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 …Keep reading

Marathon Dreams (Continued)

So I’ve run two half-marathons this fall. Add ’em up, and that equals … a marathon! So I should be satisfied, right?

Actually, yes, I am pretty happy. The Lewis & Clark Half Marathon on October 3 was my first road half-marathon in several years, and it was also something of a learning experience. Long story short, I was overdressed, having underestimated my ability to cope with the first real dip in temperatures this fall. There’s that, and a bevy of other excuses I won’t bore you with here. I rolled into the finish in just under one hour and 44 minutes, a little slower than I’d hoped, going in. Still, it was under eight minutes a mile, and hey, it was an over-50 PR for me, so there was something to celebrate.

Five weeks later, November 7, was the St. Louis Track Club’s annual half-marathon. I’d run this one three or four times in the past, and it’s a fun course — starting in Clayton, running east on Forsyth to Forest Park, winding around in the park a bit, and then heading back the same way to the finish back in Clayton. There are some significant hills, particularly in Clayton and near the halfway point. But hills are what make races interesting.

This time, I told myself there would be no excuses. I trained well in the five weeks between races, got lots of sleep the last week, and paid close attention to nutrition and hydration in the last couple of days. Race day brought a beautiful morning, and even though the temperature was about the same as the day of Lewis & Clark, this time I ditched the running pants and just run in shorts, which felt much better.

At the start, I had two goals: to beat my time from Lewis & Clark, and — less likely, but still a goal — to go under 1:40. As I wrote here previously, 1:40 has some significance. For my ancient age group, a half-marathon under 1:40 is good enough to qualify for entry into the New York City Marathon (the 2010 version of which, coincidentally, was being run the same day).

As the race unfolded, I made the decision not to look at my watch for splits and pace cues. I figured I was just going to run as fast as I felt I could anyway, and I didn’t need to know what the splits were. Don’t get me wrong; I still reveled in the mile markers, each one bringing me closer to the finish, but I wasn’t going to say to myself, “that was just a 7:45, I need to go faster in the next mile.” This was kind of a new experience for me, because I’m usually pretty anal about my splits in races (with my GPS watch, all of that data is automatically stored for later download anyway, so I knew I’d still have it for later obsessing over analyzing.) At about Mile 10, though, I did glance at the watch, and found that I was, in fact, keeping up a pretty good pace. At 10.1 miles, I was at about 1:14, which I was thinking was faster than the pace I needed for my 1:40. There ensued, for at least the next mile, a series of calculations wherein I tried to figure out if I needed to pick up the pace. After running 10 miles, my brain was skipping a few cylinders at this point, and I was literally thinking things like, “OK, three miles to go, 1:40 minus 1:15 is 35 minutes, and I can easily go a 10-minute pace for three miles. Wait! 1:40 minus 1:15 is 25 minutes! Or is it? And what about that extra tenth of a mile at the end? Can I finish in 25 minutes?” Even while I was running, I knew how silly this all was, but it actually did keep my mind occupied during that long slog up Forsyth from Forest Park. I don’t think I ever did really figure it out, but it didn’t matter anyway, because I couldn’t have picked up the pace much more even if I wanted to.

I made it into the hills of Clayton … which turned out to be not as severe as I had imagined in my pre-race planning. I was actually feeling pretty decent now, knowing there was just a mile or so to go. The last half-mile of the race was a big sweeping curve around toward Clayton High School, followed by a sharp  left turn and a downhill sprint to the finish line. I knew by now that I was going to make it under 1:40, but I was surprised to see the finish-line clock still ticking through the 1:35s when it came into view. I had a little bit of sprint left in me, and I pushed across the line and stopped my watch; it read 1:36:00.

So I beat my goal, in spades. It wasn’t the fastest half-marathon I’ve ever run, but I did smoke my time from Lewis & Clark, and beat the New York Marathon qualifying time by four minutes. And now I have a decision to make: do I go ahead and aim for NYC? Or do I set aside my marathon dreams and instead focus on shorter races? Fortunately I have a few weeks to think about this; I won’t be able to register for New York until the beginning of the year.

For the rest of 2010, I just have one more race scheduled, the Pere Marquette Trail Endurance Run on December 11. The 2009 version of that race was one of my worst outings ever, so I’m looking forward to redeeming myself this time around. After that I’ll scale it back for a couple of weeks, and plan on kicking up the training again at the beginning of 2011.

Marathon Dreams

The start of the 2003 Chicago Marathon. (Phil Shoulberg photo)


There are three iconic big-city  marathons in the United States: New York, Chicago and, of course, Boston.

