“…Chicago is. One town that won’t let you down. It’s my kind of town”
29 neighborhoods. 26.2 miles. That’s the Chicago Marathon.
I’m not sure I counted 29 neighborhoods though, so I may have that wrong. However, I have to say the experience of running through an amazing city like Chicago is something I am really going to cherish. I come from Boston, which is a pretty cool city. Up until a few weeks ago I was commuting into downtown everyday for work. But Chicago feels more like a real city to me, as much as I love Boston. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the chance to actually run the Boston Marathon, so for now, this will be my comparison marathon.
The morning started out slightly cool and I was grateful for that. I was starting in the last wave of the last corral – this was a big concern to me because I knew it was going to be in the high 70’s that afternoon. I’m not a fast runner and I knew I was going to be out there in that heat. I tried to adjust by putting all my time goals out the window – just finish and be healthy. Listen to your body. Don’t push it for your goal – this is your first marathon. It’s hard though when you’ve trained harder for this than any other race. I wanted to crush it and impress everyone – I wanted to prove to everyone that I was a runner, an athlete. I didn’t want to just be a finisher. This goes through my head every day.
I knew a lot of people that were going to be in my corral, but I did not see any of them when I arrived. I texted people to see where they were but they seemed to be all over the place. This seemed to be happening the whole weekend – there were people I just couldn’t connect with. People ended up a little further back than I wanted to be and so I decided against looking for them, fearing I wouldn’t be able to get back up towards the front. All I saw was wall to wall people. I settled around the 5:10 pacer – it was so crowded that I didn’t really see where I could move up at that point. I finally saw someone I knew – my friend John from the running club. We kept each other company as we waited…and waited. It was like an eternity for all the waves to finish. We were supposed to start at 8:35. At 8:45 we still hadn’t moved. I was feeling incredibly impatient and anxious, especially as I felt the air getting warmer. We finally got to start around 8:50 – finally.
I knew I had to start slow. This was no problem since there was a massive group of people around me also going pretty slow and it was pretty hard to get around anyone even if I tried. I was not prepared for the number of bottle necks I would have to endure throughout the race – however this was not my only challenge.
For the first 3 miles I was around the 5 hour group. I lost my running friend – we both had different goals. There was a 5 hr pacer that was doing a walk/run. “Every time we walk, I share I story,” he called out to his group. I was pretty amused by this, but had to move on. I ended up behind another 5 hr pace, with the name “Tom” printed on his sign. I knew I would have to pass at some point, but I was getting into my groove for now. Then, my gps watch went haywire. It beeped and I looked down as it announced 4 miles. I looked up to see the 3 mile mark. Balls. Two other girls were talking about their watches and I turned to them and said, “My GPS is FUCKED!” They both laughed. Oh well, I can’t rely on this thing for a pace, at least the time was correct. Maybe I could do the math in my head?
At around 3.5 miles, I got a boost from my significant other who was tracking me. He shouted at me, which confused me because I thought he said he would be at mile 5. Oh well, here I go – I was feeling great and starting to build up my speed. I saw a lot of people on the city streets, but it felt a little quiet. Suddenly I turned a corner and there were people yelling and screaming. I saw drag queens performing on stages – I cheered for them quite loudly. My spirits improved and my speed picked up. About 1 hour into the race, I noticed a bank sign with the time and temperature. 74 degrees. That was not good news, although I was still feeling okay – the heat hadn’t seem to hit me yet and I still felt some sweat on my forehead. Also, there was some shade.
My partner saw me again after mile 10, right after my first bit of fuel. I was still chugging along, not wanting to stop. Coming towards the halfway mark, I started feeling some trouble – twinges in calves. Leg cramps. A feeling of dread came over me – this was one thing I hadn’t encountered in my training.
A conversation from the past with a guy at a running store ran through my head at this point. “Do you have anything for muscle cramps?” I had asked him since this concept was so foreign to me.
“Uhhhhh…” was the response I got.
“Salt – is that what I’m supposed to take?” I probed a bit.
“Well you can…” he answered, “we don’t have that. We have this stuff though and although I’ve never used it, people swear by it.”
He had handed me this bottle of Hot Shot, which was supposed to help specifically with muscle cramps. I had tried it after a training run to make sure it wouldn’t make me sick, although I could not tell if it did anything for cramping since I was feeling fine. It was a spicy cinnamon liquid and although I didn’t love it, it seem to sit right when I took it. I decided to take the bottle I had with me at mile 14 and hope for the best.
I took a swig somewhere at mile 14. It did not sit right.
My mouth was on fire and I felt like I had been punched in the gut.
“Great,” I thought. “Now I might actually throw up.” I slowed down a little to give my stomach a break. I felt like I just had eaten Mexican food. Where was the damn water stop? I needed to cool my mouth. Not sure how much time past, but eventually things seem to settle in my stomach. And my muscles did feel less twingy. Okay keep it moving…free banana, I’ll take that. I was starting to feel like I was in a video game.
