2014 Chicago Marathon Race Recap
Running is so much more than “just running.” That’s the thought that swirled in my brain about a million times on Sunday during the 2014 Chicago Marathon. I thought about it at the start line as I witnessed the hope in the eyes of so many people who had trained for months to get there. I thought about it triumphantly as I crossed the halfway point feeling strong … and again as I suffered through miles 20-24. I thought about it (with awe and amazement) when I crossed the finish line, nailing my big goal time. And, I said it out loud to my mom who I called from the finish area: Running is SO much more than “just running.”
For people who don’t enjoy running or haven’t yet discovered its power, I know that may be hard to understand. But I promise you, running is not just running. Training and racing for a marathon is about finding out who you are on the inside and how much potential you have within you. It’s about the depth of the human spirit and the amount of heart you have to give. It’s about finding a way to keep going when you don’t think there’s any way to continue. It’s about a drive to be your very best. It’s about conquering the impossible and finding strength you never knew you had. God, running is so much more than just running. On October 10, 2010, I was still learning that. I was a different runner when I showed up in Chicago to run 26.2 miles for the first time. There was so much I didn’t yet know and didn’t yet believe. I did a lot of things wrong and had a terrible race. I walked constantly after mile 15 and cried at the finish line in disappointment.
Fast forward 4 years later: October 12, 2014, was a very different day. I took 4 years of training, learnings, knowledge, inspiration and effort and ran an hour faster than my first marathon in Chicago. I qualified for the Boston Marathon – something I never thought I’d do until I aged into a slower qualifying bracket. It’s really hard to even put into words. No race recap or report can do justice to the emotional roller coaster ride you go on during a marathon and the depth of emotions, gratitude and strength you feel on the other side of a victorious day.
Although I didn’t share my goals here on runladylike.com, my “A” goal (big stretch goal) was to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which was a time under 3:35. My “B” goal was to run under 3:40 (my previous PR was 3:44:10). And my “C” goal was just to finish and do the best I could with what the day gave me. Going into the race, I wasn’t sure my A goal was possible. I knew I was capable of it, but I wasn’t sure it would happen on Sunday. I’d had some really good training runs and workouts, but the heat and humidity has been stifling all summer, preventing me from experiencing any of those true breakthrough moments I have while training during the fall and winter months. Additionally, my last 2 weeks of training were sluggish confidence killers that made me question my body and my strength.
I have never felt as unsettled before a race as I did with this one. I knew I would be happy with any improvement from my previous personal best time, but there was something about this marathon that made running big mean more. Perhaps it was because I remembered giving in the last time I was in Chicago. I gave up. I didn’t know how to run through the hard parts back then. Maybe it was because I was running on MDA’s Team Momentum and the families I was running for deserved my very best performance. Maybe it was because I’d never trained harder, longer or stronger than I had for this marathon. Whatever the reasons, I just really wanted it.
As the person who is always telling others to believe in themselves and to trust their training, I was a hypocritical basket case the week of the race. I had this gnawing little sensation that was deep down in my gut and dancing in my mind that I couldn’t shake. It was tempting me to doubt myself. So instead, I surrounded myself with inspiration. In the days leading up to the race, I wore a necklace I bought after the Hood to Coast Relay last year (a turning point in my running) that says “fearless” on it. I wore a bracelet from Endorphin Warrior I have that says “believe” on it. And on my shoes I had my Momentum Jewelry Foot Notes that say Finish Strong. I held onto a few emails and texts I got from friends. Here was one of my favorite pieces of advice from my friend Sarah:
“Give yourself permission to win. Give yourself the OK to do what you’ve been dreaming of. There will be two voices tomorrow: the one that tells you that you can and you are about to and your goal is within reach, and then the voice that says you’re too tired, you didn’t do that run when you were supposed to and you can’t. When that negative voice comes in, acknowledge that it’s real, but then consciously decide to believe you can. Stop the negative thoughts and find something positive to replace it. And lastly, be in the present. There is no pressure in the present. Run the moment you are in. Don’t think of miles you’ve just run, don’t think of what you have left to run. Just run where you are. Go kill it.”
I thought a lot about what Amy Hastings (who was the fifth woman to finish at Chicago on Sunday) told me earlier in the week: Breathe in strength and breathe out weakness. There will be good miles and bad miles. You don’t know how many there will be or when they will occur. Just remember there will be another good mile ahead.
I had the most inspirational pre-race pep talk lunch from my good friend Marie. She is one of my biggest running inspirations. She has run 32 marathons and completed 2 IRONMAN races (and she is FAST!). She knew I was stressing and she told me to put all of those negative thoughts in a mental box and pack them away. She then gave me some advice her coach has given her: When you are feeling weak during the race, go back into your comfort zone/box for a mile and then reassess how you are doing once things start to feel manageable. There were tons of times during the race on Sunday that I reminded myself to just keep moving forward in my “box.” Forward motion!
