Saturday, October 13, 2018

Race Report: 2018 Blue Ox Marathon

On October 13th, I ran the Blue Ox Marathon in Bemidji, MN.  This is a Minnesota marathon that I had never done before.  I’ve had trouble fitting this one into my schedule, because there are so many good October marathons.

Bemidji is in northern Minnesota, which is a heavily forested region.  Today, it’s mostly a lake resort area, but when this area was settled, logging was one of the main industries.  Lumberjacks here, and in other logging states, told tall tales of a giant lumberjack named Paul Bunyan.  My dad told me several of these stories when I was growing up.  One was about the time during the “winter of the blue snow” when Paul Bunyan found an ox in the snow he named Babe.  Babe was stained blue by the snow.

Bemidji is one of at least 10 cities that claim to be the birthplace of Paul Bunyan, ranging from Minnesota to Maine.  In 1937, the city held a winter carnival, and they erected statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox as mascots of the carnival.  These statues remain icons of the city, having been renovated in 2006.

I drove to Bemidji on Friday.  It was a four hour drive.  The roads were in good condition, but as I got closer to Bemidji, I started to notice snow on the grass.  That was a reminder that winter is coming, and the farther north you go, the earlier it arrives.

I stayed at the Hampton Inn, which is located right on Lake Bemidji.  Appropriately, it’s on Paul Bunyan Drive.

After checking in and unpacking, I went to the Sanford Center to pick up my race packet.  I was surprised to see such a large convention center in a city of only 15,000.  The expo was small, but there were a few vendors with running gear.  One had shoes of particular interest to local runners.  They had spikes for running on snow and ice.

At the expo, I got to see the awards.  If you’re fast enough, you could go home with a nice ax.  The age group awards were cowbells.

I did this race just six days after the Chicago Marathon.  Racing on back-to-back weekends is something I used to do all the time, but this was the first time in more than a year.  When I decided to run the Chicago Marathon, I assumed I would walk this one, to spare my body from the impact of running two marathons in seven days.  Then I saw the weather forecast.  The temperature was in the 30s, with a forecast of “spotty showers.”

In conditions like these, I wanted to get done as quickly as possible.  I had a cold, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to run very fast, but even a half-hearted running effort would be faster than my best walking pace.  I also generate more heat running, which gave me a better chance of keeping warm.

I had dinner at Green Mill.  The restaurant was connected to the hotel, so I could walk over there without having to go outside.  I also got a five dollar discount.

I often stay at hotels with free breakfast, but miss the breakfast on race morning, because I have to leave before breakfast starts.  That wasn’t the case this weekend.  The race didn’t start until 9:00, and Hampton Inn started their breakfast service at 6:00.  I got downstairs early and ate a light breakfast before returning to my room to start getting ready for the race.

The race started and finished less than a mile from the hotel, but I still drove over there, so I could have my car parked nearby.  That can make a difference if it’s cold and rainy.  It was drizzly when I got up, but the rain stopped before I drove to the start.  I dressed in layers for cold, windy conditions, and I had a rain poncho folded up inside my fanny pack, in case the rain came back.

The marathon was limited to 150 runners, but there were also several shorter distances, including 5K, 10K, half marathon, and 26K.  The 26K race is called “Loop the Lake,” because the course is one loop around Lake Bemidji.  The marathon route also included a loop around Lake Bemidji, but first we had to do about nine miles on streets and paved trails near the southwest corner of the lake.

The marathon and 26K race started together, but separated within the first mile.  To make sure I didn’t make a wrong turn, I followed the 4:15 pacer.  I didn’t actually care too much what my starting pace was, but I wanted to follow someone who was running the marathon and knew the route.

There was a dark cloud above us, and it made me nervous.  A few minutes before the race started, Ifelt drops.  We had a wet start, but I could see blue sky to the west, so I crossed my fingers that the rain would stop soon.

I stayed behind the 4:15 pacer until we were past the split.  The pace felt casual.  It felt so easy, that I decided to go ahead on my own once I was confident I couldn’t make a wrong turn.

By the end of the first mile, the rain had stopped.  Unfortunately, my clothes were now wet.  I wasn’t feeling the wind yet, but I worried about it.

