As 2018 ticks closer, I’ve been looking forward to writing in this space again as I plan for upcoming races, but I made a deal with myself. I need to post my Chicago Marathon recap first.
I wrote about training for my first marathon in 2016, but amid our wedding, the honeymoon, the race, and the following holidays, I never got around to writing about the race, and I regret it. I would’ve loved to reread that before Chicago, and I’m not going to make the same mistake again.
So almost two months later, here we go – the 2017 Chicago Marathon. It’s a long one.
Saturday / The Day Before the Race
I opted to follow the same plan I used for NYC last year: sleep at home Friday night, arrive early Saturday morning, race Sunday, and return home Monday. This allowed me to sleep well at home before the race weekend (just in case I was too nervous to sleep the night before the race) and since I planned to leave Monday, there was no pressure to shower and travel home the same day I ran 26.2 miles.
In both Chicago and NYC, I’d also been to familiar enough with both cities that there wasn’t a huge pressure to spend time before the race exploring or sightseeing. I’d love to run a marathon in a new city, but it was nice to have a little pressure removed for these races.
Traveling to Chicago
When Alex and I woke up on Saturday morning, we were notified that our train to Chicago was delayed at least an hour. We opted to sleep for twenty more minutes and then run my scheduled shake-out run in Toledo instead of Chicago. There were only a couple of things that had to happen on Saturday: the shake-out run, packet pick-up, and race outfit prep. I was looking forward to running in the city but crossing off one thing before we left reduced the stress of the delay, and the 20-minute run in the dark was quiet and meditative before a big day.
Alex and I met my mom at the Amtrak station shortly after, and we took off for Chicago. We were somewhere around 2 hours delayed, but the early departure and extra hour gained moving into the Central Time Zone helped. I love taking the train. You can move around, you have twice the space of an airplane seat, and in my experience, there’s usually free WiFi, so I built my marathon Spotify playlist, guzzled Nuun, and worked through my bag of snacks. My mom even brought a loaf of challah bread, which I laughed at, and then I promptly ate a quarter of it. Carb loading is real, people.
First order of business upon getting off the train was lunch so we walked to Epic Burger across the street from Union Station. I was anxious to get to the packet pick-up at McCormick Place, but I also knew it would be a disaster to show up hangry. After lunch, we cabbed to the Hilton on Michigan Ave. and boarded one of the free shuttles to the expo.
Once there, we clicked through packet pick-up (seamless), expo shopping, Goose Island beer tasting, and more water guzzling. Compared to my first marathon expo mentality (buy. all. the. things.), I had a better idea of what I wanted (and what I’d actually use) this time. I chose a hat with the Chicago Marthon logo, which I kid you not, have no idea where it is as I write this. Nooooo. I’d also been eyeing this light blue long-sleeve I’d seen in the online shop, but I couldn’t find one in my size anywhere. This wasn’t unexpected mid-afternoon on the last day of the expo, but I was surprised by how disappointed I felt. That was until my mom bee lined to me with exactly what I was looking for, pulled off a mannequin by one of the sales associates. She’s a star. I also made it over to the Nuun booth to buy a few new flavors and pick-up their special edition Chicago Marathon water bottle. I also stopped at the Nike+ Run Club Pacers booth to pick up a temporary tattoo with my race paces.
After we took another shuttle back to the Hilton, we returned to Union Station to retrieve the bags we stored there, and Ubered to our apartment for the weekend. My mom and Alex promptly napped, giving me time to begin my race day preparation. I laid out my clothes, pinned my race bib, sorted out my nutrition and Nuun, prepared my water bottle, etc. I even made and stored my pre-race breakfast (overnight oats) in the fridge and prepped the coffee maker for the morning.
Dinner had a few self-induced hiccups. In summary, I thought it was a good idea to cancel our dinner reservation (it wasn’t) and try getting dinner at another restaurant without a reservation (impossible). The city had been flooded by 40,000+ runners and their families, and everyone was looking for pasta. We settled on the Whole Foods hot bar. It wasn’t the most exciting choice for my family, but they were troopers. We took our dinners, the breakfast ingredients I forgot to bring, and a 4-pack of Polish beer Alex and I chose (2 for dinner, 2 for post-race). I only ended up finishing half of mine, but I believe in my pre-race beer tradition.
We ate dinner in the living room while we watched Jurassic Park, and I went to sleep early.
Sunday / Race Day
I slept surprisingly well and woke up excited/nervous/antsy. I actually can’t remember how freaked out I was, and I think that means I was calmer than my first marathon. I vividly remember thinking, “Why did you have to decide to run a marathon?!” in NY.
