The Chicago Marathon 2016. 45,000 Runners going the full distance. The weather was 55 degrees of perfection. I had trained harder for this race, than any other. I stood on the starting line feeling rested and strong, with no excuses not to run my best race.
Marathon training for me is more about the camaraderie of the process. Seriously, who wants to get up at 4 am in the dark and run by themselves? I trained and traveled with 3 fabulous runners who also happen to be my dear friends. Our last marathon was also the first for Abby, Christina and myself (Shannon’s our veteran). When we tackled the hills of Nashville in 2014, our goal was simply to finish. I did complete it, but I crashed brutally into the “wall ” at mile 16 and never fully recovered for the rest of the race. Chicago for us was not about just finishing, it was about finishing fast ….at least “fast” for middle age suburban moms.
We read The Hanson Method book and followed the training plan excruciatingly well. It calls for 6 days of running, including intense speed work and blister making tempo runs. The plan packs in a ton of mileage but keeps the “long” runs at 16 miles every other week. We pushed each other to give it our all. I can’t can’t imagine training for a race alone, especially the grueling tempo runs. Even when we couldn’t physically train together due to our hectic schedules, we were constantly texting each other encouragement and/or complaining about how every last fiber of every single muscle in our legs was tired. Despite the intensity of the training we were all a little worried about the lack of the classic “20 miler” in our plan.
When we boarded the plane from Nashville to O’Hare on Friday, we left behind 10 kids, 4 husbands and all our responsibilities. We were all giggles on the way to the airport. We were going to Chicago. To Run a Marathon. Without Children! It was definatly helpful to go up 2 days before the race to have plenty of time to rest and hydrate before hand.
I was all nerves as we checked in to the hotel (the ‘W’ on Lake shore drive). The training had consumed so much of my most prized commodity: my time. As much as I wanted this opportunity to prove myself and finally have a few days of down time (yes, I consider running a marathon “down time”), there were many times I had felt selfish for choosing to run this race. Granted most of my miles were run before my kids/ husband even woke up, but working mommy guilt is often not logical. Regardless, I didn’t want my training to be in vain. I don’t get the chance to do this often. I wanted it to count.
I tried to follow all the rules including cutting out sugar and alcohol and keeping my caffeine to a minimum (one small cup of coffee… which for a busy OB/GYN isn’t nearly enough) the week before the race. I counted my carbs, which consumed 70% of my calories; which is annoyingly hard when you are not eating sugar. However, I did make an exception that was well worth it. Our dinner Friday night at Geja’s Cafe. I always eat at this quaint fondue restaurant when I’m in Chicago. It did not disappoint. The food, wine and atmosphere were spectacular.
We rested surprisingly well, considering we all stayed in one room. The rooms at the W were quite small so I wouldn’t recommend 4 adults in a double, but we made the most of it. Saturday we slept in and ordered room service coffee. It cost a million dollars, but was worth every delicious drop. We scarfed down a breakfast of pancakes and then made our way to the expo. We walked a mile down Michigan Avenue to catch a shuttle from the Hilton. The skies were crystal clear and a brisk breeze wafted off Lake Michigan. It was a perfect day and the weather man promised race day to be its equal. The city was full of runners and you could feel the excitement in the air.
The expo was ginormous and by the time we made it there, I think all the other 45,000 runners were also there. I would have loved to spend hours browsing the booths, but we were determined to save our legs. The convention center that the expo was held in was confusingly huge, and we had trouble getting an Uber back to the hotel. When we finally did head back to the hotel, we got stuck in traffic. It seems that President Obama had come to watch us run as well. While that was nice of him; his motorcade kept shutting down the roads.
The night before the race, we ate pasta in the hotel restaurant and headed to bed early. As much as I love Chicago, this was not the time for sightseeing or late nights out on the town. This was time for race prep.
Race morning I ate a bagel with peanut butter and banana, chugged as much water as possible, and headed out. The hotel lobby was packed with runners; the air was electric with race jitters. We were about a mile from the start and decided to walk rather than try to catch an Uber. In hind sight, we would have been fine driving, but I was worried about road closures and getting stuck in traffic.
We walked down Michigan Avenue then entered into Grant Park for bag drop and one last trip to the plentiful port-a-potties. Standing in the corral, I once again began to doubt my training. Per the Hanson Method training plan, I had never ran more than 16 miles… could I really run strong for 26? My mantra became “trust the process and stick with your plan.” I was determined to not go out too strong, so I had set my Garmin to alert me if I was going too fast for the first 20 miles.
Sometimes it seems that you are in the corral forever, but it was only a few minutes before I crossed the start line. As I ran through the city over the first few miles, the spectators were several people deep cheering on the runners with the typical cache of funny signs and encouraging mantras. But it wasn’t just the first couple of blocks, there was crowd support for the entire 26.2 miles. Not simply people standing there bored, staring at the phones and looking up at you annoyingly as you pass by because you are not their wife, but people cheering their heart out for every random stranger. I had read this about the Chicago Marathon, but I thought it had to be an exaggeration. It was completely true: the crowd support was amazing.
The first 13 miles my hips felt sore and tight, not painful but I was worried they would get worse. Thankfully they loosened up at about mile 14 and didn’t bother me anymore. I tried to keep my pace around 8:50, but my Garmin was off due to all the buildings. It was hard to know exactly how fast I was going. I was definitely conservative in the first half. Despite 45,000 people running the race, the course was not too crowded. I made sure I fueled frequently, taking in either a GU or gatorade every 4 miles. I loved running through downtown, across the bridges and down the middle of famous streets with the breezes off Lake Michigan keeping me cool. Mile 16 came and went in a blur, and when I rounded the corner at mile 20 I felt strong. I realized the the Hanson method had worked. I didn’t hit “a wall” instead I put a determined smile on my face and picked up my pace for the last 10K.
The last few miles I started getting texts from my family on my Garmin. I got an extra bolt of much needed adrenaline knowing that my family was cheering me on from 2 states away. When I saw the finish line, I started to cry. I had done it. I wasn’t sure of my time at that point but I knew I had ran my best race. I had trained hard and ran smart. I finished strong and ran the second half of the race 6 minutes faster than the first. At 3:54 it was a 30 min PR for me. That crazy Hanson Training Method had worked.
The volunteers at the finish line were so excited. I cried again when they put the medal around my neck, overcome with emotion and exhaustion. As I walked the famous 27th mile after the finish line, I felt euphoric. I was a real athlete. A competitor. During those 26.1 damn miles I wasn’t a 41 year old mom, wife, doctor, friend or Sunday school teacher. I was just Heather, proving to myself that I could do something I never thought I could do in my wildest dreams: run a sub 4 hour marathon.
We all finished within 10 minutes of each other. After downing a celebratory beer, we hobbled back to hotel. The mile back felt more like 17 miles at that point. Fourluxurious showers later, we went out and ate our weight in Chicago style pizza. We slept like babies that night and headed home the next morning with new medals in our suitcases and giant grins on our faces.
I went to Chicago searching for marathon redemption and I found it. My first try at the classic distance in Nashville left me feeling defeated as I limped across the finish line. For my second try I trained harder, ran smarter and ran 26 glorious miles without hitting “the wall.”