We were on the Paul Bunyan Trail, which is a paved bike path that goes around the south side of Lake Bemidji.  Before the end of the second mile, we left the trail to run on streets through downtown Bemidji.  By now, I was catching up to the 4:00 pace group.  The pace still felt relaxed.

The sun came out, and I started to feel hot.  I was dressed in layers.  I had shell mittens over my gloves, so I took them off and stuffed them into my fanny pack.  I was tempted to take off my Tyvek jacket, but I waited.  After another half mile, we made a sharp left, and I immediately felt a cold wind.  I was glad I didn’t take my jacket off.

By the end of the third mile, I moved ahead of the 4:00 pace group.  At first, I considered holding back to stay with them, but I decided to run faster if it felt easy enough.  For now, it did.   I wasn’t looking at my watch.  I didn’t have a time goal, so I just went according to how I felt.  I told myself to keep the pace relaxed.

Aid stations were spaced about three miles apart.  That’s a bit sparse for a road marathon, but on such a cold day, it was fine.  Nobody was sweating much, unless they were overdressed.

In the fifth mile, I encountered a hill.  It wasn’t a big deal, but for the first time in the race, the pace didn’t feel relaxed.  After I crested the hill, the pace felt easy again.

After two quick turns, we were back on the Paul Bunyan Trail, but headed back toward where we started.  I no longer felt the wind.  It was probably at our backs, but we also may have been sheltered by trees.  It was a fairly narrow path through the forest.  I was probably speeding up here.  I started to pass other runners.

The trail eventually took us back to the south end of Lake Bemidji, near where we started.  At nine miles, we joined up with the “Loop the Lake” course.  All we had left was one complete loop around Lake Bemidji.  We were running around the lake in the counter-clockwise direction.  I knew we would run with the wind on one side and into the wind on the other side.  Ideally, I would have preferred to go into the wind first, and have easier miles later.  It didn’t work out that way.

At first, we were right next to the lake.  We had a view of the lake on our left and the forest on our right.  We were across the lake from the city of Bemidji, so we were in the wilderness.  Sadly, most of the leaves had already fallen.

Eventually, we left the shoreline.  I didn’t even notice when it happened.  I was “in the zone” now.  Without realizing it, I was still speeding up.  When I reached the 13 mile banner, I looked at my watch for the first time.  The halfway point wasn’t marked, but I estimated I reached it in just under 1:56.  That was much faster than I expected.  I left the 4:00 group behind 10 miles earlier, but I didn’t think I would already be four minutes ahead of them.

It occurred to me that my pace was no longer relaxed.  It was taking some effort.  My pace seemed sustainable, but to maintain it for the rest of the race, I would need to go farther and farther out of my comfort zone.  That wasn’t the original plan.

Somewhere after 14 miles, the course split again.  Half marathon and 26K runners turned left, while marathon runners turned right.  We had to do a short out-and-back before making that same turn.  I didn’t notice this when I looked at the course map.  As
I reached the 15 mile banner, I saw the 3:45 pace group already coming back.  I was on pace for about 3:52, so I knew it couldn’t be too much farther to the turnaround.  Before I got there, I ran on a narrow strip of land between two small lakes.

As soon as I turned around, I felt a headwind.  Running up the eastern side of the lake, we had the wind at our backs.  That meant I would have to face a headwind again when we eventually ran south along the western side of the lake.  I wasn’t looking forward to that.

On my way back from the turnaround, I saw the 4:00 pace group.  They were just getting to 15 miles, so it seemed I was halfway between the two pace groups.

I didn’t realize how far north we were.  When I eventually made the same turn the half marathon and 26K runners made earlier, I assumed we were on a trail that would take us back to the eastern shore of the Lake Bemidji.  In fact, we were already completely north of Lake Bemidji.  It took a while, but I eventually realized we were now running around the north end of the lake.

I asked myself how I would feel if I finished in 3:59.  Would I be pleased that I broke four hours or discouraged that I was slower in the second half?  I realized I would be discouraged.  I wanted to hold onto my faster pace and run negative splits.  I didn’t have a time goal at the start of the race, but I had one now.

When I got to the 17 mile banner, I knew we were almost halfway around the lake.  Psychologically, that made the remaining distance seem more manageable.  It also meant I was getting closer to having to face the headwind.

