From Berlin, after a short stop in the UK to pick up some additional clothing, I moved on to Chicago to prepare for my fourth 'marathon major' of 2018 (you can read about my Boston, London and Berlin experiences first should you wish). After a couple of bad experiences at US border control in the last year, I feel I should point out the chap at Chicago O'Hare was super welcoming - we had a friendly chat about the marathon and there was no private interrogation. An excellent start.
My plan for Chicago was to be slightly different than most of the races on the adventure so far. My friends Adam & Jess live in the north of the city and had kindly offered up their spare room. This meant I was able to arrive a couple of weeks before the race, shake off the jet lag and avoid a lot of the stress and hassle of trying to work everything into a long weekend, not to mention the cost of a hotel. Also, Adam was due to run his very first marathon at Chicago, something I was a lot more excited about than he was. We would be joined by Jess' brother Jake, a Chicago Marathon veteran, meaning we had a nice little race squad.
As I've mentioned in previous posts, Chicago is a city that seriously loves running. This means that: a) it's unlikely anyone will look at you like you're an alien if you go for a run, b) it has some excellent, car-free trails for training and c) there are a ton of running groups and communities to get involved with - I'll hopefully share some of these with you in a later post.
Chicago boasts a whopping 570 parks but to get to them, you first need to navigate your way round the normal issue of having to stop/slow for a road crossing every 30 seconds. Advisory: motorists are prone to ignoring pedestrian crossings here so they are more akin to 'strike zones'. In my experience, unless you want to find yourself pinned to the grill of an SUV whilst someone blindly coasts through a red light or zebra crossing, scrolling through their family WhatsApp, I'd strongly advise you wait until the road is clear before stepping out.
My personal favourite routes were the Bloomingdale Trail (aka 'The 606'), a 2.7-mile elevated greenway converted from an old railroad and the simply brilliant Lakefront trail - 18 miles of tarmac path running alongside Lake Michigan, surrounded by parkland and lined with free exercise equipment and ample drinking fountains. It was on these trails that I ran alongside the locals, worked out the kinks from Berlin and moved into some sort of taper in the 18 days I had to prepare for Chicago.
Out on Lake Michigan the week before the marathon. In a hilarious twist, I was hit by a freak wave seconds after this photo and had to run the remainder in soaking wet clothing. It would turn out to be an excellent dress rehearsal for race day.
As marathon weekend drew closer, I stopped running for a few days in the hope that the last of the Berlin heaviness remaining in my legs would dissipate. We decided to hit the marathon expo mid-afternoon on the Friday (reasoning that it should be relatively quiet) and headed to McCormick Place Convention Center, a massive complex down in the south of the city. The race packet pickup was impressive indeed, a quick scan of the QR code on the participant form and then walk straight to a desk where they're already waiting for you to hand over your stuff. Done in around 10 seconds. I think that's the quickest race pack pickup I've ever experienced!
We weren't planning on spending long here. As any marathoner will tell you, a long time on the feet close to a marathon ain't a good thing (and as someone trying to run several international marathons on a tight budget, being around lots of marketing hype and running products definitely ain't a good thing!). As an aside, I was very impressed with the contents of the goodie bag. Unlike some races, it actually contained useful items: blister plasters, muscle balm, protein bars and something called a 'Dude Shower' - a product that claimed to 'keep the stank away'. I have to admit, I'm not entirely sure what 'stank' is but it definitely sounds like something I'd like to keep away. I don't know what was offered in the ladies' bag as an alternative to Dude Shower or if stank is just a male affliction. If anyone can enlighten me on this important issue, I'd be glad of the knowledge.
Obligatory expo photo standing in front of something that says 'marathon' or '26.2'
After a 4.45am alarm call (something we all love on a Sunday), I jumped straight on to porridge duty. There was a situation. Upon opening the packaging I discovered that we had some kind of American 'steel cut' blend rather than your classic rolled oat which meant a three day cooking time would be required*. Conscious of the tight timeline, we opted for the emergency bagels and peanut butter/banana instead. There had been heavy rain for a large chunk of Saturday and the race day forecast was for 14ºC and showers so I packed a poncho and an extra change of dry clothing & shoes. After a short struggle to find a taxi, we managed to get going, collected Jake en-route and headed south towards downtown at speed. As we approached the city and morning broke, it unveiled the huge, angry clouds hiding the top of the cities' skyscrapers. It was dry for now, but at some point we were going to get drenched.
* This may be an exaggeration
After being dropped around a mile away, we joined the throng of runners flowing toward Grant Park, sporting waterproofs and dodging the many puddles. By the time we moved through the busy security cordon, we had around 45 minutes until the start of the first wave.
In Chicago there are 11 starting corrals in three waves:
Wave 1 - 7.30 am (A, B, C, D, E)
Wave 2 - 8.00 am (F, G, H)
Wave 3 - 8.45 am (J, K, L)
I had just about enough time to change, drop my kit bag in (no wait - kudos again, organisers), share embraces and best wishes with Jake and Adam and enter my starting area. There wasn't a lot of space for a warm up alongside the corrals due to trees and the sizeable queues for the toilets so I had to settle for a bit of gentle mobilisation whilst I waited in line, conscious that time was moving on and the corrals close ten minutes before the race start. I made it out with seconds to spare as the marshalls began closing the gates. I'm still (just about) living on my 2017 London time so was fortunate to be well placed in corral A.
