Training for the Chicago marathon was not an ordinary marathon cycle. After completing a half ironman in late July, I only had 10 weeks before the marathon. This was further reduced by a small foot injury which took out another 3 weeks of training. Thus, with 7 weeks to go I began my marathon specific training. To avoid reigniting my foot issue, I relied heavily on weekly swimming and cycling workouts throughout the cycle as this would reduce overall stress on my feet. As a part of my long-term strategy to increase aerobic fitness I continued my current plan of running mostly at zone two heart rate with only a touch of speed once or twice a week to maintain connection to the feeling of running fast. Maintaining a slow enough speed to keep my heart rate down was extremely difficult in the first couple of weeks when I found myself running 13 minutes per mile or slower. However, by peak week I was able to maintain a pace below 10 minutes per mile for 20 miles straight. This slow increase in performance gave me a huge boost of confidence that I would be able to run well in the marathon!
Considering all applicable life circumstances, I decided that my goal for this race would be to run a sub-4 marathon. With advice from coach A, I prepared my race plan that consisted of the following:
- Start somewhere between 9:15-9:20 minutes per mile
- Gradually descend to approximately 9 minutes per mile by mile 5
- Hold pace until around mile 20 and then reevaluate from there whether to slow down, hold pace, or speed up
I felt this was a solid plan as it would allow a slow warm-up with the rainy conditions that were in the forecast for the race while still maintaining a pace that would accomplish my goal in the long term. In terms of my fueling strategy I would drink to the thirst at aid stations and attempt to eat 2 cliff blocks approximately every 30 minutes for about 30 grams of carbohydrates every hour.
My alarm went off at 4:30 am for a quick breakfast of toast, peanut butter, banana, and blueberries. By 5 I was in the car heading from the suburbs into the city, and by 6 my family and I had arrived at Grant Park where the start of the race was located. At the time it had been raining and I did not need to be in my corral until 7:45 am, so I went into a local corner bakery and tried to relax there until 7. At that point I met-up with Taylor Fries from November Project – Madison and we entered security to drop off our bags. Although I had used the bathroom in the Corner Bakery, my bowels decided they wanted another go so I waited in line for the porta-potties for close to 30 minutes. With seconds to spare I made it from the porta-potties into Corral G to wait for the race start.
Early Miles (1-3)
When my corral finally made it to the start line, I took off at a comfortable pace. I quickly realized that my GPS watch was not going to be of much use as the readings for pace and distance fluctuated rapidly. I crossed the first mile marker at a pace of close to 9 minutes per mile, quite a bit faster than what I had planned for. I attempted to slow down just a bit, but as I continued to punch off the miles I maintained the 9-minute pace. Not what I anticipated, but I felt good, so could have been worse. In the middle of the third mile, I began to sense a bit of discomfort on my left side. This quickly developed into a side stitch. Again, not what I would have liked at the start of a race, but I attempted to focus on my breathing and forget about the pain. Within minutes the stitch had subsided, however, the stitch would end up bothering me on and off throughout the rest of the race.
The Middle (4-18)
I have very little recollection of the middle miles other than just settling into my natural rhythm and attempting to hold my pace. For a long time, I found myself running next to the 3:55 pace group, however, by the late teens I had pulled away from them by a bit. I can’t remember exactly when (perhaps somewhere around mile 17), but I began to feel a tinge of pain that was suddenly getting worse in the left breast area. Then the right breast areaâ€¦ then both. Glancing down my shirt I realized that my soaking wet shirt had caused some chafing, as it turns out that nipple chafing during marathons is a real problem. To combat the issue, I pulled my shirt closer to my chest for the shirt and my body to move in a more synchronized manner, and this helped reduce the rubbing pain.
By mile 19 I began to feel a serious discomfort building up in my legs. I tried to distract myself by paying attention to the crowds of spectators and thinking to myself that the November Project â€“ Chicago cheer station would only be 3 miles away. No walking until at least the cheer station I told myself. Soon I found myself running up to the 22-mile marker, and there, as promised, were my friends from NPCHI. A few high fives and cheers later, I was back on the streets on my own. This time the pain was starting to get real, and my stomach was beginning to reject the Cliff Blocks I had been fueling. At the 23-mile marker I let myself walk through the aid station and fuel with the provided Gatorade. For the next two aid stations I would walk through them completely before running the rest of the way to the next station. The crowds were once again starting to get bigger as I approached the finish line, but all I wanted was less attention. To put my head down and finish. A short time later I was at the 25-mile marker and running the last 1.2 miles into the finish line. All I can remember is being in serious pain but telling myself that nobody else around me was walking. If they can all run into the finish, I can too. Then I finished, I came through the finish line with an official time of 3:55:46.
Finishing the race was incredibly overwhelming, part of me wanted to cry, another part of me wanted to hug somebody, and yet another part of me just wanted to lay down on the ground without standing up for a while. I slowly made my way through the finish line with a few short stops that were quickly ended by race volunteers forcing me to keep moving. After finally making it through the chute and getting my checked bag back, I found a nice spot on the ground near Buckingham fountain. There I put on a few more layers and lay down on the ground for the next hour or so chatting with the other finishers, mostly joking about how I would never subject myself to this agony again. At last the pain had subsided enough for me to make my way out of Grant Park to reunite with my family.
While I was running, I got the chance to think more about why I run. It’s not easy to be consistent with training, or to put in long sessions on your feet. There are so many ways to answer this question, but I think what encompasses it all is, I run because I can. It’s easy to take for granted the health and fitness that enable us to move around on our feet. It’s amazing that our body can function for hours when the going gets tough and every fiber in our body is screaming to stop. Additionally, I run because it makes me a better human being. Running never stops humbling me, teaching me to be compassionate for others, and tuning me into the natural world surrounding me. I run towards a brighter future and away from the negative experiences of my past.
Overall, I had an amazing experience, I absolutely crushed my time goal despite not exactly following the early parts of my race strategy. In addition, I managed to overcome the challenges that had been thrown at me throughout the duration of the race which was a success. As with any other races/training cycles, I learned a fair share about myself and what improvements I can make going forward. This training cycle reinforced the fact that you can’t fake a marathon. Although my time frame was out of my hands, seven weeks was not a long enough time period to build the necessary volume of miles under my legs for the best performance. Had I been able to build my weekly mileage a bit higher and sustain for a greater number of weeks, I think I would have had a better experience in the later stages of the race where I began to really struggle. Furthermore, my nutrition strategy can use a bit of work as I need to practice fueling when my body is rejecting what I am putting in. I was bad about really nailing down my race day nutrition in training and it definitely showed. Along the lines of nutrition, I think I need to look at what I had eaten pre-race. Although I ate my typical race morning meal, I think the side stitches may have been due to pre-race fueling. So, this just reinforces the fact that I should be training my pre-race meal before long runs. Typically, in training I would run first thing in the morning and eat after, however, this deprives me of the ability to practice my race day breakfast. I will definitely be switching up that order on some occasions in the future. Finally, I learned the hard way that nipple chafing is really a thing. Guys beware! Don’t think you are immune like I did! All of that said, I am excited to have completed such a great endurance event and am looking forward to taking a little bit of time off serious training before jumping into a new adventure. I have no events planned for next year yet, so I will need to start exploring!