Monday, October 12, 2009

2009 Chicago Marathon: Early Race Report

It is a rare thing to be so blessed that all things come together for the marathon. It is an effort not to be underestimated; and so many things can affect the outcome. Months (and quite often years) of training are at stake; and the effort cannot be repeated in short time. And for me; at last; my dream has come true. I had the race of my life; my dreams and my goals today.

At 33F I shivered terribly at the start; despite multiple layers of gloves, jackets, arm warmers and the like. I was seeded in Corral C, which was still quite large, filled with ambitious, proven marathoners who were--as I was to find out--quite aggressive about their goals. It was difficult to get near the 3:40 pace group, but I did my best and was deeply moved to hear the national anthem and hear and see the helicopters overhead waiting to kick off the monumental event. At last, the horn blast sounded and we were off. Finally, I had my chance to do something. I was tired of talking about it; I just wanted to do.

I tried to get closer to the pace group; in my mind, it was my best chance of meeting my 3:40 goal, though I needed only a 3:50 to qualify. I had put in the time and training and truly believed if everything could hold together, I could possibly pull off the 3:40 marathon. But, their little 3:40 signs were hard to follow and I was getting distracted by the sights and sounds. I then decided to make a move to put myself in the midst of the pacers. I had to fight for position and took more than a few elbows. These were not the runners of open corral. Seconds mattered and position had to be earned. Finally, I settled right where I wanted to be; but yet had to continue to defend it.

We passed mile 1 in 8:23, perfectly on time and we all cheered our pacers. But, this was to be the last good mile. Mile 2 was in 8:08 and mile three was in 8:00 flat. The problem of this group is that these are doable times in the early miles, and we all hung in there. But as we crossed the 5K mark quite a bit early, one of the pacers shouted up that they were quite a bit off pace and yanked us back. Suddenly, I found myself running 8:50 pace, and my rhythm was off. Here I was faced with the most important decision of the race, and this became the foundation of the next 23 miles and the final outcome of the race for me.

I abandoned the pace team. This was a risky move; surely the slower pace that would eventually speed back up was conservative and what I needed. And I'd recommend anyone else in the same position (even now) to stick with the pacing group. But I have a quality about my long runs and the way my legs move, and I felt that if I stuck with the group I would somehow lose that. But I also knew this move might blow me up and I ran the high risk of seeing them again after mile 20. This became a key motivator for me in the race. As I carefully watched my splits, I gradually put more and more distance between me and the pace group and was determined not to be caught by them and embarrassed at what could have been seen as a rookie move. I largely ran 8:20s from here on out. One right after another.

By 10K, I had shed all my extra layers and was feeling good. I had the strategy of grabbing fluid at all the stops; even if only for a sip; to get as much hydration and as many calories as possible. I knew also that I was against the clock of my own body. There comes a point in the latter miles where I can no longer force anything in. Better to get while the getting was good.

At the half way point, I was well over a minute ahead of schedule, and I was already beginning to feel it. Almost disappointed in myself that my hips were starting to hurt a bit and my quads were already tiring. But, my energy was spectacular, and I knew that I could suffer any pain as long as the mechanisms for running were working. I have an unusual ability to tough it out when the going gets rough.

By mile 15, my quads really began to hurt, but I also knew I was more than half way through. I'd managed three gels at this point (in spite of the fact their consistency was more of vaseline in the cold temps, ewwww), and done a great job of hydrating. The cool temperatures really helped, and I honestly believe made the effort after this point possible.

I passed mile 21 hurting quite intensely, but was close to two minutes ahead of my goal of 3:40. It was just a matter of hanging on. The strategy that had gotten me this far was to read on my pace band what my next split had to be (in elapsed time), and repeat it as a mantra in my head and keep my rhythm and stride going, never slowing. I realized that I could actually slow by two minutes per mile and still qualify for Boston, should that become necessary.

By mile 23, I was in agony, my footpod had become worthless for pacing and people around me were in terribly deteriorating states. I seriously think I passed 500 runners from mile 20 to the finish line (and actually look forward to the finish line photos, as I passed a few runners as I approached the chute with a finishing kick). This was annoying and difficult, but again, I never slowed my pace--here, or ever on the course.

With fifteen minutes to go, I began counting backwards in 30 second increments. 14:30, 14:00 and so on. I was encouraging myself that I could keep it up for that much more time. Surely during interval training I had been running harder; this was going to be over soon.