Runners prepare beside Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. $1 rain ponchos this years 'must have' item
A somewhat muffled air horn signals an on-time start and I'm across the timing pads within 30 seconds. The rain has returned but it's fairly light to begin with and has a pleasant cooling effect in the first few miles. I spend these miles working out what sort of condition I'm in and sussing out the aid stations. I'd read a great Chicago Marathon article by Jenny Hadfield on Runners World prior to the race, it suggested treating aid stations as a discipline like you would transition in triathlon. As someone who once spent five minutes dizzily ricocheting off every bike in transition after exiting a 400 metre swim, I wasn't sure how useful that would be but I followed the sage advice of noting the placement of drinks and deciding what you need from each station beforehand and settled into a smooth routine.
During my extensive (10 minute) research, I'd read that the GPS coverage is unreliable in Chicago due to the huge buildings. This proves to be true. As I'm witnessing some crazy numbers, I run on feel rather than being a slave to the pace on my watch, checking my heart rate zone occasionally to make sure I'm not pushing too hard. I position myself between the 3 hour and 3.05 pacer groups, keeping the large, rampaging 3 hour herd just in sight whilst I continue to assess how my body is going to behave. After 5 miles, I can feel a little fatigue creeping into my legs so make the decision to back off slightly.
The roads are wet and I need to be careful with my footing as anything painted or metal underfoot is super slippery. A few of the streets on the route are not in peak condition and potholes have gathered water which means I need to keep my wits about me when running in a crowd with limited visibility of the road ahead. Helpfully, the steel floored bridges we pass over have sections of brightly coloured, grippy carpet taped to them to help runners across without incident. The rain starts to come down harder and I wish I hadn't decided to leave my cap behind. The support is loud and constant as we pass through Boystown between eight and nine miles, there are men in superhero costumes dancing on a stage to 'It's Raining Men' here which is a welcome distraction. I get squeezed on corners a couple of times by people cutting in and have to jump onto the kerb to avoid an accident. As we hit halfway, the field has started to thin out a little as people fall off the pace. I pass a few guys with sub 3 hour target bibs on their back, their heads and shoulders slumped. They look like they're paying for going out too hard and may have a difficult second half ahead of them.
There are patches in the second half where things go a little quieter at the side of the road and it becomes a bit of a grind but every now and again there will be a band or some dance music kicking out from a speaker to lift the energy. It feels like the wind has picked up but I'm not sure if that's just because the cover provided by the tall buildings has gone. There is a burst of torrential rain for ten minutes or so and I can feel the wind rattling through my soaked clothing. Fortunately the air temperature is warm enough that I'm not having to work too hard to keep my body heat up (unlike Boston!). I notice that every time my left foot strikes the floor, my sodden sock is rubbing away the skin underneath my foot and creating a hot patch. That's going to be angry later on.
Chicago Course Profile: Pretty flat with 169ft of elevation gain, three or four short rises and an uphill kick at the end (see below)
I pass under the entrance to Chinatown around mile 21 and my legs are complaining but I'm still breathing relatively comfortably considering. I know it's just a matter of staying mentally strong. The support becomes raucous again, I feel like I've got enough left in the tank to get me home under 3.05.
I'm aware the 3.05 pace group have been close behind me for a while as I can hear the crowd screaming "go 3.05 guys" just a few seconds after I pass. I slow up a touch until they reach me, sneaking in behind someone with shoulders wide enough to shelter me from the wind. I figure it's a wise move to stay in this group and work together until we near the finish, hopefully with something to spare to dip under 3.05. We pass 800 metres to go and I'm on target but there's a strong headwind, the numbers in the group have dropped off and I'm struggling to go any faster.
I'd heard about a nasty rise with 400 metres to go and it arrives, I know if I lose any time here I'll miss out, so furiously work my arms and try to force a quicker cadence with my legs. I glimpse the finish in the distance and realise one last big effort will get me home. I open up and go for it, pretty much staggering over the line in 3:04:50. I congratulate a nice lady from Texas who was part of the 3.05 group and crossed the line with me, making sure to thank the pacer for his exceptional effort as I slowly make my way along the finish funnel, shattered but happy.
Chicago Marathon certainly take their finish line and celebrations seriously. Despite the rain, everyone working the finish area was shouting and cheering which made for a fantastic atmosphere. There were tables full of local beer being enthusiastically distributed. This 'Cheers & Beers' approach is a fine way to be greeted once you hobble beyond a marathon finish for sure.
There were 44,571 finishers in 2018, a new Chicago record. Whilst I peeled the sodden clothing off my skin and changed into my dry gear (oh, and utilised my Dude Shower - which turned out to be a wet wipe the size of a beach towel to remove all signs of stank**), I chatted to a group of Clapham Chasers - a London based running club for those not in the know. I was pleased to hear that Mo Farah had won the male race and beaten the European record with 2.05.11.
** This statement is not entirely true. It was more along the size of a large tissue or piece of kitchen roll. I'm happy to confirm it was adequate enough for post-race stank elimination.
The rest of the team finished well in the tough conditions. Jake came in at 3hrs 48mins in his 9th Chicago marathon and Adam finished his first marathon in 5hrs 19mins. After a celebratory beer and spending the best part of an hour trying to eat a giant pretzel larger than my head, the runners and supporters gathered for a team lunch to acknowledge the achievements of the day. As someone who is often travelling and racing alone, without a support team, it was heart-warming to be able to share in the positive energy of others' race experiences and celebrate with friends and their family.
And that was Chicago Marathon 2018. Huge thanks to the organisers and volunteers for putting on such an exceptionally organised event and to all that stood out in the rain for hours to support the runners. We truly appreciate the energy you gave.
Next Stop: New York!
Team Chicago post-marathon - (from left) me, Adam & Jake
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