My pre-race dinner was 100 percent inspiration. I spent the evening with my fellow runners on MDA’s Team Momentum and got to remember why we were running. I raised nearly $3,000 to help save and improve the lives of people fighting muscle disease thanks to people like YOU, and getting to hear from runners and families who are affected my muscular dystrophy, spinal muscular atrophy, ALS and other related diseases puts things into perspective very quickly. Simply being able to run is the gift, not the time on the clock.
When I got back to my hotel after the pre-race dinner, I wrote down the mantras that would keep me focused and strong. I even wrote some of them on my arm to carry with me during the race:
- You are stronger than you think.
- Own this race.
- You get to choose the outcome.
- Breathe in strength. Breathe out weakness.
On the morning of the race, I was silent. I put my phone on airplane and do not disturb modes. I didn’t take lots of pictures to post. No photos at the start line or in the corrals. No looking at any messages or tweets. I just focused in on what I was about to do and believed in the pep talk my husband gave me as we walked to the start area. Inspiration could only take me so far. The rest I had to do on my own.
Before we get into my personal race, here are a few things to note about the Chicago Marathon if it’s a race on your bucket list:
- Chicago knows running. Of all the marathons I’ve run so far, Chicago is on a whole other level. The expo is grand and makes you feel excited and special. The race day experience is top notch. The spectators and running community are incredible. The entire city is buzzing with marathon fever. It is a really special thing to experience. Here are a few of my favorite pictures from the race expo on Friday afternoon:
- The weather can be hit or miss for the Chicago Marathon. The first time I ran it, it was in the 60s at the start and the 80s (Fahrenheit) at the finish. The last few years have been good weather years for the race. This year, the weather was 50 degrees at the start with low humidity – nearly perfect conditions for a marathon, although I was hot when the sun came up throughout the day and the cool breezes were a welcome reprieve.
- Plan to arrive 30 minutes earlier than you typically would for the Chicago Marathon. You have to go through a security line, and the lines for the porta potties are extremely long. Arriving a little earlier than you typically would for other races is a good idea here due to the crowds and volume of people.
- It is very difficult to run the tangents at the Chicago Marathon due to the crowds and many turns, so you should expect to run about 26.5 at this race (which will affect your goal pace if you are shooting for a time goal). You run under several bridges where your GPS watch will lose its signal. The first one is right at the start, throwing your mile splits off considerably for the rest of the race.
- The race is crowded. Although I actually didn’t feel too crowded the first few miles, mile 9, 13 and 26 were all moments I remember having to slow a little due to all the people around me. There were parts of the race that were very congested. Expect to be with and around other runners the entire race. Sometimes, I pretend that the people next to me are my running friends from back home and that keeps me motivated. There was one woman near me for a while and I pretended she was my friend Elizabeth and we were just out on a Saturday morning long run together.
- The momentum of the crowd will keep you going. Spectators are packed in like sardines and there are several awesome cheer stations where the excitement is electric. Make sure your spectator is holding something (like a sign, balloon, flag, etc.) higher than head level so you can identify them. It will be hard for them to see you in the crowds.
My Chicago Marathon
My pre-race experience started very calmly, before quickly becoming dramatically traumatic and quickly unladylike (that is, after all, the reason most of you are even reading this, right?) After a nice 1.2-mile walk from my hotel to the starting area with my husband, I kissed him goodbye and proceeded through the security line.
It took me about 15 minutes to get through security. Although the race starts at 7:30, all the corrals close at 7:20 a.m. That gave me just 15 minutes to use the porta potty and hop into my corral. (I promise there is a reason for these details.)
I used my commute from the security line to the porta potty/corral area as my warm up. It wasn’t much of a 10-minute run, but I sporadically jogged when and where I could. When I got to the porta potty line right outside my corral (corral B), I knew there was NO way I was going to make it through the line and into the corral on time. Panic was setting in for all of us who needed to pee before the race. It was like we all realized at once that there was no way we were getting into those porta potties if we also wanted to run the race. Suddenly, people were peeing everywhere – in the grass, by trees, by fences. I saw penises and butts everywhere. Seriously.
This is the part where the women realized that we were going to have to join all the men who went before us. First, 2 women behind me ran over to a fence and popped a squat for anyone to see. Next, 4 other girls decided they’d make a go of it, and that’s when I thought I better join them. If 5 of us were doing it together, it wasn’t that bad right? So, I took off my throwaway pants and held them in such a way that they would shield me (or should I say everyone else). Five female butts lined up in a row peeing in broad daylight with runners around everywhere. It was like a zoo. But everyone realized it was a necessary zoo. I had never seen anything like it. One man was pooping in the grass. I know. This could be its own comedy. I tried to just think that it would make for a good unladylike story for all of you while it was happening.
