Monday, October 13, 2008


Heat. Cramps. Over-exuberance. Hubris. Blisters. Willful blindness.

Can you guess how Chicago went? The good: 3:40 is my new marathon PR. The bad: it is far short of my Boston qualifying standard of 3:20, and rather short of my "acceptable" B goal of 3:30 for this race. The ugly: cramps and blisters ruined the final miles - and my race.

It is tempting to write a long, borderline histrionic race report, aggrandizing my marathon effort as if it were some Odyssean battle of good versus evil. Of course, runner and non-runners alike know that the marathon is really a battle with oneself. We battle our bodies' perceived limitations; we battle the obstacles life throws in our way. We battle inertia, mockery, self-doubt. We battle injuries and time crunches, inadequate rest and competing obligations. We battle and struggle and scratch and claw and sacrifice with the hope that on race day, we will know it was all worth it because we picked a goal time we thought we could run and we actually ran it.

After my third marathon attempt, the battle continues.

Here is my weekend recap/31st Chicago Marathon Race Report. Read at your own risk.


I believe that I have previously acknowledged somewhere herein that I suffer from a (self-diagnosed) mild case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I like things to be a certain way, can be rattled when they aren't, and - while I consider myself to be somewhat adventurous - I thrive on routine. I made similar travel plans this year, stayed with the same wonderful friends, got my Saturday haircut at the same barber shop, ate my pre-race pasta dinner at the same place and otherwise fell into comparable patterns from last year's Chicago adventure. By doing things a second time over, I created "traditions".

My trip began inauspiciously when I received an "Orbitz Alert" that my flight would depart a half-hour late. I arrived about a half-hour before the scheduled departure, and was hurried to the gate area, since the plane was actually leaving on time. That meant no time to buy water, a paper or anything, but at least I didn't miss it.

As we boarded, I met another marathoner - easy to spot in a race shirt, Asics running shoes and SmartWool socks - who'd been doing the Pfitz 18-week, 55 mile-per-week plan with the hopes of breaking 4 hours. We chatted a bit and wished each other luck. I found out later that she just missed her goal. Darned heat!

I got to Chicago a little ahead of schedule and made my way to the blue line, to transfer to the red line before hopping on a shuttle to the Marathon Expo. Kid-in-a-candy store is the only way to describe me in a 10,000 square-foot area dedicated to all things running. The centerpiece of course was the Nike booth, official apparel sponsor and purveyor of some very nice gear. I'm not a big fan of Nike in general, given its sweatshop history and the fact that it's muscled its way into sports such as soccer by brandishing gobs of money so as to buy not just celebrity pitchmen and women, but entire national teams and athletic federations. I checked my reservations at the door and bought myself a wonderful (if overpriced) layer, along with a Chicago 2008 t-shirt for each of my 3 kids. The gear blew away what New Balance offered in 2007.

At the Expo, I saw several of the stars of "Spirit of the Marathon", the documentary which I saw last year, and which I saw again on Thursday night before flying out. I also saw Olympian and running wunderkind Ryan Hall signing autographs at the Asics booth. The place was immense, and the only that saved me from spending far more money than I should on things I don't really need was the fact that before long I'd gone into sensory overload. That, and the fact that everything being marked at full retail offended my bargain-seeking sensibilities. I'll likely load up on more gear when the prices drop before the holidays.

The highlight of the Expo, though, was meeting up with some of RW online forummates, known to me previously only by screen names and half-inch avatar photos. I met Screaminzab, 320orbust, LARunner, bird22, dvc2002 (I think that's it). It was very nice to put faces and names to training tips and race times. We laughed and wished each other well.

After the Expo, I finally made it my hosts' home in the Gold Coast area of the city, unpacked, washed up and prepared to go to dinner with my first childhood friend and his wife. We had a wonderful middle eastern meal full of exotic spiced flavors, along with the kind of barely controllable laughter that only people with long common histories can share.

