Latest reviews by Tom
Mentioning the word "Disney" to a runner can evoke some interesting reactions - there are some people who absolutely love the runDisney series races and will go out of their way to do as many as they can, while there are others who want nothing to do with these races and avoid them like the plague.
Runners who love the Disney races will typically list the experience of running through the parks, photo opportunities with Disney characters at various points along the courses, cool looking collectible race medals and the general experience of participating in an athletic event associated with Disney as reasons to love these races. On the flipside, some of the cons I've heard are that the races are super expensive and disorganized, and that there are a number of people who sign up for the races just to get the medals and don't actually take the running part seriously (sometimes even purposely dropping out after the first couple miles and getting a ride to the finish line), along a general dislike of "gimicky" themed races where runners dress up in costumes.
When I ran the Disney Marathon in Orlando in 2009, I found my experience to be.... somewhere in the middle to be honest. It wasn't necessarily an amazing magical running experience, but it also wasn't a terrible one either. It was a fun race, and while I would agree that things could have maybe gone a little more smoothly at the start line, I enjoyed having the opportunity to run through the Disney Parks and get some behind the scenes views that aren't necessarily available to the general public, the expo was great, and I also really like the finisher's medal.
I'm also going to add something else that I view as a pro: I know a lot of beginning runners who had never thought about training for a marathon before hearing about the Disney races. And then after signing up for one, going through the training and running it, they fell in love with running, found other races to do and ultimately became a lot healthier as a result. I honestly don't know of any other running event or series that has inspired that many beginners to take up running for the first time (the Rock n Roll Marathons might be a close second but Disney still holds the advantage since it's so well known even outside of the running community).
When I did this race, there was one set of races at Disney World in Orlando in January and another at Disneyland in California in the fall but since then the series has grown into quite a long list of events. There were also a couple multiple race challenges where you would get an extra medal for doing both races (Half Marathon on Saturday + Full Marathon on Sunday at Disney World = Goofy Challenge... and anyone who did races in both Disney World and Disney Land in the same year would also get something extra). Those are still available but there are a number of new multiple race challenges available now, with the most well known one arguably being the Dopey Challenge (5K on Thursday, 10K on Friday, Half Marathon on Saturday, Full Marathon on Sunday).
I didn't do any fancy race combos - I did a 5K fun run through Animal Kingdom on Friday morning (with no official timing and a rubber medal - not sure if this race is even available anymore) and my daughter Sara did a kid's race on Saturday, but the main event that I went for was the full marathon on Sunday Morning. As much as the series has expanded since 2009, I don't think that very many changes have been made to the full marathon itself. The course starts at Epcot Center underneath the big ball and heads through part of Epcot. Most of this is in the dark because the race starts really early and then by the time it starts to get lighter out, runners are heading towards the Magic Kingdom where spectators are starting to line up along the course (all of the parks are open during the race and the course is roped off so people can come cheer for the runners or walk around the parks without everyone running into each other). The Magic Kingdom section of the course is probably the most memorable because runners get to go through the middle of the big Cinderella Castle. Right on the other side of the castle is a race photographer, so if you want, you can purchase a picture of yourself running out of the castle. Then the course heads over to Animal Kindgom where runners do a lap around the giant Tree of Life before heading over to Hollywood Disney where the course goes past the giant Fantasia Wizard Hat and through some of the trailers where all of the costumes are kept. After Hollywood Disney, the course heads back through Epcot and finishes back in front of the giant ball.
A few of my observations -
1. The expo is really good and has a lot of interesting vendors. It's at the Wide World of Sports Complex and is probably one of the biggest race expos I've been to. It also has a lot of freebies and discounts on merchandise so make sure you give yourself enough time to walk around and check everything out.
2. I think that the complaints about the races not being well organized are a bit overblown. I did have to wake up a little earlier than I thought I would for this race and there was a lot of milling around at the starting village before I actually got to go to my corral and start running but that was really the only issue I had, and honestly for the number of participants, I don't really know what the race organizers could have changed to make things any better.
3. Besides going through the parks themselves, the course goes through a number of back roads that connect the parks together. These are mostly service roads and not particularly exciting but it is kinda cool to be able to access parts of the parks that aren't available to the general public.
