It’s no secret I love the Chicago Marathon. This race day always ends up being a good race day for me. The city lights up, crowd support is incredible, and I get to see so many of my supportive friends and family members. It feels like a holiday. It’s one of my most favorite days to be a runner and a Chicago resident. And this year did not disappoint.
October, 7 2018 – my fourth Chicago Marathon and my ninth marathon. Regardless of how I was going to perform that day, I was excited to get to run the streets again. I went into this knowing it would be my last Chicago for awhile and I wanted to make the most of it. But that does not mean I was not nervous. I’m always nervous. Marathons are hard!! No matter how many you have run or how fast you run them, they are always hard. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? We don’t run marathons because they’re easy. I love that even though I am getting faster, stronger and smarter when it comes to marathon training, I still feel those start line nerves. I know there will be miles that hurt. I know I will have to be mentally tough. But I get excited to push myself and see how it will go. But let’s talk about this start line.
I “woke up” at 4:50 a.m. on Sunday morning after tossing and turning all night. I never sleep well the night before a big race. I expect it, which is why I try to get really good sleep the few nights leading up to the night before. I got dressed, drank some water and ate my peanut butter banana toast. I had been a nervous wreck the day before, but race morning I am usually okay. I was ready. I got on the Brown Line with Kyle and headed downtown.
Getting into the start corral was a little crazy. It seemed much more crowded to me in my corral than previous years. I was trying to find Megan and Steph, but it was pretty difficult. After searching for a bit I just put my phone on airplane mode and accepted the fact that this race was going to be entirely on my own. No one I knew directly next to me, no headphones or music in my ears. I was going to just let the support of the strangers running next to me and the spectators on the sidelines carry me through. Someone sang the national anthem. I shed my usual few pre-race tears. And I was ready. I told myself my time did not matter today, but it mattered that I had fun. My goal was to start out at a sustainable, fast pace and see if I could hold it. If I couldn’t, I couldn’t. And with having been sick for the past week and a half and still having difficulty taking a full deep breath, I wasn’t expecting myself to be able to hold it.
But I started.
The first few miles of Chicago are always chaotic. Your GPS will go crazy, it’s crowded, and you have to bob around people. I had to do a lot of weaving this year, which was a little frustrating, but I tried not to waste too much energy on it early on. I went out at 7:55 pace and felt pretty good. My watch beeped to tell me I had run a 5:22 first mile, which was obviously incorrect, but this is why it is SO important to practice your race pace in training. You have to know how it feels. Being too reliant on watches and pace numbers is not a good thing. You have them in training to help teach your body how to feel the pace – and luckily I had this down.
At mile 2.50 I saw my parents. They’re my biggest fans and have not missed a Chicago Marathon of mine. I really can’t say how much their support means to me. Seeing them on the course lights me up. And it helped that they were easy to spot since my Mom always makes cute signs for me.
Around mile 5 I saw Cait, Jenny, Arielle and Kyle. They were going nuts and it made me so happy to see them. I had a little bit of negative self talk happening mile 4-5 about being able to hold my pace for 26.2 miles, but when I saw them I knew I had to try. These women (and Kyle) have helped shape me into the runner I am. We’ve all crushed marathon courses together and even though they weren’t running next to me today, seeing them reminded me how strong we all are and I knew I was going to try to make them proud.
I was feeling pretty good by mile 10. It takes me awhile to find my groove, but 10 was groovy. I loved the course change this year and getting to run farther north early on so that by the time I hit Old Town I was already around mile 11. I saw my crew again even though I wasn’t expecting them there and this started my favorite part of the course. Running down Wells brings tears to my eyes. I think about the hundreds of times I’d run down it to go to a speed workout. All the late night and early morning runs that had gotten me to this point. I think it’s really important to reflect while you’re running a marathon. It is no one day or one week that gets you here. It is months, even years of hard work. Celebrate it.
I saw my parents again after the half marathon mark. I shouted to my Dad, “It’s okay – I feel really good!” And he laughed. He was really worried about me running today after having trouble breathing all week, so I wanted him to know I was okay. I would not have pushed it if my breathing was truly labored while I was running. Thankfully, it wasn’t. And I had run the first 13.1 miles in 1:41:12, right on pace for a PR.
