Running Fiesta

Writing and running in Austin, TX.

Chicago 2012: The Non-Race Report

The 2012 Chicago Marathon was hands down the best marathon I ever ran.

It wasn’t the first, or the fastest, or even the one that I had the most support going into. But it was the still the best. The most real. The one that didn’t fit into my training schedule but that I did just because I wanted to. The one that reminded me why I do all this in the first place.

Alright, alright, this isn’t a Backstreet Boys song. Enough melodramatic intro.

Chicago 2012 was marathon number seven for me, and seven is a special number. I have a very clear childhood memory of standing in our laundry room — in Chicago, of course — telling my best friend Lida that in one week I would turn seven, too. (Her birthday was a couple weeks before mine.) Seven just seemed so old. So grown up. At seven, I would be a big kid.

I guess kids are smarter than we think, because I feel the exact same way about marathons. By the time you hit seven, there’s no longer any fear of the distance. (Although maybe there should be.) As much as I like to think I’m supportive of new runners, I no longer remember what it feels like to wonder if I’ll finish.

With a stated time goal (5:15) that slow to the point of feeling unnatural, this race was a unique moment in time. A full marathon with literally zero pressure.


Of course, me being me, no pressure doesn’t mean no nerves. I was nervous that I would go too fast, pulled along by my competitive drive to not be shown up by my dad. I’m not being ageist here. He did most of his long “runs” injured on the elliptical. I did three 18- and two 20-milers in a Texas summer. I mean really…sometimes you just want to feel like that wasn’t a ridiculous waste of time and sunblock.

And although it was a lesser fear, I was also nervous I would end up way slower than my stated 5:15 goal, somehow proving that I’m way way less fit than I think I am.

Finally, I was nervous that I would actually run 5:15 and then have to wrap my ego around it.

I don’t literally run with fast runners, but I figuratively run in a lot of speedy circles. When some of the fast runners at work asked me about my plans for Chicago, I jumped through hoops to explain it wasn’t my real race. Just a long run, really. Practically like a circuit of Town Lake. No need to look up results, no sirree Bob. (Now isn’t that an underused saying these days?)

Since my stated goal was to run my *cough* second *cough* slowest marathon ever, I decided to race prep accordingly: Two beers and a veggie burger with fries Friday night, 2 glasses of wine at cocktail hour and 2 at dinner Saturday night, and a couple hours walking around the expo late afternoon. Let’s be real – if your goal is to run slow, you might as well enjoy the self-sabotage.

I think the race organizers were in on my plan, because they instituted a wave start this year that left our corrals starting at 8am. 8am!! That’s later than I sleep on an off day with no alarm! You’ll notice the distinct presence of daylight in this pre-race pic:

Team Rodd (aka “Team Evil Stepmom”) ordered Team MacLeod this neat sign!

Shortly after this pic was taken, Dad and I headed downstairs to snag a cab — never an easy task when the cabbies know the 1-mile trip will net them about $8. We ended up sharing with a couple first-timers from Indiana who clearly were nervous about covering the distance. I encouraged them to just enjoy the day as we lost each other in start-line chaos.

This year’s wave start meant that we were assigned to corrals based on our predicted (for us 4:00+ marathoners) or recorded finish times. Base on my experiences at various Rock ‘n Roll races, I was extremely nervous about the whole idea. Not to knock those races, but 40 minutes of shuffling from corral 17 to the start line really pushes the limits of my patience.

I have to say, Chicago did a wave start right. People who had qualified with sub-4-hour marathons were assigned to corrals in the first wave, released at the traditional 7:30 start time. Not only were they long gone by the time us 8am-ers hit the course, but our cheering section informed us that volunteers actually swept (swept!!!) the course between wave one and wave two. So, even though we spent the first three miles making spectacular leaps over discarded sweatshirts, there were half as many of those as there could have been.

The other benefit of this new start was that it effectively addressed the one complaint I’ve had about Chicago the past 2 years: The complete inability to move until you get out of the Loop. That’s right, even though the race has so many entrants that they devote an entire corral to runners with predicted finish times between 4:30 and 4:30.59, I could actually breathe when we crossed the start!

I spent that first mile enjoying my status as a “veteran” Chicago marathoner. I warned the woman next to me that her Garmin would definitely lose satellite signal on lower Columbus, and I smiled sagely when a man commented that he “wasn’t tired yet” at mile .2.

