Monday, October 11, 2010

The Chicago Marathon: More evidence that Mother Nature hates me

Why is it that every time I run a marathon, the weather sucks? For the Walt Disney World Marathon, it was 2000° and 136% humidity. For the Flying Pig, it was pouring rain. And for the Chicago Marathon, it was unbearably hot and sunny. Oh, it was a lovely day for sitting around and doing nothing. The sun was shining, birds were singing, blah blah blah. But from a marathoning perspective, it may as well been Death Valley.

But before I discuss all the millions of things that conspired against me in the actual race, let me back up to the pre-race events. No marathon race report would be complete without a rundown of the race expo. And Chicago certainly did not disappoint. The convention center was decked out in banners and posters and such all displaying the 10-10-10 logo.

Me under one of the many 10-10-10 banners

When we (my husband and I) entered the expo space, we were blown away by the size and scale of it. This picture does it no justice. It goes on for miles beyond what you can see here. Nike had by far the most impressive "booth". And when I say "booth", I mean small department store set up in the middle of the convention hall. They had hundreds and hundreds of items sporting Chicago Marathon designs. Naturally, we bought a whole bunch of them. My husband commented "Well, I guess I have to finish the marathon now that I've bought all this stuff!" Darn right you do!

A very small part of the expo

A brief side note about my husband.... About a month ago, he decided he was going to "do" Chicago. Now, mind you, he hasn't been training for a marathon and he's never run one before in his life. But he got the opportunity to use an injured runner's race entry that was otherwise going to go to waste, so he took it. Chicago is supposed to be a great marathon for first-timers, right? What could possibly go wrong? Ha. Hahahahaha. Just you wait, boys and girls. Just you wait.

Anyway, getting back to the expo... there was just so much to see, and so much to buy. In addition to my Nike purchases, I got two more pairs of my favorite toe socks. Hubby got a snazzy new race belt thingy that holds gels and a cell phone and a 6-pack of Coke and a 15" laptop. They were even selling Volkswagens at the expo! A Volkswagen would've come in real handy about Mile 22 of the race, but I digress...

Me and a giant shoe with eyeballs.

Hubby and I spent way too much time wandering around the expo. After we met the very nice lady in charge of OAR (Organization for Autism Research - the charity I was running for), we decided that we really needed to get off our feet and hydrate. We headed over to our hotel, got checked in and spent the next few hours relaxing. We took a cab to The Italian Village for a nice carby pasta dinner, and got back our room nice and early so we could do all of our race-prep and get to bed at an early hour.

The alarm went off dark and early at 5:00am and we forced down some food. It's hard to eat much when you're nervous, but you just have to do it. We headed down to the race start with our friends, Niki and Jeff, and the walk seemed endless. We needed to get to Charity Village - the special area reserved for charity runners with private gear check and private "bathrooms" (they're still port-a-potties, but at least there weren't lines).

Charity Village

After we checked our gear at the OAR tent, we made our way to the start line. That walk seemed endless too. I'm pretty sure we walked a good 1.5 miles before the race even started. We got the start area just before they were going to close the gates and squeezed ourselves in to the first place we were able. It just so happened that we had squeezed in among the 8:00 min/mile pace area. Whoops.

We were so close to the start line, we could actually SEE it!

We took a few last-minute pictures to show that at least we started the race looking happy and feeling good.

This is what happens when my ridiculously tall husband takes a picture of us.

This is what happens when ridiculously tall people scrunch down to my level to take a picture.

And before we knew it, we were off. It took us only 10 minutes to cross the starting line. People were passing us left and right because, well, we were surrounded by 3:30 marathoners, and we can barely run at that pace for 5k, let alone a whole marathon. Niki and Matt, who both suffer from various long-distance running ailments (ie, IT band syndrome), were implementing a run-walk strategy, so I didn't actually run with them. They started out ahead of me, but soon I overtook them and was on my own for the long haul.

I felt pretty good in the early miles. It was warm, but the tall buildings provided nice shade. I realized pretty early on that GPS and tall buildings don't mix well. My Garmin was all over the place in terms of pace and distance, and I had no clue how fast I was actually running. I could do a rough calculation at each mile marker, but this was poor feedback. And I knew that as the mileage increased, my ability to do math would decrease as defined by the Inverse Law of Distance and Computational Ability: For every mile run, one's ability to perform complex mental calculations decreases exponentially. True story. And just to show you all how messed up my Garmin was, allow me to show you a close-up of the run map from the downtown part of the course.

What the heck is this??? I swear I wasn't drunk during these miles.

The course starts out in skyscraper-land, where there are thousands upon thousands of cheering, enthusiastic spectators. It was so intensely motivating. When I got to the first water stop, I saw my good friend and fellow FASTie/Stashie, Cathy, handing out cups of water. She was just turning around to grab some more cups off the table when I ran up to her yelling "Cathy! Cathy!" and then I pulled her into a big hug and she promptly spilled two cups of water on me. It was my own fault, of course. I had forgotten Rule #145 of racing: Never sneak-attack the volunteers.