I told myself now was the time to relax. I was running around 7:45 pace comfortably and I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. I was gaining energy from the crowd and having fun. Truly. Running marathons are fun for me. I smile so big from the signs, the cheers, the bands, everything. Miles 14-18 are when I really try to enjoy the experience.
When I get to 18 I tell myself the real work starts. So, I pushed the pace. I dropped down to 7:35 and felt pretty good. I was kind of worried I wouldn’t be able to keep it up until 26 though, so around 20 I pulled back a bit. I was still feeling good and was confident I was going to have a strong finish, but I also wanted to conserve as much energy as I could so I would have a final surge.
At mile 21, my legs started feeling tired. That’s totally normal, but I told myself I had to just “hangout” where I was. Just “jog” at 7:45-7:50 pace and I’d get to the finish. As if that’s a jog, but I was trying to convince myself in the moment that it was. Then, I ran into Amanda.
Amanda, (@blackbeanqueen), was running next to me and said, “hey you look familiar.” We follow each other on Instagram, but had never met in real life. Funny how things work out. She was hurting too and we weren’t talking much, but we said we’d stick together for the next few miles. I so appreciated the company. We knew we were hurting, but we were still cruising and it was nice to have the extra little bit of support. We stuck together for about 3 miles and I’m really grateful for that. I started picking it up a bit and she was all about me going ahead, so I went with it. The last 2.50 miles were going to be on my own.
I tried to push my legs a little bit faster and the turnover just didn’t feel like it was there. I wasn’t slowing my pace, but I wasn’t really picking it up either. For a minute at 24 I had the thought, “do I really care if I PR? I could slow down to 9 minute pace and feel way better.” I went back forth for about a minute. The temptation to relax and slow down was there. But I don’t give up easily. It was a silly thought. I literally said to myself out loud, “Dale, you can do this. You’re going to PR.” And that was that. I was going for it. I wasn’t really looking at my watch, but I knew I had to just hold my pace and I would do it.
I had a few other strangers shout “Go Marathoner Dale!” as I ran by, which I loved. The support from you all means so much to me, especially out on a race course. And as I got to mile 25 I saw Jenny and crew again and waved. I yelled, “I’ve got this!” and was 100% confident I did.
That last mile is LONG. It feels like the longest part of the course. You’re tired. You’re ready to be done. But the energy is unreal. I kept telling myself to just put one foot in front of the other. One step at at time.
800 meter mark. This sign always gives me chills. It’s just an 800. One 800 meter rep from a speed workout. I reminded myself I had run my 800s this training cycle at a 3:11 average and one was a piece of cake. (Not ever a piece of cake, but I told myself that anyways and forced a smile).
400 meter mark. SO CLOSE. And this is where you have the little baby hill that worries people. Chicago is as flat as a pancake, so at this point of the race this hill does feel like a hill. But I love hills and I was ready for it. I surged ahead, passed people, and knew that finish line was mine when I turned the corner.
The final sprint. I have no idea how fast I was moving, but it felt FAST. I was giving it all I had until I crossed.
I stepped across that finish line at 3:22:58. A 3+ minute PR and I was elated.
It’s hard for me to even describe the feeling of a marathon finish line, especially when you PR, but it beats most things. I LOVE it. I’m exhausted, but proud of myself. And I love to just take a minute to stand there and take it in before reuniting with my people. Ran into my coach just past the finish line too and he said, “How’d that feel?” Good. Damn good.
The slow walk over to Grant Park feels like miles, but I always enjoy it. Everyone is shuffling along and smiling so big. When I get to the family meet up area I always get hugs, some tears, and high fives. I have such supportive people in my life and I don’t take that for granted. They make this day even better for me.
The Chicago Marathon is a world class marathon. It is well run, well spectated, and FUN. It’s a holiday to me. I gave it all I had this year and it was a better day than I imagined. A little faith in yourself and a lot of hard work goes a long way.
But no matter the outcome, I am grateful for the marathon. It’s an accomplishment that makes you work for it every time and I just keep coming back.
Here’s to the next.