Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Chicago Marathon Experience

The 2012 Chicago Marathon Experience

Oct 7 2012 will live in infamy for me. It’s the day I ran my first marathon. Yes, I said, ‘first’. Which implies I might be stupid enough to do it again!
Yes, I may very well try it again, in fact, I’m sure I want to. But that’s literally getting ahead of myself.
Let me  lay out how I got here.
If you read this blog you know some of my story about how I became a runner. I have a few half marathons under my belt. But the height of accomplishment for most runners is the marathon, 26.2 miles. Most of us who run long distance at some point seriously consider checking this one off our bucket list. It was no different for me. Once I had completed a half marathon the thought came that I should give it a shot, if for no other reason than to say I had done a marathon.
The problem was, I’d been dealing with plantar fasciitis for  a whole year. Not exactly prime time to start training for a marathon. After completing a half in Moab UT, I wisely decided to take some time off from running to get myself healthy. And miraculously, it was working. I was actually getting better after all that time of suffering with it, who knew that taking a break could help with an overuse injury? =)
It was around this time that my wife messaged me that the Chicago Marathon registration was closing soon and she was thinking about signing up… after a moment of debate… we decided to try to get in, and what do you know, we both did, and registration filled up the next day and closed!
Though I was getting better, I still wasn’t 100%, so I needed to wait till the last minute to start my training.
Finally at near 4 months out, I thought I was healthy enough to start training. But unfortunately  I made an error on the calendar and realized I was already behind… so I had to start training already behind the curve. It was difficult to stay on schedule , what with family vacations and all, and on returning from a week in CO, I had my second setback. In trying to jump too many  miles in a week, I ended up with tendonitis, and having to stop running for 2 weeks (except for a sprint triathlon that was scheduled! I’m know, I’m stupid)
To wrap this story up, I ended up training for a marathon in basically 8 weeks, as compared to the 16 that most people take. After the tendonitis I was careful, and used a technique called ‘The Galloway Method’ on all my long runs, which basically involves walking for set periods of time during your long runs. It worked very well for building up after an injury, so well, I decided to use this method at the marathon itself.
In the 6 weeks prior to race day I completed long runs of 12, 14, 16, 10, 18, 20 and an 8 mile run the week before to give my body a break in preparation for the big one ahead. The 18 miler went well for me and Tammy, but Tammy had problems with her knee on the 20 and had to cut it short at 7 and walk back. I finished my 20 miler strong and got a great confidence boost from it. I knew in my heart I could complete the 26.2.
Race weekend arrived and  headed to Chicago and spent the day picking up our packets, checking out the routes, bus lines, starting line location and had a nice pre-race dinner, then headed to the hotel early to try for a good nights sleept. Neither of us slept well, and I awoke dozens of times to the sound of sirens echoing in the steel canyons of the city streets of Chicago.

