Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Race report: Chicago Marathon, October 9, 2016

I ran the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, finishing in a time of 3:09:21.  

I just barely missed a PR, but that's OK - that's just slightly less icing on the cake.  My last few marathons have all been miserable experiences - I wanted to have one that wasn't. Ideally, I also wanted to crack 3:10.  (While my first marathon was a 3:08, that was back when I was in my late 30s, and I can vouch that there's a significant difference once your warranty runs out at age 40.)  On Sunday, I broke 3:10 again, and I also ran a strong, controlled race.  Though this wasn't a PR, in many ways it feels like one.


If I was cheesy, I'd write that "every marathon is a journey." (and since I did write that, I guess I am cheesy).  The literal journey began with a flight to Chicago on Friday morning, in keeping with my rule of never traveling the day before a marathon.  (two reasons for this - one is that traveling by plane really drains me, the other is that I like having a day of fudge time in case there are flight delays, cancellations, etc).  

Since it would be just my luck to catch a cold on the flight over, I invested in a flu mask for the flight. Anxious?  Absolutely.  But I'd invested too much in this race to screw it up over something that could be prevented with $14 at the local CVS.  So (somewhat sheepishly) I donned the mask as soon as I was seated.

As it turned out, as soon as we hit 10,000 feet, a passenger two rows behind me started coughing and sneezing in an epic fit that persisted until we reached the gate in Chicago.

And that was how I ended up protectively cupping my beloved flu mask to my nose and mouth with one hand for the next two hours.  Before ripping it off in the Midway bathroom, followed by a biohazardesque cleansing of hands and face.


My flight was also interesting for another reason.

(I've decided that a modern version of the old Chinese curse is "may your plane flights be interesting.")

As we were boarding, a flight attendant reached into the overhead compartment to rearrange some bags.  This prompted a rather strong reaction from my seatmates, a pair of older women who were way too animated for a 8:40 am flight.  Their elevated voices resulted in an appearance by the head flight attendant.  I had hopes that he would defuse the situation, but he raised his voice also, and lectured my seatmates on their use of profanity.  They responded (truthfully, but loudly) that they hadn't cursed (yet), and things continued to escalate until another flight attendant intervened and calmed things down.

During the flight, every time the head flight attendant walked past our row, snarky comments were exchanged on both sides.  I wondered idly if I was going to end up on the news - "flight diverted to Ohio after onboard altercation."  But, it's a short flight to Chicago, and luckily things stayed under control until we were at the gate and I had escaped.


Once I landed at Midway, I proceeded directly to the expo (motto: walking 2.62 miles is excellent prep for running 26.2), then on to Chipotle for lunch/carbloading, and from there to my hotel.

With every marathon, you learn something.  When I ran Philly for the first time, I learned that cutting out the salty junk food (in my case, tortilla chips) during taper was a very bad idea.  So this time, my diet for the two days before the race was almost entirely Chipotle.   Chipotle is easy to find, inexpensive, quick, and reliably allergen free.   Plus tasty.  And their rice bowls have that optimal mix of protein, salt, fat, and carbs.  Add in an order of chips for extra carbs plus extra salt, and it was awesome.

As it happened, my race goodie bag included a Chipotle coupon - two bowls for the price of one.  So of course I used it on Saturday for lunch.  I idly debated whether to pretend that one of the bowls was for a friend.  However, it's awfully late in life to develop either shame or decorum.  So I ordered both for myself.  Plus more chips.

All of this was balanced out by a LOT of water.  Hydration's always important, but I've really been struggling with it this fall, due to my prescription antihistamines.  Even though race conditions were predicted to be relatively cool and quite dry, I decided to prep as though it would be humid, to balance out the effect of the meds.

One of the gimmicks of the Club Quarters chain of hotels (where I stayed) is unlimited purified bottled water. Each floor has a dispenser and a rack of empty plastic bottles - you just fill up as many as you want.  I unquestionably got my money's worth, and then some.