Patience, young grasshopper…

I spent most of the early miles debating when to lose my gloves. Temps at the start were in the upper 30s, and while that is generally considered “good” running weather, it is not a temperature to be taken lightly when you know you will be turning east and running into winds off the lake.

Amazing amount of free space at mile 1! That’s me in the yellow.

Around mile 5, I was distracted from my cold hands by the cheering and waving of people around me. I looked up to see the residents of an assisted living facility lined up along the windows of their building, waving at the masses of runners below. I usually think running is just running, but it was profoundly moving as a runner to be cheered on by people for whom running will never again be possible.

Thank goodness that was only one block, or I may have been too choked up to continue.

I spent miles 5 through 10 playing the watch-check game. I would decide whether our current pace felt harder than “super easy” and then check my watch to calibrate how much I would have to walk in the second half. When things felt good, we were typically around 11:00/mile pace. When things felt harder, we were dipping closer to 10:30s.

Seeing as this is our hometown race, I wanted to run as much of it with Dad as possible. In that spirit, I rationalized that running 10:30s for half a race and then taking multiple breaks for another half wouldn’t get me in any more trouble than running 11:30s for a true “easy long run” pace.

I also spent miles 6-10 playing the “is Handsome J dead?” game. He had planned to spot us at miles 6 and 9, and in our last two Chicago runnings he’s never missed us on course. I wasn’t too worried when I didn’t see him in Lincoln Park (miles 6 and 7), but when he failed to show at mile 9, I jumped to the natural conclusion that my overly-trusting Canadian fiancee had been mugged on the mean subways of Chicago. (Why I continue to think I know more about surviving in the big city than a 6-foot-tall, 175-pound man remains a mystery.)

I managed to remain calm until mile 11, which was sighting #3 of Evil Stepmom and her brother – sans Handsome J. Dad had peeled off 500m back at a “rest stop”, and realizing I was well ahead of pace, I decided to stop for a chat. They mostly convinced me that it was more likely that I had missed him in the tens of thousands of spectators than that he was dead. Mostly.

Fears of widowerdom aside, let me tell you, stopping to chat in the middle of a race is WEIRD. You stand there, and the clock is ticking, and…it doesn’t matter. Wrap your head around that.

I wasn’t the only one who struggled with this concept. When my Aunt Sue’s BF caught up with us, he looked me straight in the eye and calmly asked, “What are you doing?!?”

“Oh, just killing some time.”

He continued on.

Don’t mind me, I’m just chillin’ in the middle of a marathon…

By the time Dad caught up, I had determined that Handsome J was lying dead on the third rail of the L track. I did what any concerned runner would do: I called him on my cell phone.

“Hey Baby, it’s me. I think we might have missed you. We’re at mile 11. I’ll look for you around 15. Hope everything’s okay!”

Luckily, he knows me well enough to know that “Hope everything’s okay!” means “I’ve decided you’re dead and have commenced panic!”, so he immediately replied that he’d see me in Chinatown. Once again, a good hour’s worth of anxiety was proved pointless. One of these day’s I’ll learn, I swear.

That left Dad and I several miles to ponder running and life. We talked about the upcoming wedding, the likelihood we’d ever convince Evil Stepmom to run the marathon, and our respective workplace dilemmas. Somehow running a marathon can make my thwarted efforts to recruit tech writers seem roughly on the level with the stresses of being a senior partner in a major law firm. As usual, I wondered if I really should  have gone to law school after all. Then I remembered that I enjoy having time to run.

We crossed the halfway point together around 2:27, and I began to wonder a bit how I would add 18 minutes on to what already felt like a remarkably easy pace. I knew it wouldn’t happen if we stayed together, so at mile 16 I did something I haven’t done since my 1st marathon: I decided to make a pit-stop.

I know you guys don’t really want to hear about the time I spent in a Port-A-Potty, but I must say, if you’re going to stop mid-race in Chicago, mile 16 is not a bad place to do it. They’re off on a side street and no one even realized they’re there! No bad smell and a full roll of TP! Mid-marathon, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Actually, that particular pit-stop is closer to mile 15.3. I learned that fact because I took advantage of the break to text Handsome J that I was at 16 and would see him around mile 20. He’s an engineer with a math degree, so as soon as I realized how off my estimate was, I fell back into mental turmoil. Do I speed up so as not to risk missing him yet again? What if he decides it’s been too long and he missed me? Or do I slow down because I need to find 18 minutes somewhere, and I’m not going to spend all of them in a blue plastic oasis, no matter how plentiful the TP?

