Friday, October 17, 2014

Bank of America Chicago Marathon 2014 Race Recap -- So Wrong, Yet So Right

The 2014 Bank of America Chicago Marathon was a culmination of 18 weeks of hard work, dedication and attention to detail. I painstakingly figured out a prudent goal pace and time (as detailed in my previous post), and as the taper went on and I continued to hit my training paces for a 3:38 marathon, I grew more and more confident it was an achievable goal. I made lists upon lists, watched YouTube videos and visualized.

Almost none of that prepared me for my actual race experience, when I had to rely on my training and mental toughness, because that was all I had.  Well, I had a bit more than that, but I discovered that there is more than one way to run a marathon. Read on for the details!

Saturday, October 11: The Expo and the Hotel

I headed down to the city about 11:30, after making my Flat Runner on my bed and packing duplicates of almost every piece of clothing and gear I was bringing. Including shoes -- what if I needed to replace a broken shoelace? My suitcase looked like I was going for a long weekend, if not a week's vacation. When my husband (good-naturedly) tried to make fun of me, I informed him that I was not going to squander a summer's worth of training because something didn't work. I struggled down the stairs and I was on my way!

The same outfit I wore for the Chicago Athlete 20 Miler. I knew it would give me confidence on race day, so I immediately washed it and enshrined it in a corner of my closet!
As I entered the city limits and headed toward my hotel on Michigan Avenue, I saw the banners above the streets advertising the marathon. All of a sudden, it hit me that 45,000 people (roughly) had been training all over the world for the past few months with a common goal, and now we were all going to come together in less than 24 hours. Pretty darn cool.

These signs were everywhere.
I arrived at my hotel, checked my bags with the bellhop since my room wasn't ready, and made tracks to Niketown a couple of blocks north -- one of the Expo shuttle stops. I immediately realized the difference in my personality as I made my way down the Magnificent Mile -- serious, driven, focused, on a mission, not interested in any unnecessary human interaction. I am usually a tad more sociable and aware of my surroundings, so this took me aback a bit, but I also noticed that most of the runners I saw on Saturday weren't especially chatty. I chalked it up to "getting my game face on."

I hopped right on a shuttle (actually a school bus) and was at McCormick Place with no hassle, for which I was very grateful. The Expo was surprisingly not as crowded as I expected -- I had been warned to get there earlier in order to avoid the crush of humanity. I decided to get the business portion of the visit out of the way and hopped in the line for my bib. I was impressed that they checked my ID and bib ticket at one station, and then the worker at the next station called me by name. Nice touch, Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Then I crossed the Expo to get my t-shirt. The line for a small shirt was the first and only line I encountered all day, since I didn't wait in line for any of the photo ops. People were complaining about the shirt color and design, but I don't mind. I don't like wearing t-shirts when I run anyway (it's either tank tops with arm sleeves or long sleeves for me), so I knew this would be a running-errands shirt, and it looks pretty cool for that. Reasonable people may differ!

After my business was done, I checked out the Runners World booth (no Bart Yasso, boo) and Saucony booth (drooled over the new Guide 8s, but decided to wait for the reviews) on my way to the Nike apparel section. I snagged my official black marathon jacket that I had been coveting, even though it made my credit card weep. I wanted the blue tank top reeeallly bad, but they were out of my size. I wandered around a little bit more, took some selfies, and decided to be on my way.

Welcome to credit card debt, everybody!

What I was planning to dream about that night...
My room was ready when I got back to the hotel, and it was after 3:00 and I was ready to retire to my bedchamber. I had many lists and maps to review, after all. I had taken notes on important parts of the participant guide, and made note of the aid stations on the course where I planned to fuel. I reviewed the starting area map and course map, laid out my flat runner again on my hotel room's sofa, made some final changes to my race-day playlist, and tested my iPhone alarm and the hotel room's alarm clock. Then I decided to relax by catching up on some running blogs, but I painstakingly avoided the race reports that did not go well. I decided the Alabama/Arkansas game would be more relaxing. After calling my hubby and parents, I turned out the light and, considering my off-the-charts anal-retentiveness, was surprisingly sound asleep by 10 P.M.

Sunday, October 12: Race Morning -- To the Start Line!

I woke up with my alarm at 4:10 A.M. (praise Jesus). I wandered aimlessly around the room for a bit and then settled in for a while on the toilet. TMI alert, but some people may find this tactic useful: I pulled up some YouTube videos of the Chicago Marathon course and pre-race area on my phone, in order to stimulate my race-day nerves and get things moving, as it were. Worked like a charm!

