Mo Farah had a great race. Mine was less great and marginally (65 minutes) slower, but I am here to tell the tale anyway because I have 10 hours on a plane so it’s a good way to kill time (especially as my seat is the only one on the whole plane where the entertainment system is broken so I can’t watch season 8 of Friends like everyone else).
As you may or may not know, my Chicago Marathon entry was a Christmas present from Joe. He’d secretly applied on my behalf; even having to create a new email address to sneakily cover his tracks. I am fully aware this is not what most people would expect (or want) from their boyfriend, but for me it was on par with the time I got roller skates as a kid (think excitable screaming and running round in mini circles). Unfortunately it also dawned on me that I was in the middle of a long spell of injury and whilst I was really excited, there was also a very real possibility that Chicago would be yet another item on my list of DNF races.
Anyway, fast forward 6 miserable months to June and I was finally (tentatively) back on my feet. Fast forward again to October and I turned my Out Of Office on and hopped aboard a luxurious Norwegian Air flight to the Windy City!
The two days prior to the race are recapped here, the shorter version is here:
– Crazy taxi drivers (lucky to be alive)
– Spending a small fortune at the expo (close your eyes and whack it on the credit card)
– Then witnessing the scrum at the Nike stand for the new VaporFlys (no comment)
– Meeting Paula Radcliffe (life goal ticked off)
– Filling our bellies with US-size meals (carb loading, right?)
– Chicago 5k (leg stretcher, and learning what humidity feels like)
– And rain. Lots of rain. The torrential type.
I quietly thought it might go well. My long-term training build up was pretty good. I’d PB’d in every distance, done all my long runs and sessions, looked after myself and got by with only a few mini-niggles. Sure, some of my runs were slow/hard/emotional but that’s just marathon training. The short-term build up was also good. I tapered, fuelled up, hydrated, checked the route and most importantly painted my nails a really nice red colour. The weather wasn’t really on my side but I wasn’t stressed about it. On the start line with the 45,000 other runners, I felt good and super excited. The Americans put on a great show at races, including belting out the national anthem at top volume. I was in a portaloo at the time but it was still enjoyable #runnerproblems.
I started out at a pretty punchy pace, but still within the realms of what might have been possible if I was having one of those days where everything goes to plan. When I ran the Amsterdam marathon last year, I was definitely too conservative and ended up with way too much in the tank in the latter stages. It was lovely flying past hundreds of people in the last 10km but I did then spend the next 12 months wondering what I could’ve achieved if I’d have taken a risk. In Chicago, things swung a little too far the other way but at least I know I gave it all I had.
I knew pacing would be a challenge because GPS signal in Chicago is about a 3/10 on a good day. The pace shown on my watch would flip sporadically between a 6min/mile and 9min/mile so I just went with manual lapping to give me a time split based on the mile markers on the course. This is ok, but if you’re kinda short (and unobservant) like me they’re easy to miss. I spent most of the race having no clue how fast I was running, which of course is a key ingredient in a recipe for disaster.
On that note, one person who was very aware of my pace (and location/ predicated time/mental state) was Joe. He’s got a real talent for supporting; he pops up all over the place providing all the stats and motivational shouts you could wish for. I’m unable to work out 2 + 2 after mile 8 but no need to panic, Joe will pop up round the next corner having done all the complex calculations (see, the Maths degree was kinda worth it..). He was also sporting my very feminine bright pink backpack so he was easy to spot.
The way they organise the starting pens in Chicago screwed me over a bit mentally. Without going into boring detail, they effectively sort you according to your gender-relative speed. In my pen, it was women aiming for sub 3.10 and men aiming for sub 2.50. This meant in the pens behind were hundreds of men aiming to run much faster than I was. It was great for me at the beginning because my pen had loads of space, and I was able to start my race from the back of the pen without the usual mass brawl. But of course, that came later. From miles 7-11 I was swallowed up by packs of men intent on going sub-3. These men were certainly not the gentlemanly type; think delays on the Northern Line in rush hour and you’ve got the idea. I was getting elbowed, tripped up, blocked from the water at the aid stations and it was generally very claustrophobic and miserable. When the masses had charged on ahead, things did calm down a bit and I felt better for a few miles. I went through half way feeling good before things began to get tough soon after.