Chicago is annually one of the biggest marathons in the world, with something like 40,000-45,000 runners a year on its flat, fast course. World records have been set there in recent years.

The New York City Marathon, with probably close to that number of entrants, begins with a breathtaking mass start on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and winds through all five boroughs of the city before finishing in Central Park. It attracts an international field, and draws crowds along the route as diverse as the city itself.

And Boston, of course, is the granddaddy of them all; every marathoner wants to be a part of it. The race starts west of the city in Hopkinton and runs into downtown, a route that’s legendary to runners and non-runners alike — who hasn’t heard of Heartbreak Hill? — and brings with it a hundred years of running history.

All three races are enormously popular, and increasingly hard to get into. Chicago fills up months in advance, and in fact had reached its capacity in early spring of this year–for an October race. And both New York and Boston long ago instituted qualifying times to keep their events somewhat manageable. That means you have to run another marathon, under the qualifying time, just to enter Boston or New York. The qualifying times go up with the age groups, but they’re still stiff enough to keep the majority of runners out.

Feelin' good in the first 10 miles. (Phil Shoulberg photo)

I have attempted the marathon distance one time, at the Chicago Marathon in October 2003. I think of it as both the best and the worst experience of my running career. The “best” was the euphoria of running back into the Loop after finishing the northern portion of the course, between huge crowds of spectators on both sides, and still feeling strong despite having run about 12 miles. The “worst” began right at the 20-mile point, when the wheels really began to fall off, and the last 6.2 miles became an ordeal of mixed running, walking, limping and wondering where the #%*/$#@! that finish line was so I could lay down and die.

The death march to the finish. (Phil Shoulberg photo)

One might think I’d take the hint and not try another marathon, but in fact I entered the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon a year or so later … but never ran it, because I was starting to have some serious knee issues that had really started to manifest themselves during the training for Chicago, and especially afterward. Although I had some encouraging shorter races over the next year or so, those knee problems eventually led me to give up running altogether for a couple of years.

Until the spring of 2009, when I was approaching my 50th birthday and decided I really needed to do something to get myself back into shape. I finally saw an orthopedic doctor, who led me to a physical therapist, who worked my legs through the summer. By Memorial Day I was taking some short, flat, tentative runs, and by Labor Day, I was feeling—and running—much better. I increased my mileage through the fall, but then tried to do too much, too soon, in a couple of races in November and December, setting my program back quite a bit. But since 2010 began, I was pretty successful in building things back up again, and thoughts of running another marathon began to push forward again.

Having already checked off Chicago, both New York and Boston are the long-term goals, of course. Besides the thrill of taking part in the biggest races on the planet, both events would provide opportunities for brief vacations wrapped around the races.

And I think the qualifying times are theoretically within reach for me, if I train right and run a smart qualifying race. But what race to run? A return trip to Chicago might be a good idea – the course is pancake-flat, which would help produce a faster time. But I’ve been there, done that with Chicago; it would be nice to spread out a little bit and try a different marathon.

This spring I was considering this question, and had pretty much narrowed down my 2010 marathon options to two: the Quad Cities Marathon in September or the Lewis & Clark Marathon in October. Quad Cities, based in Rock Island, Ill., would give me the the “vacation” feel, making a weekend out of the big race. Lewis & Clark, on the other hand, is (mostly) in St. Charles, Mo.; I could sleep in my own bed the night before and the night after. The routes of both marathons take them over bridges over major rivers: that’s not a requirement for me, but it is a nice bonus.

But the more I thought about it, the more I remembered those weekends of the long, long runs leading up to the Chicago Marathon. Most training plans have you build up to at least one, and often two or three, 20-mile runs in the weeks before.

Let me tell you: do an 18 or 20-miler on a weekend, and that becomes the only thing you do that weekend.

To train for a marathon is to commit almost your whole life to the event. You generally need to lay out a training plan about four months out, and then follow that religiously. You always know how many weeks — if not days –it is until race day. And I frankly am not ready to make that kind of commitment, not these days, not this year.

I ultimately convinced myself that if I don’t run a marathon in 2010, it won’t be the end of the world. (And man, would I feel guilty if the world DID end and it was my fault!) I set my sights lower: exactly 50 percent lower, in fact. There are two great half-marathons coming up in the St. Louis area this fall: one that’s in conjunction with the aforementioned Lewis & Clark Marathon, on October 3, and the St. Louis Track Club‘s annual half-marathon on November 7. I’ve run at least a half-dozen half-marathons over the years, and trust me, they’re a lot easier to train for than marathons. A half-marathon doesn’t take over your life for months the way a full marathon does.