Most of the course was flat, but there was a rolling section on the north end of the lake.  I found myself tiring going up each hill, but recovering on the downhill side.  I was out of my comfort zone, but doing my best to maintain my pace.

At some point, we left the trail and got onto a two lane road.  I didn’t notice where that happened.  I think I was distracted by the hills.  At about 18 miles, we turned from this road onto a busier road.  Now I really felt the wind.  It was both cold and tiring.  I had to run into this wind for most of the next eight miles.

As we came right alongside the lake, I saw the waves.  They were whitecaps.  This was officially a strong wind, and I had to run right into it all along the western side of the lake.

My jacket was unzipped in front.  The wind was catching it and pushing it back over my shoulders.  I realized I needed to zip it up, both for warmth, and to reduce wind drag.  To do that, I had to stop.  I hated to stop, but I took the time to zip up my jacket.  Then I worked hard to get back into my previous pace.  I tried to catch up to some runners who were about a block ahead of me.  It took quite a bit of effort, but I gradually reeled them in.

I passed one just as I reached the 19 mile banner.  I had 7.2 miles to go, and I was determined to run it in less than an hour.  This runner had his name written on the back of his shirt.  As I passed him, I said, “Good job, Mike.  In an hour, you’ll be drinking a beer.”  He replied, “Yeah, but more than one.”  I didn’t know if he meant more than one hour or more than one beer.

I was running much harder now, in an effort to keep up my pace.  I wasn’t looking at my watch, so I didn’t know my pace, but I assumed I was running hard enough to at least maintain my pace.  I just didn’t know if I could keep it up.

We were on the shoulder of a highway, so there was a wide gap between the trees.  Here, we were really exposed to the wind.  Eventually, we turned onto a two lane road that was closer to the lake.  We were still going into the wind, but it didn’t feel as strong.

When I reached the 20 mile mark, I wanted to tell myself I only had 10K to go.  That didn’t help.  It didn’t really matter how far I needed to run.  What mattered more was how long I had to fight this wind.  I was getting cold, and I was getting tired.  Even if I slowed to a more comfortable pace, the wind would still be there.  If I ran slower, I would be in it longer. It was wearing me down, both physically and psychologically.

At 21 miles, I was tempted to look at my watch, but resisted.  At 22 miles, I finally did look at my watch.  I was on pace for a 3:52 finish.  As hard as I had been running for the last four miles, I wasn’t speeding up at all.  That was in spite of the fact that I was working much harder.  To run negative splits, I needed to run faster.  Already, I didn’t know if I could sustain my effort.  That’s when I knew I wouldn’t run negative splits.

At 23 miles, I looked at my watch again.  That mile was slower than nine minutes.  That was confirmation.  I was slowing down.  Shortly after that, I felt myself slowing down even more.  The effort broke me, and I was fading.

We left the road to follow a bike path through a park.  It eventually led us to the edge of the lake.  Across the water, I could see a large building.  I recognized it as the Sanford Center.  That’s where we would finish.  The distance around the lake to get there seemed like a lot more than three miles.

As I continued running around the lake, I kept looking across.  I also recognized the Doubletree hotel, which has a distinctive copper colored roof.  Both buildings seemed a long distance away, but as I continued around the lake, the perspective was changing rapidly.  I could see I was getting closer.

I reached the 24 mile banner.  Just 2.2 miles to go.  That seemed manageable.  Up ahead, I saw runners going up a hill.  When I got there, it was tiring.  This would have been my undoing, but I had already come undone.

I was wearing one of my Comrades Marathon hats over a warm winter hat.  It was so snug, I had trouble putting it on, but a strong gust of wind ripped it off my head.  I looked back to see where it went, but I couldn’t see it.  Another runner told me, “It went down there.”  On my left, there was a stone retaining wall, below the path we were running on.  I had to stop and climb over a metal railing.  Then I had to carefully climb down the stone wall.  Not far behind me, there were steps leading down, but I didn’t want to go that far out of my way.

I retrieved my hat and started climbing up the wall again.  Another runner saw me and asked if I was OK.  I explained about the hat.  I still had to climb over the railing again.  I had to take a few walking steps before I could force myself to run again.  I was slower than before.  With less than two miles to go, I just had to keep moving.  It was going to be slow.  I just had to get it done.