The first thing I did was drink the Nuun I prepared the night before, start the coffee maker, and begin eating my overnight oats + berries. Alex and my mom were still sleeping, and it was nice to work through my pre-race rituals in the relative dark and quiet. Eventually they woke and helped rub sunscreen in the places I couldn’t reach and apply my temporary tattoos: race pace tattoo to my right forearm and a Oiselle tattoo on my other forearm and shoulder.
After eyeing the weather for a couple weeks, I knew there was a good chance that race day was going to be warm. I tried to buy a Oiselle race crop from a fellow Oiselle bird, but after a failed attempt and the quickly approaching race day, I ordered a top from the New Balance x J. Crew collection that I saw Sarah Mac Robinson wear and tested it out on my last long run for any possible problems. I packed at least three different shorts options but ultimately settled on the Portman shorts for the big front and back pockets that fit my race nutrition (Clif Bloks). The shorts don’t seem to be sold online anymore (I’m sure they’ll be back in the summer), but Cecelia raves about them better than I can.
Running in shorts + a sports bra would’ve been an option I would’ve considered not too long ago, but it doesn’t take a lot of melting heat to acknowledge that my comfort outweighs the fear that I’ll offend anyone with my bare stomach.
I made one mistake though – I forgot to slather my stomach with sunscreen. After the race, I had a fairly normal suntan line around my neck and shoulders from my crop, but the line on my stomach was unreal. It was a blaring reminder for weeks that I did a poor job, and two months later, I can still see the tan line! Wooooof.
I also carried my Nathan SpeedDraw Plus with a couple of extra Nuun tablets wrapped in foil and pretzal sticks. I finished off by braiding my hair and tucking it into my Oiselle Roga Hat. I also wore my Hoka Clifton 4s, Stance socks, and a throwaway top and pants from Goodwill to wear to the start line. The pants weren’t 100% necessary, but I’ll always prefer to be warm over cold.
Getting to the Start Line
It was a huge relief to stay in <1 mile walking distance from the marathon start line. They didn’t need to (spectators aren’t even allowed in Grant Park) but Alex and my mom walked me to the start line, and the company was nice. I passed through the security checkpoint quickly and bee lined to the porta-potties. I thought I gave myself enough time to wait in line, but I most definitely did not.
I have been through my share of crazy bathroom lines, but I can usually surpass them by walking to another set of bathrooms farther away from the entrance or walking to the last one in a long line of them. However, after not one, but two, spins around the corral area…I had to accept that there was no way I was going to get to use the bathroom before my corral closed. By this time, the Nuun and water I had drank at the apartment was hurting me, and I knew I had no choice but to suck it up and wait for a porta-potty along the course, which would likely derail my goal time. All I could do was panic text Alex.
I know most other female runners will have considered all of the crazy things I did in that situation (pee in the bushes?! sit down and pee in the grass?!). I worked too hard for my goal time to spend 5+ minutes on the course waiting in line for a bathroom. I actually prayed that I was wearing black shorts, but I was wearing purple, and I wasn’t brave or desperate enough to pee my pants so I walked toward my corral and waited another 20-30 more minutes until my 8:35a race start. During this time, I actually jealously spotted a woman crossing over the corral gate to pee in the bushes. Running makes you weird.
AND THEN A MARATHON MIRACLE HAPPENED. As my corral approached the start line, I tried to keep in line with the 4:30 Nike+ Run Club Pacers, but halfway to the start line, I spotted people running through a gate in my peripheral vision. Upon closer inspection, they seemed to be running toward the porta-potties, which of course were now all unoccupied because everyone was in their corral or approaching the start line. In a blur of happy panic, I approached the man standing by one of the openings and asked, “Are they running toward the bathrooms?!” When he nodded, I asked, “Can I go too?!” And as soon as he said yes, I moved through the gap in the gates and start sprinting toward the bathrooms. Another man who followed me yelled, “THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER!” I just laughed in relief and at the comedy of our pure joy at the sight of dozens of unoccupied porta-potties.
The Start (Miles 1-3)
I’m sure you weren’t expecting a three paragraph story about a porta-potty adventure, but it is what it is. Feeling like a million bucks, I ran back through the same gap in the gates and toward the start line until I spotted the 4:30 pacers again. Unfortunately, that’s the last time I saw them. The start line was divided into two chutes on the right and left side of the street. I ran down the left side, and I think the pacers moved through the right. When both groups finally met up again, I wasn’t sure if the pacers were in front or behind of me. Should I speed up and find them and risk going out to fast?! Should I slow down and risk losing them?! I decided to keep at the pace I was running because it felt easy, and I knew I’d likely find them soon (I didn’t, it was okay).
