Overall Time: 2:56:29
Place: 608 of 37,455
AG% : 71%
Weather: 42 degrees, slightly overcast
Start Time: 7:30am
This year the Chicago Marathon was my only planned “A” race, except for the Atacama Crossing. There were tune-ups along the way (the Nice Semi Marathon, way back in April) but nothing that I had done any specific race training for. With the weight of the not-yet-broken sub-3:00 monkey still on my back after last year, choosing a goal for Chicago was simple: break through the 3-hour barrier.
Without going into too much detail, my training plan incorporated lots of base miles. The majority of speed work came in the form of 10K tempo runs and long runs that included between 10 – 14 miles at marathon goal pace (~6:40). As laid out, I was able to hit all my benchmarks along the way… weekly mileage, pace, distances. Going into the race I had been free of injury for over two years, and there was nothing I could claim as an excuse in case I didn’t reach my goal of a sub-3 Chicago. Also taking away any excuse making was the fact that the weather on race day morning was perfect for a fast marathon; it was slightly overcast and a brisk 40 degrees.
With ideal conditions and good training, I told myself that I couldn’t worry about failing; I couldn’t worry about my or others’ expectations; I simply had a job to do and that job was to run 26.2 miles at roughly a 6:40 pace. The first half should be at 6:45 pace, and the second half should be a bit faster. That’s all I told myself. I’m a runner. I run. It was time to run.
Getting to the race was easy, and I passed the time with my Mikes (Mike S, Mikey B, Mike O), which is the perfect way to calm the nerves. Between the 3 of them they’ve done countless marathons and ultra marathons, so they don’t have the nervous anxieties that other runners might. Being around calm and settled people was something I needed. As the start time neared, I opted for just a singlet and arm warmers and hopped into the corral a little late which meant that I had to push my way up front (sorry, everyone). It was too dense to get as far up as I wanted so I had to settle for starting somewhere with the 3:10 and 3:05 pace groups, and well behind the 3:00 group I would have liked to have gone out with.
Shortly before 7:30 the race organizers announced the elites, and with a smattering of polite applause for the East African runners the crowd finally erupted when they heard Dathan Ritzenhein’s name called. He’s not nearly as fast as the Ethiopians, but he was the fastest American and the fastest white guy in the race and the locals loved that. After the cheer for the local hero (Ritz was raised nearby in Michigan), we heard the horn sound and the race had begun. Oh, shit.
Not unexpectedly, the first mile was heavily congested. I had arrived to the corral only a few minutes before the start and I found myself weaving through traffic. This was something I had expected. It’s a part of racing big races.
I told myself to relax and not to worry — even if I was 20 seconds slow the first mile, that’s less than one second per mile to make up in the rest of the race. Sure enough, I came through the first mile in 6:59, what would be the slowest of the race. The next two miles came through with still heavy congestion but was breaking up nicely enough that I was able to lower the pace (6:49, 6:45) without having to waste energy weaving or surging too much.
I hit the 5K mark in 21:13 (6:50 pace), and decided that it was time to start picking things up. In my mind, I broke the race up into 3 parts: the first 10 miles, the next 8 miles, and the last 8 miles. Why this number? 8 miles is something that I know pretty well. I had done a number of 8-milers at marathon goal pace, so I knew that if I just had “two” final sections of 8 miles to run then mentally I could digest that and my legs would cooperate. So after passing the first 5K mark I decided to stay relaxed but on pace until I hit mile 10. going through the next two 5K marks in 20:55 and 20:58 (6:44 and 6:45 pace, respectively) I was very happy to be breathing very easily and in full control of my legs.
With those first 10 miles done I was now focused on miles 11 – 18. The effort should be controlled, the pace should be consistent (though slightly faster after the halfway point), and I can’t freak out if I sense a bit of fatigue approaching mile 18.
