Leading up to the Chicago Marathon, I felt pretty relaxed and optimistic. There were very few complications throughout my training cycle, which loosely followed a Pfzinger approach. In past years, I had discovered through reflection that my body tolerated training plans where the number of hard efforts in a week was fewer, and upon researching plans, I soon realized parallels. Some changes included the V02 Max workouts in the LT and marathon phases of the plan. One component I’m particularly proud of in this build up was the combination of greater volume and percentage of easy running versus hard running. This can be a tricky percentage to meet on lesser volume.
At the same time, I had only 4 marathon pace runs: 8, 10, 13.1, and 14 miles, which took place over the course of 6-8 weeks, so mentally I really had to trust the science and that my body was ready for a 3:00 marathon. In hindsight, I would definitely aim to increase my pacing on 1-2 easy runs per week and push the pace further on my long runs.
Taper week went very well, but the niggle game was pretty tough! At first, whenever I wore booties (Hello Fall!), my metatarsals were signaling pain. Then, my right knee cap was a little sticky and far too crunchy to be considered typical. Later in the week, a hamstring pain grew, and I chalked it up to the significant reduction in training volume. However, after lugging our bags for a mile and a half after exiting the blue line Metra, it was growing in tenderness. I definitely felt concerned that it wasn’t as psychosomatic as I’d been hoping. Luckily, I’d packed arnica cream, tablets, and CBD arnica oil (mostly for joints and post-race discomfort) for the trip and began applying it copiously.
We woke up on Saturday morning and took the red line to the Heartbreak Run store to shake out with Keira D’Amato while she was still the Female American Marathon Record Holder! Before the run, Keira shared some great pre-race nuggets of wisdom:
“Give yourself a chance.”
“You only get one life, so live it twice.”
“I give my kids the same advice I give myself: have fun, do your best, and go for it!”
She also shared some words along the lines of the high risk, high reward mindset. Big goals are hard earned and intimidating, and so our anxiety can easily give us permission to sell ourselves short and evade the excellence we pursued the whole training block. Here, the Women's American Marathon Record holder, sharing the very challenges that are visceral to many athletes of all levels… big goals, fear of falling short of them, and recognizing what is lost if we choose to hold back instead of giving it our all.
I was so excited when I got to run alongside her for a bit, and Mike snapped some great action shots, too. After the shakeout, I ran a few very fast strides in Oz Park. I felt my hamstring, but it didn’t hurt as much.
The remainder of the daytime, we spent holed up in our hotel room, watching TV, resting, hydrating, and I was hyper aware of every twinge from my left hamstring, and now the inside of my right knee. Cue the dizzy emoji. I was reluctant to modify my race plan, so I decided I’d execute a plan that gives me 2 miles at goal marathon pace and then see what happens. If my hamstring behaved, then I’d proceed as planned, and if not, well, I could still have a great experience running the streets of Chicago and save myself for New York next month… or something. Regardless, I was snacking on my carbohydrate, sensitive food snacks and working hard to get 400g of carbohydrate for the day. This is hard, by the way!
We went to Goioa for dinner with Sean and his dad, John. I enjoyed a marinara gnocchi, which contains flour, but consists mainly of potatoes. I really enjoyed the restaurant vibe and a delicious glass of Sauvignon Blanc (also, carbs). Ha.
We returned to the hotel by 6:30 PM, watched some TV in bed after we laid everything out for our 4:00 AM wake up, and lights out by 8:30. We slept mostly solidly for 7.5 hours! I’d say another deliberation I struggled with was what to wear on my upper body. The temps were calling for chilly but warming, yet the wind in the city would keep the temperatures feeling on the cooler side. I chose to wear a tech t-shirt. Actually, come to think of it, most all of my gear that morning had good mojo! I’d won two 5Ks in my red sports bra, a 10K and top finisher at Grindstone 100 in my blue tech-tee, and the Grindstone 100 in my shorts as well. I appreciated the physical reminders (souvenirs?) of positive race experiences when I was feeling concerned about this one!
Also, why is eating breakfast so hard before a race? I’d found a gluten free and mighty tasty cereal back home that I packed a few servings of for carb loading and ease of nutrition on race morning. I finished it, but it took some effort. Another funny, but kind of ironic event that transpired before the race included pace tattoos. I’d selected a 3:00 and 3:05 pace tattoo, but when I tried to apply the 3:00 one, I didn’t do it properly (SMH), so I decided 3:05 was better than nothing, and it could even be a motivator running ahead of 3:05 pace (because 3:05 would be a 3+ minute PR).
