When I started running two and a half years ago, I just thought of it as a nice social form of exercise. I liked that it was easy to measure performance, and that I seemed to be making good progress at it. If anyone had told me I would end up running marathons, and even travelling abroad to do so, I would have laughed out loud.
Fast forward a couple of years, and there I was, after a pretty solid 18-week training block interrupted by two spells of illness, flying to Chicago with the specific purpose of completing my first marathon major. I’d never travelled abroad for a race before – except for Skatås parkrun, but that was a bit of parkrun tourism whilst visiting the city for other reasons. Travelling abroad primarily for a race was a first for me.
Charlotte and I arrived in Chicago on the Wednesday preceding the marathon, after a long inter-continental journey. We were immediately impressed with the hotel (Eurostars Magnificent Mile), the city skyline (which we learned more about on the excellent Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise), the beautiful lakeshore, and the excellent foodie culture. However, we had to be careful not to do too much in the couple of days preceding the marathon – which we didn’t quite manage as there was too much to see. We made sure to take it easy on the Saturday though – going to watch a matinee showing of the Oscar-worthy performance of Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, and getting to bed before 8:30pm: I had never fully adjusted to the 6-hour time zone difference and it was going to be an early start.
We’d decided that arriving at 05:30am would be overkill, but still got up at 4:30am to have breakfast and get ready. Leaving the hotel just after 6:00am, we joined hundreds of other runners on the 1.5ish mile walk to Grant Park, where the race starts. Aid stations were already being set up, the portaloos (porta-potties in American terminology) were in the side streets next to them (I used one and it wasn’t exactly pristine, but at least there was no queue there). The darkness, crowds and buzz in the air made it feel more like some kind of chilled street party than a large group of runners getting ready to run for anywhere between 2 ½ and 6 ½ + hours.
The closer we got to Grant Park, the larger the crowds became, and I commented that it was like we were in a zombie apocalypse, with everyone shuffling along in the crowd. I hoped the wisdom of crowds meant I would arrive where I needed to be. I’d had no luck with GPS due to the skyscrapers and failed to find the 5k route the previous morning – ending up instead at Navy Pier.
As Charlotte and I were in different Corrals, we had to enter Grant Park by different gates. We had thought we might be able to stick together for a while before heading to separate corrals, and possibly even find some other folk we knew, but it was clear this was not going to happen. Everyone had to pass through security, and the queues were very big and moving glacially. This was a new experience for me: there has never been any form of security checks at any of the races I have participated in in Scotland – unless you count getting your ID checked when you pick up your bib number to make sure you’re running under your own name. Charlotte gave me a hug, we wished each other luck, agreed to meet at meetup point Z, and headed our separate ways.
Whilst queuing, people seemed slightly agitated, particularly those in Wave 1. Some of the people waiting to get into the park were in waves 2 or 3, which had later start times. After 10 or 15 minutes, one of the Security staff held up a sign saying “Wave 1”. This seemed like a signal to push forward in the queue, and the guys behind me said they’d follow: they’d been getting worried they’d have to start at the back of the wave and spend ages weaving through slower runners. We managed to get up the steps and slightly along the bridge before another runner shouted “We’re all Wave 1. Stay where you are.”
At the security check, I had my bottle of water taken from me, but was able to keep everything else. I had finally made it into Grant Park around 6:50am, and immediately joined the queue for a portaloo. The guy in front of me in the queue was a local doing his 7th Chicago marathon. Apparently you get guaranteed places for locals. He told me the support is unlike what you get anywhere else in the world, and the marathon route is one of the best ways to see Chicago. I was told to look out for a conservation street in the middle of an industrial area, with beautiful brownstone terraces. He also kindly let me go ahead of him in the queue as time was pushing on and he was in Wave 2. I’d put an electrolyte tab in my empty water bottle, and transferred three bars of Clif shot bloks into little bags for ease of use during the race. I still didn’t have any water though, and he reckoned I wouldn’t have time to fill up my water bottle before the start.
Sure enough, by the time I had used the facilities and gone seeking for my corral entrance, I got into Corral D only 2 minutes before they close. I was glad I had on a warm hooded fleece bought specifically for the occasion as it was very cold (in the mid-40s Fahrenheit, which I think means about 5 degrees Celsius) – perfect weather once we got moving, but cold for all the waiting around. I spotted the 3:35 pacer signs up ahead, but the corral was very busy and I couldn’t move forward. The lady next to me, Jess, was there from the south of England (I think she said Milton Keynes?) and this was her 6th and final marathon major. I think it was Boston or New York that she said had been her favourite of the other 5. A tall young man to the right of us told her that “Chicago will be your new favourite.” Another local, he has run it several times and the crowds keep him coming back.
