Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Chicago Marathon: Connected

The Reckoning

Chicago Marathon 2013, wow, how did that happen…?  I really didn't want to run it again after previous years.  The weather was always ridiculously hot (granted anything above 65 may as well be hot when running marathons in the sun). Getting to the start corrals was always a nightmare. The crowds and crowds of people -- whether runners or fans.  Bah, who needs it.  It’s overhyped and overrun.  I've done it 3 and a half times already. By chance, I was invited to a Chicago Marathon launch party in February. Okay I’ll go. And, ‘oh hey, if you want you can register early before everyone else,’ ‘wow, sounds great, sign me up.’ In hindsight, early registration may have been a godsend given the slog that occurred when registration opened for everyone.

At the time I was exchanging running-related thoughts with a new Twitter/Dailymile friend, Erin. She shared the same nasty feelings for Chicago Marathon as I: we both thought it was deprecated, tired, obsolete and passé.  So there I was, golden ticket in hand for a race that was more of an afterthought, a fun run, a back-up plan, a pre-race long training run… hmm.  Well. After a few chats about race plans, as Erin may point out, I encouraged her to run it, too (I might have even said that I’d pace her – though not sure she recalls that detail accurately). And so the little snowball started its way merrily rolling down the mountain.

As you may recall, injury started to reappear on the scene shortly thereafter. By early April, my plans for Boston 2013 were kaput.  No more Boston. Again.  Hmmphhffttt. Spring marathons were wiped from the whiteboard. I was also planning on running Bayshore Marathon in May but that was out for the same reason. So the summer-fall 2013 race season would now vampire-suck my energy for the year. A month passed, focus shifted, and training began again.  I desired two things at that point:  1.) requalify for Boston before registration opened in early September; and 2.) beat my 2011 Indy MonumentalMarathon PR of 3:04:25 – a goal that was impossibly challenging last year.  I might say there is a 3rd goal, but I don’t like to discuss it… go sub-3 in the marathon. But I wouldn't utter that to anyone. That thought was safely tucked away in the back of my brain not to be mentioned verbally. Wausau addressed the first goal, maybe Chicago could somehow pretty-please with sugar on top address the second, if the Earth, moon, and sun would align perfectly. Why not. Besides I deserved a good race at Chicago. Erin did, too. Anyone with hot or tepid weather memories of Chicago Marathon past deserved a sufficiently adequate race day experience, this year. 


Juxtaposition

I’m a shy person and have a small group of friends. One thing that is hard to hold onto, however, when you sprawl your running and beer life across the canvas of Twitter, Dailymile, Untappd, Instagram and Facebook is remaining inside that insulated shell that is yours alone and completely neat and organized.  Things happen.  You recognize people where you wouldn't have previously. Running along the lakefront, you look for people. You find others and talk to people at races that you now know IRL from these “social networks.” Francesco, Jeff, Chanthana, Jenny, Erin, Sara, Todd, Tony, Tony, Brian, Charlyn, Dan, Dan, Scott, Eli, Evan, Justin, Meredith, Annabelle, Frank, Kelly, Tim, Marc, Ursula, Ben, Lynton, Declan, Krista, Adam, Manuel, Caitlin, Trisha, Mike, Abe… (Chicago peeps usually, admittedly, and no particular order). They turn out to be real people. And it continues to grow. You make virtual friends and then you make friends-friends. Sidebar: is it really a disconnected world? Or are we runners just more likely to connect in a disconnected world because we are seeking out so many of the same things for ourselves?

At some point over the summer, Erin says, “Hey man, why don’t we run Chicago Marathon as a team?”  I’m like, “Golly, that sounds cool, but how do we do that?” Before I knew it, in an almost last-minute mystical happenstance sort of way, Annabelle was inducting me into the Bootleg Runners Coalition (#BRC) which I had only heard of once previously and seemed too elitist for me. I didn't know what it was, who these scary people were, or why they would allow me entry.  I’m still figuring out those last three questions. This once very small and private virtual world that was once ‘my Dailymile escape’ was continuing to coalesce into this real living breathing thing and walking around out there in real life on actual legs and feet and toes. I have always run for me, I run by myself (usually), I train by myself (usually), race by myself, and race against myself.  But it seemed good, felt alright.  It added a hint of pressure to the concept of running a marathon the way I would run it, yet it seemed right.