I chose to manually lap each mile on my Garmin as I crossed each mile marker because I knew the city buildings interfered with the GPS too much. This helped me determine how fast I was running each mile, but everything in between was still a guessing game. Overall, I tried to relax, enjoy the sights, and keep my effort easy. When the first miles did click in too slow, I encouraged myself to pick up speed a little bit and remind myself that I had a big goal – 4:25. 5K (3.1 miles) 32:30, 10:28 average.
The North Bit (Miles 3-13.1)
After the first 5K, the race runs north and turns around near Wrigley Field, returning to the city center. On my raining runs, I usually ignored my watch for as long as I could because I didn’t want to obsess over how slowly the early miles ticked down from double-digit miles. But since I was manually lapping each mile during the race, I was aware of every mile that went by. Surprisingly, it helped keep me focused instead of making me anxious about how many miles there were left to run.
I knew I was running slower than the 10:05 average pace I needed to reach my goal, but I also knew the race was going to finish warm, and I wanted to save a little in the tank. Overall, I spent miles 3-6 trying to pick the pace up the pace a bit and get comfortable with what I was supposed to be running because my first 5k was too slow. I succeeded. 10K (6.2 miles) 1:04:17, 10:14 average
Between the 10-15k portion, I totally missed any site of Wrigley Field, but after the turnaround south, I knew I was headed toward my family. The miles clicked by and I kept pretty consistent with the previous 5K. 15K (9.3 miles) 1:35:59, 10:13 average.
I seem to have slowed down between the 15k and the 20k mark. Two months later, I’m not sure what happened exactly. Parts of the race are just a blur of effort and concentration. Around this time, I pulled my headphones out, connected to my phone in its Koala Clip tucked into my back. I called Alex to request ice because I was beginning to heat up ~2 hours in. I was looking forward to the ice and a few baby wipes to clean my face, but I missed him and my mom at our designated meet-up. I was bummed but also relieved that I hadn’t totally relied on that meet-up. In a race with 40,000+ people, spotting family can’t be guaranteed. 20K (12.4 miles) 2:08:16, 10:24 average.
I crossed the half marathon line at 2:15:39, which is actually just shy of 5 minute PR from my spring half?! And I did it during a marathon?! Holy.
The Middle (Miles 13.1-20)
I remember feeling pretty strong through miles 13/14, but as the miles ticked on, I just grew more uncomfortable. Not necessarily more than I expected – just the reality of running a marathon. It was nearing the 72 degree high for the day, and I knew I was behind on pace, but I also knew that I was still moving forward relatively consistently and that’s what mattered.
I looked to the things I could control – mainly my nutrition. I religiously took my 2-3 Clif Bloks every 4-5 miles during the race and ate a couple pretzel sticks shortly after for the extra salt. Once I finished the Nuun in my handheld bottle, I refilled it with 1-2 cups of Gatorade and a cup of water at almost every water station. If I spotted someone with a plastic gallon of water, I would bee line to them and have them top me off. I tried to stay ahead of the “thirsty” feeling that I knew would mean I was already dehydrated.
I know myself. I sweat, a lot. I need a lot of water. And I knew the fastest way to a bad day on a 72 degree day (that feels like 92 degrees when you’re running) is dehydration. But I also knew that I can drink a lot of water without upsetting my stomach while I run. That is a god send. So I did. The biggest downside was the time suck to stop, grab cups, and fill my bottle, but it sure beat not finishing at all. I was running around the right pace (~10:05), only to cross the mile marker 10-15 seconds slower due to my water stops. 25K (15.5 miles) 2:40:53, 10:25 average.
Somewhere between the half way mark and mile 15, I finally pulled out my headphones. The effort it took to focus on this little task felt monumental, and I had avoided it for miles even to the detriment of missing answering calls from my mom and Alex. They were trying to pin point me on the course after the earlier missed attempt. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had just enough mental and physical strength to tackle each mile, and I needed laser focus.
This is about the perfect time to begin to shout out my family. It’s not easy to travel with a stressed out, nervous human who is staring down a goal they’ve been working toward for months. It is not easy to spectate a world major marathon. But they followed my lead and prioritized my needs over theirs all weekend. While I was failing to pick up their phone calls, they were running around the city with cups of ice trying to track me with the spotty runner tracker. They tried to find bike shares (all taken). They walked. They ubered. They ran. Spectating is work, and they shower up. They are all-stars.