As I got back to the downtown area, I started to recognize buildings. I had been here before.  I passed the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe.  Ahead of me, I saw the 25 mile sign.

I had to cross a bridge.  The wind was strong there.  As I got across, the Doubletree started to disappear behind the Hampton Inn.  As I ran by Hampton Inn, I wondered how many times I’ve run right past my hotel in the late miles of a race.  I really need to make a list.

As I made my way around the lake, the headwind became a crosswind.  Then, finally, as I ran past Green Mill and Doubletree, the wind shifted.  I finished with a tailwind.

I got back on the Paul Bunyan Trail in the last mile.  As I ran between the lake and some townhomes, I saw a chalk mark on the trail.  It was the turnaround for the kids 1K race, which was held on Friday.  I only had 500 meters to go.  I could see the finish line in the distance.  I remembered seeing it before the race.  It said, “Harness your inner ox.”

My inner ox wanted to finish strong, but my legs wouldn’t respond.  They were stiff.  I don’t know if it was from fatigue or because they were too cold.  I was wearing tights, but that was only one layer.  Everywhere else, I was wearing at least two layers.  My legs don’t respond well when they’re cold.  I couldn’t run faster, even for 500 meters.

I eventually crossed the line in 3:55:21.  I should have been happy to finish with an average pace that was faster than nine minutes per mile.  Instead, I was disappointed that I ran positive splits by more than three minutes.  I gave all of that time back in the last four miles.

A volunteer asked me if I ran the full marathon, so she could give me the correct finisher medal.  Then she said she thought she recognized my jacket.  I was puzzled until I looked down.  For the last eight miles, my jacket was zipped shut.  I forgot to unzip it before finishing, so my race bib was covered up.  I immediately worried about whether my timing chip was detected when I crossed the finish line.

I went into the Sanford Center to look for a results table.  I got my results ship.  It showed my split from an intermediate chip mat, but it didn’t list any finish time.  I almost panicked.  When I asked the volunteer about it, she said, “I don’t know why, but they’re all printing that way.”  Another race official had just printed out a sheet of results that she was about to post.  It showed me finishing in 3:55:21.  I was relieved to know I had an official finish time.

They had a variety of snacks, but I just had some cookies and chocolate milk.  Then I went outside to walk back to my car.  As I was walking to the car, it started drizzling.  Suddenly, I was real glad I drove over instead of walking.  I could not have handled walking back to the hotel in the rain, even if it was less than a mile.

When I got back to the hotel, I took my gloves off.  Excluding my thumbs, all of my fingers were white.  That’s a symptom of Raynaud’s Syndrome, which I’ve had for as long as I can remember.  I started taking medication for it two years ago.  Since then, this has rarely happened.  Even before, it was usually only one or two fingers.  This time, it was all of them.  I got cold.

After a warm bath and a cup of tea, the color returned to my hands.  Just to be sure, I spent 10 minutes in the hot tub and another five minutes in the sauna.  When I was ready to go out again, I went to Bemidji Brewing Company.  My race bib had a coupon for a free beer.  I saw they also served food.  When I saw pizza on the menu, I knew where I was having dinner.

Although I was initially disappointed that I ran positive splits, I now blame that on the wind.  It’s tough to finish strong when you have a headwind for the last eight miles.  I’m pleased that I broke four hours.  At the start of the day, I would have been happy with 4:15.  I wasn’t feeling well, and I wasn’t fully recovered from the Chicago Marathon.

My goal to run every Minnesota marathon seems more and more like a never-ending journey.  Every year, there’s at least one new race.  Two weeks ago, I heard about a new trail marathon in Savage, MN.  It’s next weekend, and it’s too late to sign up for this year’s race.  I’ve done all the Minnesota marathons that are at least two years old, but there are now at least five new races that I haven’t done yet.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:55:21
Average Pace:  8:59
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  359
Minnesota Marathons/Ultras:  48

Monday, October 8, 2018

Race Report: 2018 Chicago Marathon

On October 7th, I ran the Chicago Marathon.  I’ve done this marathon twice before.  I decided to return this year, because I had a qualifying time that gave me guaranteed entry.  I don’t know when I’ll be able to run that fast again, so I took the opportunity while I had it.

