Friday, October 23, 2009

Late review: Chicago Marathon 2009

Yes, I do {heart} Chicago!

If a blogger runs a race and doesn't write about it, does that mean she didn't run?

Way back in February I had grandiose plans for the Chicago Marathon. A large group of us registered for the race the day it opened (hurry! it might sell out! do it now!). We made our hotel reservations, dinner reservations (yes, in February) and then flight reservations once they became available. Although I hadn't yet started running because I was too tired from century training, I knew that come October I'd be in tip-top shape, running fast and easy. I didn't know if I could PR but I planned on being close.

Then, as usually happens with good intentions, life intruded. My training was hit and miss. I had scheduled many runs in the 13-16 mile range so that distance would be comfortable; that was the only thing that made running a marathon possible. My during-the-week training was a joke and there were weeks when I only ran our long weekend run. In addition to all the family drama I faced blazing heat, smog and smoke and then a thunderstorm. I tried, and for the most part succeeded, to show up for each weekend run. They were my outlet and my therapy and without Bree and Anita I would have been lost. We laughed, cried and counseled each other and made the miles fly by.

Our 18 miler was a tough run because of the heat, mid-90s when we finished. The 20 miler was the best run of the year, despite the thunder and lightning and rain. My little mishap during the scheduled 22 miler turned the run into a limping 19 miler. I knew by that point I wasn't going to have the greatest marathon ever but I was certain that if I stuck with the plan I'd finish well with mostly even splits.

In 2007 it was so hot during the race that the Chicago Marathon shut down mid-way and pulled runners, those who hadn't collapsed, from the course. It was another hot race in 2008. We had prepared to run in shorts and tanks and weren't prepared for the blast of arctic cold that descended on Chicago this year. I packed for the cold, bringing tights, a long sleeved shirt, gloves, jacket and extra buffs. It wasn't enough so at the expo I also bought one of the cheap throwaway tyvek jackets and an ear warmer that I also wouldn't mind throwing at the side of the road. I ended up wearing running tights, the long sleeved tech shirt, the throwaway jacket, throwaway gloves, throwaway ear warmers, a buff around my neck and another around my wrist. I knew I'd be warm through my core but was afraid of my extremities.

We were frozen waiting at the start. After my last huge run, New York in 2007, I was afraid of what the start would be like. I'm not great in big crowds, getting a little claustrophobic. But this actually went pretty well. I thought there were enough portapotties and the lines moved quickly enough. The gear check seemed to be very organized and quite easy to get to. The corrals were a little harder to deal with, especially close to starting time when every single person decided they'd be the last person to enter. It was hard for people to squeeze into the faster areas and it wasn't very clear where all the pacers were. But we spotted ourselves just behind the 5:30 pacer and waited to start. It was freezing; my teeth chattered and my fingers were numb.

I stood in line with Bree, Anita and Sandy. We didn't see any of the others, they had left the hotel later than we had and in that crowd it would have been amazing to find anyone. My plan was to start out steady, running about a 12:15 pace. I planned to continue with the 4:1 run:walk since we had trained that way, but to not start walking until 14 minutes so that we wouldn't get run over by the crowd. I thought that running the entire first mile might thin things out a bit. Ha.

It finally turned 7:30 am and the gun went off. I think (we were too far back to be sure). It took us about 25 minutes to creep up to the start line. We crossed, started running, and never saw Anita and Sandy again until the race was over. They never looked over their shoulders to see how far back we were and we absolutely weren't going to try to catch up.

It was very crowded and hard to run at any set pace. It was slow down, side step, stagger, run, speed up, speed faster, halt, side step, repeat. Like usual people hadn't seeded themselves in the right place. Hell, we were passing people right and left and we weren't going as fast as our placement would have put us. For several miles we dashed and darted and probably wasted more energy going sideways than we did going forward. We kept up the 4:1 and were going strong through mile 11 or so.