Jess was there with several friends from her running club, who were distributed throughout the corrals, but she found one of them and headed off. As we were watching the Corral C runners starting via the massive screens, I decided it was time to ditch the hoodie after taking a couple of terrible selfies to try and soak up the atmosphere in the corral. There were more people in Corral D than there were running Loch Ness last year – and there were 5 corrals for this wave, and a further 6 corrals in the next two waves. The scale of the event was a little overwhelming, but also resulted in a massive amount of energy in the air. It really felt like you were involved in something special. The clock was at 7:43am and we were starting to inch forward. And we were off!
I crossed the line around 7:44am, and immediately realised I should have tied the drawstring on my shorts. I was carrying my mobile phone in my back pocket (not something I’d usually do, but I had no other way of getting in touch with Charlotte if we couldn’t find each other at the end) plus a Clif bar I hadn’t had time to eat, and they were bouncing rather too much, and dragging the back of my shorts lower than was comfortable. My heart rate monitor was also sliding down my back, which never usually happens. With the water bottle holder I’d bought at the Expo on my left hand, it was hard to adjust either of these, and they prevented me from fully appreciating the start. We quickly went under an underpass, and even there we saw large crowds of supporters with homemade placards cheering us on.
I’d been warned in advance than it’s impossible to know how fast you are running in downtown Chicago as all the skyscrapers mess with the GPS. Margaret had said not to worry if my watch said I was going at Kipchoge’s pace! But it was saying 9:30s and slower, which was hard to ignore. I’d just have to go by feel, and do some mental arithmetic at each mile marker. It was very crowded, and it was hard to get a rhythm going. I was already pretty sure this wouldn’t be a PB, but I wanted to go out at around 3:30 pace and see how it felt after a couple of miles. Garmin buzzed the first mile as 7:59, but I didn’t reach the 1-mile marker until 8:09. That was okay. We had headed north out of Grant Park, past Millenium Park, across the river past Trump Tower (a beautiful building, but it would look even nicer if it didn’t have his name on it in several storey high letters), and turned left. Strava says I ran diagonally through three blocks, so I’m not sure what street we were on, but it may have been East Grand Avenue. The streets were all familiar from the past few days sightseeing, so I took in the atmosphere and the crowds.
The crowds were out in force and there were some great signs. One said “Run better than this Government” which made me laugh and give the lady holding it a shout of appreciation. We turned left again and headed south back across the river heading down South State Street. I reached the mile 2 marker at 16:19. That was two consistently paced miles, at around 3:34 pace. My watch still wasn’t telling me anything useful, so I’d have to try going by feel. We turned right onto West Jackson Boulevard, then another right-hand turn onto South La Salle Street, heading north towards the suburbs then Lincoln Park. I expected the crowds to thin out as we got away from downtown, but if they did it was imperceptible. Apparently Chicago has around 1.7 million spectators, and they really make you feel welcome. There is so much positivity, with shouts of “You got this.” and “You’re doing so well.”
In addition to the mile markers there were also kilometre markers, which I hadn’t noticed to begin with. There were also tracking mats every 5km. I knew several people were tracking me via the app (because a few had asked, and so I had posted a link on Facebook, which more people responded to) and would have more of an idea of how I was doing than I did. I crossed the first mat at 24:52. A perfect split for 3:30 pace, if I could maintain it. It felt like I was running relatively conservatively, but with very little marathon experience (this was only my second one) that’s always hard to gauge: what feels very easy at mile 3 is highly unlikely to feel comfortable at mile 21.
The second water station was just after the 5k point, and I stopped at it for around half a minute. I had taken a cup of water at the first aid station, but had only managed to get one sip of water. I’d tried to pour the rest of the cup into my bottle containing the electrolyte tab whilst still moving, but one sip of that told me it was far too concentrated and required further dilution. It took four cups of water to fill the electrolyte bottle, and I got another cup to drink from, which didn’t last long. At last I was reasonably well hydrated again.
As we were heading north towards Lincoln Park, I was aware that I was slowly working my way through the crowds of runners. I’d started a little too far back, and it always feels good to be moving forwards through the crowd. There were people overtaking me, but not too many. Around 5 miles in, I also saw something that cheered me up: I was catching the 3:35 pacer group. This bus was massive: there were 2 pacers at the front with 3:35 signs on sticks, and one with 3:35 on their back at the back of the group, and maybe 80 or more runners in the pack. Their pace felt a little too slow for me (probably 8:12 pace?) so I slowly went through them.
