Monday, October 14, 2013

Chicago Marathon Race Report

Greg and I ran the Chicago marathon yesterday, and it was truly an unforgettable experience.

Background and Training
I was injured for the entire month of July and was unable to run. I did, however, cross train by using the elliptical, pool running, and swimming. I spent the first two weeks of August run-walking as my shin recovered from its stress reaction. It wasn’t until the third week of August that I was able to resume somewhat normal training.

For me, a normal training cycle would be twice as long, and the mileage would go up to about 55-60.

My weekend long runs were as follows: 12, 16, half marathon, 20, 16, 12.

I knew this wasn’t an ideal marathon training cycle, and if I wanted to run a fast time, I should wait to run Richmond in November. However, I was already registered for Chicago and I’ve learned that running a satisfying marathon doesn’t have to mean setting a PR. I knew I would be able to train enough to get me to the finish line, so I decided to go for it.

Chicago has been on my marathon bucket list for awhile, Greg was running it, and I didn’t want to miss out just because I wasn’t in the best shape of my life. Plus, I knew from experience that I could run well on a short cycle and relatively low mileage. In 2008, I ran the Shamrock marathon on 7-8 weeks of training and set a five-minute PR. Chicago would be a fantastic opportunity to focus on goals other than a finish time, and still feel satisfied and accomplished.

So, what would success look like for me?  Here is what I mapped out:

  • Have fun
  • Sleep well in the week leading up to the race
  • Start slow, finish fast
  • Prevent stomach issues
  • Have a good nutrition/hydration plan and stick to it
  • Create a marathon playlist for my iPod that would get me in “the zone”
  • Soak up the full Chicago marathon experience
  • If something didn’t go well, learn from it and not beat myself about it
  • Get through the taper without feeling like a crazy person
  • Not compare my performance/time to other people’s
  • Run somewhere between 3:40-4:00, adjusting for the weather if necessary.

While some of these things seem basic (and were never on my goals list before) I’ve realized that these things are true challenges for me. Having fun is actually an accomplishment, and so is sleeping well. Someone else’s goals list might look completely different. These were my goals because they have historically been a challenge for me and I knew I needed to work on them to become a better runner.

Before The Race
Greg and I flew out on Saturday morning and arrived in Chicago just after lunch time. We headed to the hotel, which was conveniently located just 3-4 blocks from the start/finish line. We were looking forward to a logistically easy race, in comparison to New York, where you have to wake up over 4 hours before the race starts to get to the start line, and sit there freezing for 2 hours before the race even begins. It was nice to be so close to the start/finish and not have to worry about finding transportation to and from the race.

Chicago offered free shuttle bus service to the expo from four different locations throughout the city. One of
Chicago Marathon Expo
these locations was a half mile from our hotel and gave us the opportunity to walk through millennium park. The buses were running frequently, so we didn’t have to wait for one to arrive. The expo was also a huge improvement over New York. The NY expo was so crowded that you couldn’t enjoy it, and there was definitely no free transportation to get there. In NY, I ended up with a men’s medium race shirt, since they had run out of my size, whereas in Chicago, they handed me a bag with the shirt size I registered for already inside of it.  I was super impressed with how organized the whole process was, and there were no lines at any time.  Greg and I didn’t spend too much time at the expo, as we knew it wasn’t a good idea to do a lot of walking the day before the race.

We had dinner at Petterino’s- a restaurant just a few blocks away in the theater district that had some local flare. I ordered my standard—pasta with chicken and marinara sauce and it was really good! The place was swarming with runners and theater goers. On the walk back to our hotel, we noticed theaters and shops that we would be running past the next morning.

During the course of the day, I had about 5 SaltStick Caps and a lot of water. This was new for me and Greg was worried that it would mess me up because you aren’t supposed to do new stuff the day before a marathon. But I had used those pills during training and they only seemed to help—not hurt. The ingredients were pretty mild and each pill contained less than 5% of the daily recommended amount of sodium, potassium, etc. I’ve had heat exhaustion issues in the past and seeing black spots after races has become the norm for me. My hypothesis was that I was drinking enough water, but not getting the electrolytes to go with it. And when I would try drinking coconut water, G2 or pedialyte—these just didn’t work. And the G2 upset my stomach during the B&A marathon. So, these SaltStick caps seemed like the answer.

