Chicago Marathon Reflection

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Chicago Marathon 

As I mentioned in my last post , I ran my best marathon yet this past weekend at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.  My official finish time was 3:20:35, nine minutes faster than my previous personal record of 3:29:37 from the 2014 Detroit Marathon*. This time will also allow me to compete, two Aprils from now, in the 2018 Boston Marathon. It seems like the “third-times-a-charm” theory applied for both of my BQs as it took me three marathons to qualify for Boston the first time (Nashville, NYC, Detroit [BQ]) and then three more to re-qualify (Marine Corps, Boston, Chicago[BQ]).  Needless to say, I’m thrilled to go back. Saying that I want to avenge my first Boston seems wrong as I honestly don’t think I would have done as well in Chicago had I not struggled so much in Boston. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t mind collecting some of the pride I left on that course. (So long as I don’t trade back the humility I gained there. 😉 ) You can read my Boston reflection here, but on with Chicago for now…

I didn’t step up to the start line of Chicago thinking “I’m going to have a great race.”  The John Bingham quote I mentioned a few posts ago ** was incredibly resonant with me; particularly the words “every finish has the potential to…devastate me.”  I definitely do not recommend abstracting these words from the rest of the quote as any sort of pre-race mantra unless you are able to support (or combat) them with more positive ones. More on this in a second…

I think that the marathon’s potential to devastate me resonated so deeply because :

  1. I felt temporarily devastated after my last marathon (Boston).
  2. I blamed much of this devastation on the fact that I’d run with a head-cold-turned-bronchitis.
  3. I woke up with a similar head cold the Monday before Chicago.

I’m not going to harp on the fact that I had a cold leading up to the race as my intention for this entry is to reflect on the race itself. What I will say is that I think that having a cold, both leading up to and during the race, forced me to be more gentle with myself than I usually am, and I think that this helped me a lot in Chicago.

I still wasn’t feeling 100% the morning of the race, but I woke up feeling much better. I didn’t get too excited about this; I knew that, if not the cold, a number of other things could derail me from achieving the PR and BQ I wanted to achieve.

Again, I’m not recommending this sort of defeatist mindset before a race. But I think that, somehow, understanding and accepting that the race I was about to run might not end as the race I wanted it to be kept me grounded. I knew that there was only so much I could control.

But I also knew that I had a lot going for me. I had run more miles this training period than for any other marathon and, aside from the week leading up to the race, I hadn’t missed any workouts. (And honestly, the extra rest that final taper week probably helped.)  I’d gotten faster in my speed work and PR’d my 10k and 10-mile race times. I knew that regardless of what my time reflected at the end of this race,  I  had gotten stronger over the course of my training and, more generally, over the course of my running “career.” So if understanding that I could cross the finish line devastated kept me grounded, I guess that knowing and believing in my own strength allowed me to take off.

I took the mantra I discovered during the Crim (“I’m strong enough to surprise myself”) with me, and recited it throughout the race. Sometimes I would think the whole sentence, and sometimes I would just think “strong enough.” Going along with this, I only allowed myself to think of people or situations that supported this mantra. If the thought of someone who made me feel less than strong arose, I imagined myself leaving them in my dust. (This was very fun.)

I took two other words  with me to support my “strong enough” mantra. On my right shoe I wrote “grace” and on my left shoe, “grit.” I told myself, especially during the first part of the race, but in later miles too, to run gracefully. The word “grace” reminded me to run with acceptance of where my body was, all things considered (my training, my strength, my cold, etc.).

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Brooks Launch 3 (I’m in love with these shoes ❤ )

I thought “grace” a lot over the first few miles. These miles were not comfortable for me for a few reasons…

My GPS signal was wonky at the beginning of the race, and though I thought I was running around an 8:15min/mile pace (I wanted to start conservatively), I was actually running sub-8 minute miles from the start and through the first 5k. Luckily, this didn’t cause me to burn out and I was able to sustain this pace throughout (thank you, high-mileage weeks and speed work). Anyway, perhaps it was the quicker-than-anticipated start, the fact that I’d been in a car the day before, the cold (who knows, really) but my feet and calves felt on the verge of falling asleep at the beginning of the race. I’d never really experienced this before.  Additionally, I was wearing a new pair of compression socks and they felt like they were falling down my calves. Lastly, I was a snotty, congested mess and struggled to breathe through my nose.

