October 17, 2011

Chicago Marathon (Race Report)

Now that it's been a week since the race, I've had some time to reflect and put my experience and feelings into words. You might have guessed from my lack of an immediate declaration of success that my sub-4 goal did not go as planned. I was disappointed and bitter, and have run through the race in my mind countless times trying to see if there was something I did or didn't do. But in hindsight I know that it was out of my control and I did the best I could under the circumstances. I still do strongly believe I am capable of running a sub-4 hour marathon, and I know that one day soon I will. For now, I'm trying to make peace with my Chicago Marathon and focus on what lies ahead.

We caught a shuttle to the expo Saturday morning, hoping to beat the big crowds. It was still pretty hectic, so I tried my best to get in and out fairly quickly. I couldn't help looking through the official Nike apparel and ended up buying a cute half zip and the singlet I ended up wearing race day. While it was crowded in there, I have to commend them for being organized and efficient in distributing packets and shirts. I did a lap of the booths and then we got the heck out of there. We wanted to check out a couple of the museums nearby after but found out there was no transportation there so we ended up walking. Probably not a smart idea considering I would be running a marathon the next day. The rest of the day was one fail after the next and I ended up walking way too much. 
Chicago ended up owning me : /
found my name on the Nike wall!

By 6pm we were back at the hotel where I passed out and took a nice little nap, waking up just in time to order room service for dinner. The Italian restaurant we ordered through looked promising, and had the prices to go with. I ordered some tortellini in marinara sauce, but when it came and I opened it up...I seriously thought it was a joke! I had five tortellini in what I can only call a broth, not a pasta sauce. It was pathetic, and at $16 a total ripoff. We called to complain and they finally offered to send something else up but I just made do with the salad, bread, and tiramisu that we ordered as well. I did some trigger pointing and foam rolling before going to bed, then tossed and turned, trying to get my mind off the race so I could fall asleep!

Race morning began like most others, cursing my alarm, wanting to crawl back in bed while dressing, applying a copious amount of Body Glide and sunscreen. Our hotel had breakfast set out extra early for the race so I headed down for a bagel with my favorite maple almond butter brought from home (Justin's brand if you were wondering...it's like crack!). Maybe it was nerves but I had a hard time getting the whole thing down. I grabbed a banana to take with, hoping my stomach would settle enough later to get some more calories in.

I picked our hotel primarily for it's proximity to the start - we had less than 1/4 mile walk to the start! I tend to get anxious about making it to a race on time so this was one less hassle to deal with in the morning. One thing I will say about this race is that it has excellent organization. There were a ton of volunteers out there for the sole purpose of answering questions, and believe it or not, they actually had the answers! I found my way to the entrance for the open corral and said goodbye to my mom and then joined the throngs of anxious runners.

With about 30 minutes til the start I managed to find a potty line that was moving pretty quickly and was in and out within 10 minutes. I headed for the corrals only to discover that they were being closed! The only place I could get in was back by the 13 minute pace. I noticed that the volunteers were letting certain people move up to the next corral so I told the volunteer that I was running with the 4 hour pace group and needed to get through, but I was told that they were only letting runners through that had the official Nike pace group bibs on...ummm what?! I somewhat incredulously asked him if he expected me to start back here with the walkers when I had trained to run a certain goal time, and all he could say was "sorry". So I did what I had to do... I ducked under the rope and walked right past him into the next corral.

I wish I could say this was the end of my pre-race complications, but once I made it to the next corral I was still back with the 11 minute pace group. The 9 minute signs and 4 hour pace group were much farther up but the corral was so packed there was no way I was going to get there in time. So once again I did what I had to do. I hopped the fence to get out of the corral, hopped a bush, ran around some more fences and then ran along the corrals til I reached the 9 minute signs. I managed to hop the fence to get into the corral just as the race was about to start. I still was a ways off from the 4 hour pacers, but I figured I could just keep them in sight for now and catch them later. So things ended up being a little more hectic pre-race than expected, but when that start gun went off I was excited and ready to go!

It took less than 10 minutes of start-and-stop shuffling to cross the start, then I immediately set my sights on catching the pacers just ahead. To say this race is crowded is quite the understatement, especially in the first several miles. It was just a sea of runners pressing in on all sides. I dodged and sped up when I could and just before the first mile mark I finally caught up with a pair of 4 hour pacers. The first several miles were chaotic to say the least. With such heavy crowding it was impossible to hold a steady pace. There were lots of turns in the beginning which lead to massive bottlenecks that practically brought us to a standstill. These would be followed by big surges in speed to make up time. It was frustrating to say the least, but I just tried to focus on staying with the pacers and hoped things would thin out a bit in a few miles.

