Eight years ago this morning, I took part in the Chicago Marathon. It was my first — and so far only — attempt at the marathon. Here is my mile-by-mile account of it, written a day or so later.
To set it up, this was written for the “V-Team” bulletin board, which was made up of a loose-knit bunch of runners nominally led by Hal Higdon, a former elite runner who now makes a living writing books about running. Some of us, including me, were wearing yellow running caps with the V-Team logo, so we could find each other in the crowd. You’ll see some references to “pace groups” early on; for non runners, pace groups are set up in the bigger marathons so people who plan/want to run a certain pace can find other runners with similar goals. “BQ” means a “Boston Qualifying” time … fast enough to be able to run in the Boston Marathon. The Chicago Marathon is annually one of the biggest marathons in the world — there were something like 40,000 entrants in 2003. And technically, the race that year was October 12; but today, October 9, was the date of the marathon this year.
So anyway, here goes:
Mile 1 — I try to line up with the 3:25 pace group in the preferred corral, but it’s tough to get up that far, so I end up waiting just in front of the 3:30 placcard. When the group moves forward, the 3:25 balloons disappear, never to be seen again, and the even 3:30 sign gets ahead of me. No matter, I’m running my own race, right? (Even though I have a 3:25 pinned to my back…)
Some crowded running in this part, but the corrals work well because I’m able to get up to something close to my speed quickly. Corners are tough, but all part of the adventure. I love seeing all of the people on overpasses, balconies, etc. Split: 8:18.
Mile 2 — Definitely up to speed now. The first water station sneaks up on me, and I actually run through it without drinking. I generally try to run on the crown of the road in races, so I’m in the middle of the road when the folks on the sides are getting their drinks. I think of working my way over, but it’s just too crowded. No matter — I often skip the first water station anyway. Split: 7:49.
Mile 3 — I told myself before the race that I would enjoy being in Chicago as much as possible, including taking in as much of the architecture as possible. I do a lot of unapologetic rubber-necking. Split: 7:54.
Mile 4 — Figured out the water stations this time. I take a little Gatorade first, (although that wasn’t in my plan — too much sugar can be a bad thing) and then wash it down with some water. Split: 8:02.
Mile 5 — I fall between two BQ standards: I need a 3:20 to get in in 2004, 3:30 for 2005. After plugging every race I’ve run this year into every calculator I could find on the Internet, I figured the 3:30 was definitely possible, with an outside shot at the 3:20 if everything went very well. Hence, my choice of the 3:25 pace team. My plan is that I would run with them for 18 or 19 miles or so, and if I was feeling strong I’d pick up my pace to try for 3:20:59. Otherwise, 3:30 was fine, too.
By Mile 5, I feel I’m settling into a nice pace that I can keep up for the distance. Are there two clocks there, though? I stop my watch at the first one, and then 13 seconds later, there comes another one, with the official Mile 5 sign. A little confusing. Split (second clock): 7:54
Mile 6 — Lincoln Park. Amusing to see the impromptu potty stops in the trees on the right, followed by the “official” porta potties.
Right before the water stop, there’s someone holding a piece of cardboard with something slathered on it, holding it out for runners. I see someone swipe a little off with their fingers, but I don’t know what the stuff was — my first thought is it’s gel, but it later occurrs to me that maybe it was vaseline. Of those two choices, I certainly wouldn’t want to take one, expecting the other! Split: 7:43.
Mile 7 — Somewhere around here I meet up with another yellow-hatter, Jim Frey. He’s running with the 3:30 group, and looking strong. We chat for a while, get separated, and then run together off and on for the next few miles. Split: 7:51.
Mile 8 — Talking with Jim, I completely forget to look down Addison to try to catch a glimpse of Wrigley Field. Oh well. Split: 7:49.
Mile 9 — I’m kind of playing give-and-take with the 3:30 group; they get ahead for a little while, and then I overtake them, particularly at water stops. The Wizard of Oz water station is great, although I don’t see the Cher impersonators Carey P. talked about at the expo. Miss my split at 9.
Mile 10 — Feeling good, my confidence growing. I’m loving the crowds. Split (for two miles): 15:51.
Mile 11 — I see my brother for the first time; he’s on his bike, with camera in hand. He shouts my name loudly, and it’s a great boost to see him.
Double thumbs-up for the blues band on Division. I decide then I’m going to acknowledge all of the bands that way the rest of the course. Split: 7:56
Mile 12 — I think I’m pretty firmly ahead of the 3:30 group now, particularly after a couple of nifty corner moves. This is where I should be, I think, and I entertain thoughts of maybe catching up to the 3:25 group. Split: 7:46
Mile 13 — Man, the crowd is incredible. It’s almost overwhelming to see all of these people lining the streets, making all this noise. They’ve been there the whole way, but they’re particularly loud here because this is the closest the course comes to the start/finish at Grant Park. I turn the corner onto Adams and wave my arms to acknowledge the crowd and to spur them on to be even louder. I’m looking for my wife, sons and father-in-law along in here but don’t see them — although I would learn later they were there and saw me go by, smiling. Heck, I was practically crying tears of happiness, because I’m having the time of my life. Split: 7:47
Mile 14 — Right before the start, I ditched my two t-shirts; now I ditch my gloves. I had held onto the gloves thinking that I might get cold later, and also they make good hankies/napkins for wiping off excess gel, water, etc. But they’re just going to get heavier as the race wears on, so off they go. Split: 7:56
Mile 15 — The farthest west point on the course, cool. We’ve now gone north and west, all that’s left is south. Still keeping my pace in the low 7:50s, so the 3:25 finishing time looks good. Split: 7:50.