When I registered for this race, I wasn’t doing much running.  At the time, I was doing lots of power walking, and I was walking marathons as fast as I could.  The Chicago Marathon has a flat course, and I figured it would be a great place to try for a new walking PR.

As I started doing more running, it occurred to me that this race was within the qualification period for the 2020 Boston Marathon, and this is also a fast course for running.  I still had several months to get in shape for it, and this might be the fastest course I would run on in the next year.

In June, I surprised myself my running 3:35:56 at the Manitoba Marathon.  At the time, that was a Boston qualifier with four minutes to spare.  The qualifying standards are five minutes faster now, but it still put me within striking distance.  With almost four months left to train, I was optimistic I could qualify in Chicago.

A lot has happened since then.  At the beginning of July, I had a high hamstring injury.  That forced me to cut back on walking.  In particular, I couldn’t walk at a fast pace.  I eventually recovered from that, but I never got back to my previous walking mileage.  On the bright side, I was able to run about every other day, but my total mileage was still much lower than before.

In the next nine weeks, I had two 100 mile trail runs and a trail marathon.  My training for these was subdued and emphasized endurance over speed.  I kept telling myself I would make a big push to train for Chicago in the five weeks after my last trail race.  Then I came down with a cold.  I had such bad bronchitis that I couldn’t run or walk fast without having a coughing fit.

In the last two weeks, I finally started having some good runs.  It was too late to resurrect my mileage base, but I did some faster pace workouts.  I often threw in accelerations or ran hard for the last mile or two of a run.  I felt like I had more power in my stride than I’ve had in the last three years, but I worried that I had lost the mileage base that I had earlier in the year.

Finally, there was an elephant in the room that I was trying to ignore.  When I was walking 15-20 miles per week, I was losing weight.  In June, I was fairly lean.  After my mileage dropped, I was too slow to adjust my eating habits, so I gained some weight.  It wasn’t a huge weight gain, but it was enough to add 10 minutes to my marathon time.  I can’t afford to give away 10 minutes.

Despite all of this, I was determined to at least try to qualify for Boston.  I wasn’t optimistic, but I felt I had nothing to lose by trying.

I had enough Hilton points to get two free nights at the Hilton Chicago.  The location couldn’t have been any more convenient.  It’s right next to Grant Park, where the marathon starts and finishes.  It’s also one of the places where you can board a bus to the expo at McCormick Place.

The flight from Minneapolis to Chicago is relatively short.  I left Saturday morning and was expecting to arrive in time for lunch.  Because of flight delays, I didn’t arrive until noon.  I still had to take a train into downtown and then walk the rest of the way to the Hilton.  By the time I checked in and unpacked a few things, it was already 1:30.  I had been hoping to have lunch at Lou Malnati’s, but I ended up skipping lunch and going straight to the expo instead.

It felt a bit weird not arriving in Chicago until the day before the race.  For many years, that was my norm.  I arrived the day before the race and went home the day after the race.  What made it feel weird this time is that most of my friends arrived at least a day earlier.  There’s a lot of hoopla surrounding this race, and people wanted to get to the expo on Thursday or Friday.  Also, some of them ran in the 5K race Saturday morning.  Arriving on Saturday may also have felt weird because my last few trips were either international races or 100 mile trail runs, so I needed to arrive earlier.

The first order of business when I arrived at the expo was to pick up my race packet.  I had to walk to the other end of the expo hall to get my T-shirt.

After picking up my race packet, I took the time to visit a few of the vendors.  One of my stops was the Marathon Tours & Travel booth, where they were giving out rain ponchos.  Unfortunately, demand was high and they ran out before I got there.

I also stopped at the Abbott World Marathon Majors booth.  The Chicago Marathon is one of the six marathons that make up the World Marathon Majors.  The others are the Boston, London, Berlin, New York City, and Tokyo marathons.  This series was originally created to encourage more elite athletes to enter these races.  They could earn additional prize money by placing highly in multiple races within the series over a two year period.  Since its creation, this series has also become a bucket list for middle-of-the-pack athletes who want to travel and run each of the majors at least once.

Abbott Laboratories, which has sponsored the series since 2015, has promoted this idea by providing finisher certificates and medals to runners who finish all size races. They also display the names of all “six star finishers” on a wall at the expo.  I finished this series two years ago, so my name is now listed on the wall.

