic Lincoln Park area. You pass the Lincoln Park Zoo (a great zoo and it’s free!), the Conservatory and a few other spots before popping out of the park. A left turn onto Addison and another left onto Broadway, and runners, now at the 7.5 mile mark, begin running south towards the loop. From roughly mile 10 to 12.5 you head south through some lovely tree-lined streets in the Old Town and River North areas of town. Crossing back over the river and into the downtown, you turn and head west away from the city, crossing the halfway point. You’re now on Adams Street for approximately two miles, passing the United Center (home of the Bulls and Blackhawks) before making a two quick turns to start heading back towards the downtown. Headed back east, you run on Jackson Boulevard until turning south on Halsted. From this point on, roughly mile 16.5, there are a series of mile-ish sections that zig-zag you to the southern point of the course. Along the way you pass through some more great neighborhoods like Pilsen, Little Italy and Chinatown.
Runners hit the southernmost part of the course just past mile 23, and then it is essentially a straight shot up Michigan Avenue to the finish area. The last two turns of the course are at mile 26 and have runners take a right turn on Roosevelt Road. This road is the southern border for Grant Park and runners are on Roosevelt for maybe 400 meters. That said, Roosevelt goes over a set of railway tracks and provides a small but fierce hill at the very end of the race. Once you crest the hill, it’s a few hundred meters of downhill on Columbus Drive to the finish.
(Now on to my race day experience!)
The joy of running a race as big as Chicago is the buzz leading up to, and on race day. Race morning was electric with all the runners pouring into Grant Park getting ready to run. The downside is the number of people on the course at a given time. Leading up to the race I heard how the streets would be packed curb to curb with runners, etc.. Thankfully, I had qualified with a time entry and found myself with a corral A assignment. I was maybe 1000 people back in the corral, which was totally fine with me. More important to me than being up front was finding the 3:00 pace group. I planned to use them as an anchor for at least the first half of the race- either to pull me along if I wasn’t feeling it, or to hold me back if I was feeling too good. Thankfully the 3:00 pace leader had a sign, as Mindy told me later the 3:30 group in corral B didn’t have one! Not only did this obviously work well for me to see them on course, but it elicited a great number of cheers from the spectators (Other than the Kenyans, you guys are the elites! You’re the fastest regular people! Etc., etc…) which helped keep me motivated.
Looking at the course map, I would say the course stayed pretty crowded until mile 4-5. Definitely until mile 3, as people were still jockeying for position and rubbing elbows, even on the straight portions of the course. It was around this point I decided to get just in front of the 3:00 pacer. We had just passed the second aid station, and since 3:00 is a popular goal, the pace group was huge. This meant dealing with a big crowd at the aid stations. I decided to pull ahead a little bit and have a much easier time getting the fluids I needed at the remaining stations. There was another small unofficial group from Fleet Feet running a 3:00 pace, so I settled in behind them to try and get some drafting benefit. Since my new group was only seconds ahead of the sign-holding pace leader, the crowds would start cheering for the 3:00 hour group and I knew I wasn’t pulling away and pushing the pace. After having free(-er) access to the following aid station, I decided my new plan would be to stay with my new group for good.
Once we hit the 10k mark I remember starting to focus on running the tangents, and the crowds were now light enough to do so with some success. There is a blue dashed line painted on the roads which show you the tangents to follow, and doing so can save some serious distance on course. My Garmin (not perfectly accurate, I know) had my final distance at 26.3 miles, which is pretty darn good when it comes to coming close to the actual distance over all those miles. In this case, the shortest way to the finish is the fastest!
During the expo, I grabbed one of the temporary tattoo pace calculators for the 3:00 finish time. I only applied the second half of the tattoo figuring I would only need to start doing the math after crossing the halfway point. I was right. We hit the halfway point in 1:29 and I knew if I could just keep in line with the tattoo I’d finish with a minute to spare. I was just relieved I was smart enough to stay with the 3:00 hour group and not run a 1:25 (or faster) first half. I popped my third gel (Peanut Butter/Chocolate Hammer Gel!), and did a quick run down on how I felt; legs- good, stomach- good, mind- good, and then started into the second half of the race.
After the halfway point of the race the crowds thin out a little bit. It’s all relative though, as the thin points of this course are more packed than many races we’ve done in the past. They have a charity block party at mile 14, but after that it’s time to get to business on the quieter miles. I was still cruising along with my adoptive Fleet Feet family and feeling pretty good. After another Hammer Gel around mile 17 I cruised on to 18 where I took my supplements for the second time. I took one of the following; Endurolytes, Anti-Fatigue and Endurance Amino. I took the same back around mile 8 and was feeling good, but better to keep the systems topped off than to run low and scramble to recover. After giving myself the once over I focused back on the course and my mission of gobbling up the miles. Before I knew it, I was at mile 18 a few seconds ahead of the 2:03:36 my tattoo told me I should see on my Garmin.