The first few miles took us through the famous Loop, skyscrapers towering all around us. The streets were packed with people cheering and between them and and the runners you could just feel the energy in the air. I was feeling pretty good, warming up quickly but thus far enjoying myself. We came up on 5k pretty quickly and were right on pace. As I crossed the timing mat I couldn't help but think of those at home tracking me and was glad they'd know I was right on track. I grabbed water at the first couple aid stations and took my first Gu around mile 5. I took a salt cap here as well and in an effort to make them easier to get in the future I tore the top off the tiny ziploc bag I had them in and stuffed them back in my bra. This would really come back to haunt me later.

The next few miles took us toward and through Lincoln Park. Things had thinned out a bit and we were finally able to settle into a more consistent pace. I was still feeling pretty good and was surprised by how fast the first 10k seemed to go by. It was warmer than expected so I started early on pouring water on my head to keep cool. Not long after the 10k mark things started to feel a little harder. The pace felt much faster than it should have and my legs felt heavy. Usually by this point in a long run I'm warmed-up and settling in, but this was quite the opposite; I just hoped that it would pass. Around mile 8ish I took another Gu but when I reached for my second salt sap, my fingers only closed on loose salt. I may or may not have cursed aloud. This meant I was without my usual electrolytes on a warm day with almost 20 miles left. This was about when the wheels started to come off.
fall was evident in the colorful trees

The aid stations were fairly frequent (about every 1-1.5 miles) and I'd been taking advantage of the water, but with the loss of my salt caps I knew I needed to start drinking the course electrolyte...lemon lime Gatorade. At first it wasn't so bad; I would grab a cup of Gatorade, toss it back, and then grab a cup of water to chase the syrupy sweet Gatorade. Around mile 9 my stomach started to feel a little sour. We ran through the crazy Boys Town neighborhood which helped distract me for a bit with the screaming crowds and crazy cross dressers. But I was working far too hard to keep up with the pace group and I could feel the contents of my stomach sloshing around ominously. I was angry with myself at the turn in events and kept going back and forth in my head, trying to keep it up. I pushed myself to mile 10 and then made the painful decision to let the 4 hour group go. Half of me felt like I was giving up, but the other half knew that this was more than that and there was actually something wrong. I was pushing myself as hard as I could but with 16 more miles to go there was no way I could keep it up feeling the way I did physically.

From here things went downhill mentally and physically pretty quickly. I slowed and even walked a bit, and kept beating myself up for letting them go. I knew there was no way I'd catch up and in that moment my sub-4 goal went out the window. I withdrew into myself over the next few miles as I progressively felt worse. I'd continued to drink the Gatorade and could now feel it sitting uncomfortably in my stomach. The faster I tried to run the worse it felt and I just knew I needed to get it out. I started to look for a place to pull over and yak but there were so many damn spectators that there was no space! I crossed the 13.1 mat and felt a pang of guilt and disappointment as I knew that my friends and family would see that I'd fallen off pace. Not long after there was a clear stretch of road so I pulled off behind a tree and barfed.

I hate to say it but this was not my first time throwing up in a marathon. Although the last time, I was actually sick going into the race so it was somewhat expected. I felt a little better after but from that point on I couldn't really keep anything down. With my stomach emptied of that nasty yellow fluid, around mile 14 I made the mistake of trying to get some calories back in and took another Gu and a little Gatorade with some water. Not surprisingly this put me right back where I was pre-puke and the sour stomach pretty much lasted the rest of the race.

The course continued through the West Loop while I started to incorporate regular walk breaks to let my stomach settle. My whole body just felt like it had nothing left, which is not a good sign barely halfway into a marathon. I tried not to think about how many miles I had left and instead focused on getting to mile 16 where my mom was waiting. I passed the 16 mile marker and started scanning the sidelines for her, but after a while I figured I'd either missed her or she hadn't made it there in time. Then just before the next aid station I saw her face and just stopped in my tracks. I mumbled something about not feeling good and barfing and told her to just walk with me. I explained what happened and that I couldn't keep anything down and was running much slower. She told me she was going to head to mile 23 next so I said goodbye and started running again.
mom's POV at mile 16
Around mile 16 we crossed over a little bridge and passed some photographers, and for the first time in a race I couldn't muster a smile. Not only was I miserable physically but bitter disappointment had filled my head and was ruining my race one step at a time. From the beginning my Garmin was measuring the course long, too, probably due to all the weaving and being unable to run the tangents on such a crowded course, but by this point it was long by almost 3/10th of a mile. So I'd hear my watch beep and know that I still had quite a ways to go officially. Just one more thing to mess with my head, right? With 10 miles to go I knew I was going to finish, but I also knew I was going to be nowhere near my goal. As the miles ticked by I was forced to adjust my expectations...4:15...4:20... then just hoping for anything under 4:34, my current PR.
I think the face says it all

