Chicago Marathon 2017: Review

Fourteen miles into the roasting hot Chicago Marathon I received divine intervention…I was high-fived by a nun.

Now I’m not necessarily a believer but I did knock nearly fourteen minutes off my PB so as they say in the US, you do the math.

Chicago was also my second Abbott World Marathon Major, seven years after ticking off the first in London but I was in much better shape than 2010 albeit with the same lack of consistent training, stretching and strength but why change the habit of a lifetime.

The build-up

We flew into Chicago on Wednesday evening but I wasn’t going to the upcoming race interfere with our tourist plans.

On Thursday, we made a pilgrimage to the teashop owned by Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins. It was so far north that we had to take two metros and a proper choo-choo train to get there only for Billy to be doing superhero rock god stuff somewhere else but that didn’t stop me looking up every time the door opened and buying some merchandise. On the way back we stopped off at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs and that night we hit the United Center for the opening game of the NHL season as the Blackhawks destroyed reigning Stanley Cup winners, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

All of which means that it wasn’t the most chilled build-up for a race.

Friday was a bit more like usual marathon prep. We met friends for breakfast, sorry lunch (we were half an hour late for brekkie), before heading a long way south to the biggest expo centre I have ever seen in my life. Seriously, the whole Excel could’ve fit into one of the behemoth hangars.

Inside, we picked up our numbers to the marathon and 5k (which I thought I had actually not signed up for) then began making our way through the stalls and exhibits, all luring us with freebies. I should have put my GPS on to record how far we walked between collecting cow-bells, t-shirts and buying the world’s saltiest pretzel.

We also found the Racedots stand, which was absolutely buzzing, with inventor and founder Jason Berry stood in the middle of the mayhem. I’ve used Racedots in a number of races so it was cool to finally meet him and I couldn’t help buying some Chicago stars for race day plus picking up some Wonder Woman dots for the 5k. For my other half, not for me…honest.

On Saturday morning, we ran the <insert easily forgotten sponsor name> International Chicago 5k which gave a great idea of what was to come on Sunday – very warm conditions and wobbly GPS. The rest of the day should’ve been spent on a sofa or in bed but instead we walked about town, out to Navy Pier and back into Eataly, nine restaurants stuffed to the brim with carb-loading runners and significant waiting times. Pasta done, it was time for bed.

Race day

Breakfast consisted of an egg sandwich (of which I could only handle half), a CLIF Peanut Butter bar and a Honey Stinger Waffle, all shovelled down in the dark at 5am. For the record, 0800 is a ridiculous time to start a race.

I left the ACME Hotel and joined the lines of runners snaking towards the start decked out in all sorts of strange kits to keep themselves warm. I even saw people in fluffy dressing gowns making their way alongside us.

I’d decided not to take a drop-bag which was handy as the queues for the loos were pretty substantial with only half an hour before my corral closed. As I waited for my turn in the “porta-potties”, I wondered if any race in the world has no queues for the toilets beforehand?

The line actually moved quite quickly and I was soon in Corral F along with the usual mix of shapes and sizes which make you wonder if you’re over/under prepared for what is to come. I was about to find out.

The start was incredibly packed, even with the runners spread across both sides of the road, and after an initial jostling and dodging of elbows and legs, I settled into a rhythm on the right-hand side of the road as agreed with our two-person cheer crew.

The course immediately dipped under the skyscrapers of downtown Chi-town before emerging to a wall of noise coming from huge crowds on either side with banners, giant heads and drums cheering everyone through. My Fenix 3 buzzed to let me know that I’d just completed a six minute mile, causing a mild panic before I realised that it was just GPS having a hissy fit and I would have to pace manually from then on. I had picked up a 3.45 pace tattoo from the Nike pacers at the expo and this was incredibly valuable throughout the race.

