Special Feature

Chasing the Dream – Or, training for Chicago Marathon whilst life gets in the way

When I went into Loch Ness, I – only half-jokingly – said “one and done.” If Charlotte could pace me round to a sub 3:30, I’d never have to give over 4-and-a-half-months of my life to marathon training again. In those last few miles, when my brain was shutting down and Charlotte was shouting at me to keep going, I was determined to get that sub 3:30 so I’d never have to feel that way at any point in the future. Less than a week later, I was planning my next marathon! I guess maybe it’s like childbirth: in all the euphoria you forget the pain and just remember the elation.

Photo of the marathon at mile 9
Loch Ness Marathon, around mile 9 when it was all going so well. This is mostly what I remember, and try not to dwell on those final three miles.

As someone who works in education and gets set holidays, I investigated which marathons might be happening during my October break. I had thought Berlin would be, but it seemed to be a week earlier this year. Also, not having any hope of qualifying for Berlin (the standard is sub 3:00 for women under 45), I would have to take my chances in the ballot. I fully intended to apply, but life got really hectic and I completely forgot. Then Kate Robertson from Stonehaven mentioned that she had a CQT and was going to apply for Chicago. This seemed to be well placed at the end of October break week for me, which would give me enough time to recover from jet lag before running the marathon, if not much time to enjoy the city afterwards. Charlotte didn’t take much persuading, and so Chicago it was. I’ve spent a bit of time in Chicago airport on stopovers before, but I’ve never spent any time in the city. As the third biggest city in the USA, and situated on the banks of Lake Michigan, it seemed like an ideal place to visit for a destination marathon. So that was it decided: my second marathon was going to be one of the six majors, with around ten times as many runners as Loch Ness, and on a different continent.

Having no experience of a big city marathon, I wasn’t sure what would be different. Chicago has a reputation for being a fast, flat course, so I’ve done less a little less of my training in the mountainous Brechin area this time, and done more of my speed work and a few target pace longer runs in the relatively flatter environs of the Arbroath and Dundee coastal paths. They are rather exposed and can be windy, but with Chicago being known as the windy city, that can only be a good thing. Other than minor changes in terrain though, I’ve followed the same training plan as I did for Loch Ness: the 40 – 55 mile per week 18-week plan from Advanced Marathoning. I stuck to the plan very rigidly for the first nine weeks, almost too much so, except when I got lost, and for a couple of races. I also got diagnosed with moderate anaemia and very low iron stores just a couple of weeks into the plan, which partially explained my general fatigue and below par parkrun times. I was put on a course of iron tablets, and my GP said she hoped they would get me back to normal levels in time for Chicago. The Half DRAM went better than last year, but 61 seconds slower than Stirling. I’d only been on the iron supplements for a few days though, so took that as a baseline. It was nowhere near as fast as I’d have wanted it to be if a 3:20 marathon (Charlotte’s optimistic suggestion for me) were to be even a halfway realistic aim, so I picked a target that was hopefully more likely to be achievable.

The cycle path to Broughty Ferry. Some of my speed work sessions whilst training for Chicago were done here.
The cycle path to Broughty Ferry. Some of my speed work sessions whilst training for Chicago were done here.

I decided my training paces should assume 7:45 – 7:50 per mile as the target marathon pace. This was based largely on it being a bit quicker than my average pace at Loch Ness, but more comfortable and sustainable than half marathon pace. At Loch Ness I took full advantage of the downhills in the first half, with a few sub 7 and several sub 7:30 miles, but didn’t save enough for the hill at mile 18, and took on too little nutrition for the final few miles. Maybe if I start more cautiously in Chicago I have a chance of more even splits – or even the marathoners dream of a faster second half. The first run to include a chunk (10 miles in a 16 miler) at marathon pace averaged a slightly slower 7:57 pace, but it was very hilly and only a week after the Half DRAM. I went out the following Sunday with Ian, intending to do a 12 miler. His chat was obviously so fascinating that I forgot where to turn right, and it turned into a 17-mile run. Ian had never run further than 15 miles before, so he got a distance PB. And he was very good-natured about it, even though it meant he was rather late home for something important. I had also made this exact same error on the same route a few months earlier with my favourite nemesis Keith Jackson. In between those misadventures, on my first Sunday run of the marathon training plan, rather than waiting for Ian to be finished work I went out earlier and got lost trying to follow his route: my 12 miles turned into 17 ½ hilly miles without a gel or even any water with me.

All these instances of getting myself and others lost resulted in me getting something of a reputation amongst the Brechin crew, and they teased me continually about it for months. Hopefully Charlotte realises I can’t be trusted with directions and will get us to where we need to be in Chicago!

That accidental 17 ½ miler so early on in training gave me a boost though as it was nice to know I could do that distance already, and at a reasonable pace (8:22 per mile) on a hilly route with just under 300 metres of climbing. It wasn’t target marathon pace or distance, but it was a solid basis to build from.

St Monan's church, which I passed on a 17 mile long run during a weekend break
St Monan’s church, which I passed on a 17 mile long run during a weekend break

During the first 9 weeks of training I completely nailed it, doing the suggested mileage or slightly more (e.g. due to getting lost, or small rounding errors due to preferred running routes). This was during the end of the academic year when I was still at work, followed by a blissful 7 weeks of summer vacation. I managed to get some long runs in with David and Ann-Marie as well as Ian. They were training for different autumn marathons so were on slightly different programs or weeks of the program, but sometimes the stars aligned. I made it to parkrun fairly regularly, including reaching a parkrun milestone, and to the Footers Tuesday runs as long as the plan said general aerobic or included strides (which Jagoda kindly did with me) rather than the more structured speed work sessions which were mostly done solo.

