The Chicago Marathon has always been a bucket list race for me. We used to volunteer at the water stations every year during high school cross-country, and I remember being inspired and thrilled by it. So when a friend asked if I would enter the Chicago Marathon lottery with her, I easily said YES! Due to a spring time injury and two beginning of summer races, I ended up taking a month off of running in early summer. It wasn’t until mid-July that I began to start running again. For my Chicago Marathon training, I built up to a 20 mile long run, I hit 40 miles for my peak week, and I had consistent weekly speed workouts with my running buddy. I felt confident in my abilities going into the race, but was unsure if a PR was on the table with only 10 weeks of marathon training.
The Chicago Marathon expo was huge and had an amazing atmosphere. I got my Bib and packet, and met up with my two college cross-country friends. My husband and I took our time checking out the vendors at the expo, and I checked out the Nike pacing groups. My goal time for this race was a 3:45, two minutes faster than my PR. When I signed up for Chicago last November, I felt really defeated after a rough fall marathon, and put myself down for a goal time of 4:00. As a result, I got placed in Wave 2, Corral G. The Nike pacer told me a 3:45 would be tough to get in Corral G due to being gridlocked by runners aiming for a 4:00 finish time. He told me to ask customer relations if I could be bumped up a corral with a proof of time showing a <4:00 marathon. I went over to customer relations with my Bayshore Marathon time (3:55) pulled up on my phone screen. Without hesitation and without even asking to see my proof of time, the customer relations guy bumped me up to Wave 1. In fact, the guy was encouraging me to just go for it.
I slept close to 3 hours the night before the race. I was so restless at 2:30 am, so my husband cut one of my melatonin pills in half, gave it to me, and I was knocked right out (I need to take Melatonin before every race now!). I woke up at 5:45 am, made it to the train by 6:30, and got to Grant Park around 7. Getting through security was quick and I still had plenty of time for all the pre-race necessities. I set my Garmin to timer mode, because GPS gets wonky in Chicago and plus I didn’t want to be tracking every single mile split. I started at the WAY back of wave 1. It took a while to get up to the start line but before I knew it I WAS RUNNING THE CHICAGO MARATHON!
The focus at the beginning of the race was on not getting too excited and going out too fast. I focused on control. I couldn’t help but smile. There were so many fans, signs, costumes, and support lined up throughout the course. I definitely fed off that energy. But early on in the race, I was struggling with a lot of doubt and worries of the dreaded mile 18 wall that I have experienced at EVERY marathon I’ve ever run. At mile 7 I noticed it began to rain and I looked up and saw signs for the 3:45 pace groups. They were nowhere in sight when I started the race. First thought in my head was “CRAP, I MUST BE GOING WAY TOO FAST.” After a mini freak out, I realized I couldn’t change anything and I just had to go with it. I surrendered the race over to God, trusting Him with whatever may come of this race. By miles 8-9 I had fully caught up to the 3:45 pace group and tried really hard to settle in.
The pace group was congested. I kept getting cut off, elbowed, or stepped on. So I slowed down the pace and tucked in right behind the pack to get a little bit more breathing room. Plus I was already going too fast, I told myself I better not pass this pace group. I saw my family at mile 9, and my husband started to run with me for a little bit. I told him I felt really good, but I also was freaking out that I was going too fast. He told me to just hold the pace because I was running consistent and great.
Because I was wearing a hat due to the rain, I was mainly looking down at the ground, looking up only to work the tangents of the course. I kept catching up to the leaders of the 3:45 pace group without realizing it. I hit the half marathon point at 1:51:35. I felt a wave of relief, I was right on track for a 3:45 marathon. After the half, I kept accidently passing the 3:45 pace group. I would look up and they were nowhere in sight. I felt my body had one pace at this point. I didn’t feel like I was over-exerting. But I felt if I held myself back with this pace group, it would almost take more effort and I would feel more fatigued. So I just let my body go at its own pace. At mile 17 I still felt like I was going strong, and just told myself the countdown was in the single digits. How many 9 mile runs have I done in my life? The dreaded mile 18 came, and I fully expected the wall, BUT IT DIDN’T COME! In fact, I thought there was a course error because Mile 18 to 19 flew by. Every mile marker I passed, I talked aloud to myself, prayed, and just focused on making it to the next mile marker.