A few minutes later, I was safe in my corral – away from foreign private parts and X-rated pre-race antics. I did some dynamic stretching and then it was go time.
One of the things that helps me the most in a marathon is breaking the race down into small goals. For this race, I focused on getting to the next place I would see my husband and other spectators (5, 10, 14, 16, 20, 24) and 5 key areas where I’d check in to see how I was feeling compared to where I needed to be time-wise (6, 10, 15, 20, 24). Breaking the race down always helps me stay more in the moment.
The first 6 miles felt very comfortable. They were crowded, but I avoided dodging and weaving as much as possible. My pace was averaging between 7:48 and 8:00 per mile. I was surprised by how comfortable I felt at a pace that was about 10-20 seconds faster than goal race pace, and I made a mental note to try to stay in a comfort zone because there was a lot of race left to go. I decided to fuel a little earlier than usual, taking Gatorade at the first aid station and GU after mile 3 with water. I saw Mr. rUnladylike for the first time between miles 4 and 5. He rented a bike and was carrying an adjustable flag pole that could raise 12 feet in the air. I was able to spot him easily thanks to the flag, and it was such an incredible thing to be able to look forward to seeing him.
He doesn’t realize it, but when you’re in the darkest part of a marathon, sometimes your only inspiration to keep moving is to see the person waiting for you ahead. After I passed him, I made my next goal to see him at mile 10. At the 6 mile mark, my watch read 48 minutes, which was a minute ahead of my goal pace. Keep moving forward. Stay in the moment. Soak in the crowd.
Miles 7 through 13 went by swiftly and uneventfully. I still felt strong during these next 7 miles and even picked up the pace a hair, with my 13th mile being my fastest of the race at 7:20. I saw Mr. rUnladylike again during mile 11, and I crossed the half marathon mark around 1:44.
I was keeping my mile splits consistent between 7:48 and 7:58. I took a second GU during my 8th mile and my third before the half marathon mark. I continued alternating between Gatorade and water for hydration. When I passed the half marathon mark, I knew that today would be my day. I wasn’t sure at that point how hard the rest of the race would be, but I knew I had banked enough time and was still feeling strong enough that a BQ was in reach. This was the moment I knew this race was mine to lose or win. My big goal was possible, and it was within reach.
Miles 14 through 19 started to get tough. I was really excited for mile 14 because there were many friends who were there to cheer me on. I got to see all of them and that kept my mind off how I was feeling and on the support from my cheering squad.
Mile 15 was the first mile of the race where I crept above 8-minute miles (8:05) and it was one of the first hard miles of the race. I remembered what Amy Hastings told me: there will be bad miles, but good ones will follow. I told myself this was one of the bad miles and that mile 16 and 17 would be mine.
My legs felt really heavy during mile 15, but I knew if I could just get to 16, I’d get to see Mr. rUnladylike again and 17 would mark the countdown into single digit miles again. I GUed again somewhere around 16-17 miles and I started drinking more Gatorade than water because I felt like I was losing steam. Although I was still around 7:50 pace at the start of this segment, I ended this section around 8:15.
The last few miles were a suffer fest, as they often are. My legs were feeling so heavy and my left hamstring and both calves were beginning to tighten up. I stayed really focused on my nutrition to ensure I kept taking in electrolytes and fuel so I wouldn’t totally hit a wall. I ate again somewhere toward the beginning of this segment. My brain was starting to shut off. I saw only the road ahead of me and no longer had the energy for my eyes to scan the crowd or focus on anything but moving forward. At mile 20, I was about 3 minutes ahead of my big goal pace, so I knew I had a little cushion, which was a good mental boost. I spent most of mile 22 with a side cramp. I did some breathing exercises to get it to go away (breathe in strength, breathe out weakness), which it finally did somewhere during mile 23. I saw Mr. rUnladylike a final time at mile 24. I smiled and waved for the photo he was taking, but I didn’t feel the way the photo looked on the inside. I was willing my body to keep moving. I knew there wasn’t long to go. We can do anything for 2 more miles.
When I could see the 25-mile marker in the distance, I told myself now is the time. A BQ was possible, but I was going to have to fight for it. So I picked it up and ran as hard as I could with the little my body had left to give. I pretended that I was running the last mile in a series of mile repeats during a speed workout and that I was almost there. Mile 25 was back under 8 minute miles and the last half-mile (the course was long) was in the 7:20s. When I crossed the line, all I could think was, “I did it.” I came here and did exactly what I wanted to do. Exactly what I had worked hard for. I slowed considerably for about 5 miles of the race, but otherwise ran pretty consistently and felt decent overall.
