Sunday, October 9, 2016

Race Report: 2016 Chicago Marathon

On October 9, I ran the Chicago Marathon.  This was my second Chicago Marathon.  I also ran it in 1999.  That was before the World Marathon Majors were established, so I needed to run it again for it to count toward completion of all the majors.

Registration used to be first-come, first served, and as long as you didn’t drag your feet, you could count on getting in.  Times have changed.  Three years ago, the race filled so fast, it caused the servers to crash.  After that, they switched to a lottery system.  I don’t know what the lottery odds are like, but I didn’t want to take any chances.  I had a qualifying time from 2014 that was fast enough to give me automatic entry, but I had to do the race this year.  It meant I could finish the World Marathon Majors just two weeks after doing the Berlin Marathon.

Chicago is only 400 miles from Minneapolis, yet I had only traveled there twice before.  The first time was in 1981.  I was in college, and I drove there with a few of my friends to compete in a large chess tournament that was held at the Palmer House.  We stayed at a budget hotel in another part of town, but I could see what a nice hotel the Palmer House was.

In 1999, Deb and I flew to Chicago for a vacation, and I ran the marathon.  On that trip, we stayed at the Hampton Inn, and I took the train to Grant Park for the marathon.  Our sightseeing included the Sears Tower (now known as the Willis Tower), the Magnificent Mile, and Navy Pier.  We also saw a temporary exhibit called “Cows on Parade,” which inspired similar exhibits in other cities.

This year, I flew to Chicago on a solo trip.  Chicago is one of those cities where you don’t need to rent a car.  You can easily get around by train.  I could have flown into either Midway or O’Hare airport.  I chose Midway, because I knew it was easy to get into town from that airport by train.

I try to make the most of airline and hotel loyalty programs.  I usually stay at a hotel in the Hilton family if I can.  Knowing the race started and finished at Grant Park, I went to the Hilton website to see which Hilton hotels were closest to the park.  I was surprised to see the Palmer House in the list.  This is an historic hotel, which I remembered from by 1981 trip.  It was one of the most elegant hotels I had seen.  I never knew before that it was owned by Hilton.  It’s only a few blocks from where the race starts, at the north end of Grant Park, and they had availability.  It was somewhat expensive, yet surprisingly affordable for a four star hotel in the Chicago Loop.

I flew to Chicago Saturday morning.  I took the train into downtown and checked into the Palmer House.  By then, it was lunch time.  I love pizza, and Chicago-style pizza is one of my favorites.  I decided to start with Lou Malnati’s, because they have personal-size deep dish pizzas, and there’s one near the Hilton Chicago.

After lunch, I walked over to the Hilton Chicago, which was the headquarters hotel for the marathon.  From there, I was able to take a shuttle to McCormick Place, where the expo was held.

After picking up my race packet, I found the booth for Abbott World Marathon Majors.  They put a special sticker on my race bib, so a volunteer at the finish line would know I was finishing the World Marathon Majors at this race.

On my way back from the expo, I got my first good view of the Willis Tower through the trees.

Next, I explored Millennium Park.  This park wasn’t here yet when Deb and I visited Chicago in 1999.

For dinner, I went to Giordano’s, which has stuffed pizza.  Did I mention that I really like Chicago-style pizza?

The hotel was so close to the start area that I could walk to my start corral in 10 or 15 minutes.  They close the corrals 10 minutes before the start, and I didn’t know how long it would take to get through the security checkpoint.  To be on the safe side, I left 45 minutes before the start.  As it turned out, the security checkpoint wasn’t a big deal.  Because I didn’t have to wait too long outside, I didn’t need a gear bag.  They had to screen all bags, but they had an “express lane” for runners without bags.  I also didn’t need to wait in any port-o-potty lines.  I used the bathroom in my hotel room just before leaving.

In many ways, this race was similar to the Berlin Marathon, which I ran two weeks ago.  Both races have loop courses that are extremely flat.  Both are among the largest races in the world, making congestion in the early miles a concern.  Finally, I had similar corral assignments in both races.

The race was divided into three waves, with the first wave starting at 7:30.  Each wave had several start corrals.  I was seeded into corral D, which was in the first wave.  That’s the same corral assignment I had in Berlin.  Because I had a fast qualifying time, I assumed I was in a fast corral, just like Berlin.  In fact, corral D seemed about right for me.

When I left the hotel, the temperature was 53 degrees.  It was a mostly sunny day, but it still never got out of the 50s during the race.  I wore shorts and a short sleeve T-shirt, but I also wore a trash bag to keep warm before the race started.

After the gun went off, it took about eight minutes to reach the starting line.  That’s no big deal with chip timing.  Just before we reached the starting line, everybody ahead of me started running.  I was able to run my own pace as soon as I crossed the line.

In Berlin, I started way too fast, and didn’t realize it at first.  I didn’t want to repeat that mistake.  My goal was to start somewhere between 8:20 and 8:30 per mile.  There wasn’t a big disparity between my pace and the pace of the other runners in my corral, but I still did my best to stay relaxed and run my own pace.

