Last year after watching the broadcast of the Chicago Marathon I decided I wanted to give it a try. It looked fun to run through so many parts of the city with huge crowds of spectators, plus I knew some people who ran the race and they had a blast. Registration for the 2019 race occurred a week after the 2018 race took place so the excitement was fresh in my mind and I was able to guarantee my spot by submitting a qualifying time from another race. In the past I’ve been a little deterred by huge races with a lot of logistics to worry about. However, I’ve also realized that crowd support provides a huge boost and I knew I would enjoy the scenery of the city. I already had Boston coming up in April of 2019. Why not go big and do two of the World Marathon Majors in one year?
Training through the summer can often be challenging when there’s a workout or tempo run scheduled but it’s 90 degrees and humid in the afternoon. I’m lucky just to survive running at an easy pace most summer afternoons. This time around I raced practically every weekend and hoped the races could take the place of the speedwork and tempo runs that I barely did during training. My distance peaked with one 19-mile run and four 20-mile runs, so I was hopeful that I’d still put in enough good work to run a successful marathon.
There’s typically some level of freaking out that occurs before every marathon, but it’s usually something like a new ache or pain, the weather, or my pace. Instead, I was preoccupied with an infected right hand. I wiped out on a sidewalk while running a couple weeks before the race. I figured as long as my bruised toe and knee were okay, my torn-up hands wouldn’t stop me from running. It turns out my hand actually would be the biggest issue. A couple gashes on my right hand did not improve when all of my other scrapes did. I finally accepted that they were infected after a week had gone by and the pain woke me up one night. I went to the doctor the Monday before the race and was terrified by the thought of starting an antibiotic. I worried that drugs could destroy my stomach and I really didn’t want to deal with stomach issues during a marathon. I gave it a shot, but after a couple of pills my mouth and throat got really dry. Hydrating properly during a marathon is already a challenge without adding side effects from drugs. I decided I’d put the medicine on hold for a week and hoped that antibiotic ointment would at least keep things from getting any worse.
Since I knew how overwhelming the Boston Marathon expo had been, I wanted to get to Chicago’s expo as early as I could. I left the house just before 6 am, and with a couple stops along the way, the drive took about five hours. I made it to the expo at McCormick Place an hour after it opened – around 10 am Chicago time. That place is huge and it took at least 10 minutes of walking through the building to get to the expo. It only took a couple minutes to get through a security check, then it was pretty easy to get my bib and t-shirt.
A ton of vendors had booths and I wandered around to see if there was anything good. The aisles were fairly crowded and I really felt claustrophobic when I tried to browse through the official Nike gear. The area with the official gear at Boston’s expo had been really overwhelming too, but I didn’t think it would already be so bad an hour into the first day! Things were much more tolerable at a Chicago Tribune booth where I bought a cotton t-shirt, and at the Picky Bars booth where I spun a wheel for a free bar.
I was able to stay parked at the McCormick garage for only $10 by getting my parking validated. I took my stuff back to the car then used one of the free buses that shuttled people to a few different spots downtown. It was rainy, but luckily it let up enough for me to explore Millennium Park and see “the bean” for my first time.
I thought the Art Institute of Chicago would make a nice stop on a rainy day and went there for a couple hours. It had probably been 20 years since I had been there and it was really nice to go back.
That museum has so many legendary works of art, with Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte being one of my favorites. It was fun to bring back very faint memories of pieces I had studied in art history classes so many years ago.
I shuttled back to McCormick Place and dreaded facing Chicago’s Friday afternoon traffic at 4:00. I still had to drive to Naperville to visit my half sister Karen, her husband Tom, and my nieces Katie and Abby. I finally made it after an hour and a half or so and it was really nice to visit them. Tom is a great runner and was also going to run the marathon. He has run the race before and was able to answer my questions and told me what I could expect. It was fun to see some of Tom’s accomplishments on display in my guest room.
I did a 2-mile shakeout run on Saturday morning, stayed for lunch, then drove back to the city. Although it cost a ton, I thought it would be fun to stay downtown and knew it would make things much easier on race day. After I checked in, I headed out to the Magnificent Mile. I figured I’d check out the Nike store for another chance to browse through the official merchandise. It was a chilly but beautiful day and the sidewalks were packed.
The Nike store was really busy but it has multiple stories and I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I had been at the expo. I decided to give in and buy a nice running jacket. Employees were scattered throughout the store and could check people out so I didn’t have to wait at all.
I stopped at Panera on my way back, took dinner to my hotel room, then rested my legs for the rest of the evening. I went to bed around 10:00 and had a typical night of restless sleep. I got up before 4:30 and headed out by 5:30. My friend Jeff had told me how worthwhile it was to purchase access to the Balbo Hospitality Tent. He won me over immediately when he said there are separate bathrooms with no wait. That would be one less thing to worry about!