When dinner ended, they dropped me off for the big FE (Forum Encounter) at a pretty lame karaoke bar. I met some more of the "usual suspects", including squirrel1.1, MN RunnerGuy, Chooch262 and some others who mostly post in a different forum. It was fun to hang out for a bit, and at least I got to meet Pace Runner briefly before I headed home. When one isn't drinking and doesn't sing, the options in a karaoke bar are pretty limited. Add to that the cure little young woman who confirmed that she is far closer to my almost 12 year-old daughter's age than she is to mine, and I felt like the old man who needed to go home, take some Metamucil, remove my teeth and go to bed wishing that Johnny Carson was still on the air.


The order of the day was to be mellow. I tried to sleep in, but was up at 7:00 (8:00 my time). I went for coffee and some pretty junkie breakfast food, and met my hosts' at their boys' water polo tournament. It's a rigorous sport to say the least, and I couldn't believe how much energy these boys expended.

I got my haircut. My host D & I took a leisurely 4-mile run through Lincoln Park, on part of the marathon course. I threw in some strides and let D heckle me about how he used to run 35:00 10Ks, sub-2:55 marathons and numerous ultra-marathons by doing nothing more than running around 100 miles per week (15 miles per day M-F, then 30-40 more miles on the weekend). No speedwork; no hydration strategy; no watch or heart rate monitor; no concern for lactate threshold, VO2 max or any other physiological cues.

I ate some lunch, where I ended up talking to a lovely young woman who was studying for the GRE's. She had note cards with vocabulary words, and I was on a roll when she quizzed me, so much so that she asked me to take the test for her. We chatted about school, life, education, work, Israel and the marathon, before I went to the store for fluids and carbs (as great as my hosts are, they don't cook and don't keep a very well-stocked larder). I tried to go to the movies, but the movies were all pretty lame. Call me crazy, but "Momma Mia" and "Pineapple Express" just didn't seem like good pre-race fare. I needed the Steve Prefontaine film festival, but it wasn't happening.

Napping eluded me. I worked my legs over with The Stick, the self massager which caused a secondary baggage screening when I boarded my flight. I tossed and turned until 6:00-ish, before washing up and dressing for dinner at the same Italian place where we ate last year. I ate gnocchis and grilled chicken, along with salad, bread (lots) and water (lots & lots). The 10 year-old boy of the family who'd followed 6 water polo matches with a full soccer game, fell asleep during dinner.


I awoke at about 3:00 am with a full bladder. I awoke at 4:00 with pre-race jitters. I got up a little before 5:00 and started eating, before being able to go to Starbucks in time for it to open at 5:30. As I got there a few minutes early, there were a couple of street guys talking loudly and less-than-elegantly. I also noted many folks, young, hiply dressed, especially women in shockingly short dresses (where were they when I was single?) apparently coming in from quite the night out. I got my and my host's coffee (he offered to drive me to the start, bless his heart), and was on my way back to get dressed. Breakfast was a small bagel with cream cheese, a honey-sweetened Greek-style yogurt a banana and lots of Gatorade and water.

En route to the steps of the Art Institute, D told me that his luxury SUV indicated that it was 67 degrees with 89% humidity. While those numbers may or may not have been accurate, they were certainly close. Unlike in 2007, I wasn't sweating merely standing around, but it was clearly warmer than it should be at 6:30 a.m. on an October Sunday in Chicago.
I made my way through the thickening crowds to the Endurance Pavilion, a restricted access tent for runners who were willing to shell out an additional $75.00 in order to face no waits for the restrooms, extra food and drink, a tent offering shelter/shade, and additional massage tables with little to no post-race waiting. I tried to connect with my RWOL buddy Pace Runner, but she had trouble finding the tent amidst all the hubbub, and I wanted to head to the starting corral, which would be a bit of a walk.
Access to the starting corral (I was in Corral C) was slow, and despite having used the semi-private port-o-lets in the Endurance Pavilion, I still had the urge to go. Some folks were using nearby trees; other had brought disposable bottles for that reason. I held it, hoping the urge would pass after a mile or two.

