Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Inexplicable traffic, a crooked hotel, and a skinny race course

It often seems that half the adventure of destination races is getting to the race city. This one was no exception as my husband and I (and two of our friends) journeyed to Chicago to run the Soldier Field 10 Mile race. A trip that should have taken 2.5 hours ended up taking about 3.5 hours thanks to the inexplicable traffic jam going into the city of Chicago on a Friday afternoon.

I fully understand traffic leaving the city on a Friday afternoon - everyone is done with work and trying to get home to the nicely-manicured lawns and evenly-spaced trees of the suburbs. But for reasons unknown, we spent far too long sitting in traffic trying to get to the city. It was the bizarre traffic phenomenon (henceforth known as BTP) where at first, everyone is stopped. Then everyone starts to move slowly. Then everyone begins to pick up speed. Pretty soon, you begin to think "Hey, looks like the traffic has ended!" because everyone is almost going the speed limit. But then, everyone slows down and before you know it, all the cars are stopped again. Repeat about 20 times. And then when the traffic jam is finally truly over, there is no apparent reason for there having been any traffic jam in the first place. No accidents. No lane reductions. No airplanes landing in the middle of the freeway. Just BTP.

Traffic notwithstanding, we arrived at our first destination without too much difficulty: Fleet Feet Sports. This was the location of race packet pickup. It was also a very clever ruse by the Fleet Feet people to get a whole lot of people into their store to spend money on all manner of really cool running gear. Which I may or may not have done. *whistles nonchalantly*

After picking up our packets, we headed down LSD (Lakeshore Drive for those of you not familiar with Chicago) to get checked into our hotel. We chose a hotel conveniently located across the street from Grant Park, about 1/2 mile from the race start/finish. The hotel's location was pretty much the only thing it had going for it. After checking into our rooms, we met back up with our friends for dinner and there was an awful lot of discussion about what was wrong with our rooms. Things such as the hot and cold water being reversed (we had to turn the knob to hot in order to get cold water, and vice versa), and the pillows being flatter than pancakes, and half the light bulbs not working, and the noisy A/C (but don't all hotels have noisy air conditioners?). But probably the most alarming complaint was from our friends who said that the floor of their room was visibly and noticeably slanted. In other words, you could put a marble on the floor by the door and it would roll, without any assistance, to the window. And we got all this for almost $200 a night! What a bargain!

We carb-loaded at, you guessed it, Noodles & Co, and then headed back to the crooked hotel for some good restful sleep on the pancake pillows. (As a side note: I tried to call the front desk to get more pillows, but the front desk button on the phone didn't work (intentionally?). So I dialed a line out and called the hotel phone number, but it rang 20 times and nobody answered. Top notch customer service, I tell ya!)

The morning of the race, we got up, got dressed, and ate some breakfast. I had brought my standard oatmeal and banana, but I forgot to bring a bowl and spoon... so I ended up "drinking" the oatmeal from a styrofoam cup. Hey, it worked!

We all walked over to the race start area (just outside of Soldier Field), made a last-minute port-a-potty stop, and then lined up for the race. We were all planning to run at different paces, so the four of us decided to compromise and start in the 9:45 pace area - it was faster than I was planning to run, and slower than they were planning to run. But not by a lot, either way. So hopefully I didn't get in too many people's way by starting with a slightly faster group of people. If I did, I apologize - I know it always irks me when slow people line up with the fast pace groups and then basically force everyone to pass them early in the race. And I did get passed by a lot of people early on, but that's pretty typical for me, as I always start a distance race at a pace slower than my target and then gradually accelerate over the first few miles.

The race started in two waves. The first wave was for "fast people". The elites, and people who had documented proof that they could run a sub-9:00 pace were allowed to run in the first wave. The second wave was for "everyone else", and it began 10 minutes after the first wave. I'm sure it will come as a shock to you all that I was not in the first wave. It was really no big deal starting later, and if it reduced the crowding along the course, it was definitely a good thing, as we will soon see.

The gun went off (or the air horn, in this case) and before we knew it, we were running. My husband and friends were ahead of me, but in sight for the first couple of miles. But pretty soon it was just me. I was glad to have my iPod to listen to, because as far as crowd support, this race was lacking. I could probably count on one hand the number of groups of cheering spectators. And while that doesn't make or break a race, it is a bit of a boost to hear words of encouragement along the way.

The course itself was pretty nice as far as scenery goes. The route headed south from Soldier Field along Lakeshore Drive (and at one point, we ran through a tunnel, which totally messed up the distance and pace on my Garmin in the first mile). Then at about Mile 4.5, the course was diverted onto the bike path that meanders along the lakeside. The views were wonderful, and there were some shady tree-lined areas that were a very nice break from the endless concrete of Lakeshore Drive. However, the bike path was skinny. And there were a lot of people running this race. The temperature was heating up and people were slowing down... but I was not. Which meant that I was passing a lot of people in the 2nd half of the race. And there wasn't a lot of room on the path for passing, so I spent a considerable amount of time running in the dirt/grass. It was really only a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, but an inconvenience nonetheless. The nice thing about running the bike path was that there was a wonderful and refreshing breeze the entire way.

Before I knew it, I was coming up on Soldier Field. Now there were tons of cheering spectators - they need to bus these people down LSD and sprinkle them along the entire course! I was starting to feel my energy fading, because it really was getting hot. Just one more little push was all I needed, but I wanted to save it for that final 50 yard dash on the football field. The runners took a hard left turn into another tunnel (the stadium), and once again, my Garmin got all funky. Then there was one more hard left turn and we were running out onto the field.

The finish line was in sight so I mustered up the energy for a final sprint... but then this group of about 5 or 6 girls in front me decided they were going to cross the finish line side-by-side with their hands linked, taking up nearly the entire width of the finish line.

Are you kidding me?!?!?

I was sorely tempted to run through them like a game of Red Rover (you know the game I'm talking about... from elementary school... "Red Rover, Red Rover, send Emily on over!"). But I thought that might be a show of poor sportsmanship or some such crap. So I took the high road and darted around them as best I could. At least I had the distinct pleasure of beating them.

I crossed the finish, grabbed a much-needed bottle of water and tried to take in the sight of the stadium before I was quickly ushered through another tunnel to collect my post-race goodies. I got my medal and some food and met up with my husband and friends, who had finished about 5-10 minutes before I did.

Victorious with our medals!

The official results were soon posted and as it turned out, I beat my goal of 1:45. Official finish time was 1:42:03 (10:13 pace). Not bad, especially considering it was a bit warm.

In fact, it was so warm that apparently the race course was closed shortly after I finished (I'm not exactly sure when this happened, but I do know that as we were getting ready to head back to the hotel, the black Extreme Alert flags were out, meaning that the race was closed down). I didn't really think it was that hot - I've certainly run races in hotter and more humid conditions than that. I'm just glad I was able to finish before it did close.

And now here's the run graph. The elevation plot looks worse than it was - it was actually mostly flat. You can see the two places where I went through a tunnel, because the elevation plot breaks in those places. Somehow, running through the first tunnel added 1/4 mile to my distance, which threw off my pace - so ignore the average pace, and the pace of the first two miles. Everything after that is okay, though.

Overall, it was a pretty neat race. It's worth doing just for the experience of finishing on Soldier Field (whether you're a Bears fan or not), and the scenic run along LSD is especially nice. The race was well-run, with plenty of water stops along the way, lots of port-o-potties, and nice post-race swag. And since 10 mile races aren't too common, it can be an instant PR for anyone who's never raced that distance before. I would definitely recommend this race.

I would not, however, recommend the crooked hotel.

Peace. Love. Train.

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