I never made up my mind, so miles 15.3 – 20 were completed in fits and starts. I would speed up for a while, slow down for a while, and search the faces of all the spectators. I cruised up Ashland (which is ugly and spectator free), and then hit the breaks as I entered Pilsen, just in case he would finally believe me that “Little Mexico” throws the best on-course party.

And then, finally, at mile 21…cue drumroll…we were reunited!! Lucky for me he had rescued the Scottish flag sign from our first Chicago in 2010, and I spotted it from across the road. Needless to say, we had a lot of catching up to do:

  • I learned that Dad was now several minutes ahead of me, so my slow-down efforts were meeting with some success.
  • I learned how Handsome J had been standing on the left side of the road at mile 6. Doh.
  • I learned that he had been at mile 9 as well, in Boystown, just under the stage occupied by the ROTC (Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps). I mean really, if you stand next to a stage full of flamboyantly gay men twirling rifles, what do you expect me to be looking at?
  • Most amusingly, I learned how an actual Scottish guy kept spotting J’s sign and yelling, “Yeah, Rangers FC!!”

We met up once more after that, at which point I decided to stand around long enough to guarantee a 5:00+ finish. I knew I was supposed to hit 5:15, but I figured that after running the first half faster than planned, standing around and staring at my watch at mile 21 wouldn’t provide much added benefit over jogging it in.

I couldn’t get in that much trouble if my finish time at least started with a “5”. Right?

Can’t wait to use these bad boys at work! “Team MacLeod would like you to review this document by EOB.”

Those last 5 jogging miles turned out to be my clearest memories of the race. The runners around me had grown quiet, as everyone entered their own personal battle to survive that last 10K. I began to feel a little guilty. Sure, my legs were getting a bit tired, but with all the training I’ve done this summer and the relatively easy pace, I was feeling remarkably good. There’s something just not right about feeling good in the last 10K of a marathon.

I decided to take this time to focus on two things.

  1. How good it felt to feel so fit. (Hard-won, so it deserves celebrating, right?) 
  2. How bad the end of my first few marathons felt. 

I know #2 sounds weird, but at this point, I really wanted to identify with the people around me. Given that we were now on a 5-hour pace, most of them were first-timers or resolution-makers or simply late-comers to the sport. When they ran into their families, 20 people would be jumping around on the sidelines, tearing up over the fact that their loved one was going to finish a marathon. A marathon!

I teared up a bit myself.

Usually I spend races looking for the funniest spectator signs, but now I found myself seeking out the most personal ones – the ones that mean nothing to anyone other than the person they were designed for: “We love K-Dub!”, and “Go Mommy!”, and “Sarah is the best!”

In Chicago, you cross the 800m to go mark just before turning up the one hill of the course, on Roosevelt heading into Grant Park. This is also where the thickest crowds are, and even though I knew none of my family would be crazy enough to stand in that mess, I still smiled widely at all the happy face. Perhaps I’m going a bit overboard on this love for running thing, or perhaps I was just plain exhausted, but I once again had to fight back tears at the thought that so many people came out on a cold Sunday morning to watch so many other people accomplish something truly remarkable.

By the time we turned onto Columbus for the finish, my smile was a full-on “big dumb grin”. Every runner has their favorite race distance, and in many ways I think a 5K really IS harder to run than a marathon. (Honestly, I’ll take a 26-mile jog over a 3-mile sprint any day. Puking just isn’t my thing.)

But ultimately, for me at least, there’s no feeling quite as special as finishing a marathon. It’s not the longest race distance you could cover — thank you 100-mile ultras — but in the grand scheme of everyday life, running for 5 hours straight IS an achievement. For those of us who train constantly and race often, it can be easy to forget that.

So there you have it. Chicago 2012 was my best marathon because it reminded me that no matter how long it takes you to get from start to finish, the accomplishment of covering the marathon distance is pure joy in it’s own right.

In retrospect, I think Dad and I balanced each other pretty well. Our easy first-half pace – from his perspective – allowed him to finish sub-5:00 even with a max training run distance of 14(!!!) miles. Our hard first-half pace – from my perspective – allowed me to really enjoy sightseeing in my favorite late-run neighborhoods and build the confidence of finishing a marathon feeling like I could have run harder.

Dad keeps talking about picking a new race for next year, but now that I have a 3-year streak, I just don’t know if I can bring myself to break it. Early March may find me once again skipping lunch to madly refresh the web page for that noon registration opening. Chicago 2013, anyone?

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This entry was posted on October 20, 2012 by in Chicago, races.
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