Sunday, October 12, 2014

Chicago Marathon 2014

  After some post-race contemplation I am convinced I have found the right word to describe running a marathon: humbling.  When one's legs are crying out for mercy after 3 hours of running and yet the will to continue on is ever present, that is humbling.  When one runs through 20 neighborhoods throughout the city of Chicago with tens of thousand of spectators all cheering you on, that is humbling.  When one stands below the immense skyline of Chicago surrounded by 45,000 runners and hear the national anthem sung, that is humbling.  When one gets to be a part of raising tens of thousands of dollars to support their alma mater and its fitness center, that is humbling. When one passes that finish line, and has run the race with perseverance, that is humbling.  You get the idea...

   I share this blog for a variety of reasons.  For many of my readers I want to tell the story and share the joys of my experience.  I also wish to capture the details of the race itself and the things I learned from running my first marathon.  Most of the pictures you see were taken by my father and likely have nothing to do with me.  I include them to add some color and sights from the race here.  I had thoughts of taking pictures during the race but pulling my phone out and doing so just didn't happen.

The Day Before

   One of the joys of running Chicago 2014 was running it for Concordia University Chicago.  Concordia has been a part of my life, and my family's life pretty much since I was born.  It was also a logistical benefit.  When it came to the race weekend, Concordia set up a series of shuttles on Saturday to help the runners on our team get down to McCormick Place for packet pickup.  I partook of this help and hopped a shuttle about 8:30am Saturday morning with 5 others.  We drove down to McCormick and parked a shuttle van in the garage.  It took some careful navigation to get out of the garage and then over to the correct part of McCormick where the Health Expo for the BOA Chicago Marathon was located.

View as we walked into the main Expo room at McCormick Place

   In the Expo there was large signage hanging from the ceiling pointing runners to the check-in area for packets.  We first stopped at a check-point area where they saw our ID and looked at our pickup ticket.  We had received this pickup ticket in snail mail but it was supposedly also possible to share it electronically (via e-mails we had received).  I don't believe any of us tried the electronic method. At this first check-point they saw our Bib# and then pointed us to one of 30 or so booths that had our packet.  I moved on to my assigned booth and the volunteer there verified that my Bib and timing tag were working and then handed it over.  She then pointed me to the ceiling signage heading for the race shirt pickup, which happened to be on the other side of the Expo.

   I made my way past a number of Expo booths including the PowerBar one which was handing out free samples.  I grabbed my shirt and then went into a runner's clothing sale shop and grabbed a pair of 50% off running shorts. Sweet deal!

   Our team met up again and headed back to the shuttle to head back to Concordia.  It was great to meet some of the other runners on our team as we didn't all know each other.  It was also most helpful to not have to worry about the drive and parking to and at McCormick.

   That evening Concordia threw a pasta buffet for us runners to make one last carb-load before the race.  It was also an evening for us to bring our families along and to have some fun and fellowship with our teammates.

The Morning of the Race

   Though they say a runner should be well rested for a marathon in terms of sleep, what doesn't help is the race starts at 7:30am and one needs to find a way to downtown Chicago.  For us this meant a 4:30am departure from the suburbs to catch a 5am shuttle at Concordia.  The shuttle brought us to the Chicago Hostel where Concordia had rented out the 2nd floor for us to prepare and relax pre- and post- race.  My father joined us in the shuttle and at the Hostel and served as the official University spokesman to thank all of us runners.   I was honored with being asked to share devotion and prayer with the group while we prepared.  

Team photo before the race
   For my race prep I brought along one of my REI duffel bags with essentials and extras.  I brought a long-sleeve synthetic shirt along and a sweatshirt not knowing how cold I would be.  I also had all my food along and my running belt.  As I do when preparing for long hikes out West, I brought just about anything I could conceivably need and more.  We did the devo and pre-race team photos about 6:20am.  I was honored by our race team organizers to be asked to deliver the devotion.  

   For me, I was in wave 1 with three others from our team.  Our wave started at 7:30am.  We were to be in our corrals by 7:20am. I wanted to be out early but not too early.  It was probably a few minutes before 7am when I finally made it outside.  I only had about 3-4 blocks to walk to find my corral.  I was wearing a headband, cheap gloves, my Concordia race shirt, and a pair of shorts.  I had opted against any of my long sleeve options.  Glad I did!

   As I entered Grant Park they had a security checkpoint beyond which only runners could go.  There were several lines here and I was slightly nervous this would make me late, but things moved.  They were checking folks for race bibs and then letting them pass.  I was in Corral D which was at the corner of Columbus and Jackson.  They had street fencing on the outsides of the Corrals and I had to pass through more security volunteers checking bibs to enter my Corral.  I was in around 7:10am or so and the Corral was far from full.  I weaved my up and was within about the 4th or 5th row of people in the Corral.  It was merely a team of volunteers separating the front of Corral D from Corral C.  A brave group I would say.

Corral D starting to fill up
   I was pleased with how the 45 degree air didn't feel so bad.  There wasn't any cool breeze and the amount of people added enough warmth I felt comfy during the wait for race start.  I also popped a few of my GU Chomps to get some last minute calories. 