It was amusing (and not a little annoying) that at one point we were being squeezed in by 2 very large pace groups; the 5:30 on one side and the 5:45 on the other. We had seen that both groups crossed the start at very much the same time, so either one was going too fast or the other too slow or maybe a bit of both. But one group was doing a 2:1 run:walk and kept passing us then slamming on the brakes right in front of us. We tried to drop them a few times and finally got away from them. I don't even know if they were ahead or behind, just no longer near us.

With this big of a crowd you expect some pain-in-the-ass people and this race didn't disappoint. My pet peeves during races (or even just on a trail) are runners not paying attention to their surroundings, people not glancing around before darting in front, people pushing and people who take walk breaks coming to almost a halt without moving to the side. With all those and more it was surprising that I wasn't cranky or crabby or mean. I rolled my eyes several times at idiots and muttered obscenities to Bree a few times, but mostly I just went with the flow. I didn't want to waste energy on jerks.

We started slowing down when we were getting close to the half marathon distance and I told Bree that maybe after mile 14 we should switch to a 3:2. She happily agreed and we continued on. Despite that, our paces were too different and before mile 15 I went ahead. I went back to 4:1 and continued with it until, I think, about mile 20. At that point the freezing air in my lungs really started to get to me. I know my form was off from the cold and that tired me also.

Yes, late morning and it was still only in the mid-30s outside. There was a steady breeze making the wind chill factor even colder. Once in a while the sun would pop out but mostly it was overcast. Cold and gray. Brrrr. I had shed my jacket at about mile 10 and threw it away at about mile 15. I alternated with gloves and bare fingers, sometimes one hand covered and one not. I didn't throw the gloves away and wore them continually for most of the last hour I was out there. I never removed my ear warmers and didn't feel that I needed to. The only problem was when I tried to wear sunglasses; my hot breath and the cold air fogged them right up.

Although I had slowed waaaaay down, at about mile 20 I figured that if I kept vaguely on pace I could finish under 6 hours. It became a goal to me to try to keep my time under 15 minute miles and that mean very little walking, except the regular breaks. I was sucking air so badly that I finally stopped regular breaks and just ran until I was gasping and walked until I my breath calmed. I came down with a lovely case of marathon brain and amused myself trying to figure out math and times and speeds. After every walk I'd re-calculate my time and for some reason at mile 24 I still thought I'd break 6. Then I realized that I must have hit the split button on my watch at a wrong time and that I'd have to run mile 26 in 9:30. Heh. Not likely. Then I realized that I had also forgotten to calculate in the .2 mile at the end. Crap. Then I saw that huge mountain leading up to the 26 mile marker and decided that walking was fine until the top (ok, it was a little hill, but it looked like Mt. Diablo to me).

I made it to the top, not even bothering to smile at the photographers like I usually do, and decided to "power" in the last .2 stretch. Despite "sprinting" there were many people who passed me there. I ran as hard as I could, gasping and wheezing, and crossed the finish line at about 6:04. Better than the 6:15 I had expected before starting but not as good as the 5:59 I had hoped for. Nevertheless, as my first marathon in almost 2 years, it was an emotional finish.

I got my mylar blanket and my medal, had my chip removed, and staggered forward. I got a bottle of water, a dry bagel (yuck), a banana and there might have been some chips offered. I was supposed to meet the girls at the beer tent and imagine my surprise when the "tent" was a table set up right after the food, before the baggage tent. Sandy and Anita were waiting for me and one of the beer fellows urged me to take a beer and rehydrate. Being the compliant type I did just that. I steadied my breathing, tried to stretch and almost fell over. Instead, I took my beer over to the nearest curb and plopped myself down while we waited for Bree to cross the line.

