Saturday, April 18, 2015

Chi-Town Half Marathon Race Report: It is Clear When It's Not Your Day

To quote Florence & The Machine (well, Thomas Fuller, but work with me here), "It's always darkest before the dawn." What this means for runners is that sometimes you have to have a bad race day before you can have a good race day. For me, both types of race days happened on consecutive weekends. Let's deal with the bad one first, but only as briefly as possible -- click here for the good stuff!


I signed up for this race because my training plan called for a tune-up race -- basically a time trial to figure out what marathon race pace I can predictably sustain. My running friends assured me that the course was flat and fast, and that its Lincoln Park location allowed for ample parking (a requirement for me when I'm driving myself). I have also done several events put on by this race company, and I always admire their competency with course signage and logistics. What I'm trying to say is, the race looked good on paper...just reach out and grab the PR!

Unfortunately, my fortunes began to change mid-week, when my monthly visitor arrived and I had a minor medical procedure. I remained hopeful that these things wouldn't impact my race, however, and I soldiered on. Parking was easy-peasy (albeit expensive) in the Lincoln Park Zoo lot, and I picked up my packet with no problem. I sat in my car until close to the start, as temps were in the high 30's with wind, and I wanted to wear my patented tank/arm sleeves combo.

I really like that tank top -- it needs to be worn in a better race later this year, for sure!

I ended up bringing a throwaway hoodie to the starting line, and as I stood just in front of the 8:00/mi pace group, I entertained the idea that I might be underdressed. I usually heat up ultra-quick during races and have been comfortable in a tank at temperatures colder than this (most recently the Get Lucky Half Marathon, and the Schaumburg Half Marathon before that), so I pushed those thoughts to the side and got my game face on.

The Race

This race can be broken down in two parts: the first three miles and the last 10.1. After a disappointing Mile 1 split of 8:08, I was buoyed by my mile 2 split of 7:59. I hoped that I just needed to get warmed up, and now it would be smooth sailing (I am using these water references intentionally...). Then just before Mile 3, I encountered a volunteer yelling at us about a water main break in the tunnel. What did that mean? Should we go in the tunnel? A bunch of us peered in and saw water gushing into the tunnel from both sides. A few guys in front of me turned away from the tunnel and started to run up a hill away from it. I'm not that familiar with the area, but I figured there must be a way around, so I followed them. We ran a short distance and then encountered some guys coming back from the direction in which we were running, saying "Wrong way! We have to go through!" With big war whoops, they started sprinting through the ankle-deep water. (I found out later that they closed the tunnel and re-routed the course shortly after I crossed.)

I didn't sprint, but rather reluctantly slogged my way through the tunnel, and squish-squish-squished my way down the course as my watch beeped for mile 3: 8:07. I knew with those three splits, anything close to a PR would be tough to salvage, if not impossible. My feet were heavy with my soggy shoes, and my legs were inexplicably heavy, as well.  I faced reality that this wasn't going to be the tune-up race I had envisioned.

I felt like sending out an APB for sure. Image found here.
I know this kind of race happens to all runners eventually, and I guess I can consider myself fortunate that this was my first encounter with such a train wreck. A couple of options floated through my mind:

        (1) I was planning on racing this race and counting it as my long run for the week; should I DNF the race or jog it in, and do a longer long run tomorrow? I quickly dismissed the idea of a DNF. I have always prided myself at finishing what I start, and there was no obvious medical problem to make me stop. Also, Sunday was Easter, so there would be no time for a long run with family obligations.

        (2) Next week's long run included marathon race-pace miles; should I make this race a marathon-pace run? I dismissed that idea: I wasn't at all certain I could hold that pace, the way things were shaking out, and if I came up short, I would have strained my legs and whiffed on the workout.

As Miles 4 and 5 came and went with splits of 8:24 and 8:26, I decided to try to keep my finish time under two hours, and my pace ideally under 8:30/mile. Mentally, however, I had completely checked out of the race, and the finish line seemed incredibly far away.

My shoes were now dry and I had ditched my arm sleeves, but the occasional wind gusts were making my arms chilly and I wished I had them back. The power songs on my race playlist seemed to be mocking me, and I considered changing to the podcasts I would listen to on a long run, but I didn't think I could do it while running and I didn't want to stop; I wanted the race to be over as quickly as possible. I just kept making forward progress. 

The current front-runner for Race Photo of the Year, because of the dude in back of me!
Each mile felt like ten. Nothing hurt on my body, everything was just...there. No pep, no get-up-and-go, no mojo. I became used to the sight of people passing me. I stopped looking at my watch, figuring the split times would be what they would be. When I heard a group of people coming up behind me late in the race, I was certain it was the 2-hour pace group, but it was actually the 1:50 pace group. I spent the remaining mile or so trying to keep them respectably close.

Final Time: 1:51:05 (8:28 average pace)
Age Group Place (40-44): 9/92 (Ironically, the same age-group placement I got in the Get Lucky, when I ran almost 8 minutes faster, although that was a 10-year age group!)
Gender Place: 141/1068
Overall Place: 388/1789

What Does It All Mean?

For the rest of the day and a few days afterward, I wasn't sure what it all meant. My friends tried to reassure me that many runners would be over the moon with my finish time. In fact, I would have been over the moon about it just one year ago! But I, I knew...that I was capable of better.  My monthly visitor and my medical procedure, underdressing, the wind...these were all possible excuses, but nothing completely explained it. Was I overtrained? Was I undertrained? Did I eat the wrong foods? Was my training plan working? What did this mean for my marathon chances?

After some wallowing and a nap, and a lovely Easter spent with my family, I was ready to put the result behind me and get back on the proverbial training horse. It was too late to completely overhaul my training anyway; my plan for the week was to keep my recovery days super-easy and stay the course on everything else. I had registered for another race the next weekend as a marathon-race-pace run. Perhaps I could tune-up at that race or nail a wicked race-pace time? I had a week to ponder my options, and then it was time for another start line...

Stay tuned, and click HERE for the sequel, which in this case (spoiler alert!) is infinitely better than the original!

Trying to put on a happy face, hoping for better race days to come!


  1. I'm so glad you didn't DNF! A race is a race, no matter what. And we all have bad runs. There's always lessons to be learned from them, too.

  2. You finished! That's the most important part. That's a great time with all those things considered.