4. One of the side effects of running on the back roads though is that crowd support in this race is kinda weird. Inside of the parks there are a ton of people lining the course and cheering the runners on, there are also characters taking pictures with the runners and a few other surprises like animals and their trainers standing at the entrance to Animal kingdom..... but there are no spectators on the back roads because they aren't open to the public. So prepare yourself for periods of cheering and a big party like atmosphere followed by periods of almost complete silence.
5. This is not a hilly course but there are a few overpasses with inclines that can be a bit surprising if you aren't ready for them. That being said though, this definitely isn't as bad as other races I've done so it's barely even worth mentioning.
6. Watch out for the characters standing alongside the course taking pictures with runners. This is a really cool perk of the whole Run Disney experience but it can also be annoying - on more than one occasion I was cut off by runners on one side of me wanting to take pictures with a character who was standing on the other side. So make sure to be alert for these sorts of things (and on the flipside, if you're a runner who wants to take a picture with a character on the course, you're more than welcome to do so, but please don't run in the middle of a pack of runners and then cut people off on your way over to get your picture taken).
7. The weather in Orlando is beautiful at this time of year. After the race I went back to my hotel and sat in a hot tub outside and remember thinking that there was no way I would be doing this back home. If you travel from a northern state with colder weather down to Orlando in January, make sure you take some time after the race to relax and enjoy it.
8. Prepare to spend a lot of money - this is definitely a 'con' of doing any of the Disney races, but honestly as long as you know what you're in for up front and prepare yourself for it, it's fine. Also as a side note, I didn't stay at a hotel in the park because I thought it would save me some money. Don't bother with this - the hotel itself was cheaper but by the time I rented a car, paid for parking, gas, etc... it was a wash at best, and at worst I probably ended up spending more than I would have if I had just stayed at the park. Unless you're planning on going someplace else besides Disney on your trip, if you stay at one of the hotels at the actual park, you can catch a free bus from the airport and then a free shuttle bus to the race expo, start line, and from the finish line back to your hotel (along with shuttles to and from the various parks any time you want) so there's no need to rent a car or worry about transportation which will more than cancel out the extra money you spent on the hotel.
9. If you're going to sign up for this race, go all out and sign up for the Dopey Challenge (or at least the Goofy Challenge) - you'll kick yourself if you don't. One of my biggest memories of this race is from the post race party, which is at Downtown Disney a few hours after the marathon: runners who do the half marathon get a Donald Duck Medal, runners who do the full marathon get a Mickey Mouse Medal, and runners who do both races get both medals plus an extra Goofy Medal. I remember walking around the post race party with my Mickey Mouse medal, looking at all the Goofy medals and wishing I would have done the half on Saturday too. It was the only time I ever ran a full marathon and felt like I didn't put in enough miles. At the time I set a goal for myself to go back and do the Goofy Challenge at some point but now that the Dopey Challenge is available, I might need to do that instead.
10. As far as people signing up for the race just to get the medals and then purposefully dropping out after a couple miles because they never intended to run the entire course anyway.... I didn't see anyone doing this when I ran it (although I'm assuming that anyone who did this probably started at the back of the pack) and didn't even really know it was an issue until someone else recently told me about it.... I get that the medals are all collectible - they change every year and Disney only has enough made for the number of participants in the race, so they're pretty rare. I personally wouldn't feel comfortable taking a race medal if I didn't actually train for the race at all and knew ahead of time that I was going to drop out but hey to each his own I guess - I try not to concern myself with what other people are doing and like I said earlier, the fact that so many new runners really do train for these races and push themselves hard to earn their medals more than cancels out the others who are only in it for the bling.
Overall, I don't think I would ever necessarily go out of my way to do all of the races in the runDisney series (not because I have any specific complaints as much the thought of having a goal like that isn't something that gets me really fired up), but I would definitely go back and do this race again. In fact, I'm going to have to at some point so I can do the Dopey Challenge lol. In a few months I'm going to be doing the Zion Canyon Half Marathon in Utah, followed by the Grand Teton Half in Wyoming a couple months later and I'm looking forward to the natural beauty and being able to run through some U.S. National Parks a lot more than I would be looking forward to running through the Disney Parks again, but the race was not a bad experience at all. Love 'em or hate 'em, the Run Disney races are some of the biggest races around and have inspired countless numbers of people to take up running over the years, so in that sense, I think that the race organizers deserve a lot of respect.
I've done a lot of different races over the years, which means that I've also been to a lot of post race parties. Depending on the type of race, the location, the sponsors, and a number of other factors, post race parties can range from a couple tents with some snacks and beer all the way to full blown rock concerts. There's one post race party that really stands out in my mind though - so much so that even though I PR'd in the actual race itself, I still remember the post race party more than I remember the race.... and that's the Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon.