I got dressed and packed, and was downstairs giving my bags to the bellhop by 6 A.M.  The lobby was already hopping, and I could see runners making their way down the Magnificent Mile in front of the hotel. I joined the crowd moving south on the street. I was wearing two throwaway hoodies and a pair of throwaway sweatpants, and my teeth were still chattering. You might say it was cold! No one was talking much, which was great, because my "game face mood" seemed to be still intact from yesterday.

We made it to the race entry gates in Grant Park, and I got wanded by security. I wasn't checking a bag, so the process was pretty pain-free. I wandered around the area outside the corrals, shivering, and finally decided to get in my Corral D around 7 A.M. I attempted to line up toward the front, since my planned pace was actually more in line with Corral C'ers. As more people joined the corral, however, they lined up in front of me, so by the time the corrals closed, I was more like 1/4 of the way back. I knew I had to throw off some clothing (okay, a lot), so I lined up on the far left side. In front of me was a girl with cute penguin pajamas that I knew my daughter would love. Almost no one was talking, and there was lots of dynamic stretching going on. 

I wondered when people would start throwing off their clothing. After the National Anthem, I got my answer, as Ms. Penguin Pajamas and everyone else began throwing their clothing over the chain-link fences. A few people got clocked in the head! The elites took off at 7:30 and we began to slowly shuffle forward, but the participant guide (and my notes thereon) had said that Corral D would take off around 7:45. Imagine my surprise when just a few minutes later, people around me were beginning to run and I could see the start line looming in my face. I hurriedly started my Garmin and my playlist, and stuffed my phone in my Spibelt as I began to jog. For the first time in history, my Garmin wasn't catching a satellite within a few seconds. I ended up having to slow to a walk for a few steps before I reached the start line in order to allow time for it to sync. I hit start on my Garmin and I was on my way! You might want to revise those start times in the Participant Guide for next year, Mr. Pinkowski!  

The Race

I ran up Columbus Drive, just like I had seen in all those YouTube videos and photos, and it was as epic as I had imagined it would be. My chosen opening playlist song, "Best Day of My Life" by American Authors, was playing in my ears, and it sure looked like it would be one of the best. My second song, "Girl On Fire," made me feel like I was, indeed, on fire. Then the third song came on: "Play Hard," by David Guetta. A great running song, to be sure, but one that wasn't supposed to come on until later. A sinking feeling came over me: My painstakingly crafted playlist was on shuffle. Seriously? Oh well, I decided -- I had omitted a lot of the mid-tempo filler from my marathon playlist, so I knew there wouldn't be a large impact on my pace.

My Garmin was being indecisive about my pace with the tunnels and tall buildings in the Loop, but I had expected as much. I had printed out a 3:38 paceband (8:19/mile pace) from Marathon Guide that I hoped would keep me on track when my Garmin got whiny. It was a bit nerve-wracking waiting for the mile markers, however! I was also a tad worried that my pace didn't feel as easy-breezy as I expected after three weeks of taper.

Split for the first 5K: 8:03/mile. Oh. That was why it didn't feel easy.

After Mile 4, we headed north and entered Lincoln Park. I was looking forward to this part of the course, and also to my first gel at mile 5. My time-tested fueling plan was a Gu Roctane Chocolate Raspberry Gel ten minutes prior to the start, and then every five miles thereafter until Mile 20. I had four gels in my Spibelt's gel loops plus one in the main pocket for emergencies, as I had practiced in my first marathon and every one of my five 20-mile-plus long runs in training.

My headphones were starting to cut in and out, so I fiddled with the headphone jack on my iPhone and fixed it. Then I reached my hands around to adjust the belt to make it tighter around my hips, since my phone was lower than usual and that is what was causing the headphone issues. As soon as my hands touched the belt, I heard a "plop plop" sound as the gels on the right side of my belt hit the ground. I knew I couldn't turn around for them without getting trampled.  They were gone. I touched the left side of my belt and felt only one gel there -- the other one must have fallen earlier.

How it looks as a person moves to Plan B...
I kept the above look on my face for most of the next mile. My brain was whirring, wondering how I was going to make two gels last a marathon. For a split second, my brain flashed forward to an epic bonk at mile 23 (or sooner) and all my training going to waste. Even in my panicked state, I knew there wasn't any time for those thoughts. I needed a Plan B, and fast.

I knew there was at least one PowerGel station on the course. I had no idea where it was since I wasn't planning to need it, but I knew it was in the second half of the course. During the next two miles, I crafted my new fueling plan. I would drink Gatorade at every aid station until mile 10, skipping my first gel and hoping that the Gatorade would provide enough electrolytes. I had come to rely on the caffeine coming from the Gu Roctane, but I would have to live without that and rely on race-day adrenaline. At Mile 10, I would take my first gel (which I had safely moved into the main pocket of my Spibelt in case it decided to follow its brethren and fall off). Then I would grab as many gels as possible at the PowerGel station(s), taking at least one of them between Miles 10-20, and then take the last Gu Roctane at Mile 20. I had never gone so long between gels in training, and I had never used Gatorade in training or PowerGels in my life, but I was going to make it work. I had to.