The tent was within a mile of my hotel and I spent about an hour there. I got to go through a separate security check that was a breeze, and waiting in a huge, heated tent was wonderful. There were plenty of places to sit and a nice breakfast spread. Too bad I didn’t have anything because I didn’t want to mess with my usual eating routine. I took advantage of the gear check and left my post-race clothes there. A few special guests such as Steve Jones, Paula Radcliffe, and Deena Kastor said a few quick words too.
I was in the “D” corral which was due to close at 7:20. I waited until 6:45, made a bathroom stop, then headed out. Having access to the tent made it easy to get to my corral because I didn’t have to go wait in the same line that most everyone else had to use. I went past the general gear check area and saw the ridiculous porta-potty lines. Wow. Although it was expensive, the Balbo tent had been worthwhile for me.
Since this race has over 45,000 people, I didn’t know how crowded the corrals would get. Getting there half an hour before they closed was more than enough and there was plenty of space.
It was sunny and temps were in the 40s which would be perfect for running, aside from a bit of wind. I noticed gusts now and then rather than a steady wind so luckily it didn’t bother me too much. It was a little chilly for standing around but I had bought a cheap fleece jacket at the Salvation Army to keep me warm until I tossed it a few minutes before the race. My feet were kind of numb but it wouldn’t take long for them to warm up.
It was pretty cool to hear introductions of the elite athletes and know that we were just behind them about to run the same race. This was the biggest race I had ever run in terms of pure numbers. Although Boston is obviously one of the most legendary races, the elite athletes were probably halfway done with their race by the time I started so I didn’t get to witness introductions. Boston had around 30,000 runners and this race had around 45,000. I felt the excitement in the air as the race started, but it took around 12 minutes before I actually crossed the starting line. Music over the speakers helped keep the energy level high.
I knew the race would be crowded and early on I wondered if I would actually see much of the city or if I’d spend most of my time watching all of the feet around me. As I was watching the ground I spotted a blue line and knew I had read somewhere that it marked the tangent. It became my mission to stick as close as I could to that blue line. I was glad I happened to be positioned in the right place because the course was pretty wide at the start and it was easy to be far away from the tangent. There was a 3:30 pace group and that was my ultimate goal, so I started to the left of them. I know I usually start slower though and have never been able to follow a pace group during a marathon. I saw them for a little bit but it didn’t take long before they were lost up ahead in the crowd.
Between going under a tunnel at the beginning and all of the tall buildings, I was very aware that GPS signals struggle during this race. I opted to hit my splits manually whenever I saw the mile markers. Still, the pace on my watch was all over the place and half the time I didn’t really know what I was running. I ran by feel and had an idea at each split that I was somewhere in the right neighborhood for my goal pace of 8:00 miles. I have run 3:34 three times now so I knew that realistically my pace has tended to average closer to 8:10. I didn’t worry much when I saw that I was a little slow. Even though I had a time goal to reach for, most of all I was looking forward to taking in the incredible experience.
The portion of a map below shows how much my Garmin jumped all over the place. Considering how those lines should be relatively straight, it’s no wonder I couldn’t get accurate info!
The crowds were amazing. Having so much energy along the majority of the course was awesome. I had heard that some miles late in the race were kind of dead, and although some spots were a little quieter, it seemed like people were out pretty much everywhere. It was fun to see so many different parts of the city. There were stretches in the heart of downtown with skyscrapers and the Chicago River. There were some pretty tree-lined residential streets. We went through areas like Greektown, Chinatown, and Boystown. Boystown was especially entertaining with drag queens dancing on stages. We went by places like the Chicago Theatre, the United Center, and more.
It seemed like there was always something fun to look at when I wasn’t watching the blue line or trying to avoid running into people. The crowd thinned a little as the race went on but I always had people all around me. One thing that shocked me was the number of people I encountered who were going much slower than everyone else during the early miles. They probably should have lined up further back in the corrals. Of course I always come across some people who I pass and others who pass me, but most of the people generally run similar paces if they lined up in the proper corral, especially early in the race. However, a few random people out there nearly caused collisions because they were running SO much slower. They weren’t off to the side either – they were right in the middle. It was so crowded that sometimes I’d have to hit the brakes because I didn’t have room to move around them.
My main thoughts were about following the blue line, watching out for people, and trying to enjoy the scenery. I also spent some time thinking about all of the family and friends who were pulling for me. I had received a lot of kind messages from people prior to the race which meant a lot to me. I thought about each one and it really helped to know that I had a bunch of people on my side.
Karen, Katie, and Abby were on my mind a lot too. They went out on the course to root for Tom and me which was awesome of them. I knew that it had to be cold standing around in the wind trying to pick us out amongst the thousands of runners. I was on the lookout and worried that I’d miss them in the huge crowds of spectators. Somehow they managed to yell loud enough to get my attention at four spots along the course! I really appreciated them being there and making that kind of effort to catch us multiple times. It definitely gave my spirit a boost every time I saw them.