We got back to our hotel, relaxed, and went to sleep. In terms of the sleep goal, I had slept really well in the week leading up to the race. This hasn’t happened for me in years. Last March, I slept horribly before B&A and it impacted my race. I’ve actually been sleeping really well for the past few months, despite starting a new and very stressful job. I think it’s because at some point in July I realized that it was ME who was putting all this pressure on myself, and it was totally un-necessary. It seems pretty simple, but coming to the realization that I can do whatever I want with my life and run whatever races I want in whatever times I want was completely liberating. I’ve felt like a different person ever since.

Race morning arrived and Greg and I did our standard routine. Ate our standard meal, got dressed, pinned
On the way to the start corrals
on our bibs, got our gels situated etc. We both decided to carry water, and fill it up periodically throughout the race.  As for nutrition and hydration, my plan was as follows: 1 SaltStick cap with breakfast and 4 during the race, starting at mile 3 and every 6 miles after with plenty of water. For nutrition, I would take 3 Honey Stinger gels starting at mile 5.5 and then switch to the chews for the end, because I thought they would be easier on my stomach at that point. (I guess I could write an entire blog on this topic, so I’ll stop there!)

I wrote on my arm the miles when I planned to take the SaltStick caps and the gels/chews, so I wouldn’t have to think about it during the race. When you are hurting at the end of a marathon, it can be difficult to remember the simplest of things!

The weather was sunny and in the mid to upper 50’s. Even though many were saying that this was "ideal weather," I’ll admit that this forecast made me a little nervous. If there is no cloud cover and the sun is directly on me, I've found that anything above 55 will feel hot and make me feel less energized. Earlier this year I bonked in a 10K that was in the low 60's and sunny. However, I ultimately knew there was nothing I could do about the weather, so I tried to think positive and not "expect" that this would hurt my race.

Greg and I left our hotel about 40 minutes before the start of the race and made our way to our starting corral. For Chicago, you have to “qualify” for the first 4 corrals- A, B, C and D.  Greg and I were in corral C thanks to some speedy half marathons we had run earlier this year. When we got there, we chatted with some other runners, and before we knew it, it was time to start.

Miles 1-5
Greg and I ran the first mile together and the experience of starting out with all those people in the city of Chicago was so cool. One of my goals was to soak it all up and enjoy the experience, and I made this my focus for these early miles. Instead of focusing on my pace and finish time, like I would previously do, I was instead focused on the race atmosphere, which relaxed me.

The marathon is the only race distance where I listen to music. It helps get me out of my head, and I find that good music can get me into a “zone” and enhance the adrenaline high. I carefully selected the songs and playlist order for this race, and I did the same for Greg.

I knew that my Garmin wouldn’t be working during these miles because of all the tall buildings, so I manually pressed the lap button at the mile markers to track my splits. I needed to make sure I wasn’t starting to quickly. My plan was to start at around an 8:55 pace and speed up from there.

Mile 1: 8:55
Mile 2: 8:54
Mile 3: 8:56
Mile 4: 8:37
Mile 5: 8:49

Miles 6-10
This is where I settled into the race and my confidence began to build. I wasn't planning on speeding up all that much, but I just naturally started going faster and it felt great. I didn't look at my Garmin that much-- mainly just when I saw a mile marker.

The music contributed to my elevated mood. Panic! At The Disco released a new CD on Tuesday, and so I put the entire thing on my playlist, starting at around mile 6. "Miss Jackson" is my favorite song from the CD so I played it four times in a row, thinking this song is working for me, might as well just keep it going. I looked at the numbers on my arm and at my water bottle. I planned to take my second honey
stinger gel at mile 11.5, so I needed to fill up my bottle. I stopped at a water station and started pouring cups into my bottle. The cups were literally only 1/4 full, so this took much longer than I wanted. Ultimately, I didn't fill the bottle up completely and decided I would just stop again when the bottle got low.

