There are those days when you run when everything clicks; legs feel light, km’s tick off, and your body feels great. That wasn’t the day I had at the Chicago Marathon. I set an ambitious goal (maybe over ambitious) of 2:48 and fell well short at 2:55. With that said, I am happy with the effort I gave, I just didn’t have it today.
We arrived in Chicago Friday morning. This was my first time in the city, so I was looking forward to checking it out. We got settled into the place we were staying just outside the downtown core and then headed to the expo. The expo was very well organized. In no time we had our race kits and then browsed the vendors.
The Saturday our plan was to do very little. I ran about 2.5k with strides to make sure everything felt good, and then Lisa and I did the architectural boat tour that it seems everyone who has ever been to Chicago has recommended. It did live up to the hype, it was pretty good. After that we went back to the condo and worked on staying off our feet. Lunch and dinner were both spaghetti and a bit of Gatorade.
I got a solid 6 hours sleep the night before the race and was up around 4:00AM. I had a bagel with almond butter and honey for breakfast and we were out the door on the way to the race just after 5:00AM. We arrived at the race site by 6:00AM, got our bags checked, and got in line for the port-a-loo. It was a little chilly so I had on a long sleeve and sweat pants that I planned to discard just before the race started. I made my way to my corral, did a couple sprints to warmup, and then made my way into the corral by 7:10AM (it was a 7:30 start). I lined up on the left side because I heard the first two 90* turns were both lefts and it can be a long way around on the right.
In my head I broke the race up into two 15k’s and a 12.2k final. If all went to plan I’d run about 60:00 for each of my first 15’s and 48:48 or better over the final 12.2k.
First 15k – 58:40, 3:55/km
At the gun I felt good. I was about 4 people from the front of the corral, so it wasn’t too congested. You run under a really long bridge in the first km, which throws off your Garmin, so I wasn’t completely sure of my pace, but I felt like it was a little fast (as expected). There were so many spectators, the atmosphere was great. I ran through 5k in 18:53. This was definitely fast, I knew the opening km’s would be a little quick, but even with that I wanted to be around 19:15. This was likely one of the first mistakes that derailed my day. Running downtown my Garmin was jumping all over the place so I never really knew how quick I was running. I’d try to run at someones pace who was near me, but I think I ended up surging and slowing down quite a bit. I began taking little sips of Gatorade right from the first aid station.
The next 5k I had cooled my jets and bit and ran 19:40 (38:33 through 10k). Around 8k I felt a little twang of pain in my right calf, but it didn’t last more than half a kilometer. I was alert, but not overly concerned at this point. I still felt like I was running well through 10k, and the crowd support was incredible.
From 10-15k I ran 20:07. I took my first gel at 11k. I had planned to take it a bit sooner, but wanted to take it right before an aid station so I could wash it down with water. At about 13k my left calf (which I had experienced problems with leading into the race) began to act up. I began to wonder if I was beginning to cramp up after the problems I had with my other calf 5km earlier. I wasn’t going to change anything just yet, but I would keep a closer eye on how my body felt moving forward in the race.
My first 15k took me 58:40. I was happy with this time, and how I felt. I did notice that the running began to feel like work earlier here than I remember it feeling like when I ran the Hamilton Marathon last year, but I chalked that up to the faster pace I was needing to run. I was 1:20 below the pace I needed to meet my 2:48 goal.
Second 15k – 60:26, 4:02/km pace (Overall 1:59:06, 3:59/km pace)
The second 15k section of the race is when things started to unravel. From 15-20k it began to feel like a struggle. I ran it in 20:08 and even through I felt like my effort was increasing my pace was slowing down.
20-25k I ran in 20:06. My last 15k were pretty steady at 4:01/km pace, and if I kept that up it would get me to the finish line inside my goal time, but that was a big ‘if’. I took my second of 3 gels I planned to take at halfway (21.1k). I began to make an effort to try to take in more Gatorade at the aid stations to try and combat some of the cramping I was feeling. I knew this was a risk because the extra fluid in my stomach could cause some problems, but the cramping was getting worse and I needed to do something to stop it from going past the point of no return and stopping me in my tracks.
25-30k took me 20:12. Again, losing time vs. 4:00/km pace, but still under my goal time. The problem was that it wasn’t just my calves that were bothering me, my hip flexors and hamstrings were heating up and a light, easy stride was a thing of the past.