Race day dawned clear and cool, absolutely perfect conditions for marathon running. We dressed, ate a light breakfast, and headed out to the bus stop to head to the race start area, 1.5 miles from our hotel. As we came outside, we noticed dozens of other race runners walking in the general direction of the starting line and didn’t see a bus nearby, so we just started walking too, thinking we’d grab a bus further along. 20 minutes went by and we were there. We met friends Rick and Jordan at an arranged spot, and headed toward our assigned corral. We had ‘assumed’ that those of us in the faster corrals could move back, just not forward. Jordan and I had both estimated faster times so were assigned corrals further forward. At some point we had all decided to run together. Jordan decided to hang near the corral entrance and the rest of us headed to the porta potties for one last pit stop before race time.
On our return, we saw Jordan had already entered the corral with a friend he had found, and as we made our way towards the corral entrance, I noticed the dozens of corral ‘marshals’ checking corral assignments...  First crisis… they saw my faster corral assignment and wouldn't let me in. Everyone was in but me. I was starting to panic but Jordan came up to the gate and told me to go to the other side. There were so many people entering the corrals that now that I knew the deal, it wasn't too hard for me to watch for a gap and a distraction and slip in among the crowd. A tense moment, but I got in!!! Wheew! We all gathered up and blended in to the crowd. I didn't want anybody finding me out and there were thousands of people in the corrals so it was easy to get blended in.  The tension was palpable now, excitement was in the air. I was just ready to get started!!! Finally, the race began and the crowd began moving towards the starting line. It took 10 full minutes for us to reach the starting line from the moment the race began as thousands of people in the faster corrals ahead of us filtered across the starting line. Finally, we could see the line ahead, and we all reached down to push the start buttons on our watches. We were off!!!
The first thing that happens in the Chicago Marathon is you go underneath a section of highway, so my watch immediately lost signal for a couple 10ths of a mile. We emerged into the sunlight and I tried to settle into the run. They say the first few miles are spent just dodging other people, and it’s true. What they don’t tell you, is that the next 20 miles are also spent dodging people!  So I just tried to get into a groove and settle into my pace, all while staying with my 3 race mates. And honestly, this is where this race became very surreal. You are so busy dodging other runners that it’s very difficult to look around and take in the sites of the city. It was cool running among these giant buildings, but again, hard to really look around much. I felt very much outside myself, and really couldn't judge how I felt, couldn't settle in, couldn't get in a groove, and the miles were just going by mindlessly. It was very strange. Around mile 4 we hit water stops and followed our plan to walk through the water stops, walking for 60 seconds and then continuing the run. It went off without a hitch, though it was crazy crowded, and you are walking through flying cups and gallons of spilled Gatorade, your feet are sticking to the ground, and everyone is bunching up. We walked our minute and were off again. We continued on and honestly, I don’t remember ANYTHING about what was around me, the pace, or how I felt, it’s all kind of a blank, which is weird! We skipped the next water stop as it was too close to the last and kept on running. I started picking up the pace a bit and got a little ahead of our little group. I was trying to push a little as we were running a bit slow according to our plan. Around this time I was surprised by the next water stop and stopped to walk without checking where Rick and Jordan were. Tammy stopped with me. She saw Jordan wave at us so assumed they had stopped too. We walked our minute and started running again. We looked around, but no Jordan and Rick. Bummer! We had planned to stay together but were already separated by mile 7. So we spent the next couple miles running and looking around, and finally we spotted them  ahead and caught up.
Soon after, we all felt we needed to stop at the porta potties, so we waited till we spotted some, and ran up. Big line!!! Dang it! Frustrating to be in the middle of a race and have to wait in line to pee. We noticed more porta potties on the other side of the street with a much shorter line and decided to go to those instead. Which means we had to cross the street, through hundreds of runners. We backtracked a bit, and tried to jump in the flow, but still got in a couple of people’s way. One girl literally shoved me out of her way, nearly knocking me down! My bad. In short order we were out of the porta potties and back on the road. Mile 10 came and went, and I noticed I felt much more fatigued than I normally would at 10 miles. Not a good sign!

Usually when I fatigue I like to disassociate a bit, so I started reading some of the signs people were holding along the way. A few made me chuckle, and gave me a good distraction. Here are a few of my favorites:

Worst, Parade, Ever!

Run Faster, I Farted!

Beer in 24 miles!

It seemed like a good idea 4 months ago, huh?

Feel free to punch anyone that says, 'You're almost there'

They say Chicago has some of the best crowd support, and I believe it. There were 10's of thousands of people out there cheering. It was crazy!!!

The first stretch stop came at 12.5, just a quick calf stretch and back on the road, and then it wasn't long before 13.1 arrived, half way. I took a bag of energy beans (like jelly beans) out of my pocket and started eating as I ran. I'm feeling very fatigued already, and I still have 13.1 miles to go. I was beginning to dread what miles 20-26 were going to feel like. The surreal feeling I'd been carrying along now was starting to mix with the pain of non stop running for 2 hours, and things were getting even more vague now. I really don't remember much between mile 13 and mile 20, aside from 3 things: We decided to break things into 2 mile increments, with a one minute walk every 2 miles, stopping to stretch for a few moments with Rick around 18, and one big thing: They start handing out gels around 18, and I heard someone say 'caffeine'. So I grab a mocha flavored gel, infused with caffeine  Caffeine is known to help athletic performance, and it's also known to reduce pain during athletic performance. I down the gel, and within 30 seconds I'm suddenly light headed, getting hot flashes, and feeling short of breath and dizzy.... Uh Oh. Not good. I guess putting all that sugar / carbs / caffeine in my body that is essentially completely cleaned out and empty is kind of like mainlining... it hit me hard. I feel a bit of nausea and I'm afraid I'm going to have to stop at best, and puke at worst. I stick it out for a minute and feel a tiny bit better. I tell myself to relax, it will pass, and luckily after a couple minutes it does. And bonus, within a couple more minutes, the pain seems to recede a bit.

Time for music.

I've been carrying my iPod and figure now is the time for some musical pick me up.
The music gave me a good pick me up for a bit, and I remember several of the songs that came on during my run, though not much about what was going on around me:

Outta Love - Van Halen
Marathon - Rush
Territories - Rush
Little Fighter - White Lion.

Geesh. 80's much?

