October 7, 2007 was to be a transformative day for me. I had signed up for the Chicago Marathon just hours after registration opened in January. I had run about 5 days a week for over a year (first topping 30, then 35, then 40, then 45 miles a week). I'd done speed work, tempo runs, hill repeats, easy runs and long runs. I'd run in the rain, the snow, the heat, at home, on vacation, on the roads, in the woods, on a 1/10 mile indoor track and on treadmills. I'd run races from 2 miles to a half-marathon. I saw my doctor, my chiropractor, my physical therapist and my massage therapist. I bought more running gear than any one person should be allowed to own. I never before wanted the summer to pass so quickly. It did, and October 7th arrived with a vengeance.
The story is so long and the details so incredibly vivid in my mind that I'm not sure I can just summarize it in a user-friendly way. That said, I'll still try.
On July 4, 2006, I went from being a casual/fitness runner to becoming a Runner. I took my brother-in-law up on his offer to join him in a half-marathon in October. I downloaded a beginner's training plan from http://www.coolrunning.com/, and soon saw my speed and endurance improve, all with relatively little effort on my part. Four days of running per week became five, and I started to miss running on my "rest" days. The half-marathon went great, and I ended up finishing within 45 seconds of my goal. It also got me into a preferred start corral (C) for Chicago, meaning that only about 10,000 people would be with or in front of me, instead of the possible 40,000+ who might otherwise have stood between me and the starting line.
I wanted to run Chicago as my first marathon since I'd lived there for a couple of years as a small child, I'd heard it was very well-organized (and that the crowds were fantastic) and because - unlike where I live - it's flat, flat, flat. I also have a good friend who lives there, and had run the race 15 times. He has lived in Chicago all his life, and was willing to play host to me and my first-marathon neuroses. Not sure how I got the neuroses past airport security, but David helped calm my first-timers nerves as soon as he introduced me to his colleague and 3:30 marathon pacer, who talked me into running with the 3:40 pace group, given the incredible heat forecast on race day.
Well, as an avowed gear-head, the Expo was great, although still a bit disappointing. Everything seemed to be marked full-retail-plus, and there were fewer freebies than I had expected. I did shake Hal Higdon's hand, which was a treat, since I can all but recite a few of his books by heart. I looked for Dick Beardsley, but he wasn't around until Saturday, and I figured the Expo would be a mob scene by then. I pawed the attractive but hyper-priced New Balance "official" marathon gear.
Friday night involved going to a Chicago Film Festival screening of The Spirit of the Marathon, complete with director/producer and featured runners Q & A afterwards (thanks for the tickets, A1runner). It was a great experience, not so much because it's a masterful piece of film-making, but because seeing it with 200+ other runners made it a special event indeed.
Saturday was a mellow day, including an emergency trip to Fleet Feet Sports to buy a new running top, since the dark blue form-fitting Asics top in which I'd trained all summer was not a good choice for an 88-degree day. I found a perfect Zoot triathlon top, white, complete with half-zip and gel pockets on either side. David and I went to the starting line (after running out of gas and pushing his SUV downtown), walked the first mile, then ran the next 3 nice and easy, ending at his house. The new singlet didn't seem like it would chafe, so I washed it and pinned my race number to it as soon as it dried.
I ate lots of bread and gnocchis on Saturday night, drank water like crazy and snacked on pretzels, rice cakes and other carbs until bedtime. I drank Gatorade and water until turning in at around 11pm, and sipped some more water during my fitful night's sleep.
I got up at 5:00, stretched lightly and walked to the closest Starbucks. There were two types of folks out at that hour: runners and Cubs' fans who had not stopped commiserating with each other about their team's playoff elimination. One large black coffee later, I ate my bagel and banana and drank some more water and Gatorade. I checked and re-checked my gear bag, and panicked that I'd not gotten the access ticket (a bracelet, in fact) to the Trophy Tent near the start/finish area. My only preparation crisis was that I couldn't get the pace tattoos to stick to my skin. A bad omen, as it turned out. Since I wasn't sure about my new singlet, I applied the BodyGlide liberally.
Anyway, David drove me to the starting area (he has reserved parking at his office building just a couple of blocks away), walked in with me, and then left me when he was not allowed to enter the corrals. while walking downtown, I saw a man with a huge sack slung over his back, and with a heavy west London accent, told me that it was a costume. "Of what?", I asked. "Testicles," he said. "You're going to run an entire marathon in the heat dressed as a pair of testicles?" I asked incredulously. "Well, 'run' is a bit of a strong word," he said. I heard he finished, but it must have been brutal.
Then I had a good karma moment, when I turned to my left and saw a familiar face. "I think I know you," I said. "Hi, I'm David Willey," the kindly fellow replied. We chatted briefly and wished each other well, butnot before I made some suggestions for Runner's World. As a faithfulreader, I knew that David hoped to run sub-3:20; I was going for a sub 3:40. See separate post about that chance encounter.
Once I checked my gear and found the C Corral, it was just a matter of waiting. Stretching and waiting. Stretching, sweating and waiting, to be precise. I knew things would be tough, since I could feel sweat beading up around my temples before I'd run even a single step. I kept the faith, though, and decided to create a virtual tether between myself and the New Balance 3:40 pacers.