This is where I think that having the cold caused me to be more gentle with myself than I might have been otherwise. Rather than panicking over the fact that I felt so uncomfortable, I repeated “grace” to myself and trusted that the foot/calf discomfort would fade away. Sometimes I even visualized blood flowing to those spots, flushing away the “tingles,” and filling my feet and calves with a more comfortable feeling.

Unfortunately, I was not able to visualize the snot out of my nose. WARNING: the next couple paragraphs might be kind of gross…

I have always been disgusted by snot rockets. I’ve been snot-rocketed on twice while running, and I had never been able to bring myself to do one for fear it would backfire in some way. Also, the image (the thought even) of snot flying through the air makes me gag, and I just prefer to avoid it at most costs.

I have a new relationship with snot and snot rockets after Chicago. There’s a scientific purpose to snot-rocketing: better to get that groseness out of you than to suck it in.  The last thing I wanted was for any gunk to settle in my chest and further interfere with my breathing. I knew that I was going to have to do something to get the snot out of my nose and that I might have to do whatever this something was on a regular basis throughout the race. (And yes, I should have perhaps carried something to blow my nose in, but I didn’t wake up feeling stuffy!) I couldn’t bring myself to fully commit to snot-rocketing as there were people all around me and it was somewhat windy, but I needed to do something.

I think that my “grace” mantra and the relaxation that came with it allowed me to strategize v. panic. My strategy: water cups at water stations. I’d grab an extra cup at each station, dump or drink the water, and hold onto the cup in case I needed to blow my nose (which I did almost each mile). I highly recommend this strategy for other snot-rocketaphobs. It’s still quite gross, but somehow seemed less gross than blowing snot into the wind. [NOTE: one of my happiest moments was when I reached mile 23 and trusted that my ears could sustain the rest of the course uncovered (it was a pretty warm day, but my ears always hurt in temperatures below 60 degrees; especially if it is even slightly windy). Once I hit mile 23, I took of my headband and blew my nose in that. (That’s what I’m holding in my hand in the photo above.)]

I consciously thought of “grit” much less than “grace,” but I liked having it on my shoe and in the back of my mind, as a secret weapon of sorts.  Once I reached about mile 10 of the race,I had settled comfortably into my stride and my desired pace. I continued to strategize by breaking the race up into mini-races. I’d tell myself to get to the half marathon mark, then check in with where I was and where I thought I could be at mile 16 (10.2-mile remaining mark), then checkin again at mile 16 with where I thought I could be at mile 20. I tried my best not to anticipate where I would struggle or assume that because mile 18 was coming up that I would likely hit a wall within the next four miles. I actually never hit “the wall” this race. I got very tired, but I never felt so tired that I couldn’t sustain an 8-minute mile or under pace. I wonder if I couldn’t have gone faster, but consistent pangs on the inside of my knee and in my hips  toward the end of the race told me to relax where I was.  All of this being said, I never had to fully summon the grit I thought I might have to, but I think that knowing it was there to call upon when and if I did need it might be some of the reason for that.

I’ve focused a lot on what helped me psychologically, but I should mention a few physical things that helped me, too.

My fueling methods for Chicago–both before and during the race–worked better than any past marathon. I was a carb monster for the days leading up to the race, and I didn’t let thoughts of how heavy that made me feel derail me from eating enough to stock up my glycogen stores. To prevent some of the carbo-bloating, I focused on eating small amounts of high carb/sugar, low(ish) fiber foods frequently throughout the days leading up to the marathon. I also drank  a lot fruit and veggie juices.