Dinner was very light (per my norm) plus some Generation UCAN (unsweetened) mixed with coconut water and some water with Osmo pre-load hydration.    I like how my energy levels feel after UCAN, but it also makes me really nauseous.  Which is ironic, since UCAN is marketed as a race-day breakfast replacement for people who can't handle solid food pre-race.  For myself, I have to reverse it - dinner is UCAN, followed by lousy sleep due to indigestion (which is fine - sleep the night before a marathon is relatively unimportant).  Breakfast is brown rice, a Gel, protein powder, and a GU Stroopwafel.


"ABS" - "Always Be Slurping"
I woke at 4:15 am race morning, so I could take my asthma meds, eat, digest, poop, and stretch.   And also get dressed.

To the amusement of friends, I carry a LOT of gels when I race a marathon - ten, with five safety-pinned to each side of my shorts (caffeinated on my left hip, caffeine-free on the right; rocktanes in the front, and normal gels in the back).  Crazy?  Perhaps, but so is pretty much every other aspect of marathoning.  The fueling strategy that has worked best for me in marathons is "always be slurping" and so I'd rather carry too many than too few.  Plus, there's always the risk of dropping one or more, or finding that you only have lemonade roctane left, when root beer would sit much better.

(I'd also like to note that I'm not that big - if I can carry 10 gels safety-pinned to my shorts, anyone can.)


Thus equipped, at 6:10 I left my hotel for the starting area.  Since I was staying in "the loop", my walk to the security checkpoint was less than 10 minutes.

Security was fairly stringent, with two rounds.  First each runner was wanded with a metal detector. As I approached the checkpoint, the officials were requesting that everyone remove their gels before being wanded.  The woman wanding me, however, took one look at my meticulously organized GU-hips, and told me not to bother.

The second round was a bag check, and then I was in.  Getting through security only took 10 minutes, still giving me a solid 50 minutes to check my bag and get in my corral.

Just past security, I had a very pleasant surprise.

Back about 18 months ago, when I ran Grandma's Marathon, I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me in the bus to the start.  After Grandmas, Justine and I managed to sync up on Facebook, and we've kept in touch.  As it turned out, both of us were registered for Chicago, but somehow a pre-race meet-up didn't happen (honestly, I like to stay in hermit mode until after the race).  

So guess who I ran into as soon as I cleared Security.  At a 40,000 runner race.  It was awesome.

 We hung out and chatted for the next 30 minutes while going through bag check and poop check (otherwise known as the portajohn line) before splitting for our respective corrals.  I knew that the corrals closed at 7:20 am with no exceptions, and I saw no reason to push my luck, so I entered mine at 7:05.


With about 10 minutes to go before race start, I tossed my extra clothes.  My lungs felt slightly tight, so I decided to take a preventative puff of my asthma inhaler, just in case.  Only to find out it was clogged.  Ooops.  (and mental note to check these things in advance next time).  Oh well.  Not great, but I haven't needed to use my rescue inhaler while running in quite some time, so I went ahead and started the race in my corral.  (I guess my other option would have been to step out of my corral, go find the med tent, and start in the second wave)

[and yes, I would have looked really stupid if I had had an issue during the race, but fortunately that wasn't the case.]

And then the gun went off.  Per my habit, I wanted the first mile to feel "8:00"-ish, though I wasn't targeting the number on the clock as much as I was that feeling. ( I ran with my watchface blanked, as always).   As it turns out, I ran 7:51, so not too far off.  Then I started to inch the pace down gently, trying to keep a conservative, easy feel - "Slightly slacking."

It's hard to give a mile by mile description of a race where every mile was flat and surrounded by crowds.  Much of the first half of the race was spent practicing energy conservation and retention - was I drinking/eating enough, was I breathing easy?  Was I tracking the blue painted line that marked how the course was measured (and was the shortest path)?  Fortunately, the bit of tight breathing that I had noted at the start eased after we got out of Lincoln Park, never to return.  The wind was gusting, and so when I caught up to the 3:10 pace group, I opted to run with them for a while to conserve energy.