After the course left the downtown area, things got a lot quieter. For a little while at least. We ran through beautiful Lincoln Park, with lots of trees to provide shade. Then it was on to Wrigleyville and Boystown. I think this was one of the most enjoyable parts of the course. There was so much excitement from the spectators here, and the gay community really knows how to put on a show for the runners! I saw a very pretty drag queen, a bunch of gay men twirling rifles around, and a dancing superhero with a very... um... accentuated crotch area.

When I run through really enjoyable parts of a race, I tend to run faster. You would think that if I was enjoying it so much, I would slow down so I could enjoy it longer. But no. My brain says "Oh this is exciting, let's go FASTER!" I felt fine at the time. A little warm. My heart rate was a bit higher than I would've liked it to be. But I was doing fine with my fueling and hydration strategy, so I thought it was no big deal. I was wrong, and I would pay later.

As I approached the halfway point of the marathon, two significant things happened. First, my ponytail holder snapped and broke and all of the sudden, my huge mane of hair was hanging free around my head, on my shoulders and in my face. Naturally, I did not have a spare ponytail holder (believe me, that won't happen again). I seriously contemplated running into a CVS to buy some elastics (I had a $20 bill stashed in my bra, just in case). But in the end, I decided to just tough it out. I managed to tuck my hair under and around my headband to at least get it out of my face.

The second significant thing that happened was the course alert level was raised from Green to Yellow. This meant that the running conditions were now "moderate" due to the rising temperature. I was definitely starting to feel the heat. My heart rate was now consistently about 170, which was much higher than it should've been for the pace I was running. As the course turned to head west into Greektown, we left the shade of the tall buildings behind. I reached the halfway point in 2:24, which put me right on target for a sub-5:00 marathon. I still thought I had a chance at that point.

But things would change very soon. As the sun beat down on me and my heart rate soared, I kept trying to tell myself that it was all mental. That I just needed to tough it out. That it was supposed to be uncomfortable. I got to Mile 16 in under 3 hours and with the little bit of mental computational ability I had left, I figured out that I could run 12:00 min/mile for the rest of the race and still finish in 5:00. I still had hope.

Then things got ugly in a hurry. The course officials were calling out on loudspeakers that the alert level had been raised to red, or "High", which is code for "Imminent Death". They advised us to slow down, and to seek medical attention if we were feeling nauseous or dizzy. Things were getting serious now. I continued to run but my stomach felt unbelievably full. Every Sharkie I had eaten and every cup of water I had drunk felt like it was sitting like a rock in the bottom of my stomach, refusing to move. I couldn't eat or drink anymore. There was no more room in my gut. Apparently, my heart rate had been so high for so long that blood flow had been diverted away from my digestive system to help cool my extremities. A non-functioning digestive system was no good. No good at all.

I succumbed to the inevitable. I had to walk.

Evil warning flags of death.

I started out taking prolonged walk breaks through the aid stations. When my stomach would feel a little better, I would start running again. And when my stomach felt heavy again, I would walk. This went on for a few miles, but every time I walked, it got harder and harder to start running again. Around Mile 22, it got to the point where I would feel dizzy and lightheaded when I tried to run. It was then that I kissed my sub-5:00 goal goodbye. Self-preservation was the name of the game at that point. I didn't want to end up being carted off in an ambulance - I wanted to finish what I started. So I walked. And walked. And walked. My heart rate was still in the low 160's - much too high for a walking pace. The sun was relentless and there was no shade. The final miles of the Chicago Marathon are truly awful. There isn't much to see and a lot of the course runs alongside the expressway, so it's nothing but concrete for miles. They try to give you a mental boost with things like the Nike+ Power Song Zone at Mile 24, but when you're delirious with heat exhaustion, it doesn't really help that much. So I turned to the best source of entertainment at my disposal - my iPhone. I posted on Facebook and texted people. It helped a bit, as I got notes of encouragement from friends and family.

I tried to run here and there, but it was very intermittent. Being the super-awesome cool dork person that I am, every time I saw one of those blasted MarathonFoto photographers, I would start running and try to look all happy and peppy. In hindsight, I realize this was a mistake, because now there will be no photographic evidence of how utterly miserable I was. But maybe it's for the best. Maybe I'll look at my marathon pictures and think "Wow, I had such a great time. I can't wait to run another marathon!" *snort*

As I passed Mile 25, I told myself I had to finish strong. I gathered up every last ounce of energy I had and ran. And then I hit that final hill-that-isn't-really-a-hill and walked up it. But after I crested it, I ran again. And I ran all the way to the finish line. I finished strong. I gave Chicago everything I had.

I did not meet my sub-5:00 goal, and I definitely didn't meet my 4:45 super-goal. I was disappointed. But I did meet my goal to PR. I didn't PR by much (6 minutes), but it was something.After I picked up my medal and some post-race refreshments, I sat down on the curb to think. I had very mixed emotions. I so badly wanted to run under 5:00 and I knew I could do it. My official time was 5:08:56. I scolded myself for not pushing harder. But then I reminded myself that pushing harder probably would've ended with a trip to the hospital. I went through a million what-ifs. What if I had started slower? What if I had run with a pace group instead of relying on my wonky Garmin? What if I hadn't walked around at the expo so much the day before? What if... what if... what if?