Now don't get me wrong though - the race itself is awesome too and even if it wasn't for the party, I would still recommend running it. In fact, it's probably one of the best half marathons I've ever done, for a number of reasons....
The weather is super mild. I did the race in 2008 but from what I've heard it's pretty close to the same every year - slightly overcast and high 50's in the morning, warming up to high 60's / low 70's and sunny by midday (perfect conditions for growing wine grapes). This is already nice by itself, but what makes it even nicer is that the race is in the middle of July when it's not always easy to find places to run that aren't unbearably hot and humid. I've done races in April and May that weren't as mild as this one weather wise so it made for a really enjoyable experience.
The course is amazingly scenic. The name of the race pretty much describes the course: the start line is in Napa, the finish line is in Sonoma and you spend the entire time running through rolling hills and vineyards to get from one to the other. Surprisingly, the course isn't as hilly as one would think based on the location (at least not compared to some of the nearby races like the San Francisco Marathon anyway) and elevation isn't an issue either. There are a few uphills and downhills but they're mostly gradual and with the scenery and mild temperatures, it's easy to forget that you're even running on them. Like I mentioned earlier, I PR'd in this race and I trained for it in Chicago where there are hardly any hills at all so they really weren't much of a factor on race day.
Another thing I like about this course is that it's only a half marathon - there is no option to choose between a full or a half. This is an interesting distinction that a lot of people don't always think about but something that I've noticed at times is that when there's a race that has both a full and a half marathon, anyone who signs up for the half ends up walking around at the expo and start line saying "eh I'm just doing the half" when someone asks them which race they're doing, as if running 13.1 miles is somehow not as big of a deal. In a race like this, there's no need to ask because everyone is doing the same race. For anyone who really enjoys doing half marathons, if you haven't done a race like this before, you should really try to find one - knowing that every other runner at the start line has the exact same goal as you creates a completely different dynamic.
There are also plenty of water tables, aid stations, restrooms, and other services available along the course.
The best thing about the race though, like I said, is the post race party, which is basically a several hours long wine tasting fest. The way it works is that in addition to a finisher's medal, every runner also gets a wine glass when they cross the finish line. Then right on the other side of the finish line is a series of tents with dozens of local wineries offering free samples... along with crackers, cheese, and other snacks. You just bring your finisher's wine glass around to the various tents and sample whatever you're interested in. The party lasts throughout the afternoon (so if you want to head back to your hotel and shower and change first, there's plenty of time) and by then it's a little warmer out so you can relax in the sun and drink wine or go for a walk around downtown Sonoma (which is a beautiful town) and check out some of the arts and crafts.... or if you're interested, you can pick your favorite wine and go on a tour of the winery since they're all local to the area and easy to get to.
A couple quick tips for anyone that's interested in doing this race:
Sign up early. This is not a huge race as far as the number of runners that are allowed to participate, but it is a really popular race (mostly for the reasons I mentioned above). Even though the race is in July, registration usually opens in the fall of the year before the race and tends to fill up pretty quickly.
If you're planning on flying, there is an airport in Sonoma.... but it's a small regional airport and it's probably cheaper and easier from a scheduling standpoint to fly into either San Francisco or San Jose and drive (about 2 hours from either place and it's a nice scenic drive). That also gives you the opportunity to extend your trip by a couple days and head back down to San Francisco after the race.
There are a lot of hotels in Napa and Sonoma. In most cases, when I travel for a race, I try to find the closest hotel to either the start or finish line (ideally within walking distance or one that has a shuttle) that also costs the least amount of money. This is one of the few cases where I would say that it actually is worth spending a little extra to stay at one of the boutique hotels that are listed on the race website. Most of the hotels in Napa and Sonoma are just as expensive as the ones on the site and there really aren't very many hotels that are super close to the start or finish lines anyway, so staying at a spa hotel with ponds and waterfalls and nice artwork and beautiful scenery will just enhance the whole Napa/Sonoma experience.
The course is point-to-point so picking up your car after the race can be an issue. Unless you're planning on turning around and running the course in reverse after you finish, you won't want to park near the start line (and there isn't any official race parking there anyway). There are a few places to park at various spots along the course but if you're planning on driving, your best bet is to park near the finish line in Sonoma and take a shuttle bus to the start line so your car will be waiting for you when you finish the race.
