With the rush of spring marathons coming up, I look back over the last year and my races, miles, and goals. For a few years, I had been approaching a barrier that seemed impenetrable: a sub-3 hour marathon.
by Sean Laude
My recounting of this year's Chicago marathon begins four years ago, after I crossed the finish line at the 2012 edition of the race. The three hours and twenty-six minutes it took to run my first marathon did a number on my legs. I could not stand up under my own power, so a very helpful volunteer had to cart me the half-mile or so back to bag check. I was in a world of pain, but I felt ecstatic. I was filled with the idea that anything is possible. Less than two months later, I moved to Brooklyn.
Many of you know that I grew up in Chicagoland and repeatedly espouse the virtues of the CTA, the serene beauty of running along Lake Michigan, and why deep-dish is the ultimate form of pizza. As one of the weirdo kids who “played” cross-country and track, the mythos of marathon distance was embodied in that local event that ran every second Sunday in October. I hung posters of Khalid Khannouchi and Paula Radcliffe from their record-breaking runs on my bedroom wall, no less than 26.2 miles from where they broke the tape in Grant Park. As far as I knew, it was THE marathon - no other race compared in my youthful imagination.
In 2013, I ran it again, proudly sporting the emblem of our favorite bridge. I made the trip the last two years to cheer on my friends and wave high the NBR flag. A sense of hometown pride overcame me at the end of a 20-mile run before last year's race, and I declared that If I failed to run a BQ in the upcoming NYC marathon, I would sign up to run Chicago again. Unfortunately, (or very fortunately) the twin forces of unseasonably warm weather and an ungraceful shuffle up Fifth Avenue made that declaration binding. The clock started ticking the moment my post-race haze cleared - while donning the $250 poncho and trundling down the subway stairs at 72nd street.
I have worked with a coach for the past two seasons to help me improve my triathlon game. This year I let him sketch out my marathon season as well (I had only a scant nine weeks to turn around all my cycling and swimming fitness and focus it exclusively on the run). For the greater part of the last two years, I instructed him to leave holes in my schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays for me to fill in with tempo and track, respectively. Part of working with a coach is putting your trust in his schedule and letting him fill those days with unorthodox workouts. Up through the end of successful tri season, I had also run massive PRs in the 5k, 10k, and half. Gaining that elusive marathon PR after my disastrous NYC attempt last year would be a fitting conclusion to this season. I was willing to give it a shot and really commit to structured long-distance training for once.
Race morning I felt as ready as I have ever been, that is to say: full of excitement, doubt, and carbs. Our Chicago crew had done a fantastic job tucking into Midwestern-sized piles of food the days before the race - four of my meals yielded another meal-sized bag of leftovers. Josh Hatcher and I travelled to the race together, meeting up with Evan, Daeha, and Lavar on the train. The trip to Grant Park was pleasant compared to the rigamarole of getting to Fort Wadsworth, and we had a moment to enjoy the sunrise before hitting the streets in the crisp autumn morning. Josh, Evan, and I met up with Joe and Crow in the corrals and we positioned ourselves in the crowd, near one of two large three-hour pace groups. They announced the elites and it seemed like the starting horn went off without much fanfare.
Words cannot describe what it feels like to push yourself at a pace for longer than you ever have before, the metaphor of wheels about to fall off a race car notwithstanding. Chicago is obscenely flat, the scenery interesting and the crowds incredible and loud. All of that fed a newfound focus that drowned out a mounting fatigue that ebbed and flowed in the terra incognita between miles 13 through 19. On a lonely stretch of road before Pilsen, I caught up to Evan Cooper and gave him the best-but-probably-incoherent encouragement I could muster (we're now 1-1 at the distance after he passed me in Harlem last year).
I very literally threw down the gantlet at mile 20, tossing my gloves at some unsuspecting spectators. They say the “race” doesn't begin until 10k remains, but I'm inclined to call it an "exercise in sheer will to get your legs to move". I was so intensely focused that I missed Emily, Tom, and Sara cheering around mile 23, but heard, dream-like, Chris and Magda screaming my name along Michigan Avenue. The pace group I glommed onto most of the race slipped away and the other one blew by shortly thereafter, but I was intent on finishing the race on my own.
The course has a gentle incline in the last 400 meters before turning into the finishing chute, but this joke of a hill turned cruel by a stiff headwind off the lake. A Dashing Whippet dropped the hammer in this final stretch and I somehow summoned the kicking power to match his stride. All the emotions of finishing hit me long before I even crossed the line, bursting out as a simultaneous cry of joy and roar of pain past the timing mat:
THREE HOURS, TWO MINUTES, ELEVEN SECONDS
Nearly a four-minute PR. An eleven-minute improvement over my last Chicago effort. A Boston Qualifier. I stopped, landed stiff-legged, and felt my right glute collapse. I could not keep moving under my own power, so a very, very nice volunteer helped walk me through the finish line area to collect all my post-race survival needs (special thanks to Joe Chan for fetching me extra Gatorade). I was stiff and getting cold, but I felt ecstatic. I grabbed a beer and the celebration really began.