After getting back to the hotel, I stopped by The Berghoff Restaurant to have a beer with my friend Sandy and her friend Shelly.  Sandy and Shelly were both in town to volunteer at one of the aid stations.  They had live entertainment, and I think there was a wedding party.

I had dinner at Gino’s East.  This is one of the best Chicago-style pizza restaurants, but I had never been there before.  I had their spinach Margherita pizza.  For future reference, a nine inch deep dish pizza is a lot for one person to eat.

Did I mention it felt weird arriving the day before the race?  After dinner, I realized the race was already the next morning, and I didn’t have my clothes organized yet.  I hurriedly set out everything I needed in the morning and then got to bed as early as I could.

I slept well at first, but my sleep got more and more restless as it got closer to morning.  I was already awake before my alarm went off.  I still felt full from my big dinner at Gino’s East.  I didn’t feel like eating breakfast, but I felt like I should eat something, so I had a small energy bar from my race packet.

When I got up, it was raining lightly.  Looking at the hourly forecast, it was hard to predict if it would still be raining during the race.  The chance of rain was hovering right around 50% for most of the morning.

It was 60 degrees by the time I left the hotel, and it had stopped raining.  I wore shorts and a singlet in case it stayed dry for the whole race.  I had a plastic rain poncho folded up in my fanny pack, and I also had a light jacket tied around my waist, in case the rain came back.

The race was divided into three waves.  Each wave had several start corrals.  I was assigned to the first wave, which started at 7:30.  The packet I received recommended arriving in the start area at 5:30.  I wasn’t planning to check a gear bag, so I waited until 6:45 to leave the hotel.  It only took a few minutes to get to the gate I was supposed to use to enter the start village, but there was a huge traffic jam trying to get through the security checkpoint.  At least two thirds of the runners had gear bags to check, and each bag had to be inspected at the security checkpoint.

After several minutes with very little movement in the line, a volunteer encouraged those of us in the back to move to a different gate.  I couldn’t even get within sight of that gate before we once again came to a standstill.  I went back to the first gate and waited at the back of the long line.

By the time I got through security it was 7:13.  The race started at 7:30.  More importantly, they close the entrance to the start corrals at 7:20.  I only had seven minutes and a lot of ground to cover.  I ran a good portion of the way, and got into my corral just before they closed it.

All runners try to poop before a race.  Running is like a laxative.  If there’s anything in your digestive system, it’s going to come out when you run.  I went to the bathroom at the hotel, but apparently, I didn’t get everything out.  While I was rushing to get to my start corral, I felt rumblings in my digestive system.  There was no way I was going to make it through this race without a bathroom stop.

About five minutes before the start, they announced some of the elite athletes, with emphasis on those who have won majors or Olympic medals.  I loved it when they said that Yuki Kawauchi, who won the Boston Marathon this year, has broken 2:20 in more than 80 marathons.

I didn’t hear the start, but after the first corral started, the other corrals started moving forward.  I eventually crossed the starting line about seven minutes after the leaders.

As I started running, I tried to set a pace that was brisk, but plausibly sustainable.  The early miles have four sharp turns as we wound back and forth through the downtown streets.  I reached the one mile mark in 8:03.  To qualify for Boston, I needed to average 8:12.  To have a fast enough time to actually get me into Boston, I needed to average about 8:10.  An 8:03 mile was a little bit fast, but not outrageous.

I originally planned to skip the first water stop, since I expected it to be crowded, and I wanted to establish a good rhythm.  By the time I got there, I was sweating.  The alternative to rain was high humidity.  If it didn’t rain, I might need to take in a lot of fluids, to I changed my mind and grabbed a cup of Gatorade.

I ran the second mile in 8:00 even.  The pace felt tiring, so I eased up a bit in the third mile.  I ended up running that one in 8:06.

By now, I was noticing a few drops of rain.  It was never a big deal, and it stopped raining after a few minutes.

Just before the second aid station, they had a long row of port-o-potties.  I didn’t know how much longer I could hold out, and I could make a bathroom stop here without having to wait in line.  I hated to stop, but I knew I had no choice.  I took my time and made sure I was emptied out, so I wouldn’t have to stop again.  I was off the course for three or four minutes before I resumed running.  I knew I couldn’t make up that much time.  I no longer had any chance of qualifying for Boston.  On the bright side, I felt much better.