Enjoy - like I said, this was one of my favorite races and I really wouldn't even consider myself to be a big wine connoisseur (I'm more of a beer guy). The weather, the course and just the atmosphere during and after the race make it an awesome time and you'd be hard pressed to find a better Half Marathon in the middle of July.
Houston is the largest city in Texas and it's also the fourth largest city in the United States. It's a diverse, multicultural, international city with a deep history and a plethora of museums, sports teams, fine arts and theater attractions. It's also known for hosting a marathon and half marathon each January with one of the flattest, fastest courses in the United States.
Runners love the Houston Marathon because the mild January temperatures combined with the flat course give them a good opportunity to PR, qualify for the Boston Marathon, or reach any other speed goal that they've set for themselves. The race has become so popular, in fact, that the organizers have had to set up a lottery system for registrations to keep everyone from trying to sign up for it at once and crashing the race website. This registration system is similar to ones used by races like the Chicago Marathon, the New York Marathon, and the Marine Corps Marathon. This is all pretty impressive, but the most notable thing that I have to say about the Houston Marathon course is that I don't remember anything about it.
Don't get me wrong, I thought the race was great when I ran it in 2008 and I even set a PR for my half marathon time, but literally the only thing I remember about the course is that it was flat and fast. There were no interesting landmarks that stood out, and other than the fact that it starts and ends near Minute Maid Park, I can barely remember anything else that I saw along the course at all. This may have been due to the fact that I was so focused on my time that I wasn't paying attention to anything that was going on around me while I was running, but I've always thought that it was odd that this is the only race I can really say had no memorable moments whatsoever other than crossing the finish line and knowing that I had PR'd. A couple other people I've talked to that have done the Houston Marathon or Half Marathon have said the same thing, so it sounds like it's not just me.
All that being said though, the rest of the events surrounding the race were great - the expo was sized pretty well for the number of runners and had a nice variety of different vendors. There are a lot of hotels downtown that are either walking distance from the start and finish line or have shuttles available to runners, so finding a place to stay and getting around the city is not a problem. I stayed at the Magnolia which had special rates for runners, was a short walk from the start and finish lines, had nice views of the skyline and also had free cookies every night. Both races are well organized at both the start and finish lines (and they do have really good crowd support as well). There's also an excellent post race party with some of the best barbecue I've ever tasted. The marathon and half marathon are on Sunday morning and there's also a 5K fun run on Saturday that goes through some of the streets around downtown Houston.
Runners who do the 5K on Saturday and either the Marathon or Half Marathon on Sunday also get a bonus medal for running both days. The medals themselves are average - the half marathon medal is not the best medal I have in my collection but it's also not the worst. I remember thinking when I first saw it that it was a bit plain looking for a race as big as Houston, but I've noticed a general trend of race medals getting a lot flashier over the last few years so I would say to take what I'm saying here with a grain of salt because there's a pretty good chance that the medals have improved since 2008.
As far as travel and getting around goes, Houston is a great city to visit. If you're planning on doing the Houston Marathon, I would recommend getting there a couple days early so that you have some time to check out the Museum of Natural Science, the Space Center, the Sam Houston Monument, and the numerous other museums and parks that can be found throughout the city. You can also find a pretty good variety of places to eat (I would recommend Irma's Southwest Grill for Mexican food, The Hay Merchant for burgers, and Killen's for barbecue).
One other note about Houston and the Houston Marathon: anyone who lives in Texas or has traveled there more than once knows that because it's such a big state, there are a number of regions within Texas are very different from one another. So if you take any two major Texas cities and compare them (Houston vs Austin... Dallas vs El Paso... San Antonio vs Fort Worth, etc.), you'll find that the culture, the people, and the things to see and do vary widely from city to city, probably more than any other state. So even though I can technically cross Texas off of my list now that I've done the Houston Marathon, I still have this weird feeling that I won't really be able to say that I've experienced everything there is to experience when it comes to running in Texas until I do a few more races there in some of the other cities.
In the end, the course itself may not be particularly memorable, but I would still recommend it to anyone that's looking for a PR or wants to qualify for Boston. The events surrounding the race and all of the things to do around downtown Houston will definitely not disappoint.