Implementation

10/13/13. It was chilly before the race. I expected that. But I didn't expect I’d get as cold as I did waiting for the start.  I found the BRC gang and we just sat around anxiously.  We took a group photo and waited some more.  With just a singlet, light gloves and short shorts on, the low 50’s and occasional wind may as well have been a cold shower. In my head this was supposed to be warm compared to Indy Monumental 2011 when it was 35 at the start. For that race I added arm warmers and a light cap but otherwise had the same amount of clothing as I did this day, so I misjudged. <Sound of teeth chattering> Fortunately Erin let me bundle up in a “40 oz. to freedom” sweatshirt.  It seemed to fit pretty well. After she gear-checked the sweatshirt she let me have some old white tube socks with the toes cut open so that I could use them for arm warmers, damn good idea too. (Thanks so much Erin!). Then we slowly dissipated as the race start approached; a small group of us got into lines for toilets, then we wound our way through fenced-off pathways into our individual corrals. To be honest, the whole pre-race process bears strong resemblance to how farmhands herd cattle to be milked or slaughtered...  They are called corrals after all, which is defined simply as “a pen for livestock, esp. cattle or horses, on a farm or ranch.” And it still surprises me that even with the large number of port-a-potties you still have to wait 20 minutes to go, eh. It wasn't so bad though. We were only prodded a few times. Once in the corrals, I found my friend Collin and we chatted up until the start. He had been sick all week and forgot his watch this morning. Wow.
Team BRC. I stole this photo from Pete's race recap.
Back inside my world, I had been nervous on and off throughout the week leading up to CM. I’m always reassured when I get nervous before a race because my body’s natural fight-or-flight response has been a great energy reserve in races going all the way back to my high school swim meets. If I’m not nervous, I get nervous that I won’t be able to give it my all when the gun goes off. I felt ready. My body was 96% healthy (minor aches, and lingering hamstring issue). I was rested. I was comfortable with my pacing plan. I was prepared. On the flip-side however, I had never before talked up a race as much as I had this time. Usually I keep my races on the down-low. I don’t talk about them and I don’t post things about them. I want to slip into them as quietly as I slip through life, and then slip back out again. If I do well, I’ll post my happiness.  If I do poorly, perhaps I’ll play it off as some kind of training run, or a mishap that threw a crazy wrench into the works midway through and couldn't be avoided, no matter what. It’s simple: no external expectations meant no loss, no harm, no foul, no embarrassment.  It was cleaner. But between Dailymile, Twitter and joining team BRC, I found myself in the midst of some pre-race media hype and, oh man, I wondered if that was going to blow up in my face like some Sunday the 13th voodoo doll black magic. On the plus side, that bit of extra pressure further fueled my anxiety, heightened my awareness, and hopefully tapped off my race day energy reserves.  And then at exactly 7:30 a.m…


The gun went off and I crossed the start line. The first thing you do is run through the familiar GPS satellite black-out zone going down the dark cave of lower Columbus below Randolph and then cross that damn grippy bumpy carpeted bridge over the river hoping you and the people in front of you don’t wipe out. After that, the race is afoot.  Even though I started in corral A, people were everywhere. Big people, little people, tall people, short people, skinny people and not-so-skinny people. It was a mob of angry people and I didn't want to get trampled, run over, elbowed, or sideswiped. I said to myself several times, “please don’t run into me,” when fans crossed the street right in front of me, or thirsty mile-1.5-water-drinkers dove across my path of forward motion. The first few splits clicked along almost exactly where I wanted. I didn't go out too fast. And for some reason that felt weird. But I didn't argue with myself about doing what I was supposed to do. Yeah oh hey Mr. type-A, can you not overanalyze why you are on target. I kept pace. Block out whatever weird thoughts that could lead to. 6:51, 6:49, 6:47…  O.K.

Like many others, I just wanted consistent splits and knew an on-target pace may feel conservative early on, but obviously the goal was to avoid gassing out by mile 20. I ran relatively hard early on in Wausau and felt my energy levels dwindle those last six miles while the hamstring pain steadily crept in; I really lost my pace in that race. So today I planned to at least keep my energy high for this race by saving it for later; then try as best I could to blow through the pain those last few miles.

Thankfully it was a refreshing year for Chicago Marathon. The weather cooperated for the most part. The crowds were awesome.  There were fewer gaps between cheering crowds, so there had to be more people out.  Maybe it was partially related to the Boston thing too. Who knows - people were out, and out to have fun.  I was good with it. Positive hippy runner vibes were in full effect. The homemade signs were funnier too. “This is the worst parade ever.” “You’re running better than our government.” Pretty sure I saw one that said, “Run beeyaaach run.” Or something like that. Couple signs made no sense: one fan had a sign with his name on it, not sure I get that. I guess the idea is I’m supposed to cheer for him. Well, “nice job guy, nice job.”  6:43, 6:49, 6:46, 6:51. Good.

At about 6.5 miles I noticed the hammy but it was light enough that I forced it out of my head. No good will come from analyzing a tiny pinprick at this stage. 20 miles to go. I knew I would have to deal with it later. Not now.

