Blue skies, 45,000 runners, 2 million spectators and one iconic city. Chicago marathon is a pretty special race as far as running is concerned and it’s easy to see why it’s been a success for 40 years.
2017 marked the 40th addition of the race and Daniel Reynolds, Geoff Maidment and I, along with our better halves all made the trip from Dunmow across the Atlantic to the City of Chicago. I woke on race morning about 4 o’clock and felt surprisingly calm and excited for the race. Obviously I was nervous heading into the race but I wasn’t scared of the distance like I have been previously.
We both shaved and showered (Dan not Clare) before saying our goodbyes and leaving the hotel at just after 6.00 am. The race start like the 5k was 7.30 am, so although an earlier start the chance of a cooler race was comforting. With the warmth of walking to the race the previous day fresh in our minds we both decided to just vest it to the start just carrying a few dollars for the train and some food and drink. Much to our delight it was a cooler start to the day and we both felt a little cold, which was a big positive. We caught the train and headed to Gate 1 where we had agreed to meet Geoff however running a little behind schedule we had just missed him as he had made his way in concerned by the queues at security. The security was a little slow but I’m not complaining as at the end of the day I would rather be safe.
We arrived at our pen about 40 minutes before the race start and the queues for the portaloos were similar to that at security. Only needing a wee I decided to go up against a fence that provided no privacy from the elite woman warming up on the other side. After a few failed attempts due to “stage fright” I managed to go and then made my way to the start. Ideally I would have liked to warm up but space was very limited so I just stood in line and decided I would warm up in the first mile of the race.
After the standard procedure of the American National anthem, we were underway for the 40th edition of the Chicago Marathon. There aren’t many feelings like the first few miles of a major marathon, Clare will shoot me if she reads this but the only similar feeling that springs to mind was the moment I saw her for the first time on our wedding day! The adrenaline, excitement and hairs sticking up on my neck combined with pure happiness is a feeling that doesn’t occur too much in modern day life but always seems to hit me at the start of a well supported marathon. All nerves are washed away, adrenaline pumping and unlike any of the hundreds of training runs I perform in the build up, my body feels good and race pace feels a breeze. Something I have learnt in my short running career is that never doubt the taper, yes I will feel ill, lethargic and doubt myself and the pace that I hope to run but you have to trust your training.
The start of the marathon wound its way around the heart of the city, the support was as good as the scenery that surrounded it. It was arguably one of the best starts to a marathon that I have done, not quite as scenic as New York and not quite the race feel of Berlin but still very special in its on way! I struggled to find my groove early on and settling into the 6.03 pace proved incredibly difficult as the large buildings and tunnel affected my watch GPS. Although no marathon’s result is really dictated by the first few miles splits, I also was slighy concerned as I knew 2.39 was going to be the very limit of my current ability so the margin for error would be very minimal.
According to my watch I had passed through 5k in 15:22 with the first 3 mile splits, 4;39, 5:17, 5:12. Knowing this was completely unrealistic and judging my pace completely by feel I was slightly concerned to see 19:00 on my the clock as I passed through 5k. Although behind target pace it wasn’t a disaster and in a marathon it is probably better to be a little slow in the early miles rather than too quick.
The early miles ticked by nicely, and I found my mind wandering slightly at times as I got into a nice rhythm. I tried to maintain focus on my form while keeping an eye on the watch to ensure that when GPS was working that around 6:00 was displayed on the watch face. In the early miles I felt good and the only doubt I had about the race was the fact I was mopping away sweat from the second mile. Thankfully water stations where a plenty throughout the route and I took on sips of water at almost every mile. Like Berlin and New York the water is provided in cups, which proved difficult to drink on the run but does seem to prevent me from taking on too much fluid. I ensured I grabbed a cup to drink followed by a second to pour over myself to try and lower my body temperature.
The consistency of my pacing through the first half was so surprising as without accurate gps or a pace band I struggled to do the maths in my head. Stupidly I hadn’t thought about manual lapping the miles which would have been such a simple solution to the problem but to my delight I passed through halfway bang on target in 1:19:57. The first half had been a pleasure. Taking in the sights, seeing the girls on multiple occasions and most importantly I felt pretty comfortable. Not quite Berlin 2016 comfortable but compared to London earlier in the year my legs felt a million dollars.