This didn't really feel like a race to me. It felt like I was just running in a big city with a ton of other people,

and with people all around me cheering. It was semi-surreal. I could hear the cheering, but I could also hear my music, so the whole thing just gave me this runner's high. Having fun? Check!

Mile 6: 8:39
Mile 7: 8:40
Mile 8: 8:51
Mile 9: 8:48
Mile 10: 8:52 (filled up the water bottle)

Miles 11-15
I actually think these miles were my favorites. It was at this point that I knew I wasn't going to have anxiety issues, and that the heat hadn't gotten to me (so far). I had imagined that the course wouldn't be shaded but thankfully, about 3/4 of it was shaded. When I got to the halfway point I recognized it as the area I used to stay in when I worked at my previous company. I used to go to Chicago regularly for business so it was cool to be in a familiar area at the halfway point.

I sped up unintentionally because I was feeling so good. I remembered back to the 3 marathons I ran in 2007, and how they were all very well executed. I remembered that my legs didn't hurt at the halfway point and everything felt pretty good up until mile 17-18. I started comparing this race to those races and realized I felt exactly how I wanted to.

When I crossed the halfway mark in 1:55:06, I realized that I could probably negative split and finish under 3:50. I wasn't sure by how much, but I told myself that the warmup was over and now it was time to race a half marathon. I wanted to see how fast I could do it.

I continued to execute my hydration and nutrition plan, drinking water about once a mile, and taking my SaltStick caps at the pre-determined times. During mile 15, I decided I would have one of the volunteers fill my water bottle from the big jug to make things go faster. Unfortunately, he was a very slow pourer, so I only had him fill it up 2/3 before moving on.

Mile 11: 8:34
Mile 12: 8:34
Mile 13: 8:15
Mile 14: 8:24
Mile 15: 8:46 (filled up the water bottle)

Miles 16-20
I still felt great during these miles. I was so excited because I knew the race was going to end well for me.

At this point, I had all the confidence in the world that I would finish strong, as long as I remembered to keep pushing during those final miles. I had plenty of energy, the sun wasn't bothering me and I was passing people like crazy.

Passing was fun, but also exhausting. I had to focus on where I was going to pass so as to not run into people. The race was still very crowded so I had to carefully maneuver around people. Ultimately, this would result in a Garmin distance of 26.47 miles, which I knew, but I wanted to keep running at the pace I felt good at, and that meant a lot of weaving. I actually saw some of the people who had passed me during the first few miles of the race. I also easily passed the 3:50 pace group and felt excited to have done so. Usually when I see the 3:50 pace group it's because I have hit the wall and they are passing me.

It's a flat course, so in looking at the splits, you can tell which miles were shaded and which were not!

Mile 16: 8:36
Mile 17: 8:18
Mile 18: 8:30
Mile 19: 8:17
Mile 20: 8:30

Miles 21- Finish
I was in the home stretch! I noticed that my stomach felt really good, which is rare for this late in the game, and if I had brought another honey stinger gel, I would have taken it. But since I packed the chews in anticipation of stomach distress, I had 4-5 of those instead. It was nice having everything written on my arm. I remember looking down at one point thinking do I have any gels or caps I need to take soon? All the math had already been done so I could just relax and focus on running.

I started thinking how happy I was to finally be running a solid marathon. I hadn't felt this good at mile 22 since 2008. I kept on passing people, feeling strong. My quads started to hurt at around mile 20, but my energy level was good. I told myself to just deal with the quad pain and that it would be over soon. During these miles, I had my favorite Panic! At The Disco CD going-- A Fever You Can't Sweat Out. I have been obsessed with this CD lately and I played some of these songs multiple times during that last stretch.

I finally ditched my water bottle during mile 24 and decided that if I needed more water I would just drink from a cup. I really wanted the marathon to be over at this point and realized this was a sign that I was running an optimized race. You don't want it to feel easy at the end-- it's supposed to hurt. I took this as a good sign and continued to push past people as I made my way to the finish.

