Chicago Marathon

A pre-flight morning paddle at Andrew Boy Charlton Pool and a fantastic breakfast spread prepared by Mum for visiting relatives from Malaysia precedes a 12+ hr flight from Sydney to San Francisco on a Saturday the week prior to the race.  Key objectives are to:

  • reset the body clock to the different time zone;
  • figure out the week’s nutrition plan; and
  • gauge fitness levels.

Smooth flight into the States, made all the more comfortable thanks to a brilliant cabin upgrade!  The ability to lie flat means that the hip flexors remain loose and the hard work of the AM swim is not undone.

The days spent in California consist of the following:

  • Saturday PM:  2 km easy swim at North Beach Pool;
  • Sunday AM:  21 km easy-moderate run from the Golden Gate Bridge to AT&T Park;
  • Monday PM:  2 km moderate swim at a YMCA in Palo Alto;
  • Tuesday AM:  8 km easy run in the Stanford University campus; and
  • Wednesday PM:  5 km warm up jog; 6x80m sprints; 5 km cool down at Tilden Park.

Take the first flight out to Chicago on Thursday morning where to my surprise I’m greeted by temperatures in the high 20s.  Fortunately, the weatherman tells us to expect something in the mid-teens come race day.  Before the day is done, I make sure the basics are obtained:

The Friday and Saturday Chicago plan is to stay plenty hydrated and spend as little time on the feet as possible.

Friday morning’s city tour with some of the Travelling Fit contingent is the first time many of us are formally meeting each other and it’s really great to see no shortage of smiles:

Word on the street is that President Obama is heading home for lunch before again hitting the campaign trail in town.  That’s nice but for us it means a not insubstantial delay waiting for his motorcade to pass.

Minus points on the nutrition front as it’s already been three hours between meals…why didn’t I bring those Nature Valley snack bars?  However, almost all is forgotten when we finally arrive at the impressive expo where there are plenty of food offerings to graze on.  Personally, the priorities here are to get the race bib, escape the throngs asap and take pressure off the feet, but not before Leonor from Canberra takes control of the camera for a couple of snaps:

Sticking rigidly to the plan, Saturday is spent somewhat impatiently sitting around in the hotel room, flicking between NBC weather reports and the Golf Channel.  A few members of the Travelling Fit group take part in the morning’s inaugural International Chicago 5K run.  While undoubtedly a terrific event, for today I’m only too happy to live it vicariously through stories told over the team’s pasta dinner:

4 am alarm on Sunday morning triggers the usual breakfast formula (white bread base, peanut butter for protein, sliced banana and a dressing of honey to provide the additional carbs) and some sips of instant black coffee provide me with the necessary boost before stepping out the door at 5:30.

Am I the only one who thinks it’s still remarkably warm?  Clearly not, as on the walk over to Grant Park I notice that some runners are already down to their racing gear making me appear slightly ridiculous lugging the entire kitchen sink:

With 5 mins to the 7:30 start, time for a quick self-check: stomach feels fine, legs ok if slightly wobbly given a lacklustre warm up consisting of 10 mins jogging and light stretches.  I decide that a result under the 3 hour mark today would be really nice – entirely achievable given the Blackmores Half.

Straight off the gun, I’m looking around for a pack to run with.  Nike’s 3 hr pace group about 50 m in front?  Sounds inviting and I set off in pursuit.  Along the way, the watch beeps erratically, giving me roller-coaster readings as the GPS signals have a hard time getting through the tunnel walls of N. Columbus Drive.  This leaves me virtually running blind meaning that I catch the Nike group within 400 m before the left turn onto E. Grand Ave, and in the process expending more energy than I should this early.

Another slight left south onto N. State St and as we pass the landmark Chicago Theatre I catch sight of tour group leader Felicity, camera in hand, but she’s standing on the other side of the road.

Not the time to navigate a stampede – too many feet and the inevitability of a trip-up is something I can do without.  My attention turns to Jose Luis Callado who surges past at a reasonable clip and I decide to tag along for the ride.  For the next few ks up N. La Salle Blvd and into Lincoln Park it’s a two-man train employing an army left-right-left-right running style to avoid others:

As the km markers increase, so too do Callado’s average splits.  Thankfully, Daniel Nassar goes by and I find myself drafting behind him on consistent 3:50-4:05s.  Per Google, he has a 2:50 Boston Marathon which confirms that the decision was a good move.  While there is a noticeable decrease in form (hunched shoulders from staring at Nassar’s feet mimicking his cadence) this hides the bigger picture energy savings from not having to perform goal pace mental arithmetic.