I’ve done this race before, so I was familiar with the general layout of the course.  Even still, I was surprised by the number of sharp turns in the early miles.  Our first turn was a sharp left in the first mile.  Surprisingly, it didn’t feel too crowded.

I reached the one mile mark in 8:22.  That was about right.  After another sharp right, I started looking for the two mile sign.  Before I got there, I saw a sign for three kilometers.  They had signs for every mile AND every kilometer.  I was pacing mostly according to the mile markers, but later in the race I would be glad there were so many signs.

I sped up slightly in the second mile, running it in 8:17.  After that, my mile times varied between 8:14 (too fast) and 8:24 (better).  As I got farther into the race, I was able to run with the crowd, since the runners around me all started at the same pace.

The first time I reached an aid station, I was surprised how smoothly it went.  I had trouble with congestion at the aid stations in Berlin.  I think they worked better in Chicago for three reasons.  First, they had the Gatorade tables before the water tables.  I always drink Gatorade, but a lot of runners prefer water.  I was able to get my Gatorade and move out of the way before I reached the water tables.  It also helped that they used paper cups.  It’s easier to drink from paper cups while running, because you can squeeze them.  Berlin used plastic cups, which don’t squeeze well.  The biggest reason, however, was the volunteers.  They did everything right.  They filled the cups just the right amount.  They were spaced far enough apart from each other that the runners didn’t have to crowd.  They also paid close attention to where each runner was going.

It wasn’t just the aid station volunteers.  It seems like all the race volunteers do a real good job here.  They either get the same volunteers every year, or they’re trained well.

In the third mile, we had two more sharp turns.  These ones seemed crowded.  It didn’t help that in between them I got boxed in behind some runners who were going slower.  I didn’t want to expend too much energy going around them, but I also didn’t want to settle into a slower pace.

After about four miles, I found myself surrounded by the 3:40 pace group.  Since I was planning to pace myself for 3:40 for at least the first half of the race, I stayed with them.

Now we were mostly running north, leaving the downtown area behind.  There were far fewer turns in the next few miles.  By the time we reached the northernmost part of the course, the field was getting spread out.  Congestion in the turns wasn’t an issue any more.

After about five miles, I was warm enough to take off my gloves.  Then the wind picked up a little, and my hands started to get cold.  I wasn’t cold for long, though.  The wind stopped, and the sun came out.  Then I felt warm again.  It seemed like conditions never stayed the same for very long, but on average I was reasonably comfortable.

After six miles, I started to wonder if my pace was sustainable.  I felt like I had to work a little to stay with the 3:40 group.  I wasn’t working real hard, but at this point in the race, the pace should feel easy.

Between seven and eight miles, we made two sharp turns, and started running south again.  We were running toward downtown, and I could see the Willis Tower directly in front of us.

I knew I should let the 3:40 group go, but every time I eased up and let them go ahead, I found myself catching up again.  Finally, after nine miles, I let them go for good.  At the same time, I stopped worrying about my pace.  For the next several miles, I ran whatever pace felt comfortable.  I found myself consistently running in the 8:40 range.

Occasionally, we would cross a river.  The bridges had a steel grate surface, to let water through.  It would have been uncomfortable, but these bridge sections were usually covered with carpets.

In the first half of the race, I was focused more on running than my surroundings.  I couldn’t help but notice, however, when we ran under the tracks of an elevated train.  Then I knew I was in Chicago.

I reached the halfway mark in 1:51:05.  I had given up on 3:40, but I was starting to think that breaking 3:50 might still be a reasonable goal.  At the very least, I wanted to improve on the 3:51:55 I ran in Berlin.

Now the character of the course changed.  We always had good crowd support, but we started running through ethnic neighborhoods, where the crowds were more colorful.  The first neighborhood I recognized was Greektown.  We were also heading west now.

After running west for two miles, we made two sharp turns and headed back toward downtown.  We were running toward the Willis Tower again, but now we were seeing it from the west.  Later in the race, we would see it from the south.  I don’t think that’s by chance.  The course was probably designed so runners would frequently see the city’s most iconic landmark.  I’ve noticed the same thing about the Marine Corps Marathon.  In that race, you frequently find yourself running toward the Washington Monument, seeing it from different angles.

With nine miles to go, I realized I would break 3:50 if I just averaged nine minutes per mile.  So far, every mile was under 8:50.  Then I ran a 9:03.  Oops.

I tried to pick up my effort, but then something would happen to slow me down again.  I got excited when I noticed we were running through Little Italy.  Then a gust of wind slowed me down.  The next mile was 9:01.

I could pick up my effort, but I didn’t know if the increased effort would be sustainable.  I still had seven miles to go.  It seemed like each mile started fast and ended slow.  At first, I’d start passing other runners.  Later, I’d slip back through the field.

Running through the Pilsen neighborhood, there were a lot of spectators with Mexican flags.  Crowds were great there.  The most visually interesting neighborhood was Chinatown.  For several blocks, we were surrounded by stores and restaurants with signs in Chinese.