  The one growing concern I had was that my bit of nervousness was beginning to cause another need to take a leak, to put it bluntly.  But given the lines I saw at the port-o-potties that was something I was prepared to simply deal with.

  As race time drew near it was interesting to watch a progression of flying sweatshirts heading for the curbs of Columbus Dr.  Its a common cold-weather marathon practice for folks to wear old clothing and then pre-race to toss it aside.  The marathon organizers have also found a way to make this into a good thing by collecting the old clothing and then passing it on to those in need.  

A perfect sky for a morning of running
  About 10 minutes pre-race they did introductions of some of the elite runners who would lead the way.  With the Chicago marathon being one of the World Marathon Majors they get some of the best of the best to run here.  After introductions they had someone singing the national anthem and this was a beautiful moment.  When 7:30am arrived the race began, but I wasn't moving.  Its likely there were a good 10,000 people ahead of me who all needed to pass through the start line. As this mass of people began to move the volunteers that headed our Corral would slowly move us forward.  They would keep some space between us and Corral C but would slowly inch us along.  Finally, when Corral C had cleared the start and we were perhaps 15 yards back they opened us up and we were free to run for the start.  

Race Time

   I can still remember passing through the start line with sunny skies and the brisk morning air.  I had my S4 in hand having just started up my Runkeeper track.  I stowed it in my SPI-belt and started what felt like an easy pace. I was being passed up by quite a number of people and was only passing a small few.  We quickly moved underground for two blocks and then encountered our first bridge of the day. This was the point in the race where everyone is supposed to take it easy, avoid coming out too quickly, and work to find a solid pace.  I was feeling I was making it well.

   The first couple of miles I hardly noticed the feel of running as mentally I was just taking in the feel of running in the city, the large crowds, and then the aid stations.  Each station was about 2 city blocks long.  They would start with a line of perhaps 30 volunteers holding out small green cups with lemon-lime gatorade. It was fairly easy to grab one from their outstretched arms.  After the gatorade they would have another line of 30 some volunteers with blue cups holding water.  As you would pass through an aid station the ground was quickly littered with cups.  It was also a challenge to ensure you didn't spill all over yourself or allow someone else tossing a half-full cup to hit you with their drink.  

   A few miles in I was running at roughly an 8:10 pace.  I made a quick check of my GPS on the S4 and noticed that it had me running at about a 7:20 pace.  I knew I wasn't going that fast.  Turns out, the GPS track was going terribly inaccurate because of bad signal amidst the tall buildings.  The rest of the way I knew it would be unreliable.  Instead, at every mile marker they had a race clock.  By looking at the time I was able to do a quick calculation of pace.  Somewhat comically, while this was easy early in the race, as I neared the 15+ miles the larger numbers, and tired brain, made this rather difficult.

   As I neared mile 4 I knew that the Concordia group as well as my family would be near the Lutheran church watching.  I was running on the right side of the road thinking this would give me the best chance to see them.  They were actually on the median and I was able to notice them as I ran by, but it went fast.

   The course around mile 5 or so headed into Lincoln Park where we were surrounded by large buildings for the first time.  I was shocked in here to see a few men hopping off the road to take a leak into a row of bushes in plain view of all the runners.  I myself was also feeling the need for a "relief break" but couldn't bring myself to stop yet.

   The course around miles 8-9 ran through Wrigleyville.  I pulled my phone out in here thinking I may try to snap a picture of Wrigley Field which would be about 3 blocks away at the turn back south.  I saw Wrigley, but too many people to slow down and get a good shot.  I would later learn, it was in here my phone got messed up and my Runkeeper track stopped. Somehow my phone turned itself on in the SPI-belt, was taking a bunch of pictures, and ultimately stopped track.

   Heading south, around mile 11 I passed near the family and some Concordia people again as the course wound nearly back upon itself.  I was able to run by them on the left-hand side of the road and holler "I'm still doing good." And I really was.  As I calculated my pace in this area I found I was beginning to near a 7:50 pace. I was feeling good in here and had already popped 2 Gu gels and grabbed a bunch of drink at the aid stations.

    As the course neared mile 13 it started to head west towards the United Center.  I remember passing the halfway mark and I was still feeling pretty good in the legs.  I was noticing an increasing need to take that relief stop and knew it would become a necessity.  I was also noticing my stomach becoming less pleased with the gummy foods I'd been putting in.  

   From about mile 5 to near mile 16 I had been passing way more people than would pass me.  I wasn't flying by people, but slowly and steadily was weaving in and out and moving past more people. Sometimes things would be so crowded I would have to hold slower pace behind 3 or 4 runners until I could find the smallest of openings to squeeze through.

   At the aid station near the 15-mile mark, not long after passing the United, I finally found some port-o-potties that looked really easy to hit without much time loss. I used one quickly and got back on course figuring I'd only lost 45 seconds or so.  My pace was still around 7:50 and this had me right on target for my goals.  My legs felt pretty good for awhile after this stop, but that wouldn't last.  

