Saturday, January 9, 2016

Star #1: Chicago

Sometimes, you can be perfectly prepared just to be derailed by something you cannot control.  A perfect description of the Chicago Marathon.

I was ready.  Well trained, fully tapered, recovered from my cold with plenty of rest, and mentally determined to succeed.  I had a blast at the expo with my boyfriend, picking up my packet, taking pictures, and collecting tchotchkes.  I came home, packed my bag, and got to bed super early, knowing full well that rest might be illusive.

After a snooze at 3 am, I woke up at 3:35 am from alarm #3.  I was up, out of bed, and munching on a protein bar, thinking, “hooray, I get to run today!”  I was out the door and through the 7-Eleven (to buy my morning coffee) so early that I was the first person at the train station.  As soon as I got settled, one of my clubmates walked through the door of the station, ready for the start line.  Most people bring a change of clothes, wallets, water bottles, and other accouterments, so I couldn’t help but break into a smile to see him so ready to go.

We hopped on the train and had two more clubmates join us at the next stop, all filled with the nervous excitement of race day.  While the other three were in the fast “A” corral, I was the only one who had run Chicago previously.  My stomach was a little queasy, but I chalked it up to the coffee, the lack of sleep, and the nerves. 

We got into the city and headed for the Congress Hotel, where we were meeting the rest of the club.  About a dozen were in the lobby, complete with our hot pink running shorts.  A couple pictures, and it was time for the first wave runners to head to the corrals and me to my charity team check-in.  I walked north on Michigan with them, all a bundle of nervous excitement, as was I. 

On our way north, we bumped into another clubmate.  It was her first marathon, and she had been injured this summer.  Originally, she was going to start with me, but another clubmate who was closer to her pace was in a corral behind her.  I told her to start in the further corral with the other clubmate, who I knew would do a better job pacing her. 

One thing I love about my charity team is that we do a private check in, locking our bags in a monitored office instead of a tent in Grant Park.  I got there after the first wave runners left, and talked to the coordinator.  Apparently we had a lot of first time runners, and the coordinator remarked how calm I was.  (Ha!)  Well, it is my third year.  Talking to the runners, I asked who they were running for because with my charity, every runner has a friend or family member who has cystic fibrosis, and it’s a good reminder of when we get into the tough miles.  I put my bib on, drank a couple glasses of water, and used the restroom a couple times.  I was ready.

Two young women were leaving at the same time I was, so we walked over to the corrals together.  It was their first marathon, ever, and they were running for their brother who has CF.  They asked for advice, and that was simple.  “You will be challenged.  When that happens, think of your brother, and you’ll find the strength.”  We slid through security, and the photographers wanted a picture.  I told them to take a picture with just the two sisters—a great family memento. 

I scurried over to my corral, looking for familiar faces.  I wanted to start at the back of the corral, since my friends would most likely be in the next corral.  The pace group near me said 4:40, nearly a full mile/min faster than I wanted to pace.  I decided I wanted to be further back, but there wasn’t a 4:55 pace team.  It made my strategy easy:  don’t push until I met up with the 4:55 pace group.  I also was watching for my clubmates headed to the corral behind me, as well as if they were going to be in my corral.

It was a much longer wait than past years, when I got to the corrals right before they closed.  I milled around a bit, looking for familiar faces (and hot pink shorts).  Not seeing anything familiar, I then did what I always do at this moment:  chat with the people around me to allay my nerves.  My first marathon, I actually met someone who had a friend in common.  Small world.  No luck this year, but I met a person who moved to Texas over the summer—and was thrilled that it was “only” going to be 77 degrees. 

Then my stomach started to rumble, and it wasn’t the type of rumbling you wanted to have in a crowd full of people.  It was the rumbling of intestines that was dealing with something that didn’t agree with them.  Like I wasn’t nervous enough.  But….I had trained all summer for this race.  I had worked so very hard on hot days.  I had persevered when my intestines grumbled and rumbled.  One mile at a time.