I was further bolstered when, around 5 ½ miles in, I saw a spectator in Lincoln Park with a huge Saltire. I shouted “Scotland”, punched the air, and got a cheer. I also did the same thing with the next Scottish flag I encountered around mile 11, actually weaving across the road to get to the side it was on.
Lincoln Park was lovely, as was the street of brownstone houses the guy at the start had been telling me about, and there was a short section where we could see the Lake over on the right-hand side. I checked my watch at the 10k timing mat and it was 49:48. 12 seconds under 8 minute per mile pace. Metronomic, I thought. Keep on keepin’ on. After the park we turned left and left again, and were heading south along North Broadway towards the West loop.
Maybe it was the change of direction resulting in a slight tailwind rather than headwind, or maybe I was just settling into the race, but my pace picked up very slightly, and I crossed the 15k mat at 1:14:20. That meant I was now 40 seconds ahead of pace. I’d hardly been checking my watch: it had seemed to settle down a bit once we got out of downtown, but there were still a lot of high rises here and there, and it never really seemed to get a proper grasp of my pace.
I was missing the scenery of the park, but Boystown was great. There was so much energy, with dance music, and tall ladies in disco outfits dancing on top of the speakers. (Charlotte later told me that they were drag queens. Clearly by that point in the race my levels of observation were even lower than usual.) A spectator gave me a bottle of water – an actual bottle, not a cup! – and I told him I loved him. Maybe a bit excessive, but I was only managing to get a couple of mouthfuls of water per cup and was feeling rather dehydrated. The sun was also threatening to come out, and I was glad to be in a vest and shorts.
I crossed the 20k mat at 1:39:05 – metronomic again, and the half marathon point at 1:44:30. I wondered if the BRR chat group was discussing Charlotte and I’s splits, and if they’d be commenting on how consistent I was. Sure enough, that had come up. I realised I’d need to run even or negative splits for a PB, and wondered how unlikely that was. My legs had been feeling fine, but my hamstrings aren’t used to the relentless steadiness of a flat course, and I was starting to feel them. I’d already taken the time goal away in mile 1, but at the halfway point I was feeling pretty confident that I could bring it in under 3:35, depending on when and how badly I hit the wall.
Two miles later, I hit the wall. It just hits you all of a sudden. I suddenly felt really tired, there was this weird feeling behind my eyes, and I was slowing down. “This can’t be happening. This shouldn’t happen until mile 22 at least.” I thought, feeling perplexed and anxious. I checked my Clif bloks and realised I’d only had two of them. I’d had one around 6 miles in, and another before halfway. But three bloks equals one gel. And breakfast had been Oat So Simple rather than overnight oats due to the lack of breakfast options at 4:30am. Clearly I hadn’t carb loaded enough. I didn’t have enough water to take another blok though, as I’d used most of the bottle the spectator had given me to make up another electrolyte drink. I took another blok anyway, and decided to make it two, finished the last drops of water, and discarded the bottle at the next aid station.
We were now into the West Loop and heading for Little Italy. There was a street with lots of gazebos which seemed to be for all the charities being supported by runners. I wondered if they got their own special nutrition from them, but maybe they were stalls for interested spectators – I never quite worked it out. Another spectator gave me a short, fat bottle of water and I was overjoyed. I decided I didn’t need to make up any more electrolyte drink, and kept this bottle for the remainder of the route.
Little Italy was great and the support was still overwhelming. There were lots of great handmade signs, and I used one of the Power Up buttons: it didn’t seem to provide the promised boost though. There were also several signs telling runners to “Find a cute (and fast) butt and follow it.” One less positive sign had read “There’s still shitloads of miles to go”, something I was painfully aware of. I’d gone through 25k at 2:04:26 – still under 5 minutes per kilometre pace, but had slowed noticeably since then. The 30k mat seemed a long time in coming, and I went over that at 2:30:30 – I’d lost over a minute in those 3.1 miles. When one of my work colleagues, George, said he had tracking set up and he and Sharon would be following me I’d replied “You can watch me slowly fall apart.” That wasn’t a joke, and it wasn’t the best feeling to know that this was exactly what 10 – 30 people back home were doing. Still, it was only 30 seconds off, and I was starting to feel a little better after taking more Clif bloks, or maybe I was just trying to convince myself that I was.