The day’s first real test comes at 12 km, where after briefly running west along W. Addison Street we make a left to run south on N. Broadway into a reasonable headwind.  I steal a quick glance up from Nassar’s feet – he looks strong and can act as my wind block.  Just before the halfway mark on N. Franklin Street, welcome cheers float over from the Travelling Fit support crew who’ve somehow found a way to navigate their way around barricades and the crowds.

21.1 km in 1:25:45.

The next 10 km are all about putting time in the bank for the harder latter stages of the race.  Heading west into Greektown and looping back through Little Italy, Nassar thinks similarly and puts down a couple of 3:30–40 splits.  Good on him for taking the initiative.  Hence, while the course map takes us past key city landmarks, it’s all a case of out of sight, out of mind as I’m chasing a yellow shirt:

30 km marker sees us heading through University Village and into Pilsen.  By now, we’re back up to 3:50s/km and the pace is honestly starting to feel hard.  The field has been reduced to single file, and with sizeable gaps starting to appear between runners, crowd support (which has been tremendous all the way from the start) becomes increasingly important especially if you happen to be stuck out there on your own.

The heart wills me to cling onto Nassar (still looking strong) but the mind listens to the body and pressures me into survival mode.  A race volunteer, Zhong Li, captures this phase at mile 23:

Nonetheless, one final 2.5 mile stretch north up S. Michigan Ave awaits.  By now, Nassar has put about 80 m on me and much like a Samsung Galaxy Note 7, deep down I know that I won’t be able to climb back on board.  I try everything (swing arms harder; lift head higher) to increase stride length to no avail as others are now passing by with the consistency of a Novak Djokovic backhand.

A brief kick right onto W. Roosevelt Road with a slight incline into a brutal headwind tries to deliver the KO blow but I survive and make the sharp left into the finishing straight on S. Columbus Drive.  Needless to say, it’s rewarding to see the clock beginning with a “2” for the first time!

42.2 km in 2:52:36.

A 12 minute PB and finally an official member of the sub-3 club!  I’m comfortable with the 2 min positive 2nd half split given this was:

  • exaggerated by the strong headwinds coming back to Grant Park; and
  • not helped by my final quarter nutrition strategy (minimal drink every 10 km except between 35 and 40 which saw me insatiably filling up at almost every drinks station; ½ banana for food) but which clearly can be tinkered with next time.

An Irish runner joins me on the slow and long walk back to the hospitality tent.  Consensus is reached that the wind and the mini-hills ascending the numerous bridges were major handicaps today – he achieved a 2:35 in Berlin last year and ran 2:51 today.  He also suggests that the paved cobblestones of Berlin provide a better surface for faster running.  Not sure if I’m in complete agreement there but on this basis, should a 2nd attempt at Berlin be on the cards?

Back at the tent, John Yip from Toronto and his young family join me at the table.  In the process of becoming Strava buddies, we trade war stories and share our mutual elation in safely qualifying for Boston 2018.  It’s inspiring to hear that he manages to fit in triathlons and I will be excited to track his training regimen going forwards.

Post-race drinks sees two of the Travelling Fit team – Steve “Action” Jackson and John Warda – proudly display their Abbott Marathon Majors Six Star medals, meaning that they’ve now run each of the big races (Tokyo, London, Boston, New York, Berlin and Chicago) at least once.  In amongst picking their brains, it emerges that Steve used to be a member of HurTS and has a mightily impressive 2:32 marathon PB to his name!

A slight shame to hear that he’s suffered a few injuries of late.  Shin and Raj from Singapore also offer some valuable tips about running New York (long way to the start; undulating; cold) and London (quite flat but with many twists and turns).

The day is capped off with a well-earned porterhouse at Morton’s, sweetened by a bottle of Argentinian Malbec generously treated by the Murrays: Good food and conversation: the panacea for sore knees, ankles and feet.

Thanks to Felicity and the entire Travelling Fit contingent: well-organised and hard to top good company to discuss the highs and lows of a shared accomplishment!  Equally grateful to Michelle Ai, my uni mentor now Chicago-based, for sorting out some serious accommodation issues at the last minute!