Notes From a Hired Pen

Race Report: Chicago Marathon 2012

Dear readers: I know this is a freelancing blog, but it’s my site, so occasionally I will write off topic posts – like this one. If you care nothing for running, skip it (I won’t be offended!) I’ll have an interview with the amazing Amy Hill Hearth later this week.

When my boyfriend and I picked talked about what marathon to run in fall 2012, Chicago was at the top of both of our lists. We had both run a half marathon in 2011 to qualify us for seeding (i.e. we started close to the front of the pack instead of the back), and we both knew the Chicago had a reputation for being an excellent course. Plus, my biggest client is based in Chicago, so I could combine work with play (if you can call marathoning that). So we signed up the day registration opened, booked the flights and hotel room, and started training.

Even though I went into the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon with the goals of “finishing and not requiring immediate medical attention,” I was disappointed in my time. I was plagued with GI issues (i.e. three port a potty stops) during the race, and given that I had to wait long at each stop (the longest was nearly 10 minutes), my time was much slower than what I’d hoped for. I’d also started a year-long battle with a medical issue that I realized post-race had probably interfered with my training and my performance.

So for 2013, I wanted to do better. MUCH better. I bought a sub-four hour schedule, figuring that if I could skip the GI issues and long port a potty lines, I’d be able to drop 30+ minutes from my time.

I started training in late June, and hit my workouts with gusto. Six workouts a week? I got it. Nine miles of hill repeats on a Wednesday morning? Sure, why not. Workouts on Saturday AND Sunday? Bring. It. On.

I ran into complications early. We had the hottest record in summer in the Philadelphia area. Even in June, temperatures passed 100 degrees. I don’t run well in the heat – which had been a concern with signing up for Chicago, one of the first big marathons of the fall. But I willed myself to gut it out. “Don’t be a baby,” I’d tell myself while running 12 miles on a Saturday that *started* at 80 degrees at 5:30 in the morning. Even when I sweat so much that I soaked my shoes, I told myself to push on, and then berated myself when my training times fell shorter than what my plan called for.

This, of course, was stupid. I realize this now, but then, I figured it was a way of toughening myself up.

Then, in July, I was running another long hill workout when I felt a weight in my leg, like a quarter had been sewn under my skin. I’d been bitten by a bug two days before. I went to the doctor later that morning, and he  told me that the bug bite was infected, and that if I’d had waited another day, I’d have ended up in the ER.


Things unraveled from there. The heavy antibiotics I took to treat the infection made running nearly impossible, especially in the heat. I never re-gained my form. That health issue that started up while training for the Philadelphia Marathon reared it’s ugly head again. I wasn’t sleeping, and even when I was, that sleep was wracked with nightmares, and I woke up in a state of panic. I wasn’t working well, either. Doctors appointments ate up a lot of my time. Running was pushed on the back burner.

I managed to make every long run – including two 18 milers and a 20 miler – but one. I was supposed to do one more 20 mile run before tapering, but after eight miles, I threw in the towel and decided to have breakfast with visiting relatives instead. It’d been a hard summer, and I didn’t have the gusto to push through another long, lonely run on a hot day. From there on out, I ran only three days a week. My last “long” run was eight miles the Saturday before the race. My hips started aching at seven. I tried not to think about what that meant for Chicago.

We flew into Chicago on Friday night. Pro tip: pack your marathon gear in the bag you will put under the seat in front of you, not in your carry on bag. Despite my carry on being one of the smallest on the flight, USAirways *STILL* gate checked it. If they lost that bag, I’d have had to buy new everything. I wore a spare pair of running shoes on the plane, which gave me some comfort that if they screwed up (which they have done with baggage before), I’d at least have broken in shoes.

We stayed at the Central Loop Hotel, which is in Chicago’s business district. It was fine for this purpose: clean, and close to the race start. It also wasn’t astronomically priced, as many places were given that the Chicago Marathon and a Notre Dame game were in town on the same weekend. The room was a little small – they offer a $25 suite upgrade. If I’d had known that in advance, I’d have taken it.

On Saturday, I tried to sleep in, but couldn’t because of nerves. Instead, I let my boyfriend sleep and went out for bagels, crossing paths with Desi Davila on my way into Corner Bakery. She is tinier in person than I could ever have imagined.

We did a lot of nothing until having lunch with the amazing Claire Zulkey, who I think of as “Ms. Chicago,” on Saturday afternoon, then headed to the marathon expo via one of the free shuttles that ran around town all day.

