If you have spent any amount of time on this blog for the past nine weeks, you know that I’m in the midst of training for the Chicago Marathon. I wanted to run one half marathon during my marathon training cycle, and since neither Rock ‘n’ Roll nor the Chicago Half line up well with this year’s Chicago Marathon, I opted to run Zooma. Zooma not only worked with my training plan but also began and finished at Montrose Harbor, thus more or less making this a glorified weekly long run for me. I knew it would also be good practice for me in the running solo department, as I do not anticipate running the Chicago Marathon itself with my training group. When I registered for Chicago, I assumed I’d be training at an 11:00 pace at best (since that’s where I trained for my half last year) and as such estimated my finish time using that pace. Because of this, I’m in the corral behind the 10:30s, which means even if I do end up running the marathon at or close to a 10:30 pace, I won’t be able to start with most–if any–of the people in my training group. While it’s easy to run a 10:30 pace in a 10:30 pace group, I wasn’t so sure how I’d be able to run on my own, so I was glad I’d have Zooma as a chance to test that out.
After work on Friday I went to the Langham downtown (which is faaaaaaaaaancy) to pick up my packet. It was a relatively low key affair in a conference room and I was in and out of there in probably five minutes (much better than packet pickup for the BTN Big 10K a couple weeks ago).
I then walked down State Street to Italian Village, where I met up with my parents. They were on their way to Mississippi to pick up my sister, who had an internship there all summer, and agreed to finance my pre-race carb loading. I went to Italian Village before the Chicago Half last year as well, and I couldn’t help but comment to my parents on how different the experience was the second time around. Last year I was decked out in compression sleeves, supportive shoes, had barely walked anywhere all day, and was so nervous I could barely eat. This year I had walked from Trader Joe’s on Ontario to Italian Village on Monroe in thin sandals without much concern at all and was having a hard time remembering that to some people–to most people, really–a half marathon is a big deal. Marathon training definitely warps your perspective on what constitutes a significant distance.
I headed home after dinner and was in bed by 9. I actually had a lot of trouble falling asleep, which hasn’t happened to me before a race in a long time. Around 10:30 or so I finally caved and turned on my air conditioning, which helped from a comfort standpoint but not from a sinus congestion standpoint (stupid cold!). I have no idea how much sleep I really got Friday night, but it wasn’t as much as I would’ve liked.
I woke up Saturday at the same time I always do for my Saturday long runs, ate two pieces of toast with peanut butter per usual, and got myself ready to head to Montrose. I arrived at the race somewhere in the neighborhood of 6:30 and ended up standing right behind Sierra in the gear check line. We chatted for a bit and then met up with some other Chicago Running Bloggers. I hung around with them for a bit but peaced out before the traditional CRB photo so I could make one last bathroom stop before the race. Being the seasoned Montrose runner that I am, I skipped the portapotty line and headed straight to the bathrooms by where the CARA training runs begin, where I enjoyed luxuries such as flushing toilets and sinks. It’s the little things.
Zooma, compared to, say, the Chicago Half, is a pretty small race, so I wasn’t exactly holding my breath for pacers. I was happy, then, when I saw people walking out into the starting area before the race holding balloons with numbers that looked very much like half marathon times on them. I really wanted someone to pace me for a 10:30, and since the 2:20 pacers were shooting for 10:41 miles, I figured I could run with them at least for the start of the race. As it turned out, one of the pacers is actually currently training for Chicago with CARA 10:30s (though not my 10:30s), so I thought she’d be good to stick with.
I ended up hanging with the 2:20 pacers for approximately half a mile before feeling like I was running too slow, so I then decided I’d try to stay within earshot but still in front of them. That didn’t last long, either. I felt strong enough to run a bit faster than 10:30, so I went with how my body felt rather than what my “this is a training run, Bethany, so don’t be stupid” brain was saying.
Really, the first half or so of the race was quite nice. It took a bit too long to reach the first water station (I believe it was just beyond mile two), but the scenery was lovely. We ran all the way up to Bryn Mawr and then went over to the beach and ran next to it. While I’ve been to the top of the trail, I’ve never run along the lake up there, and the views are really gorgeous. We then wound around the northern bits of Lincoln Park for awhile before joining up with the Lakefront Trail again south of Montrose.
