Get in, run a marathon, get out, in 51 hours…
It all became a bit surreal on Friday morning. I stopped by work for a few minutes and it felt like I should be putting in a normal working day. Instead I headed back out to the car, with a packed Athenry AC gear bag beside me on the passenger seat. 2 hours and 10 minutes later I was pulling into a space in the long-term car park at Dublin airport. Check-in, departure gate, customs check. In the air at 1:10pm.
I met my female co-winner, Sinead Barry, on the plane. We chatted easily for a while. 40 marathons completed between us – of which I am by far the junior partner – meant that we had plenty in common. Although, I think any two runners with a bit of experience can probably talk for hours on end!
The plan at this point was to stay on Irish time for the whole weekend. It would suit the marathon on Sunday morning: 7:30am start, so waking up around 2/3/4am would be quite beneficial.
Chicago is a city of about 3 million people, stretching to 10 million when the wider metropolitan area is included. It was rebuilt virtually from scratch after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It is typical American city, pristine grid layout, and every building seems to be at least 30 stories high. They are fairly on the ball with public transport and keeping the streets clean. First impressions were pretty good. We stayed in the Chicago ULC (Union League Club). Great hotel. Room was nice, bed was super-comfy, staff were friendly and breakfast on Saturday morning was delicious!
Staying on Irish time worked out well. We were in bed at 3am (9pm local) on Friday night, having strolled around for a few hours in the early Chicago evening. I got up at 10am (4am local) and went for a 1h45 jog-walk around the nearby streets, finishing up at the McCormick convention center that was housing the race Expo. Then I headed back to the hotel for a shower and a chillout in the room. The jog was a poor enough decision – I must have covered 9 or 10 miles, which is really a bit silly the day before a marathon. It’s just that I had not run in 9 days previous because of a cold/cough, so once I was running I felt like staying out there. Also, I stumbled upon the Finish line of the race. At 5am with no one around, jogging under the gantry was very cool indeed. After breakfast in the hotel, we walked the 3+ miles back to the Expo, collected our stuff, bought a few gels and other goodies, wandered around a bit more and then walked back. Or in other words, the guts of another 9 or 10 miles… We gladly hopped on a city tour bus for a few hours, our legs needed the rest. I had a bite to eat in the hotel after, then we met up for a quick pre-race planning session. Bed around 2:30am Irish time, 8:30pm local.
Race morning in the hotel
Up at 4am. All eating done by 5am. A few light stretches, plenty of fluids, then down to the lobby to meet Sinead at 6am. I was buzzing as we walked the short distance to the start line. We dropped the gear bags, used the lavatory several times, and filtered up to the front of the ‘B’ start corral. They played the American national anthem and I felt more inspired than any time I’ve heard Amhrán na bhFiann before an Irish sporting event. It was that sort of atmosphere, that level of energy. Spectators thronged the footpaths of the opening miles. They cheered and cheered, howling and yelling and applauding, urging us on. I could have been starting into mile 27 of an Ultra and would still have felt great with this level of enthusiasm all around. The buzz and adrenaline surge from the crowds was intense. I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing as I ran comfortably with the crowd.
Going well in the opening miles
I ran quickly the first few – averaging around 7 min/mile – and caught up to the 3:10 pacers from the ‘A’ corral. I stayed with them for a mile or two but then found myself inching ahead. My legs were feeling a little ‘grainy’ (like eyes that need sleep) but I was so comfortable tipping along at about 7:05 pace that I tried to stay positive. We passed through all different neighbourhoods. Most memorable sights were some lads with umbrellas dancing in tandem (leaving little to the imagination) and an Elvis that swooned us with a brief melody.
Hopping along through Greektown
After 9 or 10 miles things were still going great and I found myself following a tall guy with a Denmark singlet. He had a big loping stride and ran close to the edge of the crowd. I could see that, like myself, he was loving the atmosphere. Every corner we rounded he would run wide, beckoning the spectators to cheer us on a little more. A few metres behind him, I started doing the same. He began to fade around 15 miles and I passed him, but I kept repeating his action of motioning to the crowd at the corners. It was a huge lift each time. Not only were they all momentarily cheering extra loudly for me (specifically) but it also meant that all runners were getting an extra boost. Sadly for the Denmark lad, he never re-passed me, so he must have dealt with the increasing temperatures much worse than I did…
… For deal with them I did not. With about 2 hours and over 17 miles of running done, I started to crash and burn. That early fatigue in my legs began to intensify. The 20 miles covered yesterday was coming back to haunt me. But this was not the biggest problem. The temperature by 9:30am was 88 degrees (I saw this on a sign above a shop) and Sinead told me that she saw it read 90 degrees when she would have passed it a few minutes later. That’s 32 degrees celcius and it felt every bit of it. We had some shade from buildings but it was still really hot. I struggled for the next couple of miles. The 3:10 pace group caught up and passed me some time after 18 miles. This was tough to take psychologically and it took until about mile 21 for me to accept that my race was over. After this it was just a matter of getting home in one piece. I was now walking the full length of every water station, taking on one cup of Gatorade and at least 3 or 4 cups of water each time. People with hoses appeared regularly, to spray us with water, and I availed of every one.