Goals.  Expectations. They start out so lofty and blurry. But you get into a race and then everything comes into focus. Reality hits. Decisions have to be made. Push on. Back off. Feel great or reset your goals. Minor tweaks are inevitable. 6:52, 6:50, 6:57, 6:54, 6:51. I’ll take it. But the splits weren't where I’d like them. They weren't bad, really only a tiny bit off. Even mile 13 was fine, but the first 13.1 miles had put me treacherously close to the absolute slowest time I could be running and still hit my goal. I knew the hamstring would become a big deal later regardless of how much I wanted to run through it. I pressed on but in my head I knew my loftier goal (a.k.a. the unmentionable 3rd goal) for the day had to go back on the shelf for another day.

I saw my family at 13.5 miles and again at 16.5 miles. It was great seeing them and knowing they weren't home wondering what time I'd be back from my long run like most weekends since they had my splits texted directly to them. I tossed them my Gatorade-soaked gloves and hoped they wouldn't be too grossed out. One less thing to carry around.

My next goal, PR'ing, became the newly revised edition of the Plan. Perhaps this was a result of lack of strength, coaching or confidence, or just an acceptance of what is reality for the current point in time. I admit, I adjust my goals in almost every marathon because I would go mad if I could only come out of a 26.2 mile race with a single specific time in order to feel good about it. Crud, it’s an accomplishment just registering for the damn thing.  Some might say despite the years I've put in, I’m just a newbie runner with no formal coaching, and that I am a poor coach for myself. I’d generally agree. But I know that every day is different. Some days you kick ass and some days you get it handed to you. I wasn't about to throw in the towel, but I had to make a decision that would allow me to accept what would happen and come out of it feeling like I made the right call. And is it so bad to just want a Chicago Marathon that didn't suck for once? 6:47, 6:53, 6:49, 6:53.

I loosened up. Breathed. I didn't intentionally slow, but I did take in the moment and appreciated what was happening.  I kept going. I felt good about where I was.  I knew that my body was starting to come apart but I was still in control. 6:53, 6:54, 6:54. It was nice.  As odd as it sounds, in those last several miles I was intimately aware of everything happening with my body and I for once I appreciated everything, even my chronic hamstring strain; it was part of me, and I was fine with it. Of course if I had had a friend to pace with, I probably wouldn't have been going through all this ultramarathon-like transcendental hippy-dippy bullshit and simply had a normal conversation like regular people.

So yeah, chewing and running don’t go together. They just don’t. It is way harder than you would think. Go try it if you haven’t. (Don’t choke.) Despite that, I was able to get down several Cliff Shot Blocks and I actually think they taste pretty good.  I maintained my energy throughout and never hit the wall.  I was excited.  From the north side, back to the Loop, out to UIC, over to Pilsen and through Chinatown. The crowds kept cheering. As far as running alone, I actually did try to pace myself off others who seemed like they were going my speed. But each time eventually the other would either slow or pass me. No one was running with me.  I would have really liked to run with someone through that sea of chaos. My recollection of Chicago Marathon 2011 is just one big blur. Same with 2008. So I tried to soak up this year’s race as much as I could. But it is too much.  Unlike many of my past races that wind through countryside and quiet neighborhoods, there is way too much to take in over the course of the Chicago Marathon.  And steadily as miles 20, 21, 22 and 23 slowly rolled around I started losing some of my momentum as the pain crept in.  I focused on Michigan Avenue.  I knew I’d bounce back mentally once I hit Michigan.

7:01, 7:03, 6:56, 7:01. I knew what was happening with my left leg. I still had plenty of energy, but my leg was telling me it had done its share. Shortly after mile 23 we hit Michigan Avenue and turned north for our last few miles. I allowed myself to count down the miles from here. This was the stretch of road I had waited for: it’s where I live and I know it well. I knew I could run down Michigan and then I’d be done. I started to look for friends again who would be along here.  Even though I was wearing my contact lenses, I missed identifying the BRC crew unfortunately, but I did see my colleague David at 18th Street, but only because I recognized his voice. Some extra pep in the tank, thank you Dave!

7:04, and then 7:12 flat. It looked ugly, but I tried not to care. I felt like I was running with a limp. In the last 1.2 miles I picked up the pace gradually as I could.  I saw my family a final time at 13th Street and then in the last 400 meters gave it all I had left.  I don’t mean to be cocky, but at this point I was only interested in passing as many people as I could and not being passed by anyone. A few were creeping into my peripheral vision, I bolted. I looked up at the race clock. It was closing in on 3:01 and fast. I let it all out. I used up the rest of my brain power deciding which pose to strike for the finish line photos: thumbs-up or number 1’s… I usually try waving or giving a thumbs-up but then I end up looking pretty nerdy, so I went with #1’s and crossed the mats. Hit stop on the watch. Exhilarated and exhausted it was the best feeling to be done. 3:00:54. Thank you hamstring, thank you.