In 2007, I had an idea of leaving the Chicago winter behind for a few days and going to run a race in Arizona.... the race itself was great, but my plan of warming up didn't quite go as planned. The day before the race, the temperature was in the low 30s when I left Chicago and it was 75 and sunny when I stepped off of the plane in Phoenix – perfect! So I went to the race expo, picked up my packet, went out and found something to eat and made sure I knew how to get to the start line the next morning, checked into my hotel, watched a little TV and then went to bed early so I could be up in time for race the next morning…… then sometime around 2am, I woke up shivering because the room was FREEZING!
Apparently a cold front had come through Phoenix that night. And it came through fast. Within a few hours the temperatures dropped from the 70s to below freezing. It was at this point that I suddenly realized how much people who live in northern states take central heating for granted. You see, in Phoenix, the temperatures usually don’t get cold enough to require any kind of artificial heating, even in the middle of January…. and it also doesn’t usually get cold enough to require super warm blankets on hotel beds. So even though I was staying at one of the best hotels in downtown Phoenix, the heating system consisted of an old radiator and some thin blankets that would have been perfectly fine on any other occasion. So I turned on the radiator, bundled myself up and did my best to get back to sleep.
I think it’s important to stress here that this was no ordinary cold front – it was record breaking. The temperature in Phoenix for the remainder of the weekend was the coldest ever in recorded history and it was also the first time in over ten years that there was measurable snowfall. I woke up to temperatures in the low 20s, a light dusting of snow on the ground (but still snow nonetheless), frost, and frozen water fountains around downtown Phoenix. The weather stayed like that for the rest of the weekend and the two most ironic things about the whole experience were:
Back home in Chicago, there was a record warm streak. The temperature was in the high 50s. If I would have stayed home, I would have been able to run outside in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt.
Literally the day after I left Phoenix, the temperatures went back up to the mid 70s there and dropped down to the 20s in Chicago.
Luckily, I came (sorta) prepared. I looked at the weather when I was packing and saw that there was a chance the temperatures could drop to well below the average for that time of year that weekend so I threw some warmer running clothes in my bag just in case. Now I should also mention though that the thought that went through my mind while I was packing was “yeah right, it’s Phoenix… how cold can it really get?” So my “warmer running clothes” pretty much just consisted of a a long sleeve tech shirt. Long running pants, gloves, a hat or a sweatshirt? Yep, left all that stuff at home. The temperature eventually did warm up to the high 40s by the time I finished the race, so it wasn’t really that bad in the end but standing at the starting line was brutal.
The cold weather did cause something to happen during the race that was pretty funny though. You see, 2007 was fairly early in the history of Rock n Roll Marathons (in fact, besides Phoenix, there were only 3 other races in the entire series at that time), so it wasn’t like today where people travel in from all over the country to run these races. The majority of participants that year were from Arizona and New Mexico. While I had been training for the race throughout November and December back in Chicago and dealing with temperatures that were near or below freezing on a regular basis, almost every other runner there had been training in 50-60 degree temps and some of them had never run in weather that cold. So while I did fairly well and finished the race in just under 2 hours (which was pretty standard for me at the time), most of the local runners ran a lot slower and complained about not being able to get their legs to turn over. So I would have definitely liked for it to be warmer, but the cold weather really didn’t bother me that much and my age group and division rankings were a lot higher than usual.
Apparently being that cold for that long made me look really pale or something though because after I crossed the finish line, one of the race officials asked me if I was OK and wanted to bring me to the medical tent even though I felt just fine. So I guess there are two lessons here:
1. I don’t care where the race is, you should always look at what the weather is going to be like and plan ahead for unusual conditions.
2. If you’re used to running in cold weather and happen to get lucky enough to do a race in a place that’s usually really warm but happens to have a major cold snap at the time, you might actually do pretty well.
Aside from the cold weather, the course itself was nice and flat and fast. There are a few miles in the middle that go through part of Scottsdale that aren’t particularly scenic but the rest of the course is beautiful – you’re surrounded by mountains and desert scenery almost the entire time. After the race, there’s a big party at ASU and with Tempe being a college town, a lot of the local bars have food and drink specials for runners who bring in their medals.