The crowds continued to impress me, and I so wish I could have fully enjoyed them and fed off their energy and and smiled back. Seriously though, there were very few empty stretches, and where there were spectators there were rows of them, yelling so loud I couldn't hear the music on my iPod : ) Just one more thing that makes me wish I'd had a good race. Because of the warm weather there were a ton of spots along the course where spectators or volunteers had hoses to spray us down and I made sure to take advantage. Every aid station it was two cups down the throat, one more over the head.

Around mile 19 we entered Chinatown and here the crowds were just nuts! It actually gave me a little boost that got me through the next couple miles. Just after Chinatown I stopped to let my stomach settle and a girl passing asked if I was ok. We started chatting and turns out she was having the same kind of day as me. She was attempting a BQ but got sick early on and was just having a miserable race, too. We both were suspicious of the Gatorade and cursed the warm temps. We commiserated some more and ran together for a bit, and it made such a big difference to have some company! Around mile 22 I lost track of her but was grateful for the knowledge that I wasn't alone.

At that point I knew I was so close and I just wanted so badly to be done. The typical aches and pains that come in the later miles of a marathon had started to make themselves known in addition to some rather painful blisters on the bottoms of my feet. I looked for my mom at mile 23 but didn't spot her so I assumed she hadn't made it there. I actually didn't care much at that point and could only think of one thing: crossing that finish line and being done with this horrible race. My iPod also died around this point but I didn't mind so much as the crowds were loud enough anyway.
again...check out that face!
The course eventually steered us back toward Grant Park and the finish. With just a few miles to go I ran more consistently just to be done as soon as possible. A lot of runners had started fading in the last 10k and I actually managed to start passing some. The crowds and noise were overwhelming the closer we got to the park. I glanced at my Garmin and knew I was going to be close to my time from Marine Corps last year and might just PR. I can't help laughing at the irony of this... MCM was a hard effort the entire race, and here I was, having gotten sick and walk/ran the last half of this race and I was going to have nearly the same time. This thought makes me feel a little better and reassures me that I do indeed have that faster sub-4 marathon in me.
 one more mile...

We entered Grant Park and then finally I could see the finish line. I gave it everything I had left for a final finishing kick (which wasn't much), but I didn't feel any joy crossing that finish line. I did end up PRing by a few minutes with a final time of 4:31:12. I was so glad to be done, but I immediately got a little emotional at having such a failed race. My legs started throbbing as soon as I stopped running so I tried to keep moving. I felt faint, not surprising considering I hadn't consumed any calories since mile 14, and all I wanted to do was lie down. I grabbed my medal and some water and joined the throngs of runners through the finish chute toward the finish festival. It was slow going of course and at several times I felt quite faint. After walking almost another mile I made it to the family reunion area and found my mom just as I collapsed on the ground.
 trust me, I was not really this happy
glad I wasn't out there alone : )

We hung out there for a while amidst all the runners celebrating their accomplishment. I was still extremely bitter. I called my friend Erin and got a little emotional as I told her what happened. I think the worst part is knowing that I was capable of sub-4, it just wasn't my day. I trained hard for this race, harder than any other before and I was ready. I'd faced the doubts and mental roadblocks that have derailed me in the past, and yet ironically, it wasn't my head that was my downfall, like I would've expected, but rather my body that let me down. Having reflected on the race I can pinpoint a few things that are probably responsible for what happened. The Gatorade was a bad idea, and I should've known better, but I didn't have much choice. It probably would've been just as disastrous to forgo any electrolyte on such a warm day considering how much I sweat. I also think the inconsistent pacing over the first 10k came back to bite me in the ass. I know that it was unavoidable in such a crowded race, but clocking 8:30s so early on in a marathon when we should've been running 9:00s probably didn't help matters.

I took a few ibuprofen while I laid on the grass and once those finally kicked in we ventured back toward our hotel. I had to get my shoes off since the blisters were killing me, so I walked back barefoot and my feet felt infinitely better. My stomach was still feeling kind of off but I knew I needed to get something in it so we stopped for some chocolate milk on the way back and I ate a Clif bar back in our room. When I showered I discovered that in addition to my usual chafing along the bra line I had some nasty chafing on my lower back from my shorts pocket. The square shape matched up perfectly with the pocket : / I think it was from being so wet during the race trying to stay cool. But man! Those first few moments in the shower were brutal!