And then I considered all the things that were out of my control. It was a record-setting high temperature in Chicago that day. It topped 84° as I was finishing the race. It wasn't terribly humid, but I believe the heat index was near 90°. These were exceptionally difficult marathon conditions. Toward the end of the race, I was surrounded by hundreds of others who had been forced to walk. I saw so many people with pace group bibs on their backs for 4:15, 4:30 and 4:45 pace groups. So many people fell short of their goals. I was not alone in my struggles.

So I guess Mother Nature doesn't just hate me. She also hates the 38,000 other runners that showed up for the marathon too. Geesh, what a bitch!

Wonky Garmin data.

Eventually, I got my butt up off the curb (which took some doing!) and hobbled over to get my finisher's photo taken. They were pouring ice cold beer and at that moment nothing sounded better than a nice frosty one. I couldn't stomach the thought of a banana, but for some odd reason, beer sounded great. I had a few sips and it was strangely refreshing, but I could only take a little bit of it.

I hobbled my way to Charity Village (that was a long walk before the marathon... and after the marathon, it was like walking a whole other marathon), and was greeted by the wonderful OAR people. They presented me with a special OAR medal, which I was not expecting at all. What a pleasant surprise! I got my checked gear bag and then proceeded to sit. After sitting and staring blankly into space for about 10 minutes, I got up the energy to take off my shoes so I could switch to comfy flip flops. When I did that, I discovered that even my lucky socks had been pushed past the breaking point.

The luck of the lucky socks runs out... through the big toe, apparently.

I put on my flip flops and my feet actually sighed in relief. Then I anxiously awaited news of Matt's and Niki's progress in the race. I checked the online results and saw that they were not too far from finishing. I knew they would make it. Before too long, they were hobbling into Charity Village, looking in pretty bad shape, but upright and alive. I was finally able to relax. And so I did.

Not only that, but all of my other friends, fellow FASTies and fellow Stashies who ran Chicago also finished. Congratulations to each and every one of them. It was not an easy day for a marathon. It would have been all too easy to give up. But we did not. As one of my friends, Tony, said: "The Chicago Marathon did not beat me. I beat it." Yes, you did. We all did.

Peace. Love. Train.


  1. Six minutes! That's huge given the circumstances! We have very similar experiences except you really blew away that second half!

    As for pace groups. I started with the 4:45 pace group. I lost them around mile 15 when I had to make a pit stop. In the last mile I passed a couple of the pace leaders, also over 5 hours. It was that kind of day.

  2. You are one awesome, inspirational coach! Love you!

  3. Great recap of the events. My story is so similar to yours, except for the fact that your time is way faster than mine. But I can so relate to everything you said in your blog. I too started with a pace group, the 5:00 group (what was I thinking?) and kept up with them for about 10 miles, I remember thinking, the 5:15 group is looking pretty good. So I started following them. But very soon I didn't care what group I was in. I needed to self preserve just like you. The most important thing is the last sentence in your blog. The Chicago Marathon did not beat us, we beat it. YEA!!

  4. Emily, you did great! A PR on THAT day is just an amazing feat of strength. It was great to see your sassy self on the course, too :-) Enjoy your week off of running!

  5. Thank you all for the kind words. :)

    Tony, one of these days, we have to run together.

    Robin, love you too my dear! I hope to see you at The Pig next year!

    Yvonne, you rocked your first marathon. Here's to many more!

    Angela, you passed me as I was about to slip into my marathon-induced coma... It was so nice to see a smiling face at that point. You were looking strong. :)

  6. Awesome summary of the events you experienced. Your humor has me LMAO! I'm so glad that your were able to set a PR despite the obstacles you encountered. I know what you mean about the issues you experienced with your GPS. The GPS in my car ALWAYS goes bonkers every time I drive in the downtown area. Hats Off to you, Matt and your fellow marathon runners. ILYG

  7. Ditto everything you said, and ditto Yvonne, too! :) I had to stop and use the potty at mile 6, which really made me mad, but I couldn't get to the ones at the start line what with the giant sea of people. After I left, I eventually passed the 5:15 group and thought I had half a chance of catching up with my group (who was running near the 5:00). Then, of course, my heart rate shot through the roof (I didn't have on a monitor but know it was crazy high)...eventually, the 5:15 passed me...then the 5:30...then the 5:45. Ugh. But yeah, I figured pushing through muscle pain is one thing, pushing through heart/breathing problems is just, well, stupid. :) I never made it to the OAR village...wonder if Lily will mail me my medal?

  8. Dad, thanks for being one of my biggest fans. :)

    Julie, you did incredibly for your first marathon in such adverse conditions. It can be so discouraging to watch pace groups pass you by, but you kept on trucking. And I bet if you email Lily, she'll get your medal to you. It's a very cool medal (I should've posted a picture of it - doh!).