The route headed back towards town, with a sharp turn onto West Cormack Road heading for Chinatown. I was painfully aware of my inability to pick up the pace. The crowd cheers of “You’ve got this” were starting to feel less convincing to me, and I was getting more despondent at each mile marker as the amount I was off pace kept increasing. This was all about damage limitation now, and getting to the end. I was still trying to enjoy it and soak in the atmosphere and surroundings, but I was at the point where I wanted it done – and I still had over an hour to go. “Maybe I’ll stick to Half marathons and below from now on” I thought – then remembered I had accepted a London Good For Age place for April 2020. Getting into London is a dream of many runners, and the general ballot odds are only about 4%: I couldn’t refuse the place. Maybe I could run it really conservatively though and just enjoy the experience? I wondered how slowly I would have to take it in order to avoid hitting the wall.
I still hadn’t been caught by the 3:35 pacer bus though. As my speed had been decreasing, I’d been worried they would catch me. As long as I could stay ahead of them, then the wheels hadn’t completely fallen off. The aid stations between 18.5 and 23.5 miles had bananas and I had been looking forward to this. However, at the first one I thought they were handing out bread and avoided it. At the second of these stations I realised they were bananas cut in half. I’d run out of electrolyte drink and thought the potassium might do me good, but my stomach was feeling a bit queasy after 5 Clif bloks and I didn’t think I could handle a banana.
All the aid stations have speaker systems and announcers. It was going through this one that my fear was realised. After commenting on a few individuals (as I was noticing the Swot team who Aileen later posed for a photo with), the announcer said “And here come’s a fast group.” My heart sank as I already knew what he was about to say. “This is the 3:35 group. The pacers are doing a great job, and these people are all working together to achieve a great time.” Why hadn’t I stayed with them when I caught them at mile 5? They seemed too fast for me now. I tried to stick with them but those 8:12s that had seemed too easy were seemingly impossible for me now. I watched them go, and it was so demoralising that I slowed down even further.
We headed around a corner approaching the 35k marker and a guy shouted “You’re doing so well. You’re making this look easy.” Nice sentiment, but it couldn’t have been aimed at me. I’m often boosted in the latter stages of races by the fact I’m reeling people in. I was still reeling people in at my slow pace, but mostly only the ones who were walking by this point. Far more runners were going past me than I was passing, and that pacer group breezing past had confirmed I had no hope of a sub 3:35. Just how much of a positive split was this going to be? The 35k mat was reached at last. My time was 2:57:22 – nearly 3 minutes off pace. And there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to stop unravelling further.
We were back downtown and there was so much energy in the crowds. But it wasn’t enough to help me pick it up. I did try, but got a stitch. I tried lifting my arms above my head, but couldn’t even get them above my shoulders. I kept moving slowly and it eventually subsided.
The route takes a shortish loop south through the Illinois Institute of Technology. The campus seemed nice, but my pace was wilting and the mile markers seemed to be getting further apart. At the 37k marker I thought “Just a parkrun left to go.” But I knew it wouldn’t be a fast one.
We headed north out of the campus past Dunbar Park, and I was really happy to finally reach the 40k timing mat. I didn’t cross it until 3:25:45 though, and knew all possibility of sub 3:35 had gone unless I could run 2.2km in 9:25. That’s over 1 1/3rd miles and I struggle to do that pace in a 5km race let alone at the end of a marathon. I saw the 25-mile marker and I was too tired to remember the time, but realised I’d have to really mess up not to stay under 1:40 at least. But then the 41km marker was taking forever to appear and I got worried. Maybe there wasn’t one, but I finally saw a sign saying 800m to go. Thank goodness.
Too early to pick up the pace though, and of course there was that “final hill”. When I’d seen a photo of it on a Facebook group for the marathon I’d thought “That’s a bridge.” This is technically true, and on a training run you might barely notice it as a hill. Just before the end of a marathon is a cruel place to put it though, and it certainly didn’t just feel like a little bump. I was so disoriented by this point that at the 400m to go sign I was panicking that I only had 3:24 and that’s my PB for that distance. Only it’s not – it’s what I do 800m repeats at. We made a final left-hand turn onto South Columbus Drive back into the park, and there was the sight I’d been waiting for – the finish line. There seemed to be more energy now: maybe the crowds were even thicker here, or maybe it was that so many other runners were putting in a final kick for the finish line. I made my best attempt at a sprint finish. Strava says I got up to 3:42 per km pace, but then the timings were inaccurate for most of the race so I doubt it was that quick.