   Somewhere in between miles 17 and 18 my legs really began feeling heavy.  I thought my hydration and nutrition plan up to this point had been hitting well, but things weren't feeling right.  I really wanted to keep pushing as my pace was right where I wanted it but then my left quad started to cramp up on me.  This brought me down to my first walk of the day. This was pretty disappointing as I had done my 20-mile training run without any trouble.  I walked for what felt like a minute or two and then decided to push up the pace again.  This seemed to work for a few minutes and then I could feel one of my calves start to cramp up and I halted quickly before it got bad.  The cramp would start to go away pretty quick and I would walk for a bit and then try to pick up speed again.

   What made matters worse was I knew I had 8 miles to go.  I could tell my goals, be it my "jackpot-if-I-make-it" goal of about 3:20 or my "I-really-feel-I've-trained-for-it" goal of 3:30, both seemed to be going quickly out the window.  I told myself though, I'm going to finish, even if I have to walk the last 8 miles.  I've hiked that far before and I will do it.  I did some quick math in my head as I continued to move and though I should at least be able to beat 4 hours.  If I didn't make that, or didn't finish for that matter, then I really would be devastated.

  Around 18.5 miles I looked for my family and some of the Concordia group at the second of the Lutheran church stops but didn't really see any of them.  I wanted to be running when I passed them just for my own morale, but it ended up not mattering.  I spent the next few miles running what seemed like a quarter mile or a half mile at what felt like a slow pace and then something would cramp up again and I'd be walking for a few.  

   I recall passing the 20-mile mark feeling so disheartened as it seemed like countless numbers of people were now passing me. I kept expecting the rest of my Concordia group to go running by.  As I rolled through Chinatown I was hoping I could sustain a running pace again and set a goal of running to the interstate underpasses but just couldn't make it without the legs failing me again. 

   Nearing US Cellular field the route headed east towards Michigan Ave and eventually turns north heading for downtown once more.  It was mental anguish in here as everything below the waist hurt so bad.  I was grabbing gatorade every chance I could and also grabbed bananas at the last aid station just hoping some kind of electrolytes would heal my legs to finish. But, it just wasn't meant to be.  The last 3 miles down Michigan Ave. were a true test of pain.  Physically it hurt to walk, it hurt to try and pick up speed while my calves were threatening terrible cramps at any moment.  Mentally it was disheartening with every person moving on past me and seeing the time wasting away.  I knew if I could keep  moving just enough I could still beat 4 hours at least, but it wasn't enough to heal all the disappointment.  

   At 26 miles the course turned east on Roosevelt Rd with a big video screen at the intersection.  There was a slight uphill in here and it was all I could do to try and run and avoid walking the finish.  A cramp forced me into a 30-second walk as I neared the final left turn.  I made one last push to run towards the finish and as I did so I heard the PA announcer read my name (though my last name was mispronounced). I also heard him mention a 70-year old man who had just finished which is a pretty amazing feat.   My time was 3:50:46.  I had made it, at the least.

The Finish

I captured this as I ran to the finish, my only "during the race" photo
    Moving past the finish line things got really crowded ... and hazy.  I can remember my vision getting all bright and hazy.  I wasn't sure if it was a bit of shock or the sunlight hitting a bit of tears or sweat in my eyes.  There were tons of volunteers in here looking for runners who were having health issues, and helping to just keep runners moving.  They had several tables and stations as they continued to move people forward giving out all sorts of things.  I recall passing the first few tables where they had water and bananas.  Soon after that they were giving out the finisher's medals and sharing congratulations.  They were giving each runner a thin warmth blanket (I forget the exact material) which would really come in handy as I had a long walk back to the Hostel.  I was grabbing what I could include my finisher's beer which tasted pretty good.  

   It seemed like forever that I kept moving forward looking for a way to head west out of Grant Park.  I passed the Balboa Hospitality Tent but knew I hadn't paid for that.  Finally I made it to the end of the secure finishing area and to the Post-Race Meeting Area and Party.  I found my way through a crowd and eventually got back to Michigan Ave.  I had walked so far north I had to head another 2 blocks south to get back to Congress and then the Hostel.  My legs were none too happy about this and I was starting to get cold in the 50-degree air.

   Finally back in the hostel it was a treat to see the family and just be done.  I have to admit I was struggling mightily with strong emotions of bittersweetness.  It was really disappointing after the many many hours and days and workouts of training over the months to not make it near my goal times.  I just wanted to know where I had gone wrong.  But I also didn't want to neglect the fact that I was a finisher, I had made it with the 2nd best time out of our Concordia group and it was something to be pleased with.

Finisher's photo
  To add to my first experiences of the day, I decided to partake of the free massages which Concordia was making available in the hostel and that was quite the experience.  They really helped me work out some of the immediate soreness in my legs, though I also cramped up pretty good in my right calf as they worked on me.  For the day at least, I swore by the help it felt like they had provided.

   When I started out in this plan to run the marathon and support Concordia I wanted to run it with the  motto "To God be the glory."  In the end, I had to take great joy in this day, no matter how things went, and say that goal was accomplished.  Our team had a great many wonderful donors who helped us raised something like $35000. It was amazing to see how people came together and for all of it, to give God the glory.

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