Brechin Road Runners changed the Thursday night intervals to a Social Run in late spring due to popular demand. I do enjoy that, but doing all the speed work solo is tough, and I missed having fellow runners to push me during reps rather than just my watch.

As soon as I started back at work in mid-August, things got more uneven. The Forfar 10k was on the Sunday of the first week back at work, and I performed slightly better than I hoped to, though not as fast as online calculators tell me I should be able to on the basis of half marathon and above performances. I’m definitely built for distance rather than speed. I had intended to add on a further 7.5 miles to stick to the plan, but didn’t have the energy to do so. I managed to hit my mileage the following two weeks, then missed my Sunday long run that week, plus 4 days of the next week, due to a bad cold.

A windmill on the Fife coastal path. At least I’ve done some long runs in some scenic locations.

This was still 5 weeks out and I wasn’t too worried. I came back with a 22:22 tourist parkrun at Lochore Meadows (my second fastest of the year) followed by a 17-mile run with 13 miles at target marathon pace the following day. Most of those miles were sub 7:45, though I think I pushed it too hard on the downhills and couldn’t have maintained that pace for marathon distance. Chicago will be flat, and that’s going to be a novelty for me. I managed another couple of solid weeks of training, including my fourth 20 miler and a couple of speed sessions, but then I got ill again. This was pretty terrible timing as it meant my taper became precipitous rather than gradual.

At the time of writing I haven’t run for 8 days, and the marathon is only 8 days away. I’ve missed my penultimate long run, but am hoping to get out for one more medium-long run before just doing a couple of easy 4 or 5 milers the week of the marathon. I suspect 18 weeks is just a little too long for this level of intense training, and I probably peaked a few weeks ago.

At least I have more experience going into Chicago, and know I can do the distance. My nutrition strategy for during the race is planned, though with staying in a hotel I’m not sure what my breakfast options will be. It’s a huge city. I’m sure I’ll get something that will work for me. I’m not taking the nutrition from the aid stations as they provide Gatorade gels and chews. These are not available for sale in the UK, so I am unable to test them prior to race day. As anyone who has attempted to try something new on race day will tell you, this can all end very badly: taking random gels in the middle of a 26.2 mile run could result in several visits to the portaloos along the way and make it an unforgettable experience for the wrong reasons. I am looking forward to the option of bananas at the final three aid stations though. I’ve been training with Clif bars and blocks, and will be taking Clif shot blocks with me. They have magnesium in addition to simple carbs so help with electrolyte balance in addition to providing energy. I can fit two bars (equivalent to four gels) in the zippered back pocket of my running shorts, alongside an 150ml soft water flask. The flask has a bite valve so doesn’t leak at all: it’s amazing. Chicago marathon does have frequent water stops, but they hand out cups of water rather than bottles. As I find it impossible to run whilst carrying, or drinking from, a cup, I intend to fill the flask from cups so I can keep water with me for longer. I may also take a larger bottle if the weather is warmer than expected. The weather in Chicago at this time of year is hard to predict: it could be 25 degrees celsius and windy, or it could be snowing. The current forecast suggests 13 degrees and a moderate breeze, which is quite pleasant for running, but warmer than I’m used to as a Scot. I’m taking sunscreen and a running visor just in case.

Chalmers University of Technology: the reason for our upcoming move

In other life news, my partner was also offered a job in Sweden when I was halfway through training, so in addition to it being the busiest time of year at work and peak mileage weeks, I was also now trying to plan an international move which will be happening 6 or 7 weeks after the marathon. I guess it’s not that surprising that I got ill. Unlike last year, I haven’t had time out with injury, so it probably balances out, except that I won’t have as much time to regain lost conditioning as I did last year.

Marathon majors seem to pile added pressure on. If I was signed up for the beautiful Loch Rannoch marathon instead (which is on the same day) and I was ill, I could just not go, and sign up for a later marathon elsewhere only having lost a small amount of money. Going to a different continent and forking out a significant sum for the entry fee, flights, hotels and so on makes it something you can’t just bail out on and say “There’s always next year.” My other half suggested I go into the costs, but I genuinely don’t know the full cost as yet, (though I’ll be surprised if my share is under £1,600. which includes 5 nights accommodation though the room cost is split between two of us). Of course, it is possible to go for fewer days, stay in cheaper accommodation (though that could make getting to the start for 5:30am difficult if you stay miles out) and save up air miles to pay for or subsidise flights. But with the cost of the marathon entry being US$240 (around £180), and the cheapest flights anyone I know has managed to secure being over £300 per person, I can’t imagine anyone from Europe could do this for under £700 all in, and that would involve a flying visit, staying miles away or in a hostel, and running the marathon whilst still jet-lagged. Destination marathons also involve a lot more planning and administration such as booking flights, checking baggage allowances, and, for the USA-based ones, applying for an ESTA. This is my one shot at Chicago.

As with last year, I’m full of doubt as to what kind of time is realistic for me, and how to pace it. And I’ve heard that I won’t be able to rely on my Garmin pace readings for those crucial first couple of miles as the glass skyscrapers interfere with the GPS and result in wildly inaccurate pace and distance readings in the downtown sections of the course. But I’m meeting up with a few folk who have run similar times, and there are pacers too. I could always stick with our corral’s 3:30 pacer for a while and see how I feel.

No matter what happens in Chicago, I know I’ve done what I could, given the inevitable curveballs life throws at you. I’ve heard that the crowd support is phenomenal, and you’ll always have someone to talk to. It’s a fantastic race in a fantastic city. Whether or not I get a good time, I’m sure I’ll have a good time. Maybe I’ll see you in Corral D.

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