Most of all, I remembered back to that first marathon – nearly an hour slower than today. I remembered back to my second marathon when I ran 3:52 and thought it was impossible to run any faster. I remember telling people I could never run in the 3:30s. That’s the beauty of the marathon. It’s so much more than just running. The marathon is where hard work and believing in yourself collide. It should be impossible. But we prove over and over again that we can do it. Now I’m already thinking what else may be possible. But I’m going to give myself some time to let this sink in.
Final race time: 3:34:06 (average pace 8:10/mile)
Garmin data: 26.42 miles (average pace 8:06)
Nutrition and Hydration
The number one question I get asked by many of you is related to nutrition and hydration and what my race weekend strategy is. For those of you who read runladylike.com regularly, this will be familiar territory for you. Here is how I handled nutrition and hydration for this race:
- Lunch the day before the race: Penne pasta with grilled chicken and tomato sauce + 2 glasses of water
- Dinner the day before the race (yes, I showed up to my pre-race dinner with my own food): Grilled chicken breast, plain baked potato with a ridiculous amount of salt, rice, 2 rolls, a salt pill before bed + lots of water
- Pre-race breakfast (eaten 3 hours before the race start): 2 hard-boiled eggs, a bagel, half a banana, a salt pill and half a bottle of water
- 30 minutes before the race: 2 black cherry Clif Shot Bloks with a swig of water (I stop drinking water one hour before the race start.)
- During the race: 5 GUs (3 salted caramel and 2 salted watermelon) around miles 3/4, 8, 12/13, 16/17 and 21; lots of Gatorade at the aid stations and water with all the GUs
- After the race: Bottle of water, bottle of Gatorade and forced myself to eat a sandwich and some pretzels at the post-race party but had no appetite (you want to try to get a good mix of carbs and protein within 30 minutes of finishing)
- Post-race indulgence: Fried pickles, a burger and fries and the best beers ever: Well’s Banana Bread, Rogue Nut Brown Ale and Smutty Nose Pumpkin
While running may seem like an individual sport some days, it’s truly a team effort. I could never have had the race I had without the support of so many people.
- Thank you to my husband Mr. rUnladylike for being an incredible race weekend Sherpa and spectator. He doesn’t always love spectating and the rigor that goes into race day, but he was absolutely incredible this past weekend. I saw him about 7 times on the course and he was constantly lifting me up every time I tried to doubt myself. It’s not easy to be married to an endurance junkie, and I never forget that or take it for granted.
- Thank you to all my friends who trained with me this season, especially Elizabeth Kalifeh and Sang Yim for always pushing me and being positive. I can’t wait to cheer you on for your big marathons next month. And thank you to all the amazing women who are in my inner endurance circle – Andrea Hillman, Amy Lauth, Teesha McCrae – we may have had different race goals this season, but knowing you were out there too always gave me inspiration. Being able to watch you all finish Ironman Chattanooga 2 weeks before Chicago gave me such inspiration.
- Thank you to my parents for always believing that I can do anything and encouraging me to believe that and go after it too. They are always the first people I call after every race.
- Thank you to all of my friends and supporters – in real life and virtually – who have cheered me on and given me strength and inspiration. From text messages hours before the race to motivational tweets and Facebook comments, all of that plays into a great race day. You all know who you are – college friends, coworkers, fellow running bloggers, runladylike.com readers, every awesome person reading this right now. You guys rock and I’m so grateful for your support.
- And last, but not least, thank you to everyone who made a donation in support of my efforts to run this race for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Every dollar represents progress. I can’t tell you how much your donation and support meant to me. I’m still working on reaching out to some of you personally, but until then, thank you to: S. Derks, R. Koenig, L. Nielsen, A. Lauth, C. Greene, M. Lorch, C. Hartwick, K. Murphy, K. Bruna, T. Hermon, S. Laflamme, P. D’Avanza, M. McLachlan, K. Bonds, J. Feuiltault (twice!), J. Mueller, P. Werdesheim, T. Geoffroy, A. Burdick, B. Fisher, P. Ivory, A. Ford, S. Block, J. Adams, A. Labbe, T. Scott, A. Walker, M. van Rooden, B. Ball, K. Dakake, C. Howell, C. Schickel, B. Blackford, S. Jacob, T. Newton, R. Castellani, W. Melancon, D. Mottern, J. Schickel, J. Petty, J. Underhill, L. Vesole, S. Palmer, K. Johnson, A. Freeman, F. D’Avanza, T. Sullivan, G. Guthrie, S. Sevinsky, S. Nicholson, B. Bochnak, L. Donovan, E. Sullivan, A. Nelms, V. Massulik, K. Kijanka
Have you ever run the Chicago Marathon? What did you think about it? If you’ve run the Boston Marathon, what tips do you have for me if I get in?