I definitely could feel the discomfort in my hamstring and liberally applied all the muscle creams as well as PR lotion to it and my knees. I took two arnica tablets under the tongue as well. After donning my throwaway gear, graciously donated by community members through our local “Buy Nothing” group, Mike and I exited the hotel to meet Sean at the bridge on Michigan Avenue, the light of the full moon casting a glow all along the Chicago River as well as our path into Millennial Park. Luckily, our walk commute took only 15 minutes.
Droves of runners were appearing from all directions, and together we entered the highly efficient gates, where metal detection scanners waved over our bodies. We escorted Sean to bag drop and then made our way to the bathrooms by corrals A and B. Mike was in the American Development Program and stowed away our items in his bag there. We made frequent stops to the bathrooms nearby, using the flashlight feature on our phones for visibility in the port-a-johns.
Runners wore all kinds of clothing and items for warmth: bathrobes, space blankets, trashbags, saran wrap even, and of course PJ’s and old sweats. As time elapsed, it was time for Mike to return to his tent and begin warming up with the other sub-elites. Sean and I hung out for a bit longer before I started my pre-run routine and jogged around a bit. I bid him farewell, as he was in Corral A, and I entered Corral B. Shortly thereafter, the 3:00 pace team arrived. I wanted to meet them and hear what their plan was. In all of my Boston Qualifying races, I’ve not run with pacers, and I was apprehensive based on past experiences (being left and feeling demoralized, etc.). I’ll say the primary pacer wasn’t my cup of tea, but he shared the first few miles were difficult to gauge due to GPS inconsistency, which I’d heard and read in multiple locations. As I sucked down my pre-race Maurten gel, he shared some other tidbits for later in the race, like the plan to hit the half at 1:29:30, “walk and smile” or “run and cry”, but “don’t walk and cry”. Personally a funny visual.. until this actually happens to you. It’s not funny! But still, a good approach to take should things go south.
I enjoyed watching the elites and Mike’s group take off by way of the Jumbo screen. They were flying, and I was so excited! We heard a few more adrenaline-pumping tunes before we were walking, jogging, and boom, we were off!!! We were flying as we went into the first underpass, exiting onto the bridge, where red carpet was laid over the metal ridges on the bridge, thankfully! We were running past our hotel and taking a left on Grand. The rest is somewhat a blur in terms of landmarks and specific names of areas, landmarks, etc. I’d lost the pace group already, and I focused on keeping it easy as I kept my eyes peeled for the pace sign. That first mile was so fast that I missed the 1st mile marker, so I missed the opportunity to use the lap function for it as planned.
I did notice that the field started to run in a slinky kind of fashion, slow down on curves and slingshot on the straights. Given the crowd around me, it was hard to kind of do my own thing without feeling a sense of being overcome. I took my first cup of water around mile 2.5 I think, and by that point, I’d rejoined the pace group. My effort did seem high, and every time I looked at my watch, either to hit “lap” for a mile marker, we were trending way faster than 6:51. My watch's overall mileage was significantly off by almost a quarter mile, so my average pace was also reading as 6:42/mile! 20:55 was the true split on the tracker for the first 5K, and please excuse me, but I was definitely trying not to panic then. The pace was WAY too hot! 10K wasn’t much better with 42:01. By 10 miles, I’d run a 10 mile PR in 1 hour 7 minutes! Major oops, but I was feeling a bit stubborn at this point, and my hamstring wasn’t bothering me hardly at all, so I hung onto the group because I dreaded taking on the wind by myself.
I took gels at 30 minutes, 60 minutes, and at 90 minutes (13.1 time elapsed at 1:29:06), and while I was definitely not feeling comfortable at mile 12, I knew I could hang with that pace beyond 14 miles because I’d done it before untapered in training, and now I was tapered, ready to execute and perform! Shortly after the halfway point, I found that I was on a peak again (peaks and valleys in races) and acknowledged that the reality is that I’d ebb and flow in my comfort level throughout the race. I found myself running side by side with the pacer, which was a huge confidence boost in that moment. Then, all of a sudden, he took off, which I think greatly affected my mental game, as much as I hate to admit.