We actually spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the city seeing some more sights. I was exhausted and sore, but I also didn't want to waste an afternoon, and I knew ultimately it was better to move around after a race. I managed to eat some plane pasta a couple hours after the race, then later that night we finally enjoyed some real Chicago deep dish pizza. By that time my stomach was fairly settled but absolutely ravenous from being empty for so long! I also may have treated myself to a cupcake from Magnolia Bakery... I did run a marathon after all!
deep dish
cupcakes make everything better
In the end, it wasn't the race I'd hoped for. I wish I could say I still enjoyed it but that was most definitely not the case. I just couldn't enjoy the sights, the people, the course when I felt so terrible and was so disappointed. I almost regret this the most - I wish I could've somehow just accepted the turn in events and enjoyed the race. The thing is, I've run a lot of marathons...this was no. 9. I know I can cover the distance. I've run marathons just for fun or just for the experience, and this time I wanted it to be more than that. I wanted to see what I was capable of, not just run another marathon. 

Now that I've had some time to reflect on the race, I know there wasn't much I could've done differently. I think it's actually part of what draws people to marathons. You can train hard, follow a plan, put in the time, sweat, and miles, but ultimately anything can happen come race day. You have to respect the distance. It's when the stars align that you see your hard work finally pay off in that perfect race. And so I'll keep running, keep training, until one day, when everything comes together I have that perfect race.

p.s. While the marathon wasn't much fun, the rest of my time in Chicago was amazing! It's an absolutely incredible city, I wish we'd had more time there to explore. We did get to see and do quite a bit in our short time there, though, so I'll try to put together a post with some pics soon!


  1. just consider this a training run...don't worry about the results. like you say, there are good days and bad days. yaking in chicago...has a nice ring to it?

  2. Too bad Chicago Marathon didn't work out as planned. But looking at this years race reports, it looks like you had a pretty good season overall.

  3. I have a friend who also had kind of a disaster of a race a few weeks ago & managed to PR in spite of not meeting her 'A' goal. Of course she was disappointed, but I had to keep reminding her that, even with all the crazy stuff that happened during her race, SHE STILL PR'D and that is AWESOME!

    I think you are absolutely right keep reminding yourself that you obviously have a much faster time in you if, even with all that bad luck (because that really does sound like what most of it was), you still PR'd by several minutes. Just imagine what you could do with cool weather, a less crowded course, and a little GOOD luck!

  4. @Angela @ SF Road Warrior
    nice to hear i'm not alone : / thank you for the kind words. i won't be giving up anytime soon!

  5. I'm sorry to hear that you had such a tough race. Gatorade does the same thing to my stomach so I know how you were feeling (though somehow I have managed to avoid actually throwing up). You definitely will get that sub-4 sometime soon.

  6. Yummy sweet foods, loved it all. Nice photos you had, Congratulations to all the racers who joined here and looking forward always.

  7. Great race report!

    Sorry to hear your experience at Chicago was not a good one. It sounds to me like you are learning what to do and what not to do in a marathon. It is THAT experience that will get you your sub 4:00!

    I discovered many marathons ago that Gatorade and Powerade always do the exact same thing to me. I WILL not touch them in a race, water, GU, GU Brew or Heed, and S-Caps only. The corn syrup in Gatorade rips up my intestinal tract up. If you have to drink a sports drink use one that uses complex carbs.

    If you live near a Walmart go into the pharmacy section and purchase a plastic coin purse. When I was a kid Rexall Drugs use to give them out for free, maybe your parents or grandparents have one laying around? They are only about 1 1/2" long, very easy to put in your pocket. You can fit 12 electrolyte pills in it. It is the only way to go. I always take 1 GU and 1 electrolyte every 45 minutes. It works PERFECT for me. No more bonking or puking! It also sounds like you were drinking too much water, be careful with water too!

    I was one of the 3:20 Nike Pacers. I saw quite a few people walking after mile 20, even the folks ahead of you were having problems with the heat, so don't think it was just you.

    With every bad marathon experience you learn. You're next marathon will go much better!

    Good Luck and thanks for sharing!
    Terry Sentinella

  8. what a great race report, rachel. sorry chicago didn't go as planned...but i am not surprised. chicago is not as easy as it should be....my chicago race sucked as well. you still pr'd though and, strangely, i find your description of your race inspiring as i prepare to hit the roads again. btw...i agree with you...little rock or new orleans, i'm thinking. see you out there...somewhere!