Chicago Marathon 2013 by Craig Smith.

Craig’s Chicago Marathon 2013 report

After a fairly forgettable and delayed flight to Chicago courtesy of Air France, we arrived in “The Windy City” at around 4pm on the Friday before the Marathon. We waited around an hour and a half to get through border controls and then finally got our bags. We hit rush hour and our taxi seemed to take ages to get to our apartment but it had been exciting to see the towering skyscrapers getting bigger and bigger as we approached the city.

Our 51st floor apartment did not disappoint although the balcony was not good for my vertigo. In fact I could only go on it on my hands and knees! An early night (7pm) and an early rise (1am) local time meant a long wait before Saturday officially came and the trip to the Expo.

The organisers did a magnificent job of laying on yellow school buses to the Expo from the city centre but they had cunningly placed the stop right next to not only a 4 story Nike store but also a Garmin shop… talk about temptation!

After a very bouncy 15 minute bus ride we arrived at the Expo venue which was HUGE… one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. As early birds it was pretty quiet when we arrived so we took advantage of the lack of queues and I registered, got my number and official race t-shirt.

We stuck around for about 2 hour and there were plenty of interesting sports foods and supplements to sample. I managed to stock up on my Shot Bloks which are my preferred fuel on race day. I also bought a nice Nike running jacket with the Chicago Marathon badge on it. It’s hard to calculate prices in the US as not only do you have to work out the exchange rate but they don’t list things with sales tax (VAT) which is 9.25% in Illinois.

We left the Expo, headed back on the bus again and temptation got the better of me and a new Garmin was acquired. The price was good compared to the US even with sales tax but the $50 off that the assistant offered swung it for me! In the afternoon we visited Navy Pier which is a 1 mile long pier jutting out into Lake Michigan with restaurants, a big wheel and other attractions. A game of mini golf settled the nerves as I was starting to get excited about Marathon Sunday.

So race day dawned. Chicago should have been the final of my self-imposed challenge of running all of the World Marathon Majors until Tokyo was added to the series in 2012. Having already completed London (x4), Boston (x2), Berlin and New York I also had set myself the challenge of completing them each in under 3 hours 30 minutes (this additional element only came into my mind after I had already run half of them).

My build up to Chicago had not been great. I’ve had a knee problem since March which I’ve not been able to fully shake off and my right Achilles has been a pain (literally) since late 2011. However, I’d learnt to manage them but even so, a lack of motivation after PBing in Boston in April and my dislike of summer marathon training meant I’d only done around two-thirds of the training I’d put in for Boston 2013. My lack of sleep since arriving in the US had done little to boost my confidence or race prep. However, I thought I could nail sub 3:30 given my base fitness and a good GNR run 4 weeks ago.

I’d been given a good draw, Zone A which put me off just behind the elites and fast club runners at 7:30am in Wave 1 (Chicago starts in two waves). This had meant setting off at 5:30am to walk the one mile to Grant’s Park where the starting area was. It was dark but the familiar shadows of other marathoners with their official issue “gear bags” began to get more prevalent as I got closer to the start.

In the start area itself, everything was easy to find although the unlit changing tent was amusing. Myself and about 10 other runners were staggering around using the light from iPhones and watches to make sure we didn’t get heat rub mixed up with vaseline as we went through our pre-race lubrication rituals (individually of course)! After leaving my clothing bag at the designated area (Chicago is a point to point race so you pick the bag up from the same place at the end), I headed to queue for the loos which were in good supply and the queues were moving quickly. Loo queues are a good place to chat to other runners. I met a guy from Canada who had also run Boston this year and was looking to go sub 2:55.

We had to be in our start zone before 7:20am. I headed down to mine and took another quick loo break before entering the start corral. After the national anthem, the wheel chair racers were announced and started, the elites introduced and we were off. It was a lovely morning by now. The sun was up, the sky was blue and it was about 12c, perfect for marathon running. The start of the race takes you through some of the biggest sky scrapers in the city. This gives an amazing effect of running through a tunnel of noise but plays hell with your Garmin. I’d read about this beforehand and had set mine up to manually lap at each of the mile markers (press the lap button at each mile and go off my average lap time to judge my pace). I was pleased I’d planned for this as my Garmin read 1.15 miles as I hit the first mile marker!

I’d planned to run at a 3hr 25m pace (7:49/mile) to give me some time in the bank for problems, however, I found myself running an average of 7:20 – 7:35/mile for the first few miles. This felt okay but I was trying to slow down. The lack of instant feedback from my Garmin is something I’m used to though and I was finding it hard to judge my pace with only getting mile splits. I saw Helen and the kids at 1.2 miles, but missed them at 5k as I was looking on the wrong side of the road. The views were great, my Achilles and calf were hurting but I’ve been used to that and I felt good. I went through half way in 1hr 38mins and my first 13 actual splits were 7:27 7:19 7:23 7:25 7:27 7:30 7:29 7:34 7:32 7:38 7:49 7:32 and 7:39, I saw Helen and the kids again there and she shouted to me “what are you doing?” as she knew it was too fast (by about 4 minutes). I still felt okay and I knew I would see Helen again at 17 miles.

Things were starting to feel hard now though. It was warming up (I guess it was around 16c now) and my legs were feeling heavier. I was still well within my stretched target of 3:25 pace but I knew the last 6 miles were going to be tough. I saw Helen and the kids again at 17 miles and this gave me a boost. However, my splits from 14-19 miles were 7:43 7:42 7:45 7:52 7:50 7:57. Part of this was consciously trying to slow down but part was fatigue. The lack of training miles were starting to catch up with me now.

Chicago is very flat. No hills at all. I think this is, in some way, harder than a slightly hilly course as you are continually pounding the same muscles without being able to alternate between hamstrings and quads. By mile 19 I knew walking would be inevitable to avoid a potential DNF or a trip to the medical tent again at the end (like London and Boston). The need to walk has happened to me before in races and I know from experience that the worst thing you can do is start to walk randomly as you lose control of your race. Therefore, by mile 19 I had my plan, “get to the mile marker, power walk for 200 yds, run to the next mile marker etc…” When I started walking at mile 19, I realised how light headed I’d become, walking allowed my blood pressure to equalise and stopped me feeling dizzy. I followed this strategy from Mile 19-25 and I must admit, it did help me feel in control of the situation although it was frustrating. My splits from 19-25 were 8:25 8:59 8:55 9:13 9:07 8:57. I was watching my predicated time tumble and by mile 23 at 3 hours, I knew I had to average around 9:15min/mile to nail sub 3:30.

Getting past mile 25 was a massive boost. I saw Helen and the kids at 25.5 and shortly after “800m to go”. Being able to quantify “2 laps of the track” when you are that tired really helps. No stopping now and I came over the line in 3h:29m:10s. I staggered for a while after the finish line, considered asking for help but just kept going. Medal, photo, Gatorade, foil blanket, water, sticky tape for foil blanket, another photo, banana (no thanks), crash on the grass with legs in air. Battered but okay, no medical attention required.

It took about an hour to get through baggage recovery, changing and then I saw Helen, Evan and Amy waiting for me in the park. A bit dazed and confused but very, very satisfied.

So on to Tokyo in only 19 weeks. That will be my marathon swan-song, at least for a while. It will have been 13 marathons since 2008 and it’s taken its toll on my body and the training takes up so much time. I want to focus on getting my half-marathon time down to as close to 80 mins as possible too. Hopefully, sub 3:30 in Tokyo will mean I hit my dream of all six majors within this time target. I certainly won’t be taking anything for granted and some hard training is ahead of me in the winter months!

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