I made it through the halfway point around 1:46 and knew that I was on track. I started to slow down a little bit after that, and a little more after the 20-mile mark. My legs were tired and I just reminded myself that marathons are hard but I should keep pushing. I started to see people dropping off who may have been cramping or injured. I know that it’s a possibility that could hit at any moment, but I was still doing pretty well so I should take advantage of that. I wasn’t sure that I’d hit 3:30 this time, but maybe I’d be consistent and run another 3:34. I told myself that I had goals to achieve and I should at least keep striving for another BQ.
The crowds certainly played a role in keeping me moving. There were so many neighborhoods that had their own different vibes. People played the drums in Chinatown. There was a neighborhood with Mexican music playing and people dancing. A guy running next to me shot video on his phone as he excitedly shouted back in Spanish. There were University of Illinois at Chicago cheerleaders when we passed that campus. Abbott, one of the official sponsors of the race, had a HUGE presence near the end of the race. They had music blaring and cheered so loudly that their energy was infectious at a time when I needed it the most.
I counted down my remaining distance and attempted to run the math for my pacing for a lot of the race. When I had 5K left I knew that I would be able to hold up through the end. Somehow I even managed to pick up the pace for the last mile or two. Usually once I start to slow down in a marathon there’s no going back, so I was pretty happy that I still had some energy left. It helped that there were signs along the way letting us know that we had 800 meters then 400 meters left. I knew I could push for that long. I was aware that there was a bit of a “hill” before the finish, which was basically just an overpass. For such a flat race, overpasses were as hilly as it got. Fortunately I had kicked into a solid finishing gear and powered up that stretch without too much agony. Then there was a turn around a corner and a quick stretch on the way into the finish line.
I stopped once I crossed the line and realized immediately that I needed to keep jogging. After running for so long my body didn’t handle it well when I came to a sudden stop. I’m not sure if my chest was tight, if I had a little shortness of breath, or something else, but it worried me enough to get moving again. Eventually I seemed to be okay with walking and enjoyed the fact that I had completed my seventh marathon. I had run 3:35:35 and was very happy with that. I felt like I did all that my body could have done. I’ve run three marathons faster than that, but it was still good for another BQ by 4:25.
I collected a bag of snacks at one table and a free beer from Goose Island at another table.
I found people who directed me to the Balbo tent and all of the volunteers were so nice and congratulatory. I went to the gear check area first thing and got into my warmer clothes. Then I went to check out the lunch spread. It was pretty awesome.
I got a chicken Caesar wrap, pasta, chips, and some other snacks. The dessert table looked amazing and I stopped there a couple times too.
Karen, Tom, and his running buddies went to a restaurant for lunch and I met them there.
I had planned on getting a treat at Shake Shack next, but once I saw the line I walked right back out. I settled for a piece of cinnamon cream cake from a corner bakery instead. I was surprised that I was able to walk at my normal pace and didn’t feel too beat up. Since I still felt pretty good, I decided I’d try to head home early. Sometimes I feel worse the day after the race and thought I could take advantage of this time when I still felt okay. I showered, ate more, then checked out. I was sure that I’d take the hit for another night at the hotel so I was thrilled when they didn’t charge me. That was a major bonus for leaving early. I had planned on taking Monday off of work so I slept in. I felt pretty miserable when I woke up the next morning and knew I needed to get up to eat and drink to get rid of a headache. Of course I was sore, but I was actually in pretty decent shape. The fact that I could go up and down stairs without any issues was a good sign. Since my employer doesn’t give me paid time off, I decided I was in good enough shape to put in half a day at work and I didn’t even find myself groaning all day like I normally do after a marathon. Maybe I hadn’t raced hard enough? :)
I really enjoyed this race and would definitely return in the future. Despite the frustration of GPS issues and battling the crowds, everything else was awesome. I loved spending time in the city and it was great getting to visit family as well. I’m going to keep striving for that 3:30 marathon but I’m not disappointed with my results at all. I know in order to improve I could analyze what I should do differently in training, with fueling, etc. Certainly I will consider all of that, but at the same time, I’m not going to beat myself up. Marathons are hard and I still ran a pretty great one. It’s always a thrill to get another BQ even if I’m not quite sure if/when I may return to Boston to put it to use.
I’m enjoying some downtime of being lazy and think I’m just about done with my stage of loading up on donuts, pizza, and anything else I want to eat. I seem to be recovering really well this time around and I’ll get back to running soon, but I don’t have any big goals on the horizon quite yet. I’m already thinking about what could come next though. Spring and fall marathons again next year? Do I return to any races that I’ve enjoyed in the past or keep trying to hit new races? So many options to consider. It’s a good sign that I want to keep going back for more!
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Nice write up!
Katie said, you’re quite a good writer.
And it was fun to be in your article.
Congrats on your race — sounds like it was a great time!
Thank you! Definitely a good time. Enough to debate possibly returning? :)