Miraculously, my pace was staying pretty awesome during all of this, if not a tad fast. I had locked in and it was feeling easy. 10K split: 8:05/mile.

We headed into Lakeview and made the turn to head south, going back through Lincoln Park. I chugged water and Gatorade at each aid station like it was my job, making sure to thank every volunteer. And I did feel like it was my job from here on out. There was plenty of room to run, even through the aid stations. I only knocked elbows a handful of times during the race. This environment made my brain feel like I was doing a supported time trial through closed streets where other people also happened to be running. My head kept looking around, but I wasn't really seeing or comprehending anything. I couldn't tell you what any of the people running around me looked like; they were merely obstacles to steer clear of and/or pass. I was reading the funny signs and seeing the entertainment, but I wasn't connecting with it or reacting to it. Without making a conscious choice to do so, I had put my head down and was hard at work.

15K split: 8:08/mile.

At this point as we made our way back into the River North area, I took my first Gu Roctane gel at Mile 10. I decided to let my foot off the gas a bit and try to get a bit closer to 8:19/mile to conserve energy. It made me a bit nervous to see slower splits, but I knew it would be a good thing overall. 20K split: 8:20/mile.

As we made our way back into the Loop, I saw volunteers handing out Gatorade Endurance Carb Energy Chews. My first instinct was to run past them, since I have always avoided chews/chomps like the plague due to their texture. Just as I was about to pass them, my brain woke up and screamed "You have no fuel with you! Don't be a %^&*(* idiot!" I grabbed a package and carried them in my clenched fist in case they decided to make a leap to the ground.

My Garmin started to freak out in this portion of the Loop in a more intense way than it did the first time through. According to my watch, I was alternately going way too fast or way too slow for my pace. My feet erred on the faster side. Mile 13.1 split: 8:09/mile.

My half-marathon split was 1:46:45, which was a PR. A common rule of thumb among runners is that you are in trouble if you PR the half during a marathon. I didn't let it freak me out, however, since my half marathon PR of 1:47:27 was set at the beginning of August, and I suspected it was a little soft. According to my McRun app, a 3:38 marathoner is supposed to be able to run a 1:43 half. Stay the course, stay the course, I repeated to myself.

As we made our way west on Adams Street, I began to concentrate again on keeping my pace more toward 8:19/mile. All the recaps I read told me that the West Side portion of the course is the most desolate and demoralizing. They weren't lying. I decided to eat my Gatorade Chews over the next few miles, and they were surprisingly good.

25K split: 8:22/mile

On Taylor Street after Mile 17, I finally saw the PowerGel station and snagged myself a chocolate one with caffeine. Score! I also took gels from the next two volunteers and stuffed them in my Spibelt. To my disappointment, they were uncaffeinated vanilla, but carbs were carbs and beggars can't be choosers. For the first time since mile 4, I felt like I had adequate fuel, and man, it was a great feeling. 

30K split: 8:22/mile. I'm Miss Consistency all of a sudden. I was wishing my consistency was a tad faster, but I knew I had time in the bank and I wasn't giving up much ground.

Around mile 19, we entered Pilsen, which was the most electrifying part of the course for me. The spectators had an energy that was unsurpassed in any of the other neighborhoods. I was hoping my feet would respond, but unfortunately, they were getting the heavy, fatigued feeling I remembered from the Wisconsin Marathon. I was happy that I was feeling this sensation a little bit later than I did then, and I had been expecting it to happen earlier due to my fueling. These were good facts. My goal became to mitigate the damage until hopefully I sped up again near the end of the race. Focus on effort, not pace, I told myself. What if this is the epic bonk?, a small voice asked. Don't let it be the epic bonk. Relentless forward progress.

My (a little scary, I must admit) second-half game face.
I don't remember much of Chinatown at mile 21. And it doesn't remember me, since there are no photos of me there. I was looking forward to seeing the dragon. Maybe next year?

35K split: 8:36/mile. 
My playlist had been focusing on kids' songs during this stretch: "Axel F" by Crazy Frog, "The Hampster Dance," "Everything is Awesome." After Chinatown, it played "When Can I See You Again" by Owl City. I had set up this song to play right before the finish line, like it did at my first marathon and during my Sunset Half Marathon this summer. At those times, it provided me with an extra boost. It wasn't having the same effect this day. We were heading south, away from the city, and I just wanted to be done.