This was tough. My previous six marathons were all negative splits and brilliant sensations at the finish. Now here I was in one of the biggest marathons in the world, one of the five marathon majors, with Sammy Wanjiru up front winning in 2:06 something, unbelievable atmosphere, a super first couple of hours of running under my belt… and now a really really tough last third to complete. It’s been over two years since I’ve been forced to walk in a marathon. But after about 22 miles it wasn’t just the water stations that I was walking through. For 30 second (up to 1 minute) intervals I just had to stop running. Just couldn’t maintain that level of momentum. I kept moving the whole time and broke back into a jog as soon as I could. But I was constantly wishing for the next water station, both to get the water, and to give me an excuse to walk. Sometime after 23 miles I looked at my watch and saw 3 hours tick over. It felt like it was going to take forever to get to the finish. It did. I had a truly horrible 23rd mile where I had to stretch out my calf muscles briefly and walked intermittently for large sections. However, at the 24 mile marker I resolved not to walk outside of the water stations, so for the rest of the distance I dug deep and kept shuffling. The crowd helped immensely and some of the shouts, combined with how my body was feeling, brought tears to my eyes in the last couple of miles.
Benny from Mountbellew passed me at around 22 miles. He finished in 3:22. He’s been living in San Francisco for the last 9 years and we had a quick chat before the start of the race after he saw my Athenry AC singlet. Sinead passed me with about 400 metres to go. She would have been around 10 minutes behind me at one point, and while she also crashed and burned in the last third, she did so to a lesser extent than I did… :-)
Sinead takes me down at the finish
Times from my watch.
Half: 1:32:28 (1:55:01).
Yes, that’s a positive split of over 22 minutes. :-/ Splits below. As has by now become a habit for me, I never checked my pacing during the race, choosing to run what felt comfortable.
- 7:10 – Free running after a few hundred metres.
- 7:01 – Mile 5, soooo steady all the way.
- 7:16 – I think this is where the 3:10 pace group slowed me down a little!!
- 7:01 – This pacing was mostly my own work, so pretty happy with that…!
- 7:10 – Probably the most enjoyable half-marathon I have ever run.
- (0:44 to 1:32:28 half)
- 7:07 – Still feeling great at 15 miles.
- 7:30 – Starting to feel the legs.
- 8:16 – Mile 20, still moving but really tired.
- 8:15 – Mile 22… I remember seeing a couple of 3:10 and 3:00 “pacers” pass by, and although I knew they were also struggling, I resolved to follow them for a bit, before giving up the ghost again at the end of the mile.
- 13:06 – Yikes.
- 10:51 – What a struggle. Even with the finish line just around the last corner, still all I wanted to do was stop right where I was.
- 2:11 – Done. Complete. Finished.
Chip time splits from the Chicago marathon website.
We grabbed our medals, food and water, and chilled out in the park. This involved a bit of chat, a bit of stretching, and also a bit of staring blankly at other runners and blowing our cheeks out, and generally going through the act of being absolutely shot to pieces.
Quotes and highlights.
- [To self, determined, moving from shuffle to a proper run, 5m before start line] “Let’s go!!”
- [Signs held by spectators along course]
- “Some day you will no longer be able to do this. Today is not that day.”
- “Run you Bitches” (multiple signs at various points)
- “High-five me if you like running” (on a giant plastic hand, around 22 miles… I high-fived it)
- “Boxers or briefs?” (I shouted briefs, which is true for races because of my skimpy race shorts, but not true in general… TMI??)
- “Free hugs” (did not avail)
- “Free beer at 19 miles” (did not avail)
- “Free tequila at 25 miles” (these were jello shots! … did not avail)
- [Approx 24 miles, I am forced to slow to a walk briefly. Some spectator, sees name on my bib] “Come on Lyall, keep going, almost there.”
[I start back into a pained shuffle, saluting him with a wave]
[More excited] “Yeah!! That’s it Lyall, do it man, never give up.”
- [Water station at 25 miles, I stop and let two guys with hoses spray me for about 10 secs... me, laughter bubbling into my voice from the thrill of the cold water spray] “Thanks..!”
- [After race, we've showered and changed, on the subway... some guy sees my medal]
“Hey man did you run the marathon?”
“And now you’re just on the train, eating a banana… that’s your thing?”
“Yeah we’re doing a bit of sightseeing, walking around a bit after the run helps the legs”
“So what are you doing on the train… you should be up top walking!”
Running in a marathon of this scale was a remarkable experience and I think every marathon runner should try to do it at least once. Especially in a city like Chicago. Apart from being a wonderful tourist destination, the city is also gripped by marathon fever for the weekend. The crowds in Dublin are fantastic but Chicago claims 1.7 million spectators. I believe it.
Plus the weather is feckin’ fantastic there in October!!
Finally, a huge thanks to Paul and Richard Donovan from the Galway City marathon for the trip. Kind of a crazy prize to give out for the inaugural running of the race, but I’m not complaining!