Despite the size of the expo (i.e. huge), it wasn’t overwhelming. I didn’t wait more than a minute to pick up my packet or my marathon shirt. The only harry part was trying to find gloves at the Nike booth – I’d only been able to find one of mine at home, and apparently they were a hot property at the marathon expo given the expected temperature drop from Saturday to Sunday. The booth was packed. They had a DJ. But I still found a right-sized pair – with neon – and called it a day.

On Saturday night, we carb loaded with the also amazing Darci Smith Swisher, her husband (who is a leading volunteer for the marathon), her British friend who’s run the race three times, her boyfriend, and two of his friends. They’d all flown in from England for the race. I spent most of the dinner talking to Darci about freelancing, while everyone else apparently shared running horror stories about long lost toenails.

I’d hoped the glass of wine I had with dinner would help me fall asleep – not luck. I woke up four times in the middle of the night, though I used each as an opportunity to hydrate. Darci’s husband told us that the medical team was worried people wouldn’t hydrate properly because it would be cold – thinking they didn’t need to when, if they hadn’t trained in the cold, their bodies would be working harder to keep warm.

On race day, I woke up at 5:29, a minute before my alarm went off (typical). I hustled down to the local Duncan Donuts for bagels, oatmeal and coffee. I barely got down half of each food item and a sip or two of coffee. I pinned an re-pinned my bib six times. I tried to pee seven.

The race temperatures were working in my favor: about 38 at the start, high of 50. I wore mid-thigh tights, a black and white tank, and red compression sleeves (I keep saying I was like a newspaper – black and white and red all over), plus my new gloves. Shoe wise – I wore Mizuno Wave Riders with about 250 miles on them. I know I joked about this Headsweats visor when it came in, but it became my favorite this summer, so I went with it.

I’ve only run with music in races where I know I’m not going to do well. I had a bad feeling about this race, so packed my iPod Nano for the occasion. My boyfriend, who always runs with music, forgot his iPod, so I gave him my Nano, and decided to carry my iPhone. It wasn’t my first choice, but I was nervous and knew that I could run with it in a Spibelt and not be too bothered. I’d tried it a few times over the summer, and it worked out okay. I also wore an old hoodie with a broken zipper over my tank so I wouldn’t be freezing on the start line.

We left our hotel room about about 7:10am and had to be in our corrals by 7:20. My boyfriend was in corral C. I was in D. We took a slow run to the park, then were caught up in the thousands of runners getting into position. The volunteers were great at their job – directing everyone where to go without being pushy. When we were split up between corrals, right as the national anthem was sung, my boyfriend kissed me goodbye, and I was on my own.

I threw off the sweatshirt before we started – as did everyone else. While I waited, I watched clothes sailing over to the sidelines – sweatshirts and pants in all colors and fabrics. It would have been a nifty site if I didn’t want to vomit. I was nervous. I knew I wasn’t as prepared as I’d have liked. I knew this was going to hurt.

Then, out of nowhere, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run started blaring from the speakers. I know some runners are sick of hearing this song at every race, but I don’t mind. I write about that area of the country often, and I know exactly where he’s talking about in the lyrics of that song. I started tapping my feet, warming myself back up and getting ready to go. I don’t know what song they played next, but I had that one echoing in my ears as my corral moved up and toward the start line.

For the first eight miles, I did fine. I wanted to hold a 10:30 pace, but hit 10:15s. I’d loaded my marathon mix with my favorite albums – not hyper GO GO GO! music but albums that I had listened to so many times that they felt like old friends (Guster, mattpond PA, Pete Yorn). The music settled me, helped me get into a groove, and kept me from darting forward when I knew I should save my strength. At mile two, the arm warmers went, but I kept my gloves. Good thing because the sun would play peekaboo throughout the race.

At mile eight, my hips started to hurt. This was a red flag, but I tried to remain calm. I told myself to continue to take my time, and I would be fine. The real pain started to set in around mile 12. When I reached the halfway point at 13.1 miles, I walked for a bit while I took my first Shot Blok (Gu is gross). This is a weird point in the marathon. Yes, you’ve run half of the race (YEAH!), but it’s hard to imagine doing that all over again. I focused on spectators and signs (favorite: “If marathons were easy, they’d be called your mother) then think about the miles left to run.

I slowed down my pace here but kept moving forward without stopping or walking until mile 16 when I took a bathroom break. Thank you, Chicago Marathon, for providing more than enough bathrooms along the course. There was no line, and I was back on the course in two minutes.

