Monday, October 9, 2017

Race Recap: The Chicago Marathon

Wow, Chicago is big!

I mean, I knew Chicago was big; how could I not? I lived here for four years in college, and it was big then. I've visited it from time to time. Still big. But the Chicago Marathon yesterday still left me astonished with Chicago's bigness. It's really, really big.

What's so big about Chicago? Let's start with the buildings. We took a boat tour of Chicago architecture the day before the race, and not only are these buildings enormous, there are just so many of them! It was one epochal skyscraper after another, for miles in either direction.

That one in the middle is UGE!
Then it was off to McCormick Place to pick up race packets. This might have been the biggest race expo I've ever been to -- even bigger than Boston. This makes sense, since the race has almost 50% more competitors (44,000 compared to Boston's 30,000), but it's still an awesome thing to see in person.

This is just the entry hall!
Finally, after a big pasta dinner and fitful night's sleep, it was time to head to the race start. Most of my running buddies opted for tickets to the pre-race hospitality tent, a bit of a splurge, but worth it! We had tables to sit at, a full spread for breakfast (and lunch after the race), and most importantly, a huge array of porta-potties with NO LINES!

The crew is ready to go! Me, Brad, Derek, Amber, Dawn, Joey, and Morgan
My plan for the race was to stick with Amber for as long as I could. She had BQed just over a month ago but her time wasn't fast enough for her to make it into the race. Today, she wanted to try for a 3:35 marathon, enough to give her a 5-minute cushion and almost certainly gain entry to Boston in 2019. A 3:35 pace works out to 8:13 per mile. This is a bit slower than what I'd been training for, but it was also going to be a warm day, so I felt like even a 3:35 would be pushing it.

Soon it was time to head to the starting area. We felt a smug sense of satisfaction as we passed thousands of runners waiting in seemingly endless porta-potty lines! Amber, Joey, Morgan and I started in the "E" corral while the rest of our group headed to their corrals closer to the start line. There were three start waves, each with over 14,000 runners. Each wave was divided into five corrals. E is the last corral of Wave 1. It would take us more than 15 minutes after the starting gun to actually cross the start line. Did I mention Chicago is big?

Me and Amber in our corral. Don't I look thrilled to be there?
We chatted nervously with other runners in our corral before the start. I was officially entitled to start in Corral C based on a half-marathon I had run earlier this year, but Amber's BQ had come too late to used a Chicago qualifying time, so it was Corral E for both of us. No one in our corral was expected to run a 3:35 -- the fastest pace team in the corral was 3:45, so we knew we'd be passing a lot of runners for at least the first part of the race. We decided to take it easy for the first couple miles and start passing folks in Mile 3. The starting gun went off and we inched our way towards the start.

This image, which I believe is from 2016, gives you some idea of how big this race is. However what it doesn't capture is that not all the runners are lined up directly behind the start line. We were on a side street and only folded into the race after the starting gun.

That Chicago Marathon is pretty big!
The first couple miles were comfortable; the start is engineered as a bottleneck so that there is room to run once you cross the line. But nearly immediately you head underground into a tunnel beneath city streets, so your Garmin is useless to give you pace information. I believe at this point my watch was telling me I was running something like a 5:35 mile! But Amber and I knew this was going to happen, so we had planned on simply using the mile markers as a guide, and adjusting our pace at each marker according to our actual time through each marker. We were so focused on this problem that we didn't even notice when we ran by superfans Greta, Megan, Ashley, and Brian at Mile 2:

Lookin' good!
Mile 1: 8:23
Mile 2: 8:19
Mile 3: 8:00
Mile 4: 8:17
Mile 5: 8:06

This put us at an 8:13 pace for the first 5 miles -- exactly where we wanted to be!

At this point we were finally out of the downtown area with the largest skyscrapers, so our Garmins were a little better, but not perfect. Amber and I still had a 15-20 second per mile disparity on our watches, so we continued to use the mile markers for guidance. We were running through some cool neighborhoods, past botanical gardens, but always with hundreds of runners around us. To maintain our planned pace we had to pass dozens of runners every minute of the race. It was beginning to wear on us. At Mile 8 we saw Greta, Megan, Ashley, and Brian again -- they had taken a train this far north of town to get a glimpse of us and the other runners in our group. They had just arrived when we got there so they hadn't had a chance to get cameras out for photos. Now we were heading south, back towards the city center. At Mile 10, I decided that there was no way I could maintain this pace for another 16 miles and told Amber I was backing off. But hopefully I had put her in a position to hit her target time.