After chatting with fellow aspiring 3:40 marathoners and our pacers, there was some commotion and the mass of humanity started to move forward. Two minutes and 59 seconds after the starting gun, I was across the starting line. I experienced that moment as if I'd been dunked in cauldron of hopefulness, fear, excitement, joy and gratitude. I'd put in so much training and endured such intense anticipation to get to this point, that the entire affair had a surreal quality that's tough to describe. I felt like I'd been sucked into a newsreel of the Chicago Marathon.
The first mile was too fast, sub-8:00, while the second was too slow. The pacers kept telling us that it takes a few miles to settle into a rhythm. I felt comfortable at an 8:15-8:20 pace, and had the idea to run just a bit ahead for a brief moment so that I could take my first gel at the aid station at Mile 5. I did, but then lost my pace group for many miles. My running watch was a Nike+ Sport Kit attached to my iPod, which had been acting up in the weeks leading up to Chicago. It seemed to be relatively accurate, off by about 8-10% relative to the posted mile markers. I caught back up with my pace group at around Mile 10, and still felt strong. The Nike+ died for good at around Mile 11, and I felt like I was running blind with no time on my wrist. I got to the half-way point and fiddled with it some more, but it was no use. I'd only know my times at each mile and the 5K splits. Still, I felt good, despite the heat, and thought that could run something in the 3:35-3:38 range, a decent debut in such bad conditions. I had hit every aid station, drinking a cup of Gatorade and at least a cup or two of water. I should have had more Gatorade.
The Wheels Come Off
Well, all my plans and training seemed to go down the tubes when my right calf cramped up severely at about Mile 16.5. I couldn't really run at all, so I stretched and walked, until I could run again. I was able to shuffle along at a snail's pace, and each labored step took a tremendous amount of effort. As I saw the last 3:40 pacer in my vicinity pull ahead, I tried to accelerate. My calf issued a resounding denial. At that point, my strategy was to shuffle to the next aid station, walk while drinking Gatorade, shuffle to the water tables and walk some more, then shuffle again for a couple of miles to the next one and repeat the cycle. The "Joggler" passed me. He is a guy who juggles three balls for the entire marathon distance. He later reported running a slow time in Chicago, but was proud to say he had only had two drops.
The thought of dropping out filled my head like a noxious fog. I kept trying to let it seep out and continued to make my way forward, however slowly. I had a running dialogue with myself, telling myself over and over that whatever time I ended up running would be better than explaining to everyone I knew why I dropped out of my first marathon. Hearing constant sirens and watching people on the course literally fall over did not help me forge ahead, but somehow all the miles logged, the training manuals read, my near-complete immersion in the wonderful world of distance running combined to give me the strength to get through the ordeal.
Even though the miles seemed to get farther apart, I knew I was going to finish once I had only 5K to go. I passed hundreds, maybe thousands, of people walking in the final miles, buoyed by the wonderful crowds and the knowledge that the pain and discomfort were temporary, but the knowledge of having persisted would stay with me forever. In the very last mile, I picked up the pace (to something like 9:15-9:30/mile), and actually heard the police telling us that the race had been cancelled, that we should stop running and "walk it in". My heat-addled brain could not really process that instruction, so I took my chances (what would they do, give me a speeding ticket?) and shuffled into Grant Park. I saw the finish line and was overcome with a feeling of elation and accomplishment. I ran towards the finish, seeing that the clock had passed 4 hours, but not really caring. There was relief in sight: water, ice, shade. I put my arms up, remembered to smile and crossed in a net time of 4:03:04, a disappointing start to what I hope will be a long and satisfying marathoning "career".
I took my finisher's medal, a space blanket (as a memento) and some water and tried to get to the Trophy Tent. I was denied access via the shortest route, and walked a total of a mile to go around and get to a shaded place with food and drink. I was soon feeling stunned and nauseated, and the disappointment of having fallen apart on the course set in. I sat at a table with 6 other runners; 5 had dropped out along the way. One said she was running with the 3:20 pace group, and when one of her pacers dropped out at Mile 11 , she soon followed.
After collecting myself, I walked towards where I had hoped to hail a cab. After another nearly two miles of walking (I thought I might cry as one full taxi after another went by), I got into a taxi, wanting to hug the driver for being willing to drive me back to David's house. I would have paid him $500 for the two-mile ride to David's house, but, thankfully, he only charged me about $7.00. I got there and David' wife and kids greeted me with big hugs and congratulations. I drank more water and called my wife, best friend, mother and sister. I only reached my friend on the first try, but when I heard my wife's voice mail message, I burst into tears, not sure why other than feeling a release after so much hard work, sacrifice and incredible anticipation.
There's so much more to write about, but I'll close this overlong post by saying that the heat in Chicago might have bent me, but it didn't break me. I cannot wait to run another marathon, and to avoid training mistakes the next time around. I can't draw many lessons from the race itself, other than it's good idea to avoid 90-degree marathons. I now respect the marathon distance, but I do not fear it. Before October 7, 2007, it was the other way around.