I kept looking out for our supporters but it was hard to spot anyone among the masses. I was wearing a bright orange shirt to celebrate my friend’s 40th birthday (and coincidentally Chicago’s) so I was sure they would find me at some point.

The course took a couple more turns before Vic popped her head over the fencing for a quick cheer and the route headed north as I struggled to find a comfortable pace somewhere between 3.40 and 3.45 groups while also avoiding Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior who were stealing all my cheers…

It was already hot but the sun was mainly hidden by the buildings so I tried to keep an even pace and seemed to be around a minute up on my target as we entered Lincoln Park. It’s actually quite hard to read timings from your arms as you run along. I’d been taking advantage of the Gatorade and water at every single station as well as taking a CLIF shot block when I remembered so felt full of energy as we passed marinas, left the park and hit the top turn of the course.

The crowds were still fantastic and I was doing my best to hit every power-up sign and high-five everyone. My orange shirt was a tribute to the Chicago Bears so I got a lot of people shouting “da Bears” which is always good to keep your spirits up.

What I wasn’t expecting was the power of some of the high-fives from the fans. I’m fairly sure one of them bruised my hand or maybe I was just feeling a bit delicate at that point.

One benefit of a marathon with skyscrapers is that you can always see where you will be finishing so as we headed south through Old Town, the Sears Tower was always getting closer. Marathons also give you the chance to see some of the areas you possibly wouldn’t normally and I was making mental notes of where to visit next time I go to Chicago (I will definitely be back).

Anyway, back to the story…through the latte-lined streets of Old Town and back into the sea of gleaming glass and metal, back over the river and out west towards the United Center, past the Police Academy (LOL), the Mexican Consulate and Malcolm X College giving you some idea of how eclectic the route was. This is also where the nun dressed in a brown habit gave me the holiest of high-fives.

My right knee was beginning to get sore and my hips were aching but I still felt full of beans, or sugar at the very least.

On through the University of Illinois at Chicago, with students lining the road offering beers, and into Pilsen, where the Mexican fans brought a whole new level of noise to the race. It felt like every 100 yards there was another PA system kicking out all sorts of music while supporters offered fruit and water. I couldn’t help grinning as I soaked up the atmosphere which then transitioned to Chinatown via a party under the freeway. I was actually having trouble keeping up with the bands, dancers and cheer squads as we passed within metres of the White Sox stadium and then turned for home.

I’ve complained in the past about twisty-turny bits or loops at the end of races but this was just as bad. It is quite possible that I just don’t like the end of races. The bit that’s hard.

All that was left was two and a half miles straight up Michigan Avenue with the crowds going insane. I was offered vodka jelly, I ran through the spray from a fire hose, I almost tripped on a poodle, I turned the final right hand turn and…there was a hill?? Seriously????

Grumbling on the inside, but still trying to smile, I tried to keep up some momentum, waved to Vic who had once again popped out from the crowd, and turned left into the final straight, trying to take in the perfect blue background to the stunning city skyline, the green of the park, the red of the funnel and the time on my watch: 3:40:46. Nearly 14 minutes better than my previous.

The finish

That’s the point my focus began to go. A combination of the heat, the beginnings of a cold and the terrible breakfast had left me with nothing in the tank. I wobbled a bit, my vision went a bit blurry and I thought about heading to the medical tent but after an apple, banana, Gatorade, ice and a beer (the solution to all problems), I picked up my medal headed for the Mile 27 party.

The park was full of runners, friends and family, all enjoying the 25 degree heat and plentiful supply of food and drink. I enjoyed probably more beers than I should’ve but it all counts as rehydrating and carb-replenishment right?

Whatever, who cares. I was having a great time. And I’d had a great time on the course, even while taking my PB down by a few more minutes.

I’ve got nothing but praise for the city, organisers, supporters, volunteers and fellow racers. Mad props to Simon for getting under the three hour mark and thanks Vic and Ross, our two person fan base.

I loved my time in Chicago. My kinda town.

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