We slowly moved forward to the start, and as I crossed the start line, it was a mix of emotions, the adrenaline rush of starting a race tempered by the nerves of how my digestive track would feel being bounced around by running.  It was much better than expected, and I was jogging easily, waiting for the 4:55 pace group.

The first mile went quickly, and the clock read 1:01.  If I did an 11-minute mile, it meant that I cross the start line around 50 minutes, making it easy to pace.  The spectators, however, were making it difficult.  I bumped into three people trying to cross the stream of 40,000 runners, one of whom was walking a bicycle.  As we started to turn to go north, I bumped into my first clubmate, who was trying to finish about my pace.  It was all smiles as we greeted each other, happy with excitement and adrenaline, but it was clear that I was feeling faster, so he urged me to keep cruising instead of waiting for him. 

When I hit the second water stop, I was greeted with an empty table.  Knowing that it was supposed to be a warm day, I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was.  I ended up waiting for the volunteer to pour a cup, rather than moving along to one of the later tables.  While annoyed a bit at myself, I was grateful that it was early and not late in the race, when picking up water at later tables would be critical, especially on such a hot day.

Miles 2, 3, and 4 were easy, about 11 min pace, following the magic blue line that indicated the official measurement.  As I turned the curve to enter Lincoln Park, I met up with a runner in full firefighting gear.  I wished him luck, and then I got a tap on my back.  It was another clubmate, Trish, complete with tank top and hot pink shorts.  She had started behind me and was running well.  After a little chatter about pace, she told me to follow her.  The next few miles were just fun, chasing her around slower runners and feeling strong.  However, I was torn in my head because while I was enjoying myself, it was a smidgen faster than I had been pacing—and we had a long way to go.  I decided that since I was having fun and ahead of pace, why not.  We passed the senior apartments and waved to the residents, took the big turn in Lakeview to head back to the Loop, enjoyed the drill team and feathered queens in Boys Town, and jogged down one of my favorite parts of the course. 
By mile 10, I couldn’t keep up, but I was also looking for a special cheerleader—my boyfriend, who promised to be at the corner of North and LaSalle, before I made the turn into Old Town.  He was there as promised, with sign and cowbell.  I asked him how I looked, and he said, “strong.”  I gave him a kiss, told him I’ll see him at Mile 23, then trotted off to the next water stop—where I saw Trish again—and Old Town.

Around mile 11, the adrenaline was starting to wear off, but then I saw our old Team CF coordinator.  I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to chat, but I smiled and waved.  It seemed that every time I wanted to give up, there was another reason to push forward.

It was now around 10:30, and it was warming up.  I thought I would be drenched in sweat as the temperature was climbing, but I wasn’t.  However, the sponges at the next aid station felt so good.  As we returned to the Loop, race marshals were directing us to run in the shade of the buildings.  Soon I noticed that there were no lines for the porta-potties, so I took a short potty stop.

That stop threw my digestive track a bit out of whack, but I still grabbed the energy chews.  I hadn’t eaten in over five hours, and I figured that I needed the sugar and electrolytes.  I grabbed a cup of water, then walked while I ate the chews.  I then saw the clock.  Doing my back-calculation, I was right at pace, 2:30, which made me even more nervous because I thought I had been much faster.  I really had to pick up pace….but I couldn’t.  The chews had made my stomach turn completely upside down, too nauseated to run. 

At this point, I stopped having fun.  The 4:55 pace group came by, and I tried to start running again to keep up with them.  I couldn’t.  I was feeling very sick, so much that the things that usually motivate me through the second out and back—the crowd, the noise—was making things worse.  On top of it all, losing the pace group meant that I had lost my goal, a sub-5 hour marathon. 

As I walked along, trying to settle my stomach, I tried to plan what to do.  My cell phone was locked back up in gear check, so I couldn’t call my boyfriend.  Going to a medical tent could cause a lot more trouble than it was worth, especially when my emergency contact, my boyfriend, was driving down to mile 23 to see me with the rest of the running club, and trying to get to a medical tent at mile 15 or 16 would have been difficult.  Also, I hadn’t seen Heidi or Ann, so I wondered how they were doing.  I decided to try to make it to mile 23, then just stop.  I was ready to stop.

