Location: Chicago, IL
Weather: 58 Degrees and Rain
Distance: Marathon (26.2 Miles)
Finish Time: 2 Hours 59 Minutes 6 Seconds
Overall: 1,195 out of 44,571
It has been a few days since the race and I still have a huge runner’s high! This race became more meaningful after I learned last week that I didn’t qualify for the 2019 Boston Marathon with my time of 3:00:25 last year at the Philadelphia Marathon. The cutoff to qualify was 3:00:08 – so I missed it by 17 seconds! That’s less than 1 second per mile. It was a huge disappointment because I had been looking forward to doing Boston for more than a year. As a result, I had something to prove at this race in Chicago and I needed to make sure that I ran fast enough to qualify for Boston in 2020.
My goal heading into the race was to break 3 hours – this would put me in very select company. According to research, only 2% of runners will ever break 3 hours in the marathon. It’s a fitness accomplishment that is highly recognized and applauded.
This was my second biggest race of the year after Ironman Lake Placid. However, I didn’t put myself in the best position to achieve my goal. Just two weeks ago, I completed a Half Ironman in Atlantic City and my body didn’t feel fully recovered. Plus, I wasn’t able to increase my run volume as much as I would have liked because I had to fit in biking and swimming the last two months. Consequently, I had serious doubts about my ability to break 3 hours in this race.
I left NYC on Saturday, the day before the race. At LaGuardia Airport, while I was standing on the security line, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was going to Kona. An ordinary person might not know where or what Kona was, but I knew exactly what she was asking.
She saw my Ironman Lake Placid backpack and assumed I was heading to Kona, where the Ironman World Championship is held. I looked down and noticed that she also had an Ironman Lake Placid backpack. It turns out that her husband, who I now noticed standing behind her along with their young son, also did IMLP this year and he came in 2nd place, earning a slot at the World Championship in Kona on October 13th! When I learned this I got very nervous – it was like meeting a celebrity. I told them that only in my dreams was I heading to Kona, and instead was on my way to Chicago for the marathon. What’s great about triathletes or marathoners is that we have a common bond, so we had an instant connection. We wished each other good luck and exchanged information. It was a great start to my trip and made me feel great about my race!
I landed in Chicago at the wrong airport (long story) and went straight to the expo, which was downtown. The city was buzzing with energy and excitement, with thousands of marathon runners walking around the streets. The expo was amazing – hundreds of vendors and interactive displays.
I was feeling pretty tired from being up at 4 am and walking around with my heavy backpack all day, so I made my way to the hotel, which was an hour away from downtown. After arriving, I did a short 20 minute shakeout run and went to Walmart to buy some food. My dinner was white rice and a can of salmon, with some pretzels for sodium and extra carbs. I spent the rest of the night getting ready for the race. Running is so much easier and less stressful than triathlons – all I need is my sneakers and nutrition. And MUSCLE TONIC of course!
I woke up on race morning to heavy rain – I’ve had really bad luck this year with weather. I forgot to bring a poncho, but had a small umbrella. The race started at Millennium Park in the middle of the city and the location was beautiful. Instead of wearing my running shoes to the start of the race, I wore flip flops because I didn’t want to saturate my racing gear before the race.
My strategy for the race was to use the 3 hour pace group. Basically these are dedicated runners, sponsored by Nike, whose mission is to get you to the finish line at a guaranteed time. There are pacers for 3:00, 3:15, 3:30, 3:45, etc. So if you want to finish in 3 hours, just follow the runner with the 3 hour pace sign. Another added benefit is that the crowd notices these groups as they pass by and gets extra loud with excitement.
The gun sounded at 7:30 and we were off. There must have been over 200 people in the 3:00 pace group. The first few miles didn’t feel as easy as I expected, which was discouraging. Easy not due to course difficulty, but due to my legs not feeling light and fresh. They certainly didn’t feel as good as last year in Philly, so I knew it was going to be a long and tough race from the get go. The other thing I noticed is that the field seemed quite fast and competitive, compared to last year. This makes sense, as Chicago is one of six world major marathons (considered the best marathons in the world).
While the course wasn’t overly exciting after the first five miles, I was extremely impressed with the size of the crowds, given the weather conditions. There were hundreds of thousands of them lining the streets and they were loud, too. There were also large video screens at certain locations. The nutrition and hydration stations were stocked and filled with hundreds of volunteers – more than any other race I’ve done.
The rain was steady and constant, but it didn’t bother me – it actually helped keep my body cool. The only annoying part was running in wet shoes. At mile 15, my right ankle started hurting, which was strange because it never hurt in the past. If anything, I was worried about my left knee, but surprisingly it held up fine.
There’s a consensus in running that the marathon is a 20 mile warm-up and a 10k race. In other words, the going gets tough at mile 20, real tough. First, that’s typically when people start “hitting the wall.” The body can only store a certain amount of carbohydrates (fuel), so when it runs low the body starts breaking down. Second, all of that pounding starts taking a toll on your muscles, ligaments and joints. In the beginning of the race each step feels easy and painless, but towards the end each step feels difficult and painful.
Once I hit mile 20, I had a shot of caffeine and hoped that would carry me through the end of the race. Unfortunately, it didn’t help make the pain go away, but the mental boost probably did more than anything. We hit mile 23 and there were only three miles left. The crowds grew in size and volume as we entered downtown Chicago again. Our 3 hour pace group had dwindled down from a couple hundred to less than 20. I felt really proud that I was able to hang with the group. We motivated each other during those last few torturous miles by shouting words of inspiration and encouragement. It was a battle we were going to win together. There was a short uphill stretch to the top of Millennium Park, before a 90 degree turn and a sharp downhill sprint to the finish. I crossed the line with every last ounce of energy and stopped my watch, which read 2:59:06.
At that moment, I was overcome with emotion as I achieved my goal of breaking 3 hours and capped a long year of racing. My mind went back to all of the training I did to achieve this result and all of the other achievements this year in running and triathlon. Dedication and commitment demonstrated through hundreds of hours of training, often when I didn’t feel like it (too hot, too cold, too tired, too busy), but knew I had to in order to reach my goals.
After crossing the finish line, there were two lines of at least 50 volunteers, whose sole job was to clap and congratulate each marathon finisher - it was such a sweet gesture and just one of the small things that really impressed me about the Chicago Marathon.
My body quickly turned from overheated to severely cold after the race. I began shivering and my muscles and joints started locking up. The heat blanket helped a little, but most of my body was still exposed and the wet clothing made it even worse. It was very difficult to walk and it took an eternity to collect my bag and join the finish line party. After a nice long hot shower at my hotel, I went back downtown to celebrate with my fellow marathon finishers.
I can't praise the Chicago Marathon organizers, volunteers, and spectators enough. As a New Yorker, I hate to admit it, but the organization, production, amenities and logistics were better than the NYC Marathon.