As soon as I finished I heard, “Ken Wilson!” I’m like, ‘who the hell is that?’ …the other Erin, Erin C. also from the BRC gang. She was only 10 seconds behind me. 10 seconds. All I could think was, ‘why didn't we pace each other?’ It was good to know she was right there with me, and probably through most of the course she must have been nearby. We got a few race photos together, seemed like the natural thing to do. It was cool. We grabbed our free 312 beer and enjoyed. I didn't break 3 hours. I was 54 seconds away from it.  It bugged me but it didn't sting. I beat my PR that had over the last couple years started feeling like some sort of monument of stone, immovable and heavy. I know it means nothing to no one but myself, but I am 2 years balder and beat it by 3 minutes and 31 seconds.  So all I can say is, “Take that younger self. Take that.”


My virtual, and now very real, BRC gang met up at a local tavern after the race and celebrated. Upon entering the establishment the entire bar cheered and clapped. I was shocked. They were doing that for each of the runners that came in. I tell you that’s one way to stop your heart. The team all did really well and even though we each had quite a few of our own challenges to overcome, there were several PR’s. Congratulations, BRC:  my buddy Erin G. on her PR of 3:20:06; the other Erin, Erin C. with 3:01:04; Declan’s first marathon ever, 3:17; Annabelle’s new PR by 98 seconds: 3:13; Pete with a sweet BQ at 3:18; Violeta’s completion of her second marathon in 3 weeks; and pretty certain Susana PR'd by a minute. I apologize to everyone I didn't list or messed up here, I had a couple beers when I was talking to everyone at the bar and I’m still learning names. (If you tell me, I’ll list or correct it.) Thanks to my family, all the BRC and Chicago Dailymile runners out cheering on race day, and of course to the regular and overwhelming motivation the entire Dailymile gang provides. Everyone’s support has been and continues to be amazing. …And what about that guy without the watch you ask? Yeah my friend Collin while recovering from illness and running without a watch PR’d by 7 minutes: 2:50. Yeah. I wonder what was going on in his head for 26 miles. Point 2.



18 comments:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this read, felt some parallels about how the mind works since Sunday was my first "Boston lesson." Thanks for this, it provides some really useful insights. Best of luck going forward!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Chris, I had some internal conflict regarding what to say (and how much) in this recap. In the end I felt fortunate to get through the race, and connect with new friends along the way - so that's where I went. I appreciate your feedback!

      Delete
  2. Wonderful recap and congrats on the PR!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Jennifer! And thanks for spectating!

      Delete
  3. Great race Ken. We should get a beer sometime soon to celebrate, maybe after my race.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That'd be great Jeff, and really looking forward to hearing about a kickass race experience this Sunday. Hope you have fun and enjoy the race. I love running in Michigan.

      Delete
  4. It was great to meet you and be associated with your speed in some manner! Congrats on being top 200 in IL as well!!

    And congrats on the PR!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My speed? You ran a 3:17 out of the gate bud! That's 40 minutes faster than what I ran in the first marathon I really "raced."

      And very good to meet you too!

      Delete
  5. WOW, Ken....amazing race and so glad you could recap it with us here. Quite the accomplishment you achieved on Sunday, I'm super proud of you bud, those 55 seconds aren't going to stand a chance come next year!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Todd! You've been a major motivator for me this year, and I owe you like many beers bud. Thanks for all the positive encouragement!

      Delete
  6. Everything about this is fantastic. I am so happy for you and so, perhaps inappropriately, proud of you. Total world domination, man. Congrats. We gotta keep celebrating.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Inappropriately? Have to explain that one. You have been my 'buddy' all year. Thanks for pushing me and making me feel special. It's nice to have so many meaningful talks over the past year. You rock "sis."

      Delete
    2. ha, I'll explain on Monday ;) you ARE special! apparently you just need some reminders periodically. total rock star, bro. xo

      Delete
  7. Congrats on the impressive PR! You killed it out there.

    I really love your recaps. And now after reading this, Im realizing mine is built on a similar theme of being connected. :) BRC sounds like a great group of people- you're definitely in good company!

    Cheers

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thanks Charlyn! You're such a fun motivator between DM and Untappd. And being a south sider, you are one of the few people that I regularly look for on the path when I'm out for a run. Thanks so much!

      Delete
  8. Congrats Ken. The BRC men will have take no prisoners in 2014!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha, yes sir, I agree. Hmm does that mean we are planning a CM14 gathering then?

      Delete
    2. Sure. Also the Shamrock Shuffle has the team system as well.

      Delete