Not long after, I was staring at the mile 20 sign, a sign which signified a point in the race I previously decided I could push the pace if I was feeling it. I had a mini-debate with myself at this point. Feeling fairly “comfortable” at mile 20 of a marathon can cause otherwise smart people to do dumb things. The devil on my shoulder kept telling me to push the pace. He assured me I was feeling good and by pushing the pace, I could probably shave another minute off my finishing time. The angel on my other shoulder told me to focus on my goal. The goal was sub 3, not 2:59 vs. 2:57 or even 2:55. Those would be great times of course, but did I really want to jeopardize the overall goal for the possibility of an additional minute? Nope. After reminding me that I was smart by following a full training plan to get to race day, that fact I would risk a cramp or a total bonk for a few seconds was idiotic according to my alter ego. He was right, things were going well, and I had no intention of throwing the day away. I kept chugging along, staying just ahead of the 3:00 pace group and starting to get the feeling I was going to crack 3 hours.
Mile 21 was the signal it was time for my last gel, a Tropical (w/caffeine!) Hammer Gel to give the boost I might need for the last 5 miles. It was good time to get a little pep in my step as there was a small hill over the freeway and while still relatively flat, any hill after mile 20 is not going to be well received. Knowing we were close to the southern most point on the course, I started to have a brief conversation about picking up the pace again. This time I decided to stay the course right without much debate. One cramping hamstring and I’d easily lose any shot of breaking 3 hours, and this was the furthest into a race I’d been with a good shot at succeeding. (My last full marathon was Mountains 2 Beach, and while coming off an injury provided an excuse for failure, the feeling of time slipping away over the 4 miles is a feeling I’ll never forget.)
Mile 23.5 is about the point we end up back on Michigan Avenue headed north towards the city. Since mile 20 I hadn’t been looking at the clock. I decided to just keep pace ahead of the 3:00 group, and it was working. I was still hearing cheers from the crowd, which swelled back up to insane levels around mile 20/ Chinatown, but they weren’t the distinct cheers for the 3:00 pace group. I got a little boost knowing I had was slowly pulling away from them and finishing on my own. Near mile 24.5 we get close to McCormick Place and at this point the crowd is really going crazy trying to will people to the finish line. I passed the 40k mark, then the sign for mile 25.2 signaling one mile to go. I decided to pick up the pace just a little bit that last mile, knowing full well there was one more surprise waiting for me just before mile 26.
That little surprise is a small hill, where Roosevelt Road passes over the train tracks between Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive. It’s short and on any other day, not much of a hill, but at mile 26 it is the largest speed bump you’ve ever seen. Several runners were getting slowed down on that little stretch, some cramping, some just running out of gas. I knew it was coming and was mentally prepared. I just let the crowd noise power me up and over, and once I caught a glimpse of the finish line to the left, well I had all the jolt of energy I needed. Once at the top of the hill, I turned left on Columbus and while not quite sprinting, I picked up the pace to shave a few extra seconds off my soon-to-be PR. There were signs counting down the meters to the finish- 400m, 200m, 100m and then the finish line was there.
In what was probably a matter of seconds that I took to cross the line, I had a whirlwind of thoughts fly through my mind. The first of course, was a sense of relief. I knew the clock showed just over 2:59 when I crossed, so I was certain I hit my goal. Next up was a huge sense of accomplishment. I worked my tail off the past few months (and for months and months before that…) and it was nice to see the hard work pay off. Then, there was the fact this was Chicago. The area I grew up in, where I got really fat years ago, and where I’ll always consider home. I wouldn’t have wanted to do this anywhere else, on any other course. There some sort of coming full-circle, reborn symbolism wrapped up in this to be sure. After thinking about these, and other memories, I realized I wasn’t sure what my finishing time was. Like most runners, habit had me subconsciously stop on my Garmin after crossing the line, and looking down the display provided me with a finishing time of 2:58:59. Mission accomplished.
I’ll just interject my race day nutrition for those interested- 90 minutes prior to race start, 1 Endurolyte, 3 Anti-Fatigue, and 2 Endurance Amino. Up to 20 minutes prior to the race start I carry a bottle of HEED which I sip occasionally to top off the tank. During the race I carry 6 Hammer Gel, of which I used 5. I took them at roughly mile 4, 8, 13, 17 and 21. If you’re wondering, it was 2 Vanilla, 2 Peanut Butter/Chocolate and 1 Tropical. At miles 8 and 16 I took one each of the following- Endurolytes, Anti-Fatigue, and Endurance Amino. Post-race I had a Vegan Recovery Bar and while there are no witnesses to confirm this, I may have devoured some Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups. All my fuel is from the great team at Hammer Nutrition (except for the peanut butter cups) and I couldn’t have done this without their products. There are so many other Hammer products I used during training to get me to race day- Recoverite is at the top of that list- and I’m glad to be a part of the Hammer family. Knowing I’ve got reliable fuel and supplements means one less thing for me to worry about on race day. If you’re interested in trying Hammer Nutrition – and I think you should! – there is a link at the upper right of the webpage that will get you a 15% on your first order. Results speak more than anything else, and having gone from a fat guy running a 5 hour marathon to a newly minted sub 3 hour marathoner, I can say that Hammer is a huge part of my success.