And here’s the thing: the New York Marathon actually has what I consider a back-door way to qualify. Along with the marathon qualifying times, they have a set of qualifying times for half-marathons. For example, I would need to run a 3:30 marathon to get in … but I could also get in with a 1:40 half-marathon. I’ve run faster than that several times, in my younger days. I’m not sure I can do it now that I’m a geezer, but I guess we’ll find out on October 3 or November 7.

Even if I do manage to break 1:40 in either of those races, it’s not automatic that I’ll send in an entry for the 2011 NYC Marathon; I’m not sure I’ll be any more ready to commit to a 2011 marathon than I was this year. And it’s also possible the NYC Road Runners’ Club will change its procedures — or lower the qualifying times — before registration opens for that race. But it definitely gives me something to think about as I lace up the shoes this fall.

ETA: Update here.

Slouching Into 2010

On March 21, I’ll be running the Quivering Quads Half-Marathon in Troy, Mo. This is a trail race,  through a state park on a course that varies “from smooth to very rough, dry to very muddy, and flat to very hilly. Racers may have to cross ankle-deep streams as they pass through forests of white oak and limestone glades filled with turkey, deer and foxes,” according to the course description.

As often happens, it seemed like a good idea when I signed up, but now I’m having second thoughts…

In pain -- but still upright! -- at the finish of the 2003 Chicago Marathon.

My recent history of running has been, let’s say, checkered. Long story short, although I’ve considered myself “a runner” for more than half my life, I haven’t done much running the last few years. After a bipolar experience in my one and only marathon (Chicago 2003), I began suffering some serious knee pain, and there were many times in the next few years when I thought I would never run again, let alone try another marathon. Then I’d start up again for a couple of weeks, the pain would come back, and I’d quit for a few more months. Finally, about a year ago, I decided  it was time to get some professional help. I went to a orthopedist, who diagnosed tendonitis and gave me a ticket to physical therapy. For several months over the summer, the folks at the Sports Medicine and Training Center in Webster Groves worked me, bounced me, shocked me and stretched me, and although it didn’t seem to be working for a while, all of a sudden things started to fall into place, and by the end of the summer I was able to run basically pain-free. Amazing!

For Father’s Day/my birthday, Jean gave me a Garmin GPS watch with a heart rate monitor, which fueled my compulsion for keeping statistics on my running (in July I ran 51.5 miles, in August 77.93 miles, etc.) and got me started on keeping track of my heart rate.

In November, I watched as American Meb Keflezghi won the New York Marathon. He was an inspiration, of course, but it was also cool to see all of the back markers getting a tour of the city’s boroughs at six miles an hour. I could do that, I thought. Suddenly, my running had a new purpose. For the rest of the month of November, I did one run each weekend of at least 10 miles, and a during-the-week run of at least five miles. I began thinking about marathons in 2010.

Then, a nasty uppercut/jab combination laid me out. I ran the 10-mile Great River Road Race in Alton, Ill., at the end of November, and inexplicably took it out in a 7-minute pace. By four miles I was in agony, and by six miles I was taking extended walking breaks, my right hamstring in flames. A lousy race for me, but I figured I made a mistake, would learn from it, and bounce back. Nope. The next time I ran, the pain was in both my hamstring and my calf, bad enough that I end up taking about a week off to let them heal. I thought I was better when it was time for the Pere Marquette Trail Run two weeks later, but about two miles into that race my calf felt like it was ripped in half, and I finished the course in a humiliating mix of limp/walking and limp/running, and then basically shelved the running shoes for the rest of the year.

I decided to ease my way into 2010; I joined a gym, and, using a recumbent bike and a treadmill, I slowly worked to restore my fitness. By the fourth week of January, I got back out onto the roads — and felt pretty good. I actually managed a 10-miler on February 6.

Then it snowed. Not much, but enough that I needed to shovel the walk. It was a nice, light, fluffy snow, and certainly no trouble to shovel it off. But my 50-year-old back thought otherwise. I must have tweaked something in my lower back, because I was hobbling the next day. Actually, though, the pain wasn’t awful, and it had cleared up enough over the next three days that on Friday I did a two-mile “trial run” to see if running would hurt it more — it didn’t — and then on Saturday went for another 10-miler.

I spent most of Sunday lying down.

I guess 10 miles of pounding wasn’t the best thing for my back. I’ve been gobbling a cocktail of over-the-counter pain relievers all week (and of course not running), and only now is it starting to feel better. I’ve given up on the idea of a 10-miler every weekend — at least for this weekend — and now I’m just hoping to get back into it enough by March 21 to be able to finish that trail race with at least a modicum of respectability. I’ll keep you posted.