I was encouraged when I ran a mile in 8:48, but eventually, the wheels started to come off.  With 10K to go, I ran a mile in 9:12, followed by another in 9:08.  It was unclear whether I would break 3:50.  Then I ran a 9:31.  I knew at that point, I wouldn’t break 3:50, but I was still on pace to beat my time from Berlin.  I just couldn’t slow down much more.

When I slowed to 9:37 in the next mile, it didn’t help my confidence, but I didn’t need to panic.  If I was willing to push hard, I could pick up the pace.  I just wasn’t willing.  I was running conservatively, to make sure my effort was sustainable.  I didn’t want to fight hard for a mile or two and then pay for it by having to drag myself through the last two miles, like I did in Berlin.

At this point in the race, I really enjoyed seeing signs for both miles and kilometers.  Any time I knew how much was left, it was a psychological lift.  Shortly after 40K, I reached the 25 mile sign.  I sped up a bit.  Then I reached the one mile to go sign.  Most races don’t have one of those.  I just had to run the last 1.2 miles in 12 minutes.

We were running north toward downtown now.  I kept seeing the Willis Tower, but we weren’t running directly toward it.  The angle kept changing.

Mile signs had red backgrounds, and kilometer signs had blue backgrounds.  I saw a blue sign ahead.  I assumed at first that it must be the 41K sign.  That was a bit demoralizing, as it would mean I still had 1200 meters to go.  That’s three laps around a track.  I really thought I should only have about half a mile to go.  As I got closer, I got good news.  Apparently, I missed the 41K sign.  This sign read, “800 meters to go.”

Off to my right, I started to see trees.  We were getting closer to Grant Park.  First, we had to cross a bridge.  It was a bit of a hill.  This is a flat course.  The only hills are the ramps for bridges and tunnels.  You wouldn’t even call this a hill if it wasn’t so close to the finish.

As I turned and started up the ramp, I saw the 400 meters to go sign.  Just past it, on the other side of the street, I saw the 26 miles sign.  Farther up the street, I could already see the 300 meters to go sign.  Yeah.  They had a lot of signs.

As I made the final turn to enter Grant Park, I could see the finish line.  I picked up the pace as much as I could.  I crossed the line in 3:51:00.  I beat my Berlin time by 55 seconds.  I didn’t break 3:50, but it was still my second fastest time this year.  It was also my fastest on a course that wasn’t downhill.

After I got my finisher medal, I looked for the Abbott World Marathon Majors volunteers.  When I saw one, I pointer to the sticker on my race bib.  She directed me to their tent in the finish area, where I received my six-star medal for finishing all six majors.

When these medals were first introduced, runners who finished all six majors had to contact Abbott World Marathon Majors online, and they received their medal in the mail.  Two weeks ago, at the Berlin Marathon, they started doing something new.  For the finishers who were with Marathon Tours & Travel, they had medals available at the post-race party.  Starting with this race, they had a system in place for any finisher to get their medal at the finish line.  You just had to contact them ahead of time to let them know you’d be finishing.

It would have been nice to linger in the finish area, but I had a busy afternoon, so I needed to keep moving.  I had to walk a little over a mile to make my way back to the Palmer House, where there was a surprised party for my friend Heather.  This was her 150th marathon, and it’s a home town race for her, so a lot of her friends were there.  As an added bonus, her picture was used on race banners that were all along the course.

I went up to my room to get cleaned up and change into some dry clothes.  Then I went downstairs to join the party.  I had to leave the party for about an hour to walk over to the Hilton Chicago, so I could join other World Marathon Major finishers for a group photo.

As soon we were done taking pictures, I walked back to the Palmer House, so I could get there before Heather’s party broke up.  I know several of Heather’s friends’ so it was a chance to catch up with other runners who I didn’t already see this weekend.
Two other local runners were having parties, but the times overlapped.  I ended up missing those parties.

No trip to Chicago would be complete without post-race pizza.  For dinner, I went to Pizano’s Pizza and Pasta, which was only a block away from my hotel.

I’m still not pacing myself well.  This time I ran the second half nine minutes slower than the first half.  My times are improving gradually, but in addition to training, I need to run smarter races.  I’m starting to get better, but it’s a work in progress.


  1. Great write up! Congrats on strong finish and complete the Majors!

    As a co-captain for Aid Station #9 (mile 12.5), I appreciate the kind words about the volunteers.


    1) Lou Malnati's is the best pizza, but I'd also recommend Gino's East, Uno's or Duo's pizza next you're back and can get to the River North area.

    2) While it may be spelled W-I-L-L-I-S, most everyone still pronounces it "Sears"!

    1. Thanks for the pizza recommendations. I've had Uno's. I'll have to try Duo's and and Gino's East when I get a chance.

  2. Congrats on finishing the Majors - officially! I loved Chicago.

  3. Wow congratulations. Chicago 2017 will be my second WMM. I found your blog very informative thank you.