Thursday, October 13, 2011

2011 Chicago Marathon - I did it!

This was an amazing event.  Thirty seven thousand runners.  Almost two million spectators lining the streets.  Extremely well organized.  Best of all, I finished!   And crossing that finish line was the best feeling ever.

The start alone was incredible.   You have to picture some 37,000+ runners all crammed along a mile long, six car lane wide, starting area (Grant Park, South Columbus Drive).  We are all literally standing shoulder to shoulder.  There is no such thing as “personal space” here.  In the picture to the right, I’m holding my camera (my phone actually) over my head shooting towards the starting line and I’m so far back from the starting line that I can’t even see the “Start” banner…

In the moments just before the starting gun goes off, the crowd is electric – there is just an incredible buzz.  The sun is just coming up, the air is crisp, and woop-woop of the helicopters buzzing overhead just adds to the excitement.  I was so amped I was tingling.  And then we start to move forward – just walking, but we’re moving, and I’m about to come out of my skin.  Just before the Start line we are able to start jogging.  And we’re off.  My first marathon has begun. 

The picture below is from the Chicago Tribune.  You can see the “elite” runners, mostly Kenyans and Ethiopians right in the front of the bunch.  Because they are so fast, they get to line up right at the starting line.  If you look really, really hard you can see me waaaay back there…. (just kidding – I’m not even in sight yet…)

Almost immediately we go under an overpass – and the overpass is packed to overflowing with spectators.  There must have been hundreds of people on the overpass.  Even though I’m passing by 20 minutes after the gun has gone off, the crowd is still going crazy, screaming, cheering, waving signs, and yelling encouragement.  It was a great way to start!

The race organizers did an awesome job, from start to finish.  On the approach to the starting area there were uniformed guides that directed runners to their designated starting area (we all had different places to queue up at depending on our pace and ability) and helped guide spectators to where best to see and track runners.  Even within the starting area itself there were dozens of uniformed volunteers getting all the runners set and in place. 

The 26.2 mile course starts in Grant Park, meanders through “the Loop”, then north, then south back to city center, then west for a bit, now south towards Comisky Park (Chicago White Sox), and finally north again to the finish line.

There were twenty fluid stations along the course, separated by about 1.7 miles, providing both Gatorade and water.  Each fluid station was at least a city block long, and on both sides of the street.  For the first few stations, about 100 feet before we got to them, there would be someone sitting on an 8 foot high stand with a megaphone telling the runners what was coming up (Gatorade and water).    The Gatorade station always came first (served in blue cups) and then the water station (served in red cups).  It sounds simple, but the colored cups really made a difference later in the race: you knew what you were getting, or reaching for, without having to ask questions.

I think it was around mile 12 that they started handing out wet sponges.  They had dozens of little kiddie pools filled with water and loaded with sponges which they would pass to you as you ran by.  I thought it was great idea and tucked mine under my hat.

It was going to be a warm day, so I got into a nice routine of hitting the Gatorade station first, then jogging to water station where I would get three and sometimes four cups:  one that I poured down my back, one that I poured on my head, one that I drank, and one that I soaked the sponge in my hat with.  With the fluid stations being almost a block long, I could keep jogging or sort of walking while doing all this.

And aside from the fluid stations, somewhere around mile 17 they stated also offering slices of bananas (for potassium).  I should also mention that both the city and spectators would setup sprinklers and hoses so that the runners could cool off as they ran by.  Some people offered honey and pretzels.  Others offered tongue depressors with dabs of Vaseline (for chaff prevention... pretty important).

Speaking of spectators, they were incredible.  I am sure that many were there to cheer on specific runners, whether they be friends or relatives, but many were clearly out there just to watch and cheer on the parade of runners.  And the spectators were loud!  There were noise makers of every sort: horns, drums, tambourines, pots and pans - you name it.  There were bands and DJ’s.  There was Elvis impersonator on a stage right next the course, singing and giving the runners high-fives as they went by him.  Ditto with a pair of Lady Gaga impersonators dancing to pump-you-up music for an entire block.   At various places along the course were Japanese drummers doing their thing with their big drums. I noticed at one point as we passed a group of drummers, that the runners were all stepping in time with the beat of the drums.  Pretty much all I could hear was the sound of our feet hitting the street to the beat of drums.  It was pretty bizarre.