As always, I ran with my handheld water bottle, which I was draining surprisingly quickly (thank you, allergy meds).  By mile 6, I needed to refill it, which involved stopping at a water station and pouring 2-3 cups worth of water into my bottle, before capping it and continuing.  Whenever I did this, I lost time and also the shelter of my wind blocks, but I considered it a wise investment in the last few miles of my race.

I was both frustrated and concerned that I was draining my water bottle so quickly, and needing to refill so often (I ended up having to stop to refill 5 times during the race, losing at least 10 seconds each time), but there was nothing that could be done - I knew that getting thirsty, especially before mile 20, would kill my marathon.


A bit past the half-marathon point, my quads started to feel sore and tight. Soon after that I felt a worrisome pulling behind my left knee, and my right hamstring started to tighten.  Obviously, stuff pops up during a marathon, but this was awfully early.  I panicked for about 10 seconds, and then negotiated myself off the ledge. Nothing was limiting my running yet.  And if I REALLY focused on perfect running form (core engaged, no overstriding, relaxed shoulders) and kept eating and drinking, I might be able to keep the ship together.  Nothing to do but try.

So that's what I did.  And it helped the miles fly, to be honest.  I could either focus on my core, or focus on the mile markers.  I chose the former.  The pulling in my left leg did make it significantly harder to get back into a rhythm after each water stop, as I'd have to hobble a bit before I could get up to full speed and hit a rhythm - resulting in more lost time.

I also had an amusing blooper at one water stop in the second half of the course - around mile 17-18 I refilled my water bottle, only to realize I couldn't find the cap.  I had tucked the cap temporarily in my sportsbra, where it got lost beneath my used gels (I store them there so I don't litter) and my useless inhaler.

With 8 miles to go, I couldn't just toss the water bottle and run, so I had to take an extended stop to locate and extricate the cap from my rather chafed bosom.  (Next time, I'll just litter, and compensate by cleaning up my local trail later.)  I don't know exactly how much time I lost, but it was a good bit. I just barely missed running a negative split for the course - something I almost always do if I don't blow-up - and I think it's due to the lost time there.


I was pleasantly surprised at mile 20 to discover that I was hanging in there.  Breathing was great, energy levels were great.  Others were walking but I wasn't.  I debated taking a risk and picking it up a bit, but my legs still felt very iffy.   They weren't REALLY cramping, but they were right on the edge, and had been so for some time.  So, I decided to play it safe a bit longer.  Perhaps that cost me a better time (and a PR) but I'm OK with the decision.  I can live with just missing a PR - there's always another marathon.  Another blow-up would have been the end for me and this distance.

Around mile 23, I decided I was close enough to the finish to take a bit of risk, and so I departed the shelter of the pace group.  Only to discover a strong headwind.  Looking at the Garmin report later, it's striking to note how my heart rate rose late in the race, while my pace didn't change significantly.  I felt like I was surging away from the pace group, only to hear them behind me as we approached mile 26.    I decided to see if I could kick, and somehow I did - evidence that I probably didn't leave it all on the course, and that maybe I could have been a bit more aggressive.  Oh well.  Again, given my recent history at the distance, I'm at peace with not leaving it all out there today.

Splits were:

Mile 1: 7:51
Mile 2: 7:27
Mile 3: 7:12
Mile 4: 7:03
Mile 5: 7:01
Mile 6: 7:09
Mile 7: 6:59
Mile 8-9: 14:18
Mile 10: 7:08
Mile 11: 7:17
Mile 12: 7:11
Mile 13: 7:11
Mile 14: 7:16
Mile 15: 7:05
Mile 16: 7:14
Mile 17: 7:17
Mile 18: 7:23
Mile 19:  7:08
Mile 20: 7:17
Mile 21-22: 14:38
Mile 23: 7:12
Mile 24: 7:12
Mile 25: 7:10
Mile 26: 7:13
last .21: 7:23  (huh - I thought I was kicking - perhaps not)

Final result: 3:09:21.  And a smile.