I do have one suggestion as far as parking and picking a hotel to stay at goes: the start line is in Phoenix and the finish line is in Tempe, and there are shuttle buses that will take you from the finish line to the start line before the race, but not the other way around. The way it works is that runners park near ASU in the morning, take the shuttle to the start line and then their cars are waiting for them after the race. If you park near the start line, you’re on your own as far as finding a way back. So in 2007, I stayed in Phoenix and had to navigate around the road closures to get to Tempe on race morning, but in 2010, I stayed in Tempe and getting to the start line was much easier. So my suggestion would be to ignore the suggested hotels in Phoenix that are on the race website and find a place to stay in Tempe. There are tons of nice hotels that are close to ASU and some are even walking distance from the campus, which is ideal because if you stay in one of them you won’t need to worry about driving anywhere on race morning.
As far as the other details like the expo, race medals, etc…., I can’t complain about any of it – the Rock n Roll marathons have always been pretty well organized and have offered some pretty nice bling and if anything, they’ve only gotten bigger and better since I did these races. So if you’re looking for a good race to do in January, definitely check this one out. Just make sure to remember that even though it’s Arizona, you should still bring some warm running clothes just in case.
Ok, so this is obviously several years old, but in honor of the Chicago Marathon being this weekend, I wanted to post a review of my very first one:
I had done several 5Ks and even a couple half marathons in the past, but I remember realizing as soon as I got to Grant Park the morning of the 2006 Chicago Marathon that this was going to be a completely different experience.... and it wasn't just because of the longer distance - it was the entire atmosphere surrounding the race.
The weather had been perfect for running the day before the race - sunny with a high in the mid 60's, but typical of Chicago in October, race day itself was cold and rainy. It didn't matter though - as thousands of runners stretched, warmed up, got good luck hugs and kisses from loved ones and shuffled into their corrals, there was a buzz in the air that was unlike any of the other races I had done before. I've heard plenty of stories about people being nervous at the beginning of their first full marathon, but for some reason, I wasn't. It may have been because I had spent the entire summer training hard and felt confident that I was going to have a great race, or maybe it was the energy in the air at the start line or me being in awe of running my first marathon and being determined to prove to myself that I could do it... or maybe I was just too naive to realize what it was really going to be like to run a full marathon, but in any case, the butterflies that I was expecting to feel in my stomach while I was standing at the start line just weren't there. All I felt was a feeling of resolve to do whatever it would take to run a strong race all the way to the finish line mixed with excitement at the thought of running 26.2 miles through what I still consider to be the best city in the world.
Despite the weather, I have so many good memories of the 2006 Chicago Marathon that it's hard to list them all out. The most obvious one was that it was my first full marathon. I ran harder and longer than I ever had before for over three and a half hours, experienced some of the greatest highs, pushed myself to keep moving forward through the toughest lows, saw some of the most amazing sights the city has to offer, and knew the second I crossed the finish line that for the rest of my life, nobody would ever be able to take away the fact that I was now a marathoner.
On race day I made my way to my coral about a half hour before the start time and looked around in awe at some of the other runners. I talked to a lady from New York City who was planning on running Chicago and then flying home and running the New York Marathon a few weeks later. She said it was her third time doing that (back then it was a lot easier to register for races than it is now). I saw an older gentleman who had an announcement written in sharpie marker on the back of his shirt that said that it was his 11th and final Chicago Marathon and hoped I would be able to do that many. I saw runners with names of charities or pictures of loved ones that they were running for on their shirts, fidgeting with their GPS watches and talking to each other about their strategies for the various parts of the race or just about running in general.
When the race started, dozens of old sweatshirts and plastic bags that people had been using to keep warm while they waited began to fly to the sides of the course while the first sets of runners started to head north on Columbus Drive. I remember a bunch of runners (myself included) letting out loud WOOHOOs when we ran underneath the overpass by Randolph Street and listening to them echo through the tunnels.... and I tried to take as much in as I could and enjoy my running / sightseeing tour of Chicago.
The first few miles of the Chicago Marathon are always pretty congested with runners weaving back and forth to try and find a comfortable pace. It isn't until about mile 10 that things really start to open up. After the race, I remember looking at my split times with a runner friend and she asked me how I managed to speed up and run the second half of a marathon faster than I ran the first half. I told her that I didn't really speed up - I just finally got enough space to run at the pace I wanted to. Regardless of that though, the course is so flat and the weather is (usually) mild at that time of year so a lot of people still tend to PR and qualify for the Boston Marathon in this race, so if I have one piece of advice for anyone running the Chicago Marathon, it would be to not stress out about your pace too much in the beginning. Just go with the flow and try to gain some ground when you can, but save your energy and keep in mind that things will eventually open up and you'll be able to use all that extra energy to push yourself harder later in the race.