Marathons are unreasonably difficult; I will not be disappointed if my time doesn't make the cut-off for Boston. I’m still searching for bigger reasons to dedicate myself to the distance other than a jacket with a questionable color palette or to rise to the expectation that you should be good at this distance because you can run a fraction of the distance very fast. I get the magic of running to Boylston Street. I can imagine the sense of accomplishment finishing a marathon or ultra every other weekend. My own reasons will find me at some point. Until then, I will be there, cheering for you at the side of the road, you mighty, galloping mares and stallions racing towards the finish line.
I'm touched by the number of people who tracked me and offered encouragement and congratulations from afar - your support meant the world to me. I would not have had such a great experience without my Chicago crew - I sincerely hope you enjoyed all my long, pizza-themed emails.
Finally, to NBR: you are my running family - keep being incredible. Thank you all and I'll see you on the run soon!
by Beverly Walley
This race isn’t only running a marathon. It’s an NBR experience. Sean Laude, Nancy Lin, & Matt Goodman curated a Chicago tour de force. Big thanks to them for making sure the crew had options for the fun stuff that comes along with a race weekend.
H.J. & I opted to stay in the Loop area so that we would have an easy walk to the start line at Grant Park. Without a subway, ferry, & bus trip, my brain invented reasons to be anxious — like having a borderline panic attack when my watch read 7:00 AM instead of 6:00 AM. I started sprinting for bag check. H.J. had a non-reaction, “Why are you getting all weird? Do you think it’s 7 AM?” Lesson learned: my Garmin does not auto adjust for time zones.
The point being it is easy to roll up to the start of the Chicago marathon. Plus, they have a famous fountain to stretch by and a million port-o-potties. They do not, however, have Dunkin Donuts coffee everywhere. Anyway, we ran into Casey Baxter and made some poor stranger take a million photos of us.
My start was in Corral E, which was the last red corral. It took about 10 minutes to cross the mat. I tried to get to the 3:45 pace group in my corral, but was finding it too congested. I took a line for the outside and ran behind two girls. They had obviously trained together and had all their splits planned out. Their chitchat was stressing me out. I felt like an unintentional creeper, so I passed them and the 3:45 pace group. Gulp.
The beginning miles weaved through downtown Chicago. Lots of people cheered from the bridges so looking up was very fun. I noticed my first “If Trump can run, so can YOU!” sign — I think that was by far the most popular sign on the course. I didn’t notice much else until I ran into Matt Goodman someplace on LaSalle St. We had a brief hello and I kept picking up my pace. Matt asked me “Are you trying for this pace?” And I replied with the dumbest of all marathon answers, “I don’t even know what pace I am going. I feel good, so I am gonna go with it and hope it lasts.”
I ended up running into another 3:45 pace group…probably for corral D or C. At this point, I figured, “I should hop into this pack and hang on.” We ran steadily, but I really hated it. It felt claustrophobic with too many people bunching up, big guys bumping into me, and, honestly, running slowly. As soon as the road widened at a water stop, I passed the group. I thought, “This is going to come back to bite you at mile 22.”
Next thing that I clearly remember is the amazing NBR cheer squad! I saw Tom Essex & Emily Hafner. Then I ran smack into Madeline Muzzi. She was looking really strong. I waved and she yelled, “What are you trying for?” Truthfully, I wasn’t paying attention to my pace. I hadn’t looked at my watch yet, so I repeated the same dumb thing, “Running by feel. Feeling good, so I am gonna go with it and hope it lasts.” Anyone that has run a marathon will tell you this is a completely stupid strategy.
At the halfway point, I decided to look at my watch for the first time since the 7 AM EST /6 AM CST debacle. It read 1:47. I have run 1:47 half in a marathon before, so I wasn’t overly concerned. I was thinking positively and hoping that my pace would hold to mile 20. Then I planned to see what the last 10K would bring (and I was expecting it would bring pain.)
The second half of the Chicago marathon entered a good neighborhood block party, but then the spectators really thinned out. We ran into a warehouse/industrial zone. I was expecting to fall off my pace soon, so I started downing Gatorade and stockpiling gels. The weird thing was that I still felt great and no one was passing me so I rolled with it.
I hit Chinatown. Loved it! By far my favorite part of the course—the streets narrowed and they had some dope drumming. The rhythm was automatic. It reminded me of NYC. Then I had the best thought ever… you will not hit hills coming out of this section! And I saw the cheer squad again! I distinctly remember Emily and Sara Dirks with little plastic feet.
