Finally, after five months of training, planning, dieting, and going almost crazy during tapering, race day arrived in typical fashion after a restless night with maybe four hours sleep. Normal pre-race routine was followed, shower, coffee, bagel w/peanut butter and honey, thanks to my lovely wife who went down in the early hours to the café at the hotel to gather the needed supplies. Then it was time to join the crowds of runners on the downtown streets of Chicago heading south towards Grant Park.
The line for portables was about as you would predict for a race of this magnitude but if I’m honest, I’ve been in far longer lines that were less organized at far smaller races – it’s just part of the ritual that we all endure before heading to the start line.
And, about two minutes later I got my first setback of the day. The corrals were due to be closed 20 minutes before scheduled start – for some reason I thought it was 15 minutes and after walking over to my gate, I found that it had been closed about a minute before I arrived to take my place with my pace team. My only option was to jog the ¼ mile to the ‘G’ corral gate and join the crowd. At first, my only real concern was that I wouldn’t be able to run with the four hour group, but given the magic that is GPS and armed with one of the newest devices to roll out of the Garmin factory that had guided me through 650+ miles of training and tune-up races, I wasn’t too concerned…this would soon change!
8:08 and my new Corral G buddies make our way to the start line and its go time! There were almost overwhelming levels of adrenaline and excitement heading out of Grant Park straight into the impressive downtown skyline that is Chicago. About a half mile into the first split, in the mid-level section of Columbus Drive my aforementioned awesome GPS gizmo from Olathe decides to go into meltdown. After exiting the tunnel, I have no reliable signal, the watch goes into auto-pause at random intervals and when I finally do get it going, it tells me I’ve just swam across the Chicago River and I’m on a pace to catch the Kenyon fellow out front…hmmmmm.
But, I have elapsed time (or close to it) and my temporary split tattoo impressively inked to my inner arm – I tell myself I just have to pace old school and hope that I have enough cognitive ability to perform some basic math in the last few miles…of course, I’ve run every step of my 650 miles or so of training with my watch pacing me so, just a minor mishap, right.
Across the bridge from the hotel at mile 1 I wave frantically at Paula who is stationed up in our hotel room looking down on the race with an awesome view. Shortly after, we get our first taste of the amazing Chicago crowds. As we headed to the main downtown section the noise was incredible…it felt like no other sporting event that I have ever attended, except this time, I’m the one being cheered…it was absolutely incredible from the very first mile.
While my watch was useless in providing any kind of pace guidance, the text notification function did still work so I was able to receive continuous encouragement from Paula along the way…but, of course, she was getting bad pace data and assuming I was going way too fast until she finally gave up and said run your race! I was joined around mile two by another guy looking to go sub-four for the first time – Mike an IronMan from North Carolina and we ran, paced, and chatted when we could over the volume of the crowds for the next 7-8 miles.
My half split was 1:57 – and I knew from elapsed time, I was right on target pace. The only major issue at this point was the pressing urgency radiating from my bladder…ugh. I didn’t want to stop and give up time so had passed on the portables somewhere around mile 12. But, as the discomfort level increased, I knew I was going to be forced into action. Somewhere around mile 17 there was a cooling station and behind the hose sprayer thing, a gate to an almost empty row of blue cabins of relief! No way could I pass it up…I had to keep hydrating and my bladder was refusing anymore liquids. I only lost about 90 seconds – and yes, I timed it and headed back to the course, knowing I had some time to make up.
Overall, the race was going fantastically well and despite the technical issues and the forced break, I knew I was right on pace and had conserved energy in the first half. But, it was getting warmer and the sun was beating us as we headed to the south side. I had been right on track with my gels and forced at least a few sips of Gatorade at every aid station. I had also been using my S-Caps since mile 12 to help with cramps…they are a small tablet with a mix of potassium, magnesium, and sodium and break down easily during a race. Fueling and hydration wasn’t an issue, no cramps, no major pains in my normal weak spots.
I arrive at mile 22 and shooting pain through the hip provides a very unwelcome wakeup call! No idea where that came from or why…neither hip had been a problem throughout 5 months of training, but this was sharp and took my breath for a second as I slowed to a jog to readjust.
There was no time for hip pain so pushed on with the crowds continuing to urge us to finish as if they were in our shoes running the race with us. One neighborhood after another pushing us closer and closer. By now, a lot of runners were reduced to a walk and I tried to verbally encourage as many of my comrades as possible but the truth was by mile 24 I was running out of gas myself. The sun was taking a toll and while I had avoided the wall, or ran through it – I’m really not sure, I knew I was slowing. I conjured up some grade school math and figured if I could run just under 10 minute pace for the duration, maybe 9:45, I got it, but it was going to be close.
PK had let me know in an earlier text that she would be on right side by the fence at the finish in the Bank of America bleacher section, courtesy of a ticket at the expo. In my depleted state as I approached mile 26, I thought I had missed her completely and despite the crescendo of noise sucking us towards the final stretch to Grant Park, I slowed to almost a halt. I was certain I had blown my goal, I had missed Wifey after she went through all the effort to come see me finish, and I was doubting every reason that I attempt to race this distance. Despite feeling completely beat, something told me I wasn’t done and it was time to toughen the up and finish with my head up and strong.
I picked up the pace again, hit the final turn and there was Paula screaming at me…I waved frantically, blew kisses, yelled I love you, to the delight of every spectator in the vicinity, and put my head down for a sprint…and, for want of a more eloquent description, I ran my ass off!! I hit the finish line having no idea if I had made my sub-4 goal, but within seconds of crossing the line I got the alert from the Chicago Marathon app (I had set it up to track myself), and as I mentioned in the previous post, it was the best text ever:
James Harris has completed the 2015 Chicago Marathon in 3:59:55
After a (very) short burst of sheer joy and exhilaration and some looks to the heavens, I realized any sudden movements would almost certainly trigger an immediate debilitating cramp, so I settled into the zombie finish shuffle, congratulating and receiving congratulations from fellow runners and the wonderful volunteers. I don’t usually drink a beer right after a race but there was a huge table with ice cold amber goodness being piped into cups 3 deep on the table…there was no way I was resisting and I can confirm that was the best beer in the history of beer, ever, period.
In terms of running experiences and personal accomplishments, being one of the 45,000+ runners being cheered by 1.7 million spectators at the 2015 Chicago Marathon is, without a doubt, at the top of my list. I loved everything about this race, from being notified that I had been picked in the lottery back in April, to the travel arrangements, the hotel, the expo, the pre-race dinner, and of course the race. My first World Major and my first sub-four hour marathon. Simply awesome experience.