My fuelling was basically non-existent. I forced my first gel down earlier than planned as I felt pretty flat. Miles 4 to 7 were into a direct headwind which zapped my energy. That gel definitely perked me up a bit but the next one at 14 miles wasn’t quite as successful. I swallowed a small amount, and almost immediately it came back up and I had to spit it out. Hmm. That’s never happened before. Try again. Same thing happened. My stomach had firmly locked it’s doors and that was the end of my race fuelling. This also started to happen with water during the second half so I was lucky it was wasn’t a hot race!
To use a cliched expression, ‘the wheels fell off’ at around 15 miles. As most people reading this will know, that’s pretty bloody early. I’ve run enough marathons to know that I had a long slog in store for me, and it was not going to be pretty. The weather didn’t help, my lack of fuel didn’t help, but to put it bluntly, things just didn’t click on the day. No excuses.
Those 11 miles were not fun. I just tried to put my head down into the driving rain and plough on. I kept a reasonable pace for a little while, but from 20 miles I didn’t look at my watch once. I knew I was slowing down and I didn’t want to know the damage. The aim from here was to get to that finish line without walking. I hadn’t flown half way across the world not to finish. I saw Joe around 21 miles and cried a little bit (mara-motional.. I’ve just made that up but I’ll go with it). I didn’t stop though, I knew I’d be annoyed with myself later if I walked so I trudged on. I saw Alison (Chaser legend and talented cheerleader) a bit further on. More tears. She probably thinks I’m crazy. I think it was around then that I vowed I would quit running forever the second I crossed the finish line. We’ve all been there, right?
In the last 6 miles my body just seemed to deteriorate. Ironically my legs weren’t the biggest culprit, it was my back. I’ve never had back pain before (running or non-running) but it was excruciating. Mile 24 to 26 are literally one straight road, again going into that bloody headwind. I am not exaggerating when I say it took approximately me 5 years to complete that section. I could hear Joe was there being my #1 super fan, shouting encouragement but I literally had tunnel vision and struggled to spot him.
There’s a little hill at mile 26 which a lot of people moan about but I think I was too far gone to notice. I knew I was nearly done and that’s all I cared about. At the top of this ‘hill’ you turn left, and you can see the finish line. It was only then that I dared to look at my watch timer to assess the damage.
My watch said 3:10:07. My PB is 3:10:21. I couldn’t do the maths but I did know that it was going to be bloody close and that I’d never forgive myself for missing it. I’d already missed my target by minutes, but getting a PB would soften the blow a bit.
I shifted up a gear from snail’s pace to sloth’s pace, crossing the line with 3:10.20 on my watch. I later found out my official time was 3:10.19. A whopping two second PB!
As soon as I stopped running, the cold set in and my back pain seemed to multiply by 10. I literally couldn’t stand up! I kept having to stop and crouch in a ball until the pain subsided slightly before shuffling on; I think it took another 5 years to get out and find Joe! The medics were amazing and I had so many people ask if I needed help. My favourite was huge man with a HUGE white beard who crouched with me and chatted away for a few minutes. I still maintain it was Father Christmas. He’s real folks; I met him last Sunday.
I finally got to Joe and he bundled me up in warm clothes, gave me water and sat-nav’d me back to the warm hotel in my sub-human state. He ran me a hot bath and whipped out a huge box of home-made Jen Woolgar Rocky Roads (transported secretly all the way from London). They are my all-time favourite and I nearly cried with happiness (mara-motional again). 5 Rocky Roads later I was back on form! Thanks Jen; you literally saved the day.
Next stop: Chicago Town pizza.
Next stop: Celebrating in Chicago with these Chaser legends.
Mike and Gary stormed round in 2.50, Andrew 2.55 (and earned his HUGE six-star medal), Colleen flew round in 3.19 (very sad she’s now moved to Canada but it’s going to be AMAZING) and Ania 3.47 (especially impressive given a beer or seven the night before). We also met up with some Queens Park Harriers who smashed out some amazing PBs.
Next stop: Kona!
I don’t want to come across unhappy with my time. I am still super proud of my effort on Sunday; it’s just not quite the time I felt I was capable of. Also, as an ever-injured runner just making the start and finish line is GENUINELY the battle won. The pants of perspective are firmly on. In summary: I ran 3.10, I wanted 3.05… FIRST WORLD PROBLEM. Got more value for the entry fee anyway.
As my friend Hattie put it..
‘So basically, Joe’s Christmas present made you cry and vomit?’
Yeah, pretty much. But in a good way. Cheers Spraggo. Marathons are hard, what kind of idiot would do one of those Ironman thingys?
Thanks for reading, and thank you for all the lovely messages. MUCH APPRECIATED!