I meandered along, mostly walking, trying to find my run club teammates who had started behind me.  I felt tired, sick, and upset that after a summer of hard work, was going to fail at my goal.  The crowd, who had started cheering early in the morning, started to look tired as the sun passed noon and the temperature got warmer.  Water station tables were empty of both cups and volunteers, and even the puppets in Pilsen and the dragons in Chinatown were MIA.  It was exactly the opposite of my goal this year.  I wanted to feel strong, like the 4:30 runners in the inspiration videos I watched all year, and I wanted to be running in an excited crowd.  Instead I was trudging along in the back portion of the pack.  Rather than crowds, it was a smattering.  It was hard just to not crumble up and cry, but I was determined just to get to mile 23.

Even in all this frustration, there were points of hope.  At one water stop, I was surprised by a girl wearing a jacket from my local high school.  Like many of the volunteers who were sticking it out, she encouraged me to take her cup of water, even though I was already holding a cup.  As I started into Bridgeport, I met up with another guy who was walking.  His goal was more than an hour faster than mine, but an injury had him waylaid.  When a friend passed away earlier that year, he and a group of friends decided to run the marathon, so it was definitely not the day he planned.

Suddenly, I noticed a familiar shirt, one from a local charity.  I excused myself from the young man and trotted up to the man wearing the shirt, which happened to be a fellow runner with our club.  I was so happy to see him, despite my stomach troubles, and he was walking too, due to a foot injury.  We caught up about how our day was going, and he even encouraged me to run a bit.  I started to feel normal, but tired, when I got to the Mile 23 sign…

One of my clubmates spotted me about 25 feet before I got to the party that was Mile 23, where our entire club situated.  I cannot describe how happy I was to see a huge crowd, plus my boyfriend, waiting for me, the final member of the club to pass.  Of course, when I told them I was ready to quit….they wouldn’t let me, even my boyfriend.  Two members, I found out later, finished the marathon, then ran the three miles to this point to cheer the rest of us on.  When a friend asked what I needed, the answer was simple.  “Ice,” I panted.  After chewing and swallowing the ice, I felt better enough to keep going, and I raced forward to catch up with the clubmate I saw before I got to mile 23.  I surprisingly felt much, much better, just in time for the best photo spot.

When I turned north on Michigan, I was surprised with a “Go Erin!!”  It is popular to put one’s name on their race singlet, but here’s why I refuse to do so….it was a high school classmate I haven’t seen in decades.  Since I didn’t have my name on my singlet, I knew it was someone who recognized me rather than reading my name.  It was just the boost I needed to finish strong.

Here I was, hot, tired, and three miles to go….and then another clubmate appears.  He was coaching a charity team, and gave me a coach pep talk before he sent me north.

The last three miles of the Chicago marathon are the hardest.  You are exhausted, but as far as you can see is a marathon.  The turn into Grant Park—and the eventual finish—is about three miles away.  It’s hard, at this point, to mentally motivate yourself to drive to the end.  Since I wasn’t able to push as hard as I hoped in the middle third, I had some extra energy, and I was passing hot, tired runners left and right.  Before I knew it, I was running up the hill in Grant Park and through the finish line.

I was, in a word, exhausted.  I didn’t pause much longer than to pick up my food bag, a water bottle, and my finisher medal, then headed back to my charity team’s bag check.  My boyfriend was there with a bouquet of flowers, a hug, and a kiss.  I grabbed by bag and checked my facebook updates.  To my utter surprise, I took 8 minutes off my PR with an effort significantly less than I desired.

Writing this post, I was disappointed how quickly I lost my mental edge once things didn’t go according to plan. Had I just walked until my stomach calmed down, then leaned on my training to get back in the groove, I would have smashed my PR rather than tripping over it.  It was truly not the race I wanted to have, but there were a lot of lessons to learn for my next marathon.

One down, five to go…..