On my way back home from the Chicago Marathon Sunday, I stopped at a red light at a nondescript intersection a few miles from home. Nondescript, that is, except for the large hospital at one corner.
As I gazed toward the fifth floor, I thought back to almost exactly — to the minute — five months ago when I was being admitted to that hospital for what turned out to be emergency abdominal surgery.
That surgery would give me a DNS for my first 100K attempt that following Saturday. As I rehabbed on the fifth floor after surgery, I had a series of three goals lined up to finish out the year, the first of those being the Chicago Marathon.
I completed the race in 3:34:59, about 10 minutes off my goal but my third fastest of my 19 marathons to date. I need to get back to my previous speed to get another Boston qualifier but finishing in the 15 percent (6,863 of 44,476) was a solid step forward.
A busy time in the Windy City
The Chicago Marathon is quite the undertaking. Kudos to the first-responders who kept us safe. The race staff who ensured the event ran smoothly. And the volunteers who did our bidding from the expo to the early morning of race day and throughout the marathon and post-race festivities.
The crowd support was phenomenal. There were very few places where rows of onlookers were not cheering on the runners. That was incredibly helpful as a couple of bouts of rain posed a challenge.
My visit to Chicago started early Saturday, as I went to a special BibRave event where I got to meet several of the people responsible for the podcast, social media and ambassador program. From there I headed off to packet pickup.
Given the large volume of runners, the majority of the expo was easy to navigate and get through. There were plenty of interesting vendors including big brands.
At the expo, I needed to pick up a pink tag from the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) since I had signed up for their private before and after race area.
After walking through the entire expo, I stopped to ask one vendor for help in finding CARA. He told me they were at booth 175. Wrong. A nice woman there told me they should be in the 600s — the exact opposite side of the vast building. Wrong. Over there I asked volunteers if they had a map of the vendors. They did but it was printed so small it was difficult if not impossible to read the vendors' names. Nonetheless she sent me to an area toward the front of the 400s. Wrong. Finally, I found another vendor who had an electronic map and he was able to locate CARA’s small, tucked away booth at the back of the expo.
When I got there, I remarked how hard it was to find. The woman at the booth said, “That’s what everyone is saying.”
Even though they didn’t have a banner out, I don’t blame CARA. The marathon should have a readable map of vendors so that participants can find who they are looking for.
Other than that the expo was fantastic. Again the volunteers were helpful, the lack of a readable expo map should be addressed.
The CARA experience itself was tremendous. I received a complimentary pass but it is well worth the $60.
Runners are able to use a private area to hang out, use indoor restrooms and use a gear check before the race, fairly close to the gates to access the corrals. Afterward, runners return and can easily pick up their checked bag, get a massage/stretching routine, hang out with friends and family, and also get a large bag of food, compliments of Fresh Thyme. So much winning.
After I left the expo, I hurriedly checked into my hotel, then grabbed lunch on the way to a live BibRave podcast featuring marathon inspiration Meb Keflezighi and NPR's Peter Sagal. It was an interesting hour of running discussion.
Afterward, I met up with a half-dozen virtual friends through another running community, the Marathon Training Academy. After talking about the race for a half hour or so, I had to bail. I had been on the go for the last eight hours since arriving in Chicago after a two-plus hour drive, and I needed to actually rest before the marathon.
On race morning, it was recommended that I get to the start line at 5:30, two hours before the start of Wave 1 (I was in E Corral, the last of the Wave 1 groups). I arrived shortly after 6 and was among the first two dozen or so in the corral. Getting through security was structured but fast moving.
There were plenty of port-a-potties but the lines were long. I left my corral to use the port-a-potties and returned before they closed the corrals 10 minutes before the race start.
After some standard announcements and the national anthem things started to get real for the human sardines tucked in the corrals.
My A goal was 3:25 and unfortunately the fastest pace group in my corral was 3:35. So I got up as close to the front as I could and pushed ahead of the pacers as soon as possible.
The beginning of the race was electric. Fans lined the start area and gave us a tremendous sendoff, a harbinger for the rest of the race.
The course started just outside Grant Park, then headed north before returning to the south and ending at the south end of the park off Michigan Avenue. Runners toured Chicago’s neighborhoods which meant a lot more to natives, residents and frequent visitors than it did for me.
Still, the crowd support was spectacular. Aid station volunteers were great, dishing out water and Gatorade at every stop, and Gatorade Endurance products and bananas at aid stations in the second half of the race.
No, Garmin, that was not a 6-minute mile
The entire race was crowded but runnable. For the first half, I stuck to an 8-minute pace. The tall buildings were having an impact on my Garmin’s ability to track accurately. Fortunately each mile marker had a clock and I was able to determine that I started at 13 minutes after the first runners so I had a good estimate of my pace and overall time.
During the second half, my pace dropped off and I couldn’t get my legs to rebound. Still I kept moving forward, thanks to my training, mantras and the crowds.
It was uplifting to hear my name being called by a handful of friends who were spectating, and exchanging a high five with one of the BibRave employees at Mile 23.
The toughest part of the race came at Mile 16 when a hard rain descended upon the runners. Earlier a gentle rain occurred but that felt more like a relief than a problem.
I liked the fact that the marathon had a sign indicating one mile to go. The final push was among my strongest miles. I had heard several people talk beforehand about a hill at the end. I must have missed it because I don’t recall a hill.
The finish line area is emblematic of the race itself — tons of emergency responders at the ready and lots of volunteers handing out a heat shield, water, a medal, bananas and a bag of snacks. Also notable: runners could get a bag of ice large enough to treat a sore body part (my left shoulder, for example).
Thankfully my hotel, where the CARA center was located, was less than a half-mile from the post-race area. I was able to quickly retrieve my gear from the CARA bag check and start rehydrating, eating and chatting with my new BibRave friends.
It also gave me time to reflect on my journey these last five months. Sunday wasn’t my best marathon performance. But it demonstrated that my will is strong and I am on the right track to finish out the year with solid performances.
After all, the Chicago Marathon was a long training run for my 50K later this month.
Run this race if you are:
• A native or resident of Chicago.
• A runner who is energized by large crowds.
• Looking for a fast course and not concerned about the weather from year to year.
Don't run this race if you are:
• Afraid of large crowds.
• Don't like dealing with big-city logistics.
• Not a fan of flat race courses.