By mile 21-22, my hip flexors and adductors felt so stiff, but I could still feel myself propelling forward, passing people. Chinatown had great support, and it was a blessing, because that was where the mental and physical exhaustion really started kicking in. It was time to get to work. I reminded myself that Mo Farah, Galen Rupp, and Gwen Jorgensen had just run these same streets, and had probably felt the burn, but they didn’t give up! I also focused on the mantra “choose your outcome.” I knew I could walk away from Chicago with a PR if I stayed focused, or I could walk away without a PR if I listened to how my body was feeling. Then out of nowhere my husband popped in the race, always cheerful and always peppy. We laugh about this now, but I remember just feeling straight up irritated as he was holding up his phone, taking a bunch of selfies, asking me to smile repeatedly. I flashed a smile, solely to have him stop taking pictures of me, and he ran off the course after saying some words of encouragement.
The last two miles seemed to stretch on for so long. I calculated in my head if I ran at 10 minute pace I could still PR. As tempting as it was to slow down, I knew I was not going to settle for the bare minimum. I wanted to make that PR gap as large as I could. I saw my family at mile 25 edging me along for a strong finish. My body was screaming at me to slow down, to quit, and to give up, but I suppressed that negativity and just kept putting one foot in front of the other.
Before I knew it, the 800 m mark came, then 400 m, then 300 m, then I rounded the corner and there it was, THE FINISH! My legs felt like lead, but I still broke out into the fastest sprint I could manage. I am a sucker for finish line pose pictures, but at that point I was too tired to even put my arms up to pose. I made it through the finish line and I looked down at my watch and saw 3:43:19. I had done it! A new marathon PR!
My first thought was “Thank You, Jesus!” Cue the happy tears. This was the first marathon that I truly didn’t “hit the wall” and didn’t completely fall off pace, yet it was the most mentally and physically challenging race I’ve ever ran. I remember shortly after thinking, “Do I really ever want to do this again?” The physical pain and the mental torture of those last 5 miles were still burned in my brain. Then I got my Chicago Marathon medal and looked around at the sea of finishers who were beaming with joy, crying tears of happiness, taking medal selfies, giving hugs and high-fives to complete strangers, and toasting with post-race beers. The energy was contagious, powerful, and could not be felt or reproduced anywhere other than a marathon finish line. Marathons are always hard; there will always be mental agony and physical pain. But that is what makes that finish line feeling so great and worthwhile. Finding the guts and the grit to rise above a body that just wants you to slow down is what makes that finish line atmosphere so unique, surreal, and emotional. It is just one of the many things that bonds all 44,000 of us finishers together. Marathon runners are a strange kind of breed; what we are willing to put ourselves through for the sake of passion or fun is downright nuts! But I am dang proud to be one of them. Of course I want to do this again! It didn’t take but a few minutes later for me to ask myself, “So when’s the next one?”
After walking waddling probably close to a mile, I finally made it out of the athlete village to the family meet up area. I found my family, and hugging them made even more tears come out. They are truly wonderful. It rained for most of the race, and they traveled all over the city just to cheer me on. I am blessed to have such an amazing and supportive family. I met up with my two college friends Alicia and Maddie post-race. Chicago was Alicia’s first marathon; she ran so smart and strong with an awesome finish time! We all ran cross-country in college together, and it was fun to feel like teammates again. Because of the crummy weather, we didn’t stay for the post-race party, I needed Starbucks and a shower!
My first Chicago Marathon was an experience to remember, and I would HIGHLY recommend this race to anyone. The residents of Chicago really show up, rain or shine, lining the streets with encouragement, cheer, and motivation. The course is beautiful and in my opinion, it’s the best way to tour such a wonderful city. And inspiration is plentiful. Thank you, Jesus, for a strong and healthy race, and allowing me to surrender all my racing freak outs over to you!
Now, to pick my next marathon… 🙂