Mile 6: 8:13
Mile 7: 8:09
Mile 8: 8:15
Mile 9: 8:12
Mile 10: 8:19

Still an 8:13 average for the race. But now Amber was on her own and I slowed considerably. I found myself catching up to a pacer with 3:45 on his back. I asked him if he was still on pace and he said he was within a few seconds. He had started ahead of me, though, so if he could maintain his pace and I stuck with him, I should be on track for something like a 3:42 finish. We were now back in the city center among the skyscrapers, and once again my Garmin started showing paces that were wildly off from what I was really running. I passed the halfway point at 1:49. I could slow a bit and still get that 3:40-ish finish. But it was starting to warm up. I was taking two and three cups of water at each stop — drinking one and dumping the rest over my head to stay cool. I never felt "hot" per se, but it always felt better to dump that cold water over my head. Lots of runners were stopping to walk. It was around here that I passed my favorite spectator sign of the race: "Honest sign: You are 55% of the way there".

Mile 11: 8:36
Mile 12: 8:37
Mile 13: 8:44
Mile 14: 8:40
Mile 15: 8:37

My previous 8:13 average for the race had slowed considerably -- now I was averaging 8:39 per mile, and it didn't look like it was going to get better any time soon. We were passing through some really neat neighborhoods, though: Greek Town, Little Italy, Korea Town, and some fantastic Latino neighborhoods, each with its own character. We'd have a mile of Greek music, followed by a mile of Latin pop, followed by a mile of Asian drums. The crowds seemed to get rowdier as we went. The country with the largest contingent of runners outside the US was Mexico, and the crowds cheered whenever a Mexican runner passed by. But no doubt I was slowing down. I allowed myself to walk through the aid stations. I gave myself permission to stop at a porta-potty after Mile 20 (though for only 30 seconds!).

Mile 16: 8:46
Mile 17: 9:10
Mile 18: 9:19
Mile 19: 9:20
Mile 20: 9:55
Mile 21: 11:40 (including potty stop)

Cmon, Munger! Now there were only 5.2 miles to go. We passed by a high school, with its marching band outside cheering us on. We passed by gospel singing groups. We passed DJs playing every type of music, from the Rocky theme to rap to "Despacito." Finally the route headed north, back towards the city center. I could see the Hancock tower in the distance. I was glad I wasn't going to have to run that far.

Mile 22: 10:12
Mile 23: 10:12
Mile 24: 10:14
Mile 25: 10:50

Only 1.2 miles to go! At the last aid station, I didn't let myself stop to drink. I grabbed a quick cup of water to dump over my head and kept going. Now there were signs urging us on. 1 mile to go. 1 kilometer. 800 meters. Now a quick turn to the right. 400 meters. 300 meters. Turn left and 200 meters to go. There were bleachers. There was Greta, waving at me! I smiled and waved back! I was nearly done! Megan got a great photo of me as I headed toward the finish line.

Legitimately happy to see the finish!
Mile 26: 10:08. I swear it felt faster than that. The last .2 weren't any faster. But I was done. I hadn't gotten my 3:35 or even a 3:45. My official time was 3:57:35. That was okay by me. Chicago was definitely a crazy, wonderful experience. And big. Very, very big.

Among our group, only Derek and Amy managed to meet their goals -- Derek finished in an amazing 2:59:51, good enough to Boston-qualify by more than 10 minutes! Wes was running with Derek and had a similar goal, but could only manage a 3:10 -- disappointing for him. Dawn ran an impressive 3:33 and Brad struggled a bit with his 3:50. I was surprised to learn that Amber was behind me at the finish. She was cramping up and had to stop and stretch several times on her way to a 4:04. She had been looking for me each time she stopped but somehow missed me passing her. She and Greta commiserated that there were a lot of tall male runners with orange hats in the race, which made it difficult to spot me. "Faux Daves" greatly outnumbered real Daves! Morgan really struggled in the race with stiffening muscles and finished in 4:39. But Amy, starting back in the third wave, pulled through with an impressive 4:24 PR!

The consensus among the spectators was that it was a really hot day. It didn't seem that hot to me as I was running, but obviously the heat did slow me down, like it did everyone else. I clearly had started out too fast for the conditions, but what time would have been realistic if I had run a perfect race? 3:45? I'm not sure even that would have been possible. The fact that it gradually got hotter throughout the day made it unclear whether going for even splits would be ideal. An equal effort in 57-degree weather at the start is different from the 77-degree weather at the finish. But maybe if I had started out at an 8:30 pace for the first half, I might have only slowed to, say, a 9:00 pace by the end. That would work out to around a 3:49 -- actually not that far from where I ended up. Could I have run that elusive 3:35 if the conditions had been perfect -- say, 45 degrees throughout? I'm not sure. I would have been close, but given the difficulty navigating through the crowds, I think even in perfect conditions it might have been a stretch. Chicago is really, really big.

My Garmin record of the race is below.

As you can see, the Garmin recorded the race as over 28 miles! Strava was even worse, logging over 30 miles. I think the only way to get an accurate record of the race distance is to use a footpod, like the Stryd. But the mile markers are really easy to spot on this race, so honestly I don't think you even need a GPS to pace yourself accurately. The real problem is negotiating the crowds. If you were in an earlier corral it would be better, but even folks in the C corral talked about the difficulty of navigating the crowds.

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