This was the aid station where Sandy and Shelly were volunteering.  I was able to spot Sandy and stopped to say hello.

Because of my long bathroom stop, I was now much further back in the pack.  The people around me were running a slower pace than the people I started with.  With effort, I could try to resume my old pace, but I didn’t see much point.  It’s unlikely that pace was sustainable, and there was no longer any good reason to try.  I adopted the pace of the people around me.  For the next several miles, I averaged around 8:30 per mile.  Even that pace felt slightly tiring.

I’m not as familiar with this course as I am with the Boston Marathon.  I know the general layout, and I recognize some streets, but at other times I follow the other runners without knowing which street I’m on.  About five miles into the race, I recognized a familiar bend in the road.  This was just before we ran past the Lincoln Park Zoo.

After another mile, it started raining again.  It wasn’t a heavy rain, but I was getting fairly wet.  I considered adding another layer, but I didn’t want to stop again.  I decided to wait and see if this was just a passing shower.

After another mile, I started noticing a cold wind.  The wind was out of the northeast, and I was on a long section that heads north out of downtown.  I was going partially into the wind, and the combination of wind and wet clothes made me start getting cold.  I knew we would turn around after another mile, so I continued to hang in there.

At eight miles, I made two quick turns and started heading south again.  Now I didn’t notice the wind as much.  Before long, it also stopped raining.

I was still averaging about 8:30 per mile, but I wanted to slow down.  This pace, while not as fast as my early pace, still took an effort.  The pace seemed sustainable, but I didn’t want sustainable.  I wanted to slow down until the pace felt easy.  Without a tangible time goal, my heart just wasn’t in it any more.  I kept running the same pace, but only because the people around me were going that pace.  If I was by myself, I’m sure I would have slowed down.

I reached the halfway mark in 1:52:26.  I was already five minutes behind a Boston qualifying pace, although the bathroom stop accounted for three or four minutes of that.  Now we were going through downtown again.

Next, we headed west out of downtown.  The second half of the course goes through several ethnic neighborhoods.  The crowds here are usually good.  I also like the unique character of each neighborhood.  It reminds me of running through Brooklyn during the New York City Marathon.

In large races, I always see spectators holding signs.  Some are familiar slogans you see all the time, like “Worst parade ever” or “You’re running better than our government.”  Sometimes I see something original.  At 14 miles, I saw someone holding a sign that read, “It could, be worse.  863 miles to Wall Drug.”  What I liked most about that sign is that it was along a stretch where we were actually running in that direction.

I was surprised to see a 3:35 pace group pass me.  I was surprised because I had been running slower than that pace since my bathroom stop.  Then I realized they started in the second wave, so I had a head start on them.  They finally made up the difference between the start times of the first two waves.

As we crossed a bridge, I heard one of the pace leaders tell his group, “This is Chicago’s version of Heartbreak Hill.”   This is a fairly flat course.  The only hills are bridges and underpasses.  This particular bridge was barely a hill at all, but that’s what passes for a hill on this course.

By now it was raining again.  At first, it was just a few drops.  By the time I got to 15 miles, it was a steady rain.  Now I was really getting wet.

As we turned and headed back towards downtown, I felt the wind again.  Now I was getting cold too.  I knew in about two miles, we would turn to head south.  Then the wind wouldn’t be so bad.  I tried to focus on that.

At 16 miles, I noticed a funny feeling inside one of my shoes.  My insole was slipping to one side of my shoe.  This is one of the reasons I don’t like running in the rain.  I rarely have insole problems in dry conditions, but this is a common problem when my shoes get wet.  It was only going to get worse, and I still had 10 miles to go.

Looking ahead, I should have had a good view of the Willis Tower, but it was shrouded in fog.  I wasn’t optimistic that the rain would end any time soon.  I braced myself for 10 uncomfortable miles.  In the distance, I saw the “17” sign.  I knew we would turn just after that.

The crowds were sparse on a section of the course where they’re normally boisterous.  The rain was driving people indoors.  In the next mile, we went under two bridges.  There were crowds of spectators under the bridges.  It was the only place they could stay dry while watching the race.