I was very conscious of and deliberate about hydration, too–especially since I was fighting a cold, which seems to make it more difficult to hydrate in general, let alone for a marathon. I drank Pedialyte in the days leading up to the race and the night before the race. I also kept water or gatorade in my hand at all times, and sipped on it constantly the day before the race. This made for lots of pee stops on the way to Chicago, but it was worth it. [My dad might disagree, but I’m sure we still saved time in the end if we take into account the extra hour(s) I might have spent either on the course or on an IV had I not hydrated properly. 😉 ]

During the race, I did something runners are advised never to do–I tried something new on race day. I carried a water bottle mixed with Generation UCAN to the start line***.  Rather than starting my race with a Gu as I usually do, I sipped on this bottle of UCAN starting about thirty minutes before the start of the race through the first four miles, then ditched the bottle. As this was my only time using UCAN in this way, I guess I can’t say for sure that starting my race with it is what helped me avoid bonking, but I am almost certain it did. UCAN is made with “superstarch” (hydrothermally cooked non-gmo corn) which is a slow-release carbohydrate that provides energy while keeping blood sugar stable (v. the spike-crash cycle we often subject ourselves to). I used the tropical orange flavor which is naturally sweetened (v. sucrolose sweetened).  Starting the marathon with UCAN allowed me to start the fueling and hydration process before I reached the point of needing to fuel or hydrate. I still took Gus throughout the race, which also helped immensely. And it wasn’t until the last mile or so that I started to feel like I was running on anywhere close to empty.

Chicago’s water stops also played a role in my ability to fuel/hydrate well as they were frequent, relatively long, and well-organized. On the stops I decided to take Gu, I didn’t need to stop. I could grab a water take part of the Gu, and if I felt I needed to take more, I still had time to grab another water. Perhaps related to the fact that I didn’t hit “the wall,” this was also the first marathon where I didn’t reach a point of feeling like my body couldn’t take any Gu or water.

A few notes on the course itself:

I heard some people saying that the few tiny hills later in the race felt nearly impossible since the majority of the course was so flat.  I saw a couple of people running near me cramp up on inclines or soon after. I had a different, and actually positive, experience with the slight hills when they occurred as I felt like they let me favor different muscles for a brief moment. Everything I had read and heard about Chicago was that it was a fast course because it was so flat, but that it could be tricky because you are relying on the exact same muscles for almost all 26.2 miles.  Looking back, I’m not sure if the hills actually felt “good” to me or if I just told myself they were good for me. Either way worked. I also think that so much of my training was on hills (they are hard to avoid in Clarkston) that the 26.2 miles of flatness felt refreshing to the nearly 500 hilly miles I ran in August and September.

The weather was near perfect; around 60 degrees, not at all humid, and sunny, but not brutally so. I typically like weather closer-to 50 degrees, but then again, my fingers tend to lose circulation as the temperature drops closer to this point. I didn’t have notable circulation problems (aside from the first few miles) this race. I imagine that this was due to the warm-but-not-too-warm weather and the fact that I felt more relaxed most of the race than I have in past ones (i.e. less fist-clenching).

I could probably write more, but this entry is getting pretty long. I’ll just end by saying that having my Dad in Chicago with me helped me immensely, and I know that this race wouldn’t have been as successful as it was if not for him.

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My dad & my medal 

He is a grounding presence in my life on a daily basis and his impulse always seems to be to strategize over stress. I’m lucky I’ve picked up at least some of this from him. No surprise at all that he popped up at mile 13 and again between miles 16 and 17. These were crucial spots for me as I have “fell off” at both of these mile markers in past races. His presence and encouragement helped me power through any anticipated difficulty.

I mentioned earlier that I only allowed myself to think of the people from my past and present that made me feel strong. I feel so fortunate that my life currently consists of a large number of people who have done and continue to do so. I ran faster and stronger because of every text, Facebook post, positive thought, or prayer that was sent my way.  I’m grateful for my experience at Chicago and everyone in my life who helped make it a positive one.

*As a side note, I highly recommend both of these races for those looking to BQ and for those just looking to run fun, well-administrated races in awesome cities! 🙂

**“I am a runner because I am willing to lay it all on the line. I know that every finish line has the potential to lift my spirits to new highs or devastate me, yet I line up anyway.” (John Bingham)

***I have used Generation UCAN numerous times, so I wasn’t trying out an entirely new product on race day; just a new way of using it.

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