Around 19.5 miles, we decided we would now walk a minute of every mile from here on out, to give ourselves a goal to focus on, and to try to take our mind off the pain a bit. The race was now becoming a slog, and this is where things really began to fall apart for us.

Mile 20 passed, and now I'm in new territory. This is the furthest I've ever run in my life, and my body knows it! My feet are two swollen lumps at the end of my legs, but the pain is endurable. My hip flexors have become a dull ache that is radiating out in both directions, and it takes real effort to pick each leg up and keep propelling myself forward.

Mile 21. We stop and walk. At this point, we decide, we're going to stick together no matter what happens, no matter our finish time. Our 60 second walk stretches out to 2 minutes. Time to go. Each time we walk, it gets a little harder to start running again. It starts by converting to baby steps and and swinging the arms, not much faster than walking, and eventually settles back into running. It hurts more at first, but after a minute or so it's not too bad, slightly better since the walk break. But the further we go, the quicker this dull, heavy, aching, worn out fatigue settles down on us. Someone is handing out banana quarters, and I grab one.

Mile 22. Some good songs come on the iPod and I feel a rare moment of elation. The pain recedes for the moment, and I look around at my running partners and yell, 'nothing can stop us now. We're going to make it! I don't care what happens, we're ALL crossing that finishing line, even if we have to carry each other!'. I get some vague 'uh huhs' and nods and the slog continues.

Mile 23. Walking again. The 1 minute walks are turning into 2 minutes walks or even more sometimes. We all give each other the look that says, "time to run again" and painfully start the running motion again. My moment of elation came and went, and I've moved into my own little world, trying to focus on the music, and just keep my legs moving. Left Right Left Right.... My hip flexors are just big numb spots and my core muscles and lower back are giant aching spots.

Mile 24. We run a little past 24 and take a walk break. Now each of us take turns breaking down a bit, stopping to stretch, we all stop, slowing to a walk, we all slow. Stick together. Relentless forward momentum, keep moving. The zombies are on the move again.

Mile 25. I am in full blown misery now. Every step seems like an exercise in futility, and I am chanting phillipians 4:13 to myself... "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me". I can't let any negative thoughts in my head now or i will stop and walk the rest of the way, and I don't want to do that. I see a banner ahead that seems to be a mile marker, but Tammy and Rick tell me there's still a turn to the finish. Ugh. False summit.

Mile 26. We are now determined to not walk anymore, to run the 2/10ths of a mile in, then it happens. I feel a twitch in one of my legs, than the other. Then suddenly it feels like electrical impulses are firing all up and down both legs, and I begin to cramp. I TRY to keep running, but I just can't anymore, I look around and tell the guys I have to walk, they all look at me like are you sure??? We're so close!!! But I have to. The cramps are taking hold and the pain is bad. Tears are coming to my eyes, but I can see the finish ahead, 800 yards. We walk for 20 seconds, and thankfully the cramps recede. I look around and give the ok, we all look up and start to run. I am running on pure willpower now, there is no fuel left in the tank, nothing left to burn, yet I find a way. We turn the final corner and the finish line is 100 yards ahead. I realize one of my favorite songs is now playing in my ears, The Camera Eye by Rush. We reach the line together, all 4 of us, and I grab Tammy's hand and we cross together, hands raised in the universal sign of victory. We've done it. 26.2 miles.

5 hours and 16 seconds. Nowhere near the time goal we had discussed, but satisfying nonetheless.
Again, I feel the emotion welling up as I look to the side at the row of people hanging finisher medals on the other runners. I am SO GLAD to be done!!! We all hug, and limp over to the food bags and water. We grab bags, have a snack, and wander around a bit. They say to stay on your feet for 30 minutes after a marathon and none of us are interested in a blood clot, so we make an effort to do that. Soon after we decide to head for the hotel We try to catch a bus, a taxi, a bicycle, but the crowds are crazy and there's no way. We have no choice but to walk the 1.5 miles to our hotel.

Laugh. Out. Loud.
The walk to the hotel is amusing. Slow, painful, and rewarding. It is a cool, sunny day in the city of Chicago. I've just ran a marathon. With my best friend at my side. We did it together. We are now part of the .05% of the population that ever runs a marathon. It feels good to be here, to be alive, to set a huge goal and accomplish it. Together. How many husband / wife combos ever run a marathon together and finish together? I'm sure it's a pretty small group!
The only question is...when and where will the next one be? I can't possibly let this be my last, can I?
Welcome to the disease of the runner. There's always another race, another place, another time, another pace!!!
Welcome to my world.

GPS Readout of the Chicago Marathon, and my splits

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