After about 19 miles, the rain stopped.  It stayed dry for the rest of the race.  Looking at my watch, I thought I could run negative splits if I maintained the same pace the rest of the way.  Since the halfway mark, I had been running about 10 seconds per mile slower, but the first half of the race included that long bathroom stop.

At 20 miles, it still seemed like I could run negative splits, but I needed to get back to running 8:30s.

At 21 miles, I had a rude awakening.  I slowed down to almost nine minutes in that mile.  At that pace, I couldn’t run negative splits.

Now I was running through Chinatown.  Here the crowds were fantastic.  It helped that the rain had stopped.  I was picking up my effort in an attempt to get my pace back to 8:30.  The crowd support helped.

I ran the 22nd mile in 8:30, but realized I still had no chance of running negative splits, even if I could keep up that pace.  I finally realized that I kept telling myself I had 7, 6, or 5 miles to go, when I actually had 7.2, 6.2, or 5.2 miles to go.

With about three miles to go, the toes of one foot started to feel numb.  Could my feet be that cold?  I no longer felt cold overall, now that the rain had stopped, but my shoes were still soaking wet.

After another mile I realized what I was feeling.  The insole in that shoe had slipped so far forward it was bunched up underneath my toes.  It got increasingly painful.  I needed to tune it out for two more miles.

For most of the race, I had a good feel for where I was, but in the late miles I lost my sense of direction.  I really didn’t know where I was until I noticed we were running north along Michigan Avenue.  That’s the street that goes alongside Grant Park.  It’s also the street that the Hilton is on.

I started watching the street signs.  The Hilton is at the corner of Michigan and 8th.  I was at Michigan and 24th.  I told myself I had 16 short blocks to go.  That wasn’t quite true.  Before reaching the Hilton, I would turn on Roosevelt and then enter Grant Park from the south.  The distance was about the same, so I still counted down to 8.

I saw the 41 kilometer sign, and realized I had 1200 meters to go.  That’s the equivalent of three laps around a track.  I wondered if I could estimate what 400 meters looks like on a straight road.  I didn’t have to.  There was an 800 meters to go sign.

When I reached Roosevelt, I turned right to cross one last bridge before entering Grant Park.  If there’s a bridge that’s Chicago’s Heartbreak Hill, this is it.  It comes when you’re out of gas.

On the bridge, I passed the 400 meters to go sign.  Then I saw the 26 miles sign.  Finally, I made the left turn into Grant Park and saw the finish line.  I got there in 3:47:05.  I ran positive splits by just over two minutes.  That’s not bad for a race where I gave up in the first half.

The first thing they hand you after you finish is a water bottle.  I didn’t really need that.  Next, they give you your finisher medal.  It had a design similar to the T-shirt.

Then they wrap you in a space blanket and tape it in place, so your hands are still free.  After that, there are various snacks, and finally, the beer table.  One of the sponsors is Goose Island Brewing Company.  They had a new beer in a souvenir can.

Because of open container laws, I had to finish the beer before I could leave the park.  There are police at the exits who make sure you either finisher your beer or dump it before leaving.  Then I walked back to the Hilton.  From where I exited the park, it was only a block and a half.  It is absolutely the most convenient hotel for this race.

After getting cleaned up and eating a few of the post-race snacks, I eventually joined other members of a World Marathon Majors Challenge group for a post-race party at Tilted Kilt.  They were originally going to meet in Grant Park, but changed the location, because the ground in Grant Park was getting too soggy.  After having another beer and exchanging a few stories, I headed back to the Hilton.

Later, I had post-race pizza at Giordano’s.  This is stuffed pizza, which is different from deep dish pizza.  I couldn’t leave Chicago without having both.

I missed a BQ by just over 12 minutes.  The bathroom stop accounts for at least three minutes of that.  You could probably add another minute or two for heavy wet shoes.  That still leaves me several minutes short of the time I need for a BQ.  It’s going to take a lot of training to take off that much time.  If I could lose the weight I gained over the summer, that alone might be enough.  That might take even more training.  I’ve never been able to lose weight through diet alone.  It takes diet and lots of exercise.  Either way, I don’t see myself getting that BQ this year.  I’m going to have to try again in the spring – possibly in Boston.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:47:05
Average Pace:  8:40 
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  358
World Marathon Majors:  16