Chicago is one of the most well organized races, and it shows in the post race set-up. After receiving your medal you continue north on Columbus Drive through a long athlete-only area. In fact, the majority of Grant Park is athletes only, with the exception being the northeast corner of the park, referred to as the 27th mile. So, after receiving your medal, you continue down the row getting water, bananas, a bag of food samples (Kashi granola, etc.), Powerbar recovery shakes, Gatorade, and probably something else I’m forgetting. After stocking up on refreshments, I headed over to the gear check to claim my bag. This was the only thing that wasn’t a smooth operation, but I don’t know if there is much of a solution. Bags are checked based on bib numbers, which meant that all the folks with low bib numbers, who finished around the same time, were trying to reclaim their bags at the same time. At one point, the line for the 1000-2000 bibs was over a 100 people deep. (Probably more than that, but at least 100!) It was a slow moving line and it probably took 15+ minutes to get my bag. It was the only thing that wasn’t run perfectly, and in no way would keep me from racing again (obviously). In my case, I was waiting for Mindy to finish, so I wasn’t going anywhere for a few minutes anyway. After claiming my bag I slipped on a comfy pair of Sanuks and wandered around Buckingham Fountain swapping picture taking services with various other runners. I also ducked into the information tent to get my actual finishing time, 2:58:55. They were also able to provide me with Mindy’s splits and an estimated finishing time. I wandered around the fountain area for a few minutes when Mindy texted me that she had just gotten her gear bag and she was looking for me. I thought about getting back to the finish line to see her come in, but logistically it would have required me to leave the athlete area and loop around a few blocks to get to a viewing area- not likely going to happen in time.
We found each other near the fountain and Mindy was happy to share she crossed the line in 3:35:57, good for a 4+ minute cushion for her Boston Marathon qualifying time. I shared the good news of my race and we worked our way out of the athlete area to the 27th Mile post-race party. Goose Island Brewing was offering free beers to the finishers, but the reason we headed over was for the free post race massages! The massage tent was huge, really massive compared to the ones we’ve seen at runDisney races in the past. There was literally no wait to get in and the therapists were fantastic! My massage lasted at least 15 minutes and it was great to get stretched out after the run.
After loosening up with our massages, we decided to walk back towards our hotel instead of hopping on the bus. The walk was just over 1.5 miles, and we decided it would be good to keep the legs moving for a while. We also knew the Nike store would have finisher’s merchandise and since we were done before a majority of the 45,000 participants, the sooner we got there, the less crowded it would be.
After walking up Michigan Avenue and snapping pictures along the way, we made it to the Nike store and the staff there was amazing! They had greeters outside the doors cheering every runner who passed by, and once you made it inside the store the staff was lined up cheering and high-fiving every runner who walked in the door. We’re not just talking about a “good job” here and there, it was full on cheering for every runner. They had staff positioned at the top of each escalator cheering you on the way up to each floor, and more staff on each level congratulating you as you walked around. Of course there was the merchandise- finisher shirts, visors, jackets, etc.. Mindy grabbed a shirt and a jacket and I grabbed a shirt as well as a pair of the Chicago Marathon model Pegasus 31 shoes. I figured I deserved a treat for breaking 3 hours, and they’re Chicago Bears colors, and they practically glow in the dark, and… well I could keep justifying them to you, but basically I just wanted to treat myself for a job well done.
After stocking up on gear, we headed back to the hotel to freshen up, then it was off for our post-race meal. Knowing full well Gino’s East, Giordano’s and Lou Malnatti’s would all be busy with runners after the race, we opted to go to Connie’s Pizza. I grew up going to Connie’s and really like their pizza- plus, as suspected Connie’s wasn’t too busy and we were seated right away. After plowing though a meat lover’s pizza, we wandered back to the hotel, then met up with a friend for dessert (humungous Snicker’s ice cream pie!) at Luxbar just in time to catch the 4th quarter of the Bears game. The pie was delicious and the Bears won- a perfect one-two punch to cap off the day!
Monday morning we grabbed Starbucks for breakfast, both of us having our first ever pumpkin spiced something-or-other and breakfast sandwiches. After that it was day spent strolling around downtown taking pictures and getting some last minute items to take home. It was a super foggy morning, but it was awesome just to walk the city and soak it all in before heading home.
Mindy also got to experience her first big city parade as we happened to stumble upon the start of the Columbus Day parade. After Mindy had her fill of Italian pride, we headed over to Daley Plaza for a picture with the Picasso sculpture, paused by the Chicago Theatre for another photo op, and though the Art Institute was offering free admission to the runners, the huge line indicated we would skip that option this trip. We opted for lunch a Pierogi Heaven, a fantastic (if you like pierogies as much as we do!) place to get a quick meal, before starting the walk back to the hotel to gather our luggage.
There was time for one more pit stop to continue a newly formed tradition- a Boston Cream doughnut for the Boston Marathon qualifying runners!