During the race there were aid stations at about 1 mile apart; a couple of places it was longer but they were frequent and well supplied. There was water and some electrolyte drink (maybe Gatorade?) at every station. Most of them had a couple of portapotties and a first aid tent also. The volunteers were, in a word, incredible. There were tons of them in that freezing air, friendly and encouraging and helpful. Lots of races have lots of volunteers but these were the nicest ones I'd ever seen. Gu was distributed at one later station and people along the course offered various fruits and candies and waters. And beer, don't forget that (yes, I did have a couple of sips of that, thank you very much). Even late in the race there were plenty of spectators cheering and supporting the runners (and walkers).

Retrieving our bags went smoothly but remember, we were among the last several thousand of people to get there. It's possible that people finishing in the 3-5 hour range would have had more trouble. Even there the volunteers were friendly and helpful.

After the race I was tired and a bit sore, but elated that I had finished. I was stiff and didn't know if that was because I was still so cold. My lungs hurt more than anything else but I had expected that. My knees felt fine and my back felt fine; I had been worried that the injuries last year would complicate matters but luckily, no. Nothing recently has felt as good as my 20 minutes under a hot shower after the race. It would have been even longer but I needed to collapse on the bed and eat something.

To finish this up backward, the expo was incredible. We took the shuttle bus Friday afternoon and it took forever to get there, damn Chicago rush hour holiday weekend getaway traffic! Due to that we had about 40 minutes to get our stuff and go line up for the return shuttle. We decided we'd have to go back on Saturday and spend time then. It was very quick to get our numbers but then we had to hike through the entire expo to get our shirts, located at the back. I wasn't excited by the shirt. It was a lovely blue tech short sleeve top, but Nike-sized. I think I've stated my preference here for looser tops. And my utter hatred for tight, form-fitting woman-specific race shirts that Nike keeps producing. Yo Nike: not every runner is built like a "runner" and not every runner who is built like a runner likes tight clingy clothes. Sheesh. At least offer a XXL for those of us who like loose shirts.

The cap-sleeved girly shirt, with goody bag contents

Anyhoo, we stopped and bought the throw-away jackets because I've seen that company run out in the past. We also stopped at the area with the marathon-branded clothes and other stuff since I've seen those run out in the past too. I got a nice running hat to add to my collection and a long sleeved top and we left.

Saturday we returned early and since it was so empty we realized how utterly huge the expo was. I'm not certain but I think it had more space and more vendors than the New York expo. Anything running-related and lots of things not running-related could be purchased there. Despite my very good intentions I ended up spending some money. My favorite purchase is perversely something I hope I never have any use for: a knee-specific ice pack from Moji. It not only ices, it compresses. Unlike my dependable frozen corn, you can move around while using it. I tried it on and it felt wonderful, even though my knee wasn't hurting. I wish I had had it when I tumbled during our Alameda run. In fact, I wish I had had one for each knee. I bought a second liner so that I could switch off while one freezes. Again, I hope I wasted money on it and that I never need it.

We all did our part in supporting the vendors at the expo. In addition, I was amazed at how much loot we got for free. The official goody bag didn't have much, but we got tons of other stuff. Considering there were about 35,000 runners and many of them had family and friends attending the expo, there was a lot of swag given out. Below is my haul and remember, I didn't take lots of things I knew I wouldn't use.

freebies, including my favorite yogurt

more freebies

the rest of the swag

Will I run this marathon again? Probably not. If I didn't want to run so many many other fall marathons I would definitely consider a re-run. The race was very well produced, the course interesting, the route fast and easy (comparably), the volunteers fabulous and Chicago is a great city.

Will I run any other marathon? Oh HELL yeah! Despite the cold, despite my lungs, despite my pitiful training regimen, despite the exhaustion, I love running marathons. I would like to improve my condition so that the end isn't so tough and I want to return to the old 9:1 interval, but I want to keep racing. Planning is tough right now; I know I could, at any time, have to rush out and take care of my mom since she's my priority. My spring goal race is Vermont (yes, because of the bears!) but I'd like to run 1 or 2 in-between. I'll let you know as soon as I know!

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