Through 30k I was still on pace but I was holding on by a thread. I still had 0:54 in the bank for the final 12.2k but I was losing time every split. My legs weren’t in good shape. Even though I’d been experiencing the calf pain longer, it was my hip flexors and hamstrings that really worried me.
Final 12.2k – 57:26, 4:43/km pace (Overall 2:55:32, 4:10/km pace)
The stretch from 30-35k was when reality set in and the wheels fell off. I ran it in 21:23 and I went from 0:28 under my goal time to 0:29 over. My calves were cramping, my hip flexors were burning, my hamstrings hurt, and my stomach was in a knot. I planned to take my 3rd of 3 gels around 31k, but there was no way I’d be able to get it down (and I never ended up taking that 3rd gel). I think I had too much fluid in my stomach from the extra Gatorade I took in to combat the cramping. I knew I should back off my pace and go into survival mode to get to the finish, but the 2:48:48 time is one that means something to me, and I trained hard to achieve. I was going to force my body to keep moving as fast as possible until I broke and would need to walk. Just before 35k I reached that breaking point. My legs effectively said no more as I felt pain shoot up each of my legs and it was all I could do to stay standing. I was on the very left side of the road and steadied myself on a fence as I walked. I knew I needed to keep moving forward to salvage any sort of respectable (in my own mind) time. I only walked about 150-200m, but that was enough to have me lose all of my time cushion and put my 2:48 goal out of reach.
35-40k took me 24:58. It began with me moving back into a jog, even though I knew my goal had slipped out of reach I still wanted to get to the finish as quickly as possible. Low 4:00 km’s were no longer in the cards for me, but I was able to shuffle along at about 4:40s until I got to 39k and I was forced to walk again.
40-42.2k was 2.2km’s that felt like they would never end. It took me 10:05 (4:35/km pace) but I felt like I was moving a lot slower. I would usually soak in the crowd, the race, and the training that I went through to get here and really savour this part of the race, but not today. The burn going through my legs felt like the burn I felt when I did my first marathon in 2012. I had no finish kick and don’t think I managed to muster a smile at the finish.
Finish 2:55:32, 4:10/km
Right after the race I was in a massive amount of pain, and the way the finish chute is set up you have another 400m of walking before you can sit down. I knew after I sat down that getting up would be a challenge but I wasn’t sure how much longer my legs would support me. I got a little Gatorade and food into my body, and just sat there in pain for about 20 minutes. Maybe not the best thing to do, but I was in a world of hurt and not really thinking straight.
I think I made a few mistakes in this race.
First, I’ve run a number of 4:00/km’s, but I can’t run them blind. Throughout the race (but especially in the first 5k) buildings and bridges caused my Garmin to jump all over the place. I had no idea what pace I was running for a given split until I ran past a mile marker with a clock. If I was more in tune with my paces I could have done a better job at running by feel during these sections.
Second, not only was I running fast over the first 5k but I was surging a lot. Even though I knew the buildings were throwing off my Garmin when I saw a slow pace I would speed up, and then end up slowing down when I saw a much too fast pace. This wasn’t smart running, and something that came back to haunt me in the closing km’s.
Finally, I should have been better prepared nutritionally. When I race I rely heavily on the natural systems of my body and try to avoid taking in too many things during. Only in my preparation for Chicago did I make a plan for taking gels during long runs, I would take in minimal fluids and no salt pills. After the race my skin was covered in salt like I’ve never seen on anyone before. I’ve never bothered to train or race with salt pills, and this was a mistake. I should have been taking them during some of my runs to test if they were beneficial for me. If they were I could have carried salt pills and taken them if need be during the race to ward off cramping, without all of the extra liquid from the Gatorade I was drinking.
I’m disappointed in my result but I’m happy with my effort. I didn’t feel like I’d felt on other great race days, and I’m not sure why, it just wasn’t my day. I’m glad I kept pushing at 4:00 pace until I broke as opposed to scaling back the speed early, it leaves no doubt in my mind I didn’t have 2:48 in my legs on that day, and that’s what I went to Chicago for. Maybe I could have had a better paced race, but I can live with going for it and having the wheels fall off. I feel like I’ve progressed leaps and bounds as a runner over the past 14 weeks, and despite this result it gives me confidence in the run I hope to produce at IM Whistler next summer.