One of the best things about the Chicago Marathon is that the course goes through 29 different Chicago neighborhoods so runners really get to see what life is like all around the different parts of the city. The crowds in Boystown, Old Town, and River North are amazing. It's still early enough in the race when the course goes through that area that nobody is feeling too sore yet (this is about mile 8 through 12) and the music, dancing, thick crowds of spectators, and general overall atmosphere make it feel more like you're in the middle of a massive party that stretches out over several miles than running a marathon.
About a block or so after the 13th mile marker I remember thinking to myself "OK this is officially the furthest I've ever run in a race". That by itself gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment that helped carry me through the next several miles..... which ended up being pretty good because the loop around the United Center during miles 14-16 can be pretty dull. I honestly don't mind this part of the course though - I know that most runners will say that it's not their favorite stretch, particularly because there's not a lot of crowd support here and the course tends to get pretty quiet as soreness is starting to creep in, but for me, this is an area of the city where I spent several years working in while I was in college in the late 90's, during a time when people were afraid to go outside because of the amount of crime in the area.... and over the last several years, I've watched it go through one of the most amazing urban renewals that I've ever seen. The transformation has been stunning and I'm still in awe so running through the area and thinking about what it used to look like and how far it's come since then always brings a smile to my face.
At mile 18 there were some people who had set out their own "water" table in front of their house and were handing out tequila shots to any runners who dared to stop and do one. After some internal debate, I decided not to do a shot myself (I was focused on running hard and finishing strong) but a number of runners did and it made me laugh. I did the Chicago Marathon again a few years later and looked for the people with the shot table but unfortunately I couldn't find them....
By mile 20 my body was craving protein and all I could think about was how much I wanted a nice big steak taco. I didn't care how badly my legs were hurting or how many more miles I still had to run... all I wanted was some nice juicy red meat... in a corn tortilla surrounded tomatoes, onions, and peppers.... and the fact that I was running through Pilsen, which has some of the best Mexican restaurants in the city (and probably even in the entire US for that matter) definitely did not help my craving to subside. I think I might have grabbed an orange slice at the next water table, but alas... an orange is not a taco.....
Throughout miles 21 and 22, I remember having to make a conscious effort to push myself to keep running. The pain in my legs was really starting to set in and I was sweaty and tired but running through Chinatown and watching the parade of dancing dragons and listening to the cheering and music during mile 22 gave me a nice boost. This couldn't have come at a better time.
When I hit mile 23, I remember thinking "ok all that's left is a 5K... I got this". My legs were far too worn out to let me run any faster than I already was but it wasn't long before I was heading north on Michigan Avenue by that point and I could see the Chicago skyline and at that point I knew that I would be crossing the finish line in less than a half hour.
Mile 24 and 25 were kind of a blur... that section of the course is pretty flat and the crowds along Michigan Avenue keep getting bigger and bigger as the finish line gets closer and closer. I remember feeling like I was slowing down and the miles were taking longer than I wanted them to, but that was offset by the feeling of knowing that I was going to finish this.... and that I would be finishing very soon. My legs were stiff, my skin felt like a sweaty, salty mess, and my clothes were soaked with rain and sweat, but I didn't care... I wasn't going to stop. Close to the end of mile 25, there are signs that start to pop up alongside the course that count down exactly how many feet are left until the finish line (1000, 750, 500.....). Looking at these helped give me another extra push.
At mile 26, runners turn onto Roosevelt Road and run up the only significant hill on the entire course before turning back into Grant Park and heading to the finish line. This isn't a particularly long hill and it's definitely not as steep as the hills that you'll find if you go running in places like Seattle or San Francisco.... but it's a hill nonetheless and after running on nice flat even ground for the entire race up to that point, it can feel a bit daunting.... But by then I knew that I had made it that far and that this one last hill was the only thing that's in between where I was and the finish line, so I push myself hard to get over it.
Crossing the finish line gave me this really weird surreal feeling. I was in pain, but I felt great. I had just done something that I never thought I would have been able to do but it still hadn't sunk in yet that I had actually done it. I got my race medal and some post run snacks and relived parts of the race in my head while I walked over to get my gear and started to notice the pain in my legs...... Then I changed into some dry clothes and went to go get the one thing I had been craving for over an hour - steak tacos (and a beer too of course). Since that October day in 2006 I've done five more full marathons in various places both in the US and internationally, but some of my fondest memories will always be of my first ever Chicago Marathon.