That’s when the ache spread from my hips and down my legs. I willed myself to get to 18 without stopping, after which I took my walk break, then I picked it back up to get past 20. When I saw that big 2-0, I felt tears stinging in my eyes. The pain was far worse than in the Philadelphia Marathon. The training setbacks started to get to me here. When I was forced to run less, I didn’t spend as much time in the weight room, and I felt it in my legs. My hips did not like what I was doing to them, and they let me know it.

After mile 20, the race became was a mile by mile progression. Hit the mile mark, walk for a bit. Run again until the mile marker (where is it, where is it, WHERE IS IT?!), run for a bit, then hit the next mile marker. It was slow and agonizing, but I kept moving forward. I did not stop.

At mile 24, my playlist ran out, so I pulled out my phone to start it again. My mom had been following my progress via text message (a free service of the marathon). She could tell I was struggling, so she texted me: “GO JEN GO JEN YOU HAVE THIS! !!!!” The tears just didn’t sting then, but rolled down my face. I was in absolute agony. I knew I had to cross the finish line, but it seemed so far away. So I wrote back: “I hurt so bad bit (sic) I will finish this.” And at that point, I knew I would. Mile marker 25 came. I started to take another walk break, but no – I was going to finish this strong. The crowd was heavy here, and I let them help carry me through.

Mile 26 was on an uphill (ughhhh), but I was determined to go up that hill strong. Right as I approached the sign, I felt a sharp pain in my calf. No! Not not! I can’t cramp now! I grit my teeth and willed myself forward. After 26, the course turns back into Millennium Park, and all I saw ahead of me was a wave of runners crossing through the finishing chute. I didn’t sprint, but I didn’t want to come in slow, which is how I crossed the finish line.

It’s hard to describe the end. Props to the Chicago Marathon crew for having such an organized finished. There were volunteers to drape you with a space blanket, to sticker it closed, and to direct you to food, water, beer (yes free beer to those over 21), and to give your medal.

I took a water and a bag of potato chips, then made my way toward the exit. As soon as I stopped running, I regretted dumping water on my head for the last few miles of the race. The sun had come out, and I was revving high, so I put water on my head to cool down. But when I finished, the sun went back behind the clouds. I chilled fast, and clutched the space blanket close to my body. My boyfriend had finished about an hour before me and was waiting in the hotel.

All I wanted was a hot shower. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t want to drink. I wanted to collapse – which I did when I finally got back to the hotel room.

I felt sick for the rest of the day. Even when we went out for celebratory drinks! Then celebratory dinner! I didn’t want to touch anything, and forced food and drink down because I knew I needed it. It wasn’t until 24 hours later that I wanted to eat everything in sight – which I did. Merrily.

This saga might sound distressing, and reading back over it, it is. But even when my training fell off a cliff, and the wheels fell off during the race, I knew I had to finish, even if I crawled across the finish line. My time wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible either – about 20 minutes slower than in the Philadelphia Marathon. All things considered, it could have been a lot worse.

So now I’m left with the big question: what next? I was supposed to run the Atlantic City Marathon in two weeks, but I’m not now. My boyfriend is though (he’s Wolverine. Seriously), so I’ll be there on the sidelines. I have no races lined up after that. This experience – from training to race – was not a good one, and I don’t know if I can set myself up for the same disappointment and agony again. The good points are that while my legs weren’t up to this race, my stamina was there, and I’m proud of myself for sticking with it even when health issues interfered.

I’m giving myself some time to think about it. I hear that marathoning is like birth. Right after the big event, you don’t ever want to do it again, but the memory of the pain fades and you remember only the end result – in this case, a medal and a nice trip to Chicago. I don’t need to decide until the spring. I hear there’s a nice race in San Francisco right around when the Phillies play the Giants in May. Maybe my brain will have “forgotten” by then.

If you’re thinking about doing the Chicago Marathon: do it. I have zero complaints about the actual race – and I’m extremely picky about these things. It makes other races look like amateur hour. Just make sure you sign up the day the race opens. Chicago sold out in days this year. I imagine it will continue to do so.

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2 Responses to “Race Report: Chicago Marathon 2012”

  1. ProfSpiker says:

    Thanks for sharing. Gutty performance + seems EXACTLY what the marathon is all about — persevering, fighting, handling adversity, and ultimately slaying the beast when all logic would tell you to bail. Thanks for the great read–and reminders about pushing forward.

    But this “not hungry” you speak of? I know nothing about it!

    (Also, that is one heck of a marathon sign!)

  2. Erin Graves says:

    What a story, feat and finish! Congratulations on completing the marathon, like ProfSpiker said, it was an inspired and impassioned read. It definitely conjures up my own marathon memories and makes me think that maybe I’ll attempt it one more time.

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