Mile 16 — It’s been 2:06:21 since I crossed the start line. I realize the winner has most likely finished by now, and I still have 10 to go. Split: 7:51.
Mile 17 — The astute reader and experienced marathoner can probably guess how this story turns out. My legs are starting to get a little heavy, and I walk in the water station for the first time. The walking feels good, but the water helps and I’m still feeling good once I start running again. I begin actively seeking out shade, however. Split: 8:10
Mile 18 — I do manage to wave and smile for the Marathon Photo folks, but at the gel station I’m handed a pair of gels. I should just drop one, but I fumble with sticking it in the pocket of my shorts. I eat about 2/3 of the other one, but after two previous gels I’m starting to feel like I’ve had about enough. Plenty of water at the ensuing water station, since I walk through the entire thing. Split: 8:41
Mile 19 — Somewhere around here I meet Jim Kuiper. We joke about this being the point he starts hitting light speed, as per his story on these boards a week or so ago. “It’s not happening today,” he says. Split: 8:18
Mile 20 — I’m definitely feeling it now. Still thinking the 3:30 might be possible, but it’s slipping away. In fact, right after crossing the 20-mile mark, I stop for a short walking break, my first outside of the aid stations. As I do, I hear “Go V-Teamer!”; on my right are two guys wearing similar yellow hats. Were I clever and suave, I would stop and chat with them, making it look like I planned to stop and say hello. Instead, I weakly acknowledge their greeting and keep walking. Yup, way to show off for the V-Teamers. Split: 8:45
Mile 21 — My brother is there again, at the corner onto Archer. I’m afraid I don’t look too good for his camera, and hopefully he doesn’t click the shutter. I’m running, but just barely, and it’s just luck that he sees me when I AM running, because I do a lot of walking during this mile. The 3:30 pace team and Jim Frey sprint past somewhere around here — they’re looking amazingly strong, as do the 3:35 runners when they speed past somewhere up the road. Split: 9:58
Mile 22 — I make a bargain with myself: if I can run this entire mile, I will allow myself to take walking breaks as needed for the rest of the way, and not feel too bad about it. I figure if nothing else, it will give me an idea of what kind of pace I’m doing when I’m actually “running.” Amazingly I make it through. But as soon as I cross that Mile 22 stripe, I’m walkin’ again. Split: 8:54.
Mile 23 — I learn that it’s just as painful to walk as it is to run. But I do it anyway. Split: 11:05.
Mile 24 — I’m thinking they should remeasure the course, because these miles are sure a lot longer than the ones in the first half of the course. Split: 12:00
Mile 25 — There’s my brother again. This time I AM walking when he sees me. He exhorts me to keep going, and I manage to pick up my feet and run for a while. There’s not much that motivates me during these last few miles, but having him there helped. Split: 14:43
Mile 26.2 — I walk/run this, trying to conserve energy so I don’t have to crawl across the finish line. I walk halfway up the Roosevelt hill, but my vanity takes over when I see a guy with a camera and I start running again. Amazingly, I’m able to keep running around the corner and to the finish, and even raise my hands and wave when I see myself on the big screen. A big wave for the finish line, and thankfully it’s over. Splits: last 1.2 — 14:10, finish time 3:51:10.
Mile 27 — I see them handing out the space blankets and I can’t imagine anyone being cold now, but I take one thinking it might be a souvenir. Speaking of souvenirs, I almost forget to get a medal — that would have been brilliant, to walk out of there with a mylar blanket but not a medal! Within two or three minutes, I do start to feel chilled, and I’m glad I have the blanket. Someone hands me some Gatorade and I take a few sips. All I want to do is sit down, but there’s nothing but crowded concrete.
Jim Kuiper is there, crouching. We compare stories — he says he had to walk at least a mile; I tell him I’m pretty sure I walked more than that. He starts to remind me about the V-Team sign, but my stomach takes center stage. I spy a large trash can, and ralph the Gatorade and the last couple of aid-stations’ worth of water into it. Jim must have been impressed. Yup, showin’ off for the V-teamers.
And I turn around, and there’s my family outside the fence. I walk over and they tell me how proud they are, and I’m just hoping they didn’t just see me puking. I make my way through the finisher area, looking longingly on the people with bananas and apples; I get to the end and realize I must have missed them, so I have to walk all the way back to find the fruit table. A couple of bottles of water, and I make my way out to find the fam at the Mich. Ultra truck (my brother works for Anheuser Busch, so he picked the meeting place).
So there you have it — my first marathon, 3:51, much slower than I expected, because I made the classic mistake of getting too exuberant in the first half, and paying at the end. The first 15 miles were probably the best time I’ve had in my running career; the last 5 probably the worst. I’ll be back next year to try to get it right.
Eight years later, I can report that I never made it back. After I wrote this, I went through various phases of physical ailments, mostly knee pain. The next year was something of a bust, running-wise. I had some good years and some bad years since then, and in some of the bad years I gave up the sport all together. A couple of years ago I went through physical therapy for my knees, and last year was definitely a good running year. This year, not so much.
I’ve flirted with the idea of trying another marathon, but it will probably never happen. This old body doesn’t seem to want to make that kind of commitment. And it’s a huge commitment; last year I ran well by trying to do a 10-mile run almost every weekend. But to train for a marathon, you need to steadily increase your mileage over several months, to the point where you’re doing a long run of 20 miles on some of the weekends. I have neither the time nor the legs for that right now.
But it was certainly a fun experience, that one time, even though it turned awful in the end. I’m glad I tried it … once.