It was quick enough for me to feel dizzy though. I crossed the line in 3:38:23 and tried to keep jogging, but everyone ahead of me immediately stopped or started walking very slowly. I was forced to stop, and immediately felt terrible. I didn’t cramp up, but my calf muscles felt very fuzzy, if that’s a thing. I was also still feeling nauseous and my stomach was playing up. I was so relieved to be finished, but didn’t have anyone to discuss it with. I’d spoken to a few runners on the course at various points – including a couple of folk who were doing their final major, a couple of folk running for UK charities, and a guy who had run Comrades, but I hadn’t found anyone with a pace to stick to for any length of time. As I’d been slowing down rapidly in those final miles I’d half been expecting Lyn Bow to come past me, until I realised she was at the front of Wave 2 so would have started at least 17 minutes behind me. She did a great race in 3:37, just a fortnight after setting a 3:33 PB at Berlin, but a sub 3:20 so soon after that was probably too much to expect.
I started feeling a bit better after eating the banana I’d been handed at the finish, and getting a medal put around my neck. The medal is really big, the engraving is excellent, and I like the words on the back. I ordered an iTab for it and I’m glad I did as the queue for engravings at the Nike store the next day was really long. I also took an apple, but couldn’t face eating it, and there was a lovely goody bag full of organic treats. I got my photo taken, and kept making the long trek out of the finish area back to the bag check area to try and find Charlotte. I switched on my phone and immediately got a barrage of notifications – followed by a message from my mobile service provider saying I was out of credit and needed to top up – which would require a WiFi connection… Thankfully I spotted Charlotte when I was standing against a railing trying and failing to stretch my hamstrings. She hadn’t had the best of races either, hitting the wall even sooner than I did. It was partly my fault for suggesting she aim for a Berlin qualifying time, and partly because the GPS was so inaccurate her attempt to go out at 7:30 pace without accurate feedback resulted in several miles at 7:15 which had felt deceivingly comfortable – until it wasn’t. She still managed a sub 3:30 though. We somehow found the ability to walk back to the hotel, and headed out for some well-earned pizza.
I was a little despondent as I had trained for 3:26 pace in the expectation that might see me round in 3:29, or at least sub 3:35. I wanted to prove I could do a time as good as, or close to, Loch Ness without a friend helping me, and failed in the execution. The problem with marathons is you only get at most two attempts a year, and you can’t do the distance in training as it takes too long to recover from, so it’s a bit of a leap in the dark. So, what advice can I offer? The main things I learned are that Chicago is very hard to pace because of the skyscrapers messing with GPS, and so you need to start far more cautiously than you feel like you need to. If you’re going for a time where the splits are hard to calculate, spend that $10 or so on a pacing band so you can keep track accurately, at the mile or kilometre markers. Don’t take your phone unless it is absolutely essential, or it will just irritate you. Try to practice with the on-course nutrition if possible so you don’t need to carry your own (I was unable to do this due to it not being for sale in the UK). Make a mental note of exactly when you will take on each gel or other form of nutrition. I messed up and only had the equivalent of two gels in shot blok form for the entire race, and it clearly wasn’t enough. Also, do more speed work training. I was doing speedwork every 10 days or so, which wasn’t enough. And maybe pick a 12 week plan rather than an 18 week one. I’m pretty sure I peaked at week 13 and was slightly overtrained for this. Also, don’t decide to emigrate 6 weeks after your goal marathon as it doesn’t make for a relaxing lead-up to the race.
Chicago marathon is a very flat course, and takes you on a great tour of Chicago. You get to see several landmarks, the crowd support is phenomenal, and you get to run with over 45,000 other people. It’s also a great excuse for a vacation to somewhere you might not otherwise have considered as a holiday destination but is well worth visiting. There is a ballot, but the odds of getting in are the highest of the major, and the qualifying times for guaranteed places (which is how I got in) are more generous than for the other majors. I didn’t quite get the time I wanted, and feel I executed this race poorly, but I still loved most of the race and am very glad I did it. You live and learn, and it’s all valuable experience to take into the next one. If you like fast, flat courses with PB potential, destination marathons, and find large city marathons energising then this could well be the one for you.
All photos were taken by myself, or by Charlotte using my camera, with the exception of the one in the bar which was taken by Lyn Bow, and the final photo which was a selfie taken by Charlotte as she’s better at taking them than I am.