I think I was feeling a little sluggish around mile 18. I saw someone crouched on the side of the course, not feeling well. I noticed I had stopped sweating. Not a good sign. I could now feel the heat and it was getting to me a little bit. I turned a corner somewhere around mile 19 and…what’s this, a party? People were screaming and cheering so loud. I think I teared up a little at all the support. This was a neighborhood called Pilsen, home to people mainly of Mexican descent. I was overwhelmed and overjoyed, giving everyone I saw high fives. This was the boost I needed to push me along and carry me to mile 20. When I passed that sign, I raised my arms. I was feeling great.
“I’m really going to make it, I’m really going to finish,” I thought. Just one 10K left.
The cramping came back on my calves and I was hurting again. I would try to push, and the muscles would seize up. This was extremely frustrating. I actually started walking at one point. Of course I picked the one spot where there happen to be photographers. I saw them, started running and smiling again…then sluggishly walked. Then, another photographer! More running, then finally a quick stop to stretch my calves. Maybe that would help them out. Spoiler alert – it didn’t do that much.
Coming into Chinatown, I knew that my boyfriend would be trying to meet up again with some water. When I saw how many people were there, I felt a bit discouraged – how the hell was I going to see him in this crowd? I didn’t even know which side he was going to be on. Off to the side I saw two Chinese dragons dancing and moving their mouths cheerfully.
“Fine, that’s nice. They’re talking or whatever.” I thought. I really hoped I hadn’t hallucinated that. I was obviously less enthusiastic about the sights along the route at this point.
Suddenly my boyfriend appeared. I’m not really sure what happened at this exchange. I think I mentioned how I was upset at how slow I was. He gave me some water and encouraging words saying I was doing well on my splits. I hobbled away from him, knowing I just needed to stay upright so I didn’t completely seize up.
The last 4 miles were excruciating. Legs cramps were taking over and I had to slow everything way down. It was frustrating, because fitness-wise I felt I could go faster. But my legs were not having it. At one point in Pilsen, I remember someone calling out “Salt!” and it didn’t register to me until I had already passed him. I really regret not turning around to get some, but at that moment I was definitely not thinking clearly. I didn’t want anything from anyone, I just wanted to move on. Looking back, I think I really did need salt. Not sure if it would have cured my leg cramps, but it may have helped me through. I’m going to have to research this if I end up going through this ordeal again.
In this final stretch, there were also more bottle necks. A lot of people around me had slowed down to a walk and it was really hard to get around people.
“Move!” I kept thinking. “Blue bibs! You guys started 50 minutes before me – why are you even here! I wasn’t fast enough for a blue bib and for some reason…HERE YOU ARE!”
My watch said I already ran over 26 miles. This is a frustrating feeling. Suddenly the 800 meter sign! I was warned about the slight hill at the end. Normally my body would not even count this as a hill, but my calves were extremely shaky as I made my way up. Then 200 meters left. My legs completely buckled inwards and I almost lost my footing. No! I’m almost there. I crossed the finish line and my watch displayed the time 5:02. Ugh, way over my goal of 4:45. A few minutes later I saw a text from my training partner who had started earlier. “Done!” it said. My sister texted me too and I remember answering her back with a text that said, “That was really hard.” Then my mom texting me how proud she was of me finishing the race. My response: “I didn’t get the time I wanted.” Her response: “You’re too hard on yourself.”
I would learn later that no one did what they wanted to do that day. Most everyone I talked to was disappointed with their finish time. I keep wondering what I could have done differently – why couldn’t I have just pushed it a bit more to at least make it under 5? I am still fighting with myself on this one.
Disappointment aside, I really did have a good time running the marathon. I was still able to take in all the excitement and energy of the city and see sections I had never visited before. Different neighborhoods had different feels and atmosphere, even if some did tend to blend together a bit. It’s a privilege to be able to do something like this, and I am not taking that lightly. What an amazing city to have a first marathon in – I don’t think I could have picked a better one if I tried.
I can’t say with certainty that I will do another marathon, but I’m definitely not counting it out. I didn’t hate it as much as feared I might. Despite how tiring it all was, I also didn’t hate my training. The decision I will have to make is whether to stick with this training plan or try something else. Do I go straight into planning another marathon, now that I know what to expect? Or do I take a break and re-visit when I’m more mentally fresh? So many things to think about…
I’m on a two-week break right now. I want to properly rest mentally and physically from what I put my body through the last four months. But I’m kind of itching to run. I’m also surprised at how fast my legs healed up. I was in tremendous pain from soreness in my calves and quads for two days. But afterwards, I was almost completely on the mend. I’m kind of in a hangover phase now – is there such a thing as post-marathon depression? I’m going to start back up next week, work on my speed and strength. Find some cross-training that I enjoy that can fit into my new work schedule. I have a few small races coming up in the next few months, but nothing major. My training partner texted me last weekend, letting me know she wants to do Hartford next year. I simply answered, “I am going to kill you.” By the way, she finished 10 minutes faster than me in the race, so there may be some redemption running in order. However, I don’t want to fixate on competition – I need to run my own race and improve and push myself for my own sake.
Thank you all for reading and for your encouraging words. I will keep this blog going as I continue my running experiences. So keep watching this channel – I am by no means done.