Epilogue:  As I noted at the beginning (of this long report) I discovered right before the race that my rescue inhaler was useless.  This wasn't a problem during the race, but I was worried about post-race as well.  After my last 3 marathons, I've had an asthma attack about 5-10 minutes after the race was done (no, I don't know why).  Reasoning that it was better to go to the med tent before any attack, I waived a medical official over in the finish area, explained my situation, and she escorted me to the tent.  I hung out there for about 20 minutes waiting for the attack that never came (yay Advair), and then signed some forms and was dismissed.  The upside was that I ended up with a free new rescue inhaler; the downside was that I completely missed getting to see all of my teammates in the finish area.  But better safe than sorry.

Other notes:

  • Temps started in the low 50s and ended in the high 50s, with a low dewpoint.  There was no cloudcover, but that was really a non-issue, given how cool and dry the weather was, and how much of the course was shaded.  The wind was a slight issue, but it seems sad to complain about that, given the horrid weather that's plagued nearly every other marathon this year.
  • Consumed 7 gels during the race.  That probably seems like overkill to some, but I'll take it over crashing at mile 18.  About half the gels, plus the one I took pre-race, were caffeinated.
  • My abs are really sore.  I basically ran the second half with my core holding things together.
  • Fall ragweed season should be over in a few weeks, and then I can go off of the Clarinex (the prescription anti-histamine that's so dehydrating).
    I'm a little bummed that I had to spend so much time at water stations on such a great day, but I still ran far better than I would have with my allergies flaring (or if I had skipped the water).  In fact, I suspect that the chest tightness pre-race and during the first part was due to all the green stuff in Millennium Park (the staging area) and in the early miles of the course.
  • Though I sadly never saw any of my teammates pre-race or in the finish area, a group of us did get together that evening where I had awesome nachos and doubled my net alcohol consumption for the year (I am such a lightweight).  So much fun.
  • Things that worked really well for this race: 
    • Staying close to the start/finish
    • Running with my garmin face blanked (I pace my races so much better when I do this)
    • Flu masks
    • So.much.Chipotle
    • So.many.gels 
    • So much salt
    • Getting my bib on Friday
    • Taking a week of vacation that bookended the race
    • Training very conservatively (more on that in another post)
    • Maintaining the intensity during taper (just cutting the volume)
    • Carb-loading, but not to the point where I felt stuffed
  • Things that I need to change for next time:
    • Check the inhaler BEFORE you leave for the race
    • Don't go to the expo straight from the airport.  Go get food.  Then expo.  Then more food.
    • Don't use your sportsbra as a trashcan.
  • My sinuses hurt like hell during this taper, and I was really worried I was getting sick.  Just like they have during the previous four marathon tapers.  Note to future self: your sinuses will hurt during taper, and you'll have a recurring headache.  And you'll get acne.  It happens every taper. Just take Tylenol and don't worry about it.
  • My PR is 3:08:51 (run at age 38), and so I missed it by 30 seconds.   For a day or two, I thought I had the masters female marathon record for my team (which was fun), but as it turns out, I missed that as well, as another teammate has run 3:07 and 3:08 after turning 40.  So she gets to keep the record.  For now :)
  • I got my marathon mojo back.  Yay.


  1. Amazing! Glad you got your marathon mojo back. Very impressive performance, and your preparation both in training and in traveling really paid off.

  2. Awesome work! Congrats on finally hitting a big one. --Christine

  3. Totally love the BOGO chipotle meal! Remembering the time my friend put two spoons in her jumbo fro-yo treat-filled, overloaded cup and ate it alone in her car! No need to care what people think anymore. Great race and entertaining read. :) (Investing in a flight face mask--smart)

  4. Fantastic race and outstanding splits! I look forward to hearing more about your training recap. Great job and congrats.

  5. I was tracking you, Cris! Amazing execution. It just goes without saying that on flights, there will always be someone hacking up a lung a few seats away. So, better to be safe than sorry. These conditions sound similar to what I ran in back in 2013. The sun wasn't really an issue because about 80% of the course is shaded, which is super nice. I'm really glad to hear this one worked out for you and you like marathons again!