The miles started feeling harder, especially through the water stops. The increasing urge to urinate prompted me to at least be wary of bathroom opportunities available on the course, and around mile 16, I saw a water stop in combination with a bathroom stop and decided that this was the moment. I’d take the opportunity to sever myself from the pace group without 1) feeling the need to reel them back in or 2) feel a sense of despair as I watch them run away. I have no regrets about this decision. Upon exiting the bathroom, I drank a half cup of ice cold water before running back onto the course. Miles 17 and 18 were pretty solid in regard to getting back on my pacing plan, though the miles that followed I actively worked harder to keep the turnover coming. My mental game was a pendulum from focusing on running the strongest I could to jogging it in. Ultimately, my desire to seize the opportunity for a pretty sizable personal record in spite of losing the pace group won out, and I'm proud of that! In all of my past experiences following pacers, losing the pace group has resulted in the race derailing along with a demoralized state of mind, and I did not want another repeat of that.
How did I get myself out of that mindset? I remembered that I’d hired sitters to care for my girls while I was gone, and I needed to give this my best to justify the sacrifice of our time together. I also remembered all the people I’ve trained and those I had the privilege to share miles and conversations about “going for it” with. I just knew in my heart that I needed to lead and perform by example. Training with others and supporting others has made me a better athlete and better able to tolerate suffering.
At mile 22, there was a BioFreeze station, in a fashion like a NASCAR pitstop, and I veered into the chute to get a spray down the back of my legs because at this point my hamstring was clenching more and more. I’d say it was approximately 15 seconds spent in there before I was returning back to the course. Throughout the water stops at this point, I was walking and sipping, tossing an extra cup of water over my head as the temperature continued to rise. I definitely felt a little remorse on wearing a t-shirt because my core was a little too warm for comfort under full sun light.
It was surprising to me the amount of participants who had flown off the back of the front pack, walking towards the finish, puking neon vomit on the side of the roads, hands on knees, tears and sobbing. It looked more like what I’d see further back in the field, but what I soon realized is that the marathon is a merciless distance that eats your lunch if you make a couple of mistakes during the race. I read somewhere that marathon racing is 90% training and 10% luck, and I reluctantly must agree. In hindsight, I wish I’d swallowed my pride and let the pace group go in the early miles and trusted my own instinct and preparation for even pacing. However, regret gets you nowhere when you still have miles to go, so living with the decisions made and actively mitigating the impact of premature, energetically expensive behavior is what needed to happen to get me to the finish line to get the personal record I’d trained for!
I took a Maurten at 2:20 and decided to take another at 2:40. That should be plenty of fuel in that final quickly fatiguing hour to enable a strong finish. Mile 24 came, and I made a vow after that water stop to not slow for water again. It was time to finish this thing! Smile, keep the turnover going, change the music if I wasn’t feeling the jams! Mile 25 came, and the crowds were growing! A sign grew larger as I approached, reading “1 mile to go"! In my mind, I thought around 7 minutes remain. It’s so odd how long, and then, so short that amount of time can feel. After the whole race, it seems like something precious is slipping away, running out of real estate. Given, around mile 17-18, I was practically begging for the finish line to meet me a little more than half way! It’s an odd sensation to be sad that the race is coming to a close, perhaps its greater representation of the training cycle. Each cycle takes so much time and energy to complete, and while I love this process, each one is different and poses different challenges. It’s bittersweet to sense its end.
Nevertheless, my legs were still running, and the finish was coming soon! 1200m, 800m, and there it was, the hill at 400m, the one everyone said hurt their feelings. Oh no, I was READY for this! With long runs cresting over 1000 feet each time, I could handle a little bump right before the finish, and surprisingly my pace quickened to 6:42 for the final quarter mile. 300 m, 200m, and I was at the top, turning left and seeing the straightaway towards the Chicago Marathon Finish Line! 200 m is only half way around the track, and I knew I could fly. The road opened up, and I found my own space to set my gaze upon the finish line and finally empty my tank: 3:04:05, a 4 minute and 52 second personal record!
What a day!!!! I absolutely know I can run sub 3:00 at another marathon, though it will depend on a great course and great weather (I really can't complain here, the 4 past road marathons I've run, the weather has been close to perfect!). I truly believe the best is yet to come and by continuing to train intuitively and intentionally, my potential continues to expand. I practiced what I preached, led by example, and was rewarded handsomely. My husband ran a 2:36 and both of us were able to walk around, eat, and celebrate far better than after the Boston Marathon. No stomach or bathroom troubles, no spine issues, and just elation. We worked hard with the mindset of being able to celebrate together afterwards.
The best is yet to come!
(UnderArmour was amazing with their apparel customization and free medal engraving! This is the changing room inside their store... so creative!)