I have never been one to follow conventional wisdom and go to a marathon and be content to hang around the hotel prior to the race. My family likes to travel with me on these destination type marathons and we took full advantage of all the sites Chicago has to offer prior to and after the race. We flew into Chicago on Thursday night and were able to get up first thing Friday morning and head to the expo before the large crowds. There was no waiting in the lines! We did a little expo shopping after picking up the race packet and then headed out to the Sears Tower. (I still have a hard time calling it the Willis Tower) You need to experience standing in the glass boxes called the ledges that stick out from the side of the building 100+ stories up. For a cool picture lie down on the floor and have someone stand over you and snap a picture. (Looks like nothing is below you) We then spent the rest of the afternoon shopping on the magnificent mile. The next day brought another day of sightseeing. This time we wandered through the huge Field Museum of Natural History and then spent the afternoon at Navy Pier before heading back to the room to get ready for the big race the next morning. Make sure you pick up a CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) pass when you first get into town. This allows you to take full advantage of the “L” and the buses to get around town.
Race day started very cold at 29 degrees. I got to the start early at about 6:15 and spent some time wandering around and checking in my gear. Since I had not qualified for a seeded corral I was in the open corral with about 40,000 other runners. I knew I wanted to try and break 4 hours so I got in the corral very early but got a spot at the front. About 5 minutes before the start clothes started flying as everyone shed their old sweat shirts leaving just the racing gear. I crossed the starting line about 6 minutes after the elite runners started. (I heard that the back of the open corral did not cross the starting line for about 25 minutes) If you want a fast run get there early!
The first mile flew by and I saw my family standing in front of our hotel cheering me on. We then went through the downtown loop area where the wind was a factor between the tall buildings. I was glad I opted for the long sleeve shirt and the gloves. The crowds so far were huge. Every spot on each side of the street was taken and most times it was 4-5 people thick. It felt like the finish line at most races but we were just in the first few miles. I of course got too caught up in the moment and started out much faster than I wanted to. My plan was to stay in front of the 4 hour pace group. After the first few miles I noticed I was running with the 3:50 group. It was very crowded around these pace groups so I actually pulled ahead of the 3:50 group and kept them behind me.
We left the Loop (downtown area) and headed north towards Wrigley Field. I was expecting the crowds to get smaller as we left the downtown area but they stayed strong and got more creative. We started to see bands playing on the sidewalks, folks dressed in costume, cheer groups dressed all alike and some on elevated stages with loud microphones cheering the runners on. With all of this entertainment to distract me the miles just flew by. Before I knew it we were headed back towards downtown and I was still in front of the 3:50 pace group. I cruised past the half way point in 1:50:54 at about a 8:30 per minute pace. My goal had been to run right under a 9 minute pace. I knew I was running a risk since I was about 8 minutes ahead of where I planned to be. I let the runners be my pace group though and stayed on track with my gels I was carrying and the water/Gatorade stops. I prefer to try and stop and every other stop and alternate between water one stop and then Gatorade the next one.
At this point in the race the course alternates between heading back to the city and then quickly turns and heads away. I kept hoping that we would just continue on back towards the city and the finish line. I was starting to feel the effects of going out too fast around mile 20-21 until I hit Chinatown. Once again the crowds grew even larger and louder. This distraction kept me moving until I got to the Nike Cheer zone around mile 23. The music pumping up the spectators kept my mind off how my legs were starting to feel. I only had 3 miles left and it was a straight shot up Michigan Avenue to the finish line.
The last three miles are a blur of crowd noises, water stops and more crowd noises. I have to admit I actually slowed down and walked at these last three water stops until I had fully finished the cup. I then somehow got back in the pack of runners trying to find that last turn to the finish line. I knew from the map of the course that once I saw the last series of turns I only had a few hundred yards to go. There was no stopping since the finish line was within sight. I could see the finish line clock still under 4 hours and I knew it had taken me at least 6 minutes to cross the start line. Unless I fell now I would beat my goal of finishing in just under 4 hours. I saw my family in the stands to the left jumping and cheering, gave them a good wave and ran past the finish line with my hands held high.
I had just completed the Chicago Marathon with a PR of 3:50:42! I had run two previous marathons finishing with a 4:22 at Disney in 2009 and a 4:18 at Mercedes in 2009. I had improved my PR by about 28 minutes! I collected my medal and did the slow walk of the living dead through the rest of the finish line chute. Due to the size of the crowds and the finish line area I actually had to use the cell phones to find my family after the race. The only downside to the entire race experience was the fact that they could not come into the runners hospitality tent after the race. Instead of hanging around the tent resting and eating we had to catch the red line back to our hotel. They could learn a few lessons from the Disney folks in regards to the hospitality tents.
I have discovered that not all runners are created alike. The magazines said I should shower, eat and spend the afternoon resting. I prefer the shower, eating and then walking around. We spent the afternoon at the Shedd Aquarium and the slow walking allowed me to stretch my legs out. I prefer this type of post race ritual since I have found it helps me most.
I would highly encourage all marathoners to run the Chicago Marathon if they ever get the chance. My racing experience was great, the course was great and the crowds were great. But the best part is I finally broke 4 hours.