As you might imagine, in running 26 miles through a city, we passed by a lot of churches – and it was Sunday.   And the congregations, ministers, pastors, etc., were all out in front of their churches singing, cheering, playing music – it was nuts.  I got so I was looking forward to passing a church just to capture their excitement for us.

I was trying to run a very conservative 10:20 min/mile pace, with the idea that if I had any juice left towards the end, I could push it up a tad.  I had joined a pace group to help me make sure that I didn’t try to run harder than that (which I am prone to do), but I found that the pace leader was actually clipping along a bit faster, like almost a 9:45 pace.  So I hung back and did my own thing, using my watch and the mental gymnastics to calculate my pace.  I actually try to do a lot of math in my head while I’m running, sometimes nothing specific, like the square root of a number or something, or how many steps in a mile, how many steps in a full marathon (for me that turns out to somewhere around 25,600 steps).  It mostly just keeps me busy and I find that before I realize it, another mile has passed by ….

Back to the spectators:  Chicago has a fairly large Mexican population and there were plenty of spectators waving and holding Mexican flags and banners.  At one point I was running alongside a woman with whom I had struck up a conversation and I saw a big group of Mexicans ahead.  I said “watch this”, and as we came up to them I yelled “Viva Mexico!”, and the entire Mexican contingent bellows a huge “VIVA!!” response.  So we took turns doing it every time we spotted a Mexican contingent - It was fun!

Runners to this event come from everywhere -  it seems that everyone wants to run the Chicago Marathon.  I met people that flew in from Brazil, Peru, France, Japan, and literally all corners of the US – just for this marathon.  I was also amazed how many repeat marathoners there were, both as repeating the Chicago Marathon and those that have run a marathon before.  In fact, my unscientific poll had more repeat marathoners than rookies like myself.

Throughout the race I did not hit any walls, and I never felt like I was getting to the end of my endurance.  I felt strong throughout.  I did however struggle with cramps in one of my calves towards the end of event.  The cramping started around mile 22,  so I started stopping to massage my legs, taking fluids, nutrition, and so on, and basically tried to use my head so that I could finish the race.  From time to time I would walk to stretch my calf and then run again for a bit.  The attentiveness of the medical staffs that were so pervasive along the course was amazing. The first time that I stopped to massage my calf a couple of paramedics ran over to me to check on me to make sure that I was ok.  Very cool.

Just past mile 23 is the turn back north and to the finish line and it seems that the crowd along this section feels that it is their job to get the runners to the finish.  The crowd support was incredible.  I had just made the turn and slowed to walk to stretch my calf and was alongside another runner who was having difficulty.  He was pretty tired and we were talking about almost being done, etc.  This one particular big black guy from the spectators was encouraging us to continue and the runner I was with yells out something about trading places and having the spectator that was yelling at us run the race.  At which point the spectator hops the barricade, comes alongside us and says “I can’t finish for you, but I’ll finish with you.  Come on, lets go”.  He was so encouraging and insistent and as we started jogging our new buddy kept talking us on and after about a half mile says “ok, you guys are good now – I’m going back to help someone else – don’t make me come looking for you to finish!”  and he peeled off to go help someone else…. Awesome.  Unfortunately my runner buddy stopped at the next Aid Station and I’m not sure that he was going to continue.  He was pretty much done.

Right at mile 25.5, with less than 3/4 of a mile to the finish line, my right leg totally cramped up and I came to a full and very painful stop.  I had to grab the spectator barrier to keep from falling.  The pain of a full leg cramp is horrible.  Spectators reached out to help me, bringing me water, ice, salty pretzels. One guy even offered me a beer. They were amazing.  But as in every crowd, there is always one bozo – this guy tells me “gee, too bad.  You’re gonna have to quit and you’re less than a mile from the finish”.  My response was “Watch this – in about 30 seconds I’m going to push off and I will cross that finish line running.  Put money on it.”  To which my little crowd of spectator/supporters cheered and yelled.  And then when I pushed off and started running, they yelled and screamed for me to finish – that alone was incredibly awesome moment for me.

From there I had just a quarter mile to a right hand turn, up a short hill for another quarter mile, and then the last turn to the finish.  Making that last turn and seeing that finish line was amazing.  My adrenaline suddenly peaks and it totally hits me that I am about to finish running 26 miles 384 yards - a marathon! I am actually going to accomplish this thing.