At last, Enimem's "Lose Yourself" began to play, with it's super-motivating lyrics. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime. We made the turn north on Michigan Avenue and I could finally feel like the end was in sight.

The photographers took my photo while standing on a bridge. I decided I had better smile in case this race turned out well, which it looked like it was going to.

Fake that smile until you make it!
40K split: 8:41/mile, but I was getting faster.

My splits were finally back around 8:30 and I knew I had staved off the bonk. My pace band told me I was still on track for a 3:38 finish, but even though the numbers were staring me in the face, I didn't allow myself to believe them.  I saw the signs "800 meters to go" and "400 meters to go," and I was surprised. That didn't seem so far. Could I really be almost done?

We made the right turn to go up "Mount Roosevelt." It definitely felt like a hill, but I powered up it, knowing the finish line was directly beyond. I made the turn onto Columbus, and soon I could see the finish and the clock reading 3:46. I didn't know how many minutes I started after 7:30, but I knew it was more than one. I was going to Boston. I was going to freaking Boston.

Finish split: 8:26/mile.

Final time: 3:38:09 (a BQ by 6 minutes, 51 seconds). 
Average pace for 26.2 miles: 8:19/mile (exactly my goal). 
Average pace for 26.53 miles (which is what I ran -- stupid tangents): 8:13/mile.
Overall Place:  6,375/40,802
Gender Place: 1,386/18,390
Age Group Place (40-44): 144/2,636

My first half split was 1:46:45, and my second half split was 1:51:24. A positive split to be sure, but many many marathoners have seen much worse, even with their correct fuel! I'll take it.


As I slowly walked through the finishing area, I turned my phone off of airplane mode and opened the Chicago Marathon app to double-check my finish time. I also immediately received a text from my husband, who had seen me cross on TV. I was a bundle of emotions as I texted something about setting aside money for a trip to Boston, and how the race was one of the hardest things I had ever done. "I hope our children have learned about setting goals and achieving them," I texted.  Pretty heavy stuff for right after a marathon, so immediately after that I reverted back to "Woo hoo!" and "Booyah!"

I next received e-mails from my parents and my new local running friend, who were both super-happy about my BQ. I put my phone away at that point to receive my heat sheet, drink a bottle of water and pose for some super-happy photos.

Yep, I was happy.
Standing like Superman, if Superman ran a marathon and got a BQ and a medal.
Since I had met my race goal, I now had a new goal: To make it to Runner Reunite Area Q, where I was to meet my Chicago running posse. While I waited, I posted to Facebook and texted with my posse as they made their way to me. I was ecstatic to see them and chat about our races. Wendy and Karen both set PR's, and Penny had a tougher day but was still able to smile. We had talked in the days prior to the race about how awesome our party at the finish line was going to be, and it was just as sweet as I imagined.

From left: Penny, Wendy, Me, Karen

Lessons Learned

I am still a little bit freaked out that I exactly reached my "if everything goes according to plan" goal, when everything obviously didn't. I think my "Fueling Plan B" must have worked, against all odds. I did slow down in the later miles, but I kept a mostly positive attitude, never stopped to walk once on the course, and was able to speed up at the end. I told my friends post-race that I went out too fast, and perhaps I did a little bit, but after looking at my splits, I'm kind of glad that I banked some time (but not too much time) for the inevitable slowing in the second half. I will have to contemplate this further.

My huge takeaway: I don't think I have reached my potential in the marathon. I have already decided that my spring marathon will be the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon in May. Watch out, Lambeau Field -- I will have more Big Hairy Audacious Goals for you!

Oh, and I ordered a Flipbelt. No more Spibelt for me, as I think it would cause me PTSD at my next race!


  1. I loved that in spite of all your planning, you were able to roll with a major glitch and come up with plan B. Congrats on your BQ! I can't wait to see how you do! <3


    1. Thanks so much, Wendy -- I really appreciate it. I honestly think that the glitch was a blessing in disguise, in the way it made me think outside my very rigid, perfectly planned box. With that said, I hope my next marathon goes a little more smoothly! :)

  2. Way to go! Congrats on the BQ and great race! I ran Chicago in 3:36 so we must have been near each other in the race! Sadly my time is a minute off a BQ for my age group but I'm hoping to get mine soon :)

    1. Thanks so much Lauren, and congrats on the finish time! Your BQ is right around the corner, I'm sure of it! I look forward to your recap on your blog!

  3. Congrats on your BQ and accomplishing your goal! What a beautiful day for a race!

    1. Thanks so much, Pete! We really lucked out with the gorgeous day! I have followed your blog for a while, and I have often thought that we approached this marathon in a very similar (numbers-and-data-centric) way. Therefore, I have enjoyed your posts a lot. Congrats on your awesome race, as well!