Coming around mile 12, I see Front Runners Mike Terry and Rachel Cutler screaming out my name. It was a huge boost, and thankfully I wasn’t doing anything embarrassing at the time like blowing a snot rocket. I gave them a big two-armed wave and fed off their energy to help me cruise to the 13.1 mark in 1:28:46 (6:46 pace).
Crossing the halfway mark I decided to pick up the pace a bit as planned. It was also around this point that I started running with a cute runner in a bright orange singlet. We were running stride for stride and he was the only consistent one around me. At this part of the race my splits between miles 13 and 18 were very consistent (6:41, 6:44, 6:42, 6:42, 6:43). Orange Singlet was right alongside me the entire time, while others around us were all over the place. As an example, a man in a dark orange t-shirt would surge past me and then fall back… and then surge past and fall back… and surge again. I knew that my pace was consistent, and was alarmed that people couldn’t just run a constant pace.
Hitting mile 18 in 6:43, I was feeling very good but didn’t let myself think that I had a sub-3 in the bag just yet. A lot could happen in the last 8.2 miles. However, mentally I was fully committed to knowing that I could run those last 8 miles just like I had so many times in training. I had gotten to my final “third” of the race. This was like running one last Reach the Beach leg. This was a little more than a loop of Central Park. This is what I had been training for.
I decided to start to pick up the pace just a hair. I wanted to see 6:3X on my watch from hereon out. While not a huge difference in pace, at this point any acceleration requires a lot of energy. Thankfully Orange Singlet decided to join me in my late-race quest for 6:30s and off we went. Unfortunately my watch (a Garmin 405) actually stopped (!) and I lost a mile split at 21, but as soon as I got it back up and running I saw 6:30s and maintained my sanity.
Mile 23/24 was a bit sad for two reasons. First is that Orange Singlet slowed quite a bit and I never saw him again. The second is that something must have happened mentally where I lost focus, because the 24th mile was an unacceptable 6:50. Maybe I was secretly hoping that Orange Singlet would catch back up and keep me company the rest of the way? Either way it was here that I decided that I had plenty of energy left and could attempt some half-marathon pace miles for the remaining 2.2 miles.
I accelerated and felt like I was flying. With 2.2 miles to go people were fading hard… a few walking, some shuffling, and many still running but not at the pace that they had started at 24 miles ago. Meanwhile, mimicking my NYC Marathon performance, I managed to make my final mile my fastest (6:27) with a kick for the last .2 of the race despite the hill at the end of the race.
I crossed the line in 2:56:29, with a second half of 1:27:43 — a negative split race by almost a full minute! I couldn’t have been more happy. I was ecstatic. If I had a heart or emotions I probably would have cried.
This was a major goal of mine for many reasons, least of all the sub-3 number. It was mostly a validation of my training, my fitness, and my ability to set my sights on something and achieve it. It was also a big win to be able to actually plan on negatively splitting a race and to accomplish it. To plan on a negative split requires a lot of faith — and having not done it before, it’s a little terrifying. Scratch that, a lot terrifying.
This was one of the biggest confidence boosters I’ve had in a long time. For a while many people have believed that I could run a sub-3 marathon, but believing something and witnessing something are very different. I too believed that on paper I should be able to run under 3 hours. But I can honestly say that I felt very much different the second I crossed that finish line in 2:56. I was a changed runner and a changed person who no longer felt like he had to live up to the beliefs and expectations of others or himself.
It’s Tuesday after the race and now it’s time to rest and relax a bit. I’ll be doing some easy jogging in the next week but won’t return to proper training for at least a month. In exactly two weeks I’ll be leaving for Egypt to volunteer for the Racing the Planet race in the Sahara, which will end up being a little victory vacation after Chicago.
My next big race is the Lookout Mountain 50 Miler in December. Then it’s time to start training for Boston. Obviously the goal in Boston is to again go sub-3 hours but this time I think I’ll do less worrying and more enjoying leading up to the race; and something tells me I’ll be just fine for sub-3.