The crowds are screaming like you would not believe - they are yelling your number, or the color of your shirt or your hat, and just willing you through the last couple tenths of a mile.  There is no way in the world that any runner who had gotten that far would let those people down.

The feeling upon crossing that finish line is indescribable.  I remember that I was clenching my fists because I was so incredibly thrilled.  It’s relief, it’s satisfaction, it’s so many things.   I remember thinking “I did it, I did it, I can't believe that I fricking did it!”.  I also remember thinking “I can’t wait to do it again” (I must be crazy), and then after I was just walking it was “oh geesh, my calf hurts!”.   

Immediately after crossing the finish line, there were scores of volunteers offering me water, Gatorade, a Mylar blanket, and of course the coveted Medal that proves that I finished.   I got one of the Paramedics to take this picture of me with my Mylar blanket and my medal (you can only see the red ribbon). 

I was super impressed with the lines of Paramedics that were staged to help runners that gave it their all to cross the finish line.   There was even a long row of tables with bags of ice – I grabbed two of them and joined other runners on the curb of the road to ice down my quads, hams, calves, and ankles.  There was one young woman who was in some measure of heat distress and the paramedics had ice bags all over her as they wheeled her in a chair to a tent for more attention.  By the way, there was even a special “Blister and Ankle” tent staffed by podiatrists and assistants to tend to those that had blister and ankle injuries.

Tragically, there was one runner who died of cardiac arrest not 500 yards from the finish line (probably on the slight hill just before the finish).  He was a fire fighter, ostensibly an athletic 35 year old, who was running to raise money for burn victims.  As much as runners tout how healthy we are because we run, there always seem to be other factors.   This was tragic at so many levels, not the least that his family was there.  The only positive spin I could possibly put on this was that he died doing something that he loved and for a cause believed in….  I can only hope to be so lucky.

My finish time was 4:49:55 (that’s 4 hours, 49 minutes, 55 seconds).  I was hoping for 4:30, but was happy to give just 19 minutes to solving my cramping issues.  Overall, I finished south of mid-pack: 21,000th out of 35,670 runners (36, 870 started, 35,670 finished).  In my 50-54 year old age group I finished 1,038th out of 1,666.   The fastest runner, Moses Mosop, a Kenyan, finished with a course record 2:05:37.  The last runner to cross the finish line was a 47 year old woman from Illinois in 7:41:40.   Oh, and a 27 year old woman who was 37 weeks pregnant ran the race in 6:25 and gave birth just a few hours later….

On my way back to my hotel I stopped by the “after party” in the park, got a massage for my legs, a beer, and talked to other runners.  I then made my way to my hotel and took a nice ice bath and relished the day.  I kissed my shoes for making the day for me and went to bed with my medal still around my neck.  I didn’t take it off for almost two days.

 The “pre-race” prep: You’d think that since I was just going for a run that all I needed was my running shoes, shorts, and a tee shirt… well, it’s actually a bit more involved than that.  The running shoes of course, have to be good shoes that fit my running style, socks need to be a wicking-type (to prevent blisters and pull moisture from my feet), and my shorts need to be the kind that don’t need underwear and also moisture-wicking.  Ditto for a self-wicking tee-shirt.  My cap was lightweight and breathable to help keep my head cool.  In addition, I had to carry whatever nutrition I felt I needed during the run, i.e. Goo (5 of them), Shokblock (1 stick), and Enduralytes (my salt/potassium/magnesium tablets).  These I put in my waist belt (kind of like a fanny pack, but much thinner, along with my phone and earbuds for listening to music in case I felt that I needed the extra push (I didn’t).  I also had a small towel that I folded and tucked into my waist band to wipe my face and neck from time to time.

Then to top it all off, I had to remember to apply Vaseline in strategic areas to prevent chafing, and sunblock (with a high SPF).  Oh, and sunglasses.  I laid out all of this crap the night before, including putting my number on my shirt and the D-Tag on my shoe. Without that little orange thing on my shoe my time would never be recorded and my event would never go into posterity.  I made sure that everything I wore or took with me were things that I had already done long runs with before.  Rule #1 is to never experiment with new stuff in a marathon – don’t wear anything that you haven’t worn before, don’t eat or drink anything that you haven’t tried before.