I remember distinctly the final "hill" of 24' at mile 26--don't laugh, it's quite the rise at an unfortunate spot when you are exhausted--and kept strong and on pace as I prepared for the final left hand turn. And as I turned I could see the finish line, beckoning me and it was almost over. I glanced down at my watch and it was just turning 3:37. I looked up at the finish line and tried to determine if I could make 3:38. No way. Not even with a surge. But, I gave it my all, kicked it in for the best time possible and ran through the finish line and at last punched my clock. It read 3:38:25. (For the record, I needed a 3:38 to qualify for New York, but that was not the goal today. It did cross my mind.)

My legs suddenly felt weightless. Nothing and I was floating. My chest hurt and I had a hard time breathing deeply. The walk to the end to turn back to the hotel was an eternity, and gradually, this sensation passed. Pain; exhaustion set in and my breaths became deeper. Twice I held back sobs as I was completely spent and emotionally overwhelmed. Even now, I am taking it all in. I think if I had sat down to rest, I would have found myself wracked and heaving with tears, but the drive to keep moving kept me together.

This was nearly a 16 minute PR for me. I qualified for Boston by a wide margin. And still I sit stunned, and have much to process. I have a little insomnia now, but will post more later, along with an official final time and some photos. Thanks to all who have followed me on this incredible journey, and the role that you have played in helping this happen!


Rick said...


I am so glad that it all came together for you! You have worked so hard for this. You are such an inspiration!

runner-grrl said...

Rick, Thanks for your kind words :-) Great day for a race yesterday. Sorry your ankle gave you trouble, but you still had a great PR! --Alex

Sharon said...

Thanks for the play by play - it was so fun to read & almost made me feel like I was there :) I WILL be there next year and will be happy with ANY time that I get (I'll never be as fast as you!) Congratulations for an amazing effort & outcome. You must be so proud!

Btw, are you now going to change the name of your blog to "How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon"?!?!!

sneakersister said...

This is by far the most spectacular, best written race report I have ever read! Wow! I want to race like you. You stuck it out despite the pain and exhaustion because you knew you're body could do it. That is absolutely inspirational.

Congratulations on your well-deserved PR and a profoundly stunning performance.

I have been following your training here on your blog and mostly over at Buckeye. Amazing.

laryssa said...

AWESOME!!! Simply awesome Alex!!! Wooohooo!!!!! :)

runner-grrl said...

Sharon, I have confidence you'll be there at next year's Chi, and it will be worth the wait! It is a thoroughly enjoyable course and the energy is fantastic. Thanks so much for your kind words of support all through this. I will celebrate with you when you toe the line next year!

As for the blog, I realize there needs to be an evolution, and I just haven't figured that out. I will finish with some closing thoughts and move onto another blog... one that I haven't figured out yet, but will be sure to let everyone know!


runner-grrl said...

Sneakersister, Wow, thanks for such accolades! Made me smile that you enjoyed reading the race report.

I looked at your blog, good stuff! I'm going to spend some more time reading :-) Your race times are really improving over a very short period of time.


runner-grrl said...

Laryssa, Thanks so much! You've been a huge inspiration to me. Can't wait until you qualify too! --Alex

RunColo said...

Hell of a job! I'm glad you had some nice cool weather for the race, well done.

runner-grrl said...

Runcolo, Thanks! Everything came together for me, and the weather played a huge role. The conditions were perfect for marathoners :-) (Wanjiru won the marathon with the fastest time on American soil, finishing in 2 hours, 5 minutes, 41 seconds). -Alex

Jesse said...

Great job Alex! So glad things went well for you! It was a great day to race.

Anonymous said...

Great report! I hope it inspires me to run through the pain this sunday at the Baystate Marathon...I also need the same BQ time and think I can go faster.
Curious---what is the 338 for New York in reference to?
thanks for posting this

runner-grrl said...


Hey, best wishes for Bay State! Write me back and let me know how you did :-) I had a hard time deciding between the two marathons, but ultimately chose Chi again (happy I did, great race).

If you want a guaranteed entry into NY marathon, there are some qualifying standards. For me (Female masters), the qualifying time is 3:38:00.


Timaay said...

Oh, Alex, I'm so happy for you and proud of you! This is beyond ultimate...
My coachette and friend. You're the best!

Anonymous said...

I just googled "How to qualify for the Boston Marathon" and came upon your blog. So inspiring. The play-by-play of your Chicago experience was great. For the record, I need a 3:40 and have a 3:47 PR. Stories like yours make me believe that I can do it too!

runner-grrl said...


That's exciting! And I'm glad you wrote :) My PR going into this race was a 3:54, so you can definitely do it! --Alex