The announcements began, the national anthem sung, the wheelchair athletes started and then came the official starting gun. It took me well over 4 minutes to reach the starting area. This did not bode well in terms of the crowds in the early miles.

I had a very specific pacing plan, calling for a few "slow" early miles and allowing for a slight fade at the end. This was "the" plan to help me get to Boston. Despite how things played out, I think it was (and is) a sound pacing strategy.
The early miles were crowded. I hit the mile splits manually on my Garmin watch, and the combination of the tall buildings and my own likely zig-zagging put me well over on distance in the early going. Mile one was supposed to be 8:00; I ran it in 8:03. Mile 2 was supposed to be 7:55; I ran it in 8:03.

Below are the splits. Bear in mind that the slow later miles involved walking through aid stations, stretch breaks to deal with cramps and at least one curbside attempt to remove and re-lace my left shoe.

  1. 8:03

  2. 8:03

  3. 7:47

  4. 8:07 (included epic port-a-potty stop of at least 45 seconds)

  5. 7:30

  6. 7:47

  7. 7:37

  8. 7:38

  9. 7:46

  10. 7:37

  11. 7:43

  12. 15:29

  13. [missed the Mile 12 marker]

  14. 7:54

  15. 7:45

  16. 7:52

  17. 8:18 (cramping twinges began)

  18. 9:00 (giving up on any thoughts of Boston; trying to stave off cramps)

  19. 8:23 (getting it back together . . . briefly)

  20. 8:59 (struggling; my stride is a mess now; left foot is both numb and in pain; feeling the blister; bank thermometer read 83 degrees)

  21. 10:20 (dealt with my left shoe for at least 1+ minute)

  22. 9:29 (cramps getting worse, more severe & frequent, and affecting both calves and right hamstring)

  23. 10:19 (2 stretch stops; walked aid stations)

  24. 9:41

  25. 9:51

  26. 8:49 + 1:36 (did not stop running at all, but pushing any harder gave me more crampy twinges; minimal satisfaction out of passing people in the final stages)
Total Garmin-recorded distance was 26.71. Average HR was 164, but it was too high too early, around 171 when I crossed the half-way point in 1:42+. On the one hand, that was an encouraging time because I was running pretty comfortably and in the right "ball park"in terms of pace, while knowing that I had lost time navigating the crowd in the early miles and for the unexpected potty break. However, there was no denying the reality of the moment: I was not going to pick up two-plus minutes as the mercury climbed and I felt that I was working harder than I should have been at that stage.

The last mile reminded me - sadly - of a toned-down version of 2007, with apparently dozens of runners dropping off with cramps, dehydration, heat stroke or sheer exhaustion. All of the people I saw on the ground were receiving some sort of help, so I didn't have to decide about whether to keep running or do the right thing and help a fellow runner in distress.

When I saw the mass ahead of me veering towards the right, I was overjoyed at being so close. When I saw the 26-mile marker, I tried to pick up the pace, knowing that a 3:39-something finish was possibly within reach. According to my watch, despite everything that had happened, I was running close to a 7-minute pace, but it wasn't enough. I missed the 3:30's by the most infinitesimal margin.


I stopped for a "finisher's photo" against the Chicago backdrop after I got my medal, some water, some ice and a cool towel. I had to walk for what seemed like an eternity when the not-very-nice volunteer/security person would not let me through a fence to go back the Endurance Pavilion. I made it into the pavilion area and went to the massage registration table. Two nice women put me on a table, and stretched me out. My hip flexors screamed, but they did a nice job and I think they helped speed up my recovery.

I tried to eat, but nothing was very appealing. I put down a yogurt and an oatmeal cookie, but the thought of drinking a beer made my stomach turn. I was in a haze, chatting with other runners about their race experience and finally made my way to a semi-private changing area so that I could towel off and get into some dry cotton clothes before meeting D who'd volunteered to pick me up this year.