After the race I spent some time thinking about things that I could have done that have allowed me to do better, be it posting a better time, or managing my cramps, and so on.  The cramps thing was really the big thing for me – it cost me almost 20 minutes.  I had planned my nutritional intake beforehand, but one thing that I find is that during an event like this I am so involved with the task of running that I lose track of my nutritional schedule and then I find myself scrambling to catch up to it, and then I forget what I took at what mile marker and so on...  And I think that was the major culprit to my having cramping problems after mile 22.  So for my next event I am going to tape my nutritional schedule to the inside of my arm so that I don’t forget what and when to take my stuff.  My next thing is that I want to finish with a better time, so I’m going to work on speed.  I know how to do it, I just need to work on it.

Here comes the philosophical part…  I’ve read and I’ve been told by other marathoners that finishing my first marathon would change my life.  I’m not so sure about that – I feel great personal satisfaction that I did it and I’m interested in doing it again, but I don’t think that it “changed my life”.  Training for and running a marathon is a physical event and I think meeting that accomplishment fills two needs:  it feels good physically to train and run that far (it really does), and it satisfies the desire to meet a stretch goal.  There is no doubt about the fact that it’s hard.  It is really hard…. I cannot empathize that enough.   It’s not easy to train for and it’s not easy to run the event.  It is very hard on your body. Thus the feeling of satisfaction for having completed the event!

The Sunday morning of the race I was wide awake at 3AM, so I went down to the hotel lobby, got some coffee and hung around outside the front door to get a feel for the weather and get some fresh air.  And about that time, 3:30-4:00AM, younger folks (not running the marathon) were just now coming in from having been at the many Chicago area clubs and bars.  I got to talking with a small group of guys and one of them asked me why I felt compelled to run this marathon.  So I asked him if he could do it, and he admitted that no, he could not… and that, I told him, was why I was doing it.  I was doing something that many people would not, or could not, do.  It’s a worthy and doable challenge.

A few weeks ago I met a man who, at the age of 61, ran his first marathon, and he’s run several since then.  He’s not fast, he’s just persistent.  And he does it because it feels good and because he can.  And he wonders why he waited so long to do it.

I never thought of myself as a runner, in fact I remember thinking that all those joggers were kind of nuts… But there is something about running that is peaceful.  I’ll never win a race, and I’ll probably never even place in the top 3 of my age group in a big event.  But I love the way it feels and I’m grateful that I can do it.

No, I don’t think that finishing a marathon has changed my life.  But perhaps it has opened a new door.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pre-Game warm up - 4 days to go

I’m told, and I’ve read, that the 2 weeks prior to a first marathon can be nerve wracking and while I didn’t believe it at the time, I understand it now.  At this point I’m in full “taper” mode – no more long runs, and fully focused on staying limber and avoiding anything that might cause injury.  And it feels really, really weird.  My last “long” run was over a week ago, 13 miles, and it felt really good.  It was a fun run and I fully enjoyed it.  Odd that after running 20+ mile training runs, that 13 miles no longer seems that far. 

The nerve wracking part comes from the insipid and lingering concern (not doubt, just concern) re my ability to do the distance.  Will I be able to do it? (of course I will….)  Will I have a problem with my hamstring? (I have learned a neat trick to mitigate that problem),  Will I cramp up if the weather gets hot? (I’ve learned how to better manage my electrolyte intake),  but the thoughts still come.  I keep wishing that I could get one more 20 mile run in before the marathon.

My last thing to worry about is what pacing team to join (the marathon offers a number of different pacing groups that are led by runners who somehow have an awesome internal metronome and can run a specified pace throughout the race – the purpose of these groups is to enable novices like myself to have a slightly better chance of completing the full event).  The trick is in picking the right pace.

I’ve been doing my long runs at around a 9:30 min/mile pace, sometimes a little slower, sometimes a bit faster.  My short runs, the 3-4 milers, I have averaged around 8:30 min/mile.  But I’ve been counseled to join a pace team that is slower than my training pace (after all, it’s a 26 mile run….); so I have to make a choice between either a 9:45 or 10:18 min/mile group.  My competitive preference is for the first, but my logical head says that I should choose the latter.

By starting with the slower group, I’ll hopefully stay reasonably fresh for a longer time, and if I’m feeling strong at mid-race or after wards, I can step out on my own and finish perhaps a little better.  I’m told that my only goal for my first marathon should be to finish, but I would like to do more than just finish.  I’d like to finish strong and post a respectable time.

Four days to go….! I can’t wait !