I finally spotted Alex after the 16 mile marker! He saw me first and was yelling my name, but when it was clear I didn’t hear him, people around him started joining in and with their help, I spotted him. After they dropped me off at the start line that morning, they went to breakfast and then spent the rest of the morning making signs. Alex was carrying one with my name written in between the Chicago flag. My glycogen-deprived brain actually thought, “That’s nice…Alex drew the DC flag because he knew I would recognize it.” Oomph. They both have stars and stripes…
It was also really clear to me around mile 16+ that runners were beginning to fade, and many were walking. It was a little earlier than you expect in a race, but I knew it was the heat. There was a little shade and coverage in the first half of the race, but the second half was mostly full sun exposure and the temperature wasn’t messing around.
As the miles clicked by, I knew I was nearing the Oiselle cowbell corner at mile 17. In fact, around this time, I was changing places back and forth with two other Oiselle birds, but all I could do was mentally send them strong, happy, kick ass vibes because I was in a ‘lil pain cave. I really wished I was wearing a Oiselle singlet as I crossed through the cowbell corner, but I did lock eyes with Kelly from She Can & She Did, and that was awesome. 30K (18.6 miles) 3:13:02, 10:21 average.
The Finish (Miles 20-26.2)
As we passed through Chinatown, I saw my mom! Even though the three of us had a plan about where I could find them and it went out the window, catching them by surprise was actually more fun. The 30K-40K mark was my slowest section by far, but I fought for every mile. I continued to stop at every water stop to refill my water bottle, but I allowed myself to walk through more than I had before.
I also had to be more careful because I’d find myself keeping pace with other runners. It was easy to shut off my brain and let them take the lead, but I’d look down at my watch and realize I was running slower than I was capable. I convinced myself to keep pushing. It was also around this time that runners grew too tired to signal they were stopping to walk so more than once I almost ran right into another participant who decided to dead stop in front of me. 40K (24.8 miles) 4:20:51, 10:55 average.
The last 10K, but particularly the last 4 miles ticked away so slowly. “Marathons are so. long,” I kept thinking. But I kept running because the finish mean that I could stop. I knew I had missed my 4:30 goal at this time, and I actually couldn’t remember what my B goal was, but I did know that I wouldn’t be happy if I gave up now.
I kept drinking my water. I kept high tailing it to every water mister, hose, and wet sponge offered. you could see runners run toward patches of shade a few buildings provided even if it was just for a block. Some angel spectator actually had a bag of ice, and I stuffed a handful in my bra. I picked up a little “speed” in the last mile and a half (9:56 average) as I neared Grant Park and the “hill.” Listen, it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. Why it has to be at the end of a marathon no on will understand. I focused on that finish line as soon as I could see it, and I was so ready to stop running.
I crossed the finish in 4:34:23, 10:28 average. As it turns out, I met my B goal of 4:35 in the nick of time. Hot damn, I did it. I didn’t blow up in the heat. I cut an hour and 10 minutes off of my first marathon on a hot day, and I fought every bit of the way.
I loved this race. NYC set a high bar, but Chicago showed up. The crowd support was insane. The volunteers were incredible. Starting and finishing in the same place was a dream. I can’t wait to run this race again one day, but in 2018, I’ll be back to be my husband’s crowd support, and I can’t wait to do muster even half of what he did for me.
A couple days after the marathon, I read an Instagram post from one of the co-founders of Of a Kind, Claire Mazur. She summed up training for a marathon better than I can. “Running is usually the only part of my day when I’m 100% sure that I am where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to do, hurting nobody, helping myself. Training for the marathon has made that concept feel reeeeal murky at times. I’ve definitely hurt myself, and, at minimum, inconvenienced others…”
Marathons require a big part of me. A piece I can’t offer several times a year yet. They take an important part of my self-care, running, and double its worth with daily accomplishments and surprise, but they do come at a cost. I don’t think training for a marathon hurts me, but it does require sacrifices, most importantly time with my friends and family, and a physical and mental cost that requires equal amounts of payment in sleep, healthy nourishment, and reflection. It is exponentially worth it, but it’s something I can only undertake once a year.
I’m looking forward to shorter races this spring and have absolutely taken the past eight weeks to sleep in more, run less, and enjoy other things outside my laser focus of marathon training.