In my post-marathon haze, I did something incredibly bone-headed: I left my relatively new running shoes in the tent, along with my very pricey custom orthotics. I've e-mailed the marathon office, but am not holding out too much hope. I'll have to have my chiropractor fit me for new ones.

After an awesome shower (where I forced myself to stand under cold water for a while in lieu of an ice bath), I rested up during the afternoon. I called some family and friends to express my mixed feelings about a disappointing PR. I watched some trashy television (too embarrassing to state the titles of the movies and shows), nibbled on pretzels and candy, drank a lot of water, and rallied to join my hosts and another old friend for sushi for dinner. It was a great meal which hit the spot.

At this point, I'm going to stop, and will give myself a few days to digest the race, ponder what lessons I can learn and decide what's next. A half-marathon in 3 weeks? The Philadelphia Marathon is 6 weeks? Preparation for my 40-mile birthday run?

I don't know, but - as one well-known runner has observed - "Runs end; running doesn't".

Thanks for reading.



Willis said...

Strong effort, ESG. It was warm for a marathon, and you were working pretty hard out there. I still don't think your marathon race results reflect your true ability yet, and expect you to break 3:40 fairly easily on your next one. Congrats on a successful training cycle, and kudos for going hard for the BQ. Get some good rest, and don't fret too much about the next one - it's going to happen regardless!

Billy said...

Great report and a great race in spite of dealing with cramps and less-than-optimal conditions. My girl also missed her qualifying time by almost 20 minutes after blowing up around mile 16-17. And from what I read on, a LOT of folks fell well short of their goals in Chi-town.

Having gone through them myself about 4-5 times in races, I know how frustrating cramps can be. I'm pretty sure mine came as a result of muscle fatigue + dehydration/sodium loss, but probably more of the former. In my last marathon, some more endurance work in my training helped me stave them off until the latter miles, but they came nonetheless. Nothing you can do but shorten stride length and gut it out til the finish.

Still, a great, great time (especially considering the conditions). I say give yourself a week to recover and try to pick things up to prep for Philly (which will no doubt provide much better conditions).

If not Philly, why not fly out and join me and other forumites at CIM - fastest course in the West??

Congratulations again on the PR!

screaminzab said...


Good wrap up, as expected. We made the most of what was not an optimal day to run 3:20s. Take the rest of the week off and decide next week if you're ready for another 26.2 so soon. You set a PR in mediocre conditions. Let your body recover and give your brain a few days to figure out what's best for you at this point. I am certainly no expert, but I am here to be a sounding board if nothing else. I did run Vegas 7 weeks after Chicago in '05. Not to redeem myself, just for fun. Right- 26.2 for fun - insane.

Tough break about the shoes and orthotics. Talk to you soon.

Unknown said...

Hey ESG -- great report! I didn't realize you were such a talented writer. So sorry you didn't BQ, but it sounds like you ran a smart race (there's NO WAY I'd survive in such conditions). Here's keeping my fingers crossed you'll reach your goal during your next race.

- Betsy, aka EatDrinkRunWoman

Bimibatoo said...

Dude, bummer on the heat. I had a similar thing happen to me at Grandma's this summer. I was trying to break a certain time and had a total all-out cramping meltdown at mile 20 of that race. I learned hard lessons at that race: like never, ever go faster than your target pace in hot conditions unless you are past mile 24, don't forget to take gels and don't overhydrate/screw up electrolytes. Good luck next time. Now you have me freaked out as I was targeting to do Chicago in 2009 to break my time.

Phil said...

Hey ESG -
I was also at Chicago this year (my 5th), and I can assure you that your leg cramping had more to do with the heat and electrolyte loss than lack of training. If you haven't already, get some electrolyte tablets - if you already use them, start taking them earlier on hot days! I used to always cramp up around mile 18 or so, but have been cured - even at Chicago this year.