I ran into Sarah Murphy, flying despite being injured, and Meg Duffy, persevering despite serious cramping. I saw Magda cheering on the right hand side of the road. I was surprised and excited to see her. We roll deep with runners and spectators! Finally, I allowed myself to look at my watch again and thought, “OMG! They aren’t kidding about tall buildings messing with GPS signals.” It was not humanly possible that my time could be correct.
But then it hit me — no one was really passing me. I was definitely ahead of a 3:40 pace group. I never saw a 3:35 group, so I had to be somewhere sandwiched between them. For my age, 3:40 is a BQ. Basically, I was sitting on my big chance and the realization that it was the clock versus me. Normally I would choke.
But not knowing the city or the landscape really helped me. As I approached the final mile, I imagined a Thursday night track workout. As the distance signs reduced, I thought, “You can do anything for 400 meters.” This was the biggest hill in the course as it was up a highway on-ramp. Whatever… I heard Jose’s voice in my head screaming, “Run through the finish. Run through the line.”
Crossing the line, I looked at my watch, still feeling shock. I looked at the race clock, did some math, and started crying. If my math was correct (a big if) I ran 3:36:54. My PR was 3:50:51. Not wanting to look totally insane, I pulled it together, got my medal, my heat sheet, and a free Goose Island.
Two sips into that beer I was like, “Nope, I can’t drink this yet.” So I had two PRs on Sunday, the race and I tossed a free beer. I got my phone and heard from so many NBR people. I really got emotional that so many of you cared to track me. Thank you! I think your positive energy helped me pull off a great race!
by Matt Schenker
I had only been to Chicago once before and I loved it, and I was really looking forward to running through the city. I had trained much harder for this marathon, my second, than my first, and I felt relatively good going into it, apart from some tightness in my hip.
The forecast that day called for a high of 76 degrees, which was disconcerting, but the weather was perfect in the morning, around 55 degrees. My hotel was near Grant Park, so I was able to just walk over to the start. After having done the NYC marathon last year, it was nice to not have to go through any extensive travel beforehand. Sue and I warmed up together before the start and it almost felt like any normal NYRR race.
The start of the marathon is great, because you feel like you are in a canyon with the entire city around you. I especially loved going through the tunnel right at the start. The first 5-6 miles flew by. Running downtown is electric, and the views as you cross the water are great. I was running a little faster than I had planned, but I felt good, so did not worry much about it. Along the way, I chatted with a few NBR’iors who were racing. I started feeling the tightness in my hip at mile 7, and then it just went away. Maybe it was in my head. Miles 8-10 were really beautiful, with good crowds. I saw family at mile 11.5, and was feeling great at that point.
I caught up to the 3:20 pace group right around mile 13, and decided to fall in line with them, since I was going for sub 3:20. My previous mile had been way too fast, so it was good to force myself into a rhythm. I battled stomach cramps for about a mile, but thankfully they went away while I was chatting with someone from the Whippets. The next several miles kind of rolled by. I distinctly remember thinking at mile 16, “only a DOVES run left.” I was looking out for my family again mile 19, but they just missed me. It still helped me because it gave me something to look forward to.
The second half of Chicago is decidedly less cool to run through than the first, and of course, the increasing mileage doesn’t help. Plus, the fact that I didn’t know the city very well made it hard for me to breakdown the course into landmarks, so once I got above 20 miles, it started to become a monotonous game of just looking for the next mile. I was still with the 3:20 pacers at this point, and they helped me chug along. Mile 21 – just a Team Champs left now.
Somewhere between miles 22 and 23, I hit the wall hard. My pace only slipped a little, but the miles started to seem interminable. I was just desperate to stop. I started trying to figure out if I could walk for a while and still break 3:20, but then my rational voice would kick in and tell me that I was crazy and to keep going. Once we turned on Michigan avenue for the last 3 miles, it was a crushing struggle. Plus, it was now in the mid to high 60s and the sun was beating down on us. The 3:20 pace group started to pull away from me slightly, but my scrambled brain knew that 3:20 was still in reach. With this in mind, I just kept telling myself that if I stopped I would be so disappointed in myself and it would taint all of the work I had done. The mile markers exacerbated the difficulty. There was a 39K marker, which only served to make me question how I could run another 3k. Then a marker for mile 25, and mile 25.2. I see two of my cousins, and give them the weakest possible thumbs up imaginable.
Finally, we turned off Michigan Ave. and onto the little bridge which is basically the only hill in the race. Yet it felt like I couldn’t even keep my body moving up it. But once I reached the top, I knew I was home free. I turned into the park with about 3:18:15 and finished just under 3:19. I had so little left that I needed help walking at the finish. I couldn’t even revel in finishing because I was too out of it. Only after ten minutes of eating and drinking slowly did I come back to myself. This race was a very different experience than my first marathon – somewhat less joyous and more workmanlike – but despite how hard it was, I still loved it.