The second half of the race is always going to be the interesting part where the distance finds every single participant out in one way or another. My focus from 13 is on the 20 mile marker, try to get there in the best possible shape and then give it everything I have in the last 10km. This was the only part of the race I feel I could have maybe done a little better. Through these miles feeling a little tired and having the warm conditions to fall back on I became a little lazy. I don’t mean lazy as in sitting on the couch watching your favourite soap omnibus, but rather I let my mind slip a little, I didn’t focus on breaking the race down mile by mile but started to worry about 5 miles down the road. I also found myself almost isolated between runners so with little company, I ultimately had a few rough miles as my body began to test my mental resolve. A tightness in my hamstring followed by a little knee pain were just two examples of issues that came and went again in the space of a mile. Experience has taught me that a positive mindset is so important at times like this as it would be so easy to give up or slow down just because your body is testing you and it will pull through when it needs to.
The final 4 miles were really tough, shade from the buildings had now deserted us and the sun was now an unwanted hindrance. I was completely soaked thanks to a combination of sweat and water from the aid stations. We crossed the freeway and headed north towards the city and Grant Park which hosted that all important finish line. The road, like the majority of the race, was dead straight and long which was ideal for large parts but on tired legs with more than 2 miles to go, seeing how far that is in a straight line isn’t exactly helpful. I focussed on one of the big buildings in front and just told myself to get there. I didn’t really take in much of the final stages of the race as the pain started to set in and the reality of a sub 2.40 had disappeared but I had plenty to keep running for. A new personal best and club record were still well within grasp but I had to keep my legs moving relatively quickly although they seemed to disagree. I would like to say the crowds got me through the pain in the last couple of miles, and don’t get me wrong the support was fantastic during the majority of the race, but at the time I needed it most it wasn’t at it’s peak. I guess in the past, and especially at London where we are spoilt with the embankment and the 3 person deep crowds that literally pull you on to the finish, I really needed a little more help in the closing stages but thankfully the motivation of a personal best and club record were there to allow me to dig deep.
800m to go, the sign I had longed to see, “just two laps of Braintree track” I tried to propel myself forward. Boy could I have done with Chris Hayhow pushing me round in the final few minutes. The road finally turned right but unfortunately climbed uphill. The incline was pretty short and wouldn’t have caused too much of an issue if the fact it hadn’t been at 26 miles.
I was in a hell of a lot of pain, as you can clearly see in the picture above. Although the most unflattering photo I have probably ever seen of me, I love it! After most races it’s hard not to reminisce and think about where I could have worked harder or improved but a picture can tell a thousand words. Seeing that picture reminds me of how I felt in the closing stages, sure I slowed down but I gave 2.39 my best shot and at the end of the day that’s all I really wanted to do.
The final 200 metres were surrounded by disappointingly empty grandstands, but saying that I think I had my eyes shut for the majority of it. I finally crossed the line in 2:41:33 and didn’t take many steps more. I took a few moments to regain control of my legs before heading towards the meeting area. It took me a while to make my way through the finishers area but I didn’t care I was happy and lapping up all the freebies and post race photos. With the camera crew warming up for the other 44,800 or so runners behind they seemed to want to test out all their cameras on me. Being the quiet, camera shy guy I am, I obliged and got involved inventing my own post race poses as well as the same old cringe ones.
Before exiting the finisher’s area I spotted Andy Low’s wife Nicky and we had a nice chat while she informed me of how everyone we knew was getting along. Andy had unsurprisingly run a brilliant race and backed up another top season which should see him crowned Essex Vet Champ with a fine 2:44:34 finish! My attention was now on Dan. Nicky had kindly added him to her tracker and I was delighted to see he was yards from the finish in just over 3 hours. After a difficult build up to the race and as one of the main reasons I got into running it was great to see that he had run the time he had set out for finishing in 3:02:25. Grange Farm’s final musketeer was Geoff, not afraid of a challenge and as if marathons weren’t tough enough, he likes to set off at a pace that he knows he’s unlikely to sustain just for the sake of being, well as he would put it “a geezer” much to our delight though he had hung on in there to run a personal best and dipped under the London Marathon qualification time of 3:15!
After the race it was time to celebrate. Geoff and his partner Ann played host to us in their 26th floor suite where they kindly provided us with plenty of beer and champagne!
In summary I’m pleased with how the day went, yes the travelling, sightseeing and heat could have all been minor factors on me missing out on a sub 2.40 marathon but I wouldn’t have changed anything and loved the race. Usually post marathon I say “never again” but even after crossing the line incredibly tired I would happily sign up to my next one. Chicago is a special marathon in a special city and one I would highly recommend and certainly one I would love to return to one day.
I’m under no illusions that I could improve my training, diet and ultimately my race times in so many ways but trying to juggle a normal life does have its drawbacks however that said I intend to improve further and with each mile I run I learn more and more about myself and the sport I choose to dedicate so much time to. One thing that gives me huge comfort for the future is that the distance doesn’t frighten me as much as it used to. It’s a hell of a long way, it hurts but the challenge that once filled me with such fear is now something I’m beginning to embrace.