The 2003 Chicago Marathon

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.

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