I think I hit 26.2 miles at around 3:45-3:46, but due to all of my weaving, the finish was still a ways off in the distance. As I approached it, I noticed that I would be on the border of 3:47 and 3:48. I wanted that 3:47 so badly! This is where looking at the Garmin can be very motivating. I gave it everything I had at the very end, but there was a surprise hill just before the finish line, so it wasn't fast enough to get me my 3:47.

Mile 21: 8:37
Mile 22: 8:47
Mile 23: 8:42
Mile 24: 8:36
Mile 25: 8:52
Mile 26: 8:39
The last 0.47: 8:01 pace.

Looking at these numbers, I wish I would have kicked it into that higher gear sooner and shaved 10 seconds of off my time to get down to 3:47, but it doesn't change the fact that I still kicked butt and set a PR!

Official Results
The Garmin read 26.47 at a pace of 8:37. Here are the official results and splits:

I'm very proud that from the 40K mark to the finish, I ran some of my fastest paces. This is a negative split of just over two minutes, which is what I think is ideal for marathon performance.

First half: 1:55:06
Second half: 1:53:04

After the Race
Greg and I found each other shortly after the race, which was a relief because we didn't know if we would be able to do that among the large crowd of people. He struggled in his race, but still ended up with a very solid 3:43. I wasn't too far behind him! We hobbled back to our hotel and relaxed for awhile before going back out for our celebratory Chicago pizza.

Final Thoughts
This was a very good race for me on many levels. I would actually consider it a landmark race, as I haven't run this well since 2008, and I have run 8 marathons since then (not to mention the 3 I started, but did not finish).

The most important aspect of this marathon was that I went into it with the right attitude. I knew that I wasn't in as good of shape as I had been for most of my previous marathons, and yet I still had the confidence that focusing on "the process" of running would yield a favorable outcome. I didn't speculate as to what my time would be, and time wasn't really the focus here.

It's a valuable lesson because the next time I run a marathon with a solid training cycle under my belt, I will know that the feeling of accomplishment can come from so many areas other than a time. And I won't think that my training was wasted if something goes wrong and I don't do well.

While it may seem that I lowered my expectations for this race, I actually raised them. I was focused on areas that were traditionally a challenge for me and I truly embraced the process. I "expected" that I wasn't going to come down hard on myself and I was determined to make Chicago a great experience for myself no matter what.

I started this race conservatively, and didn't force myself into a narrow window of finish times that I had to hit. I went into the race with the attitude that I would try my best, stick to my plan, and enjoy the ride. And in the process of doing all of that, I just happened to run my strongest marathon since 2008, setting a PR of 45 seconds. An unofficially, I actually set a 26.2-mile PR of about three minutes.

Once I changed my mindset about my expectations, the rest was easy. Sleep was easy. Having fun was easy. Enjoying the entire weekend with Greg was easy. And yet this was major progress for me, so I consider them huge wins.

In terms of what I would do differently for next time, the only thing I can think of is just being more strategic about passing people, so that I don't weave myself into a 26.5-mile marathon.

I couldn't have asked for a better experience and I have a renewed love of marathon running.


  1. So happy for you!! Hoping I can make it to Shamrock and run my first marathon since '06 with you!!

  2. Amazing race report and super smart/awesome race. So happy for you!

  3. This is such proof on what a positive attitude and relaxed state of mind can do! Congrats, Elizabeth, you truly deserved this PR and great race. I'm VERY happy for you! :)

  4. It seems like you had an amazing race and I love that you kept a positive attitude and didn't put an unwarranted stress on yourself. I need to take a chapter from you book for my next one! Thanks for sharing your experience. I felt like I was running with you as I read it. Great idea to write your nutrition/hydration plan on your arm!!

  5. Awesome race! Glad that you had fun and got that PR as a bonus!


  7. Congrats on a great race! I am so happy for you!! I was on Mile 19 and looked for you but there were so many people.

    The Chicago Marathon is my favorite marathon. I am thinking of running it next year.

  8. So amazing!! Glad you had such a relaxed state of mind and in result just killed it ;) Congrats!

  9. Really so happy for you!!! What a great race and big step forward for you :-) Congrats to you!