Things were all fine and dandy around here. It was a bit toasty in the sun, but I was feeling all right and running quite well (mile splits around this point: 10:17, 10:02, 10:14…all good stuff for this 10:30 runner). As we neared the Barry underpass, I began to do some mental math and realized I’d probably cross paths with my 10:30s, so I began to keep an eye out for them and saw them just a little north of the Nature Museum, which was very exciting. I wasn’t sure if any of them would recognize me running, especially since I haven’t been there for three weeks, especially since I was wearing my running sunglasses and a hat, but I gave them a nice, “Yeah 10:30s! WOOOOOO!!” while I passed them anyway. ❤ them.
During this time on the inner path, however, I saw a lot of Zooma runners heading north on the path, which I thought was strange, because according to the course map I saw, we were supposed to run on the Lakefront Trail itself at that point in the race, not on the inner path. I tried not to worry about it too much, but I was a little concerned. We got down to Fullerton and then turned to go back north around Diversey Harbor, at which point I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Zooma has good signage, and I’ll mention that in my recap.” Famous last words.
I had a friend taking pictures at the race, and as such I had spent a decent amount of time studying the course map both so I would know where we were running and so I could tell my friend where to go. Since the area by the the bridge at Diversey on the Lakefront Trail has a great view of the skyline and was on the course, I told my friend to set up there. As we approached this bridge, however, it became increasingly clear that I would not be crossing under Lake Shore to get to that bridge. The seven mile marker was actually on that bridge, but I was not, and this concerned me. There were no course marshals or signs to speak of in that area, though, so I continued following everyone else who appeared to be running the same race as me.
I ended up seeing my friend around Diversey Harbor and as I ran past, said, “I think the course is wrong!” This was on my mind as I continued up the inner path, on the Barry underpass, and back onto the Trail. According to my Garmin, I hit 8 miles about 1/10th of a mile before the eight mile marker, though, so I stopped worrying about things. I didn’t care if the course was long, but I definitely didn’t want it to be short.
We continued north on the trail beyond Belmont, around that curve at Addison, and eventually got to the Waveland Fields. Now, according to the course map, we were supposed to go around these fields, but once again, there were no course marshals or signs, so I, along with everyone in front of me that I assumed were running the race, continued straight on the trail, and at this point I began to get really suspicious.
Around this point I also started to slow down a lot. After a 10:09 seventh and 10:17 eighth mile, my ninth mile was a 10:49, which I was not too pleased with. I wouldn’t say I ever bonked in this race, but I was getting pretty hot, and I was getting pretty tired, and I was definitely ready for the race to be over, which my last four full mile splits show (10:49, 10:41, 10:39, 10:43). To compare, my first eight mile splits were 10:15, 10:28, 10:26, 10:17, 10:02, 10:14, 10:09 and 10:17, so obviously those 10:40ish times were a lot slower than I had been running.
Anyway. Back to the race. So I’m running north, now pretty sure that the course is short. I never saw a 10 mile marker, but when I hit the 11 mile marker, my Garmin said I was at 10.73 miles. I know Garmins are not necessarily an infallible gold standard of distance measurement, but my Garmin has never been off by an entire quarter mile that far into a race (.01, .05 miles maybe, but not .27), and the mile markers had more or less been accurate throughout the race (even after the 8 mile marker was wrong according to my watch, the 9 mile marker was right on), so I knew something was wrong. There was a lot of sun at this point on the course, especially when we ran past Foster Beach again, and I was increasingly frustrated by the realization that the course was short.
According to my official time, I finished the race in 2:13:44 (my Garmin says 2:13:42, but whatever. My official time and my Garmin time never line up in races, so that’s not really a big deal to me), which would’ve been a 8:50 PR for me if the race had actually been a half marathon. But it wasn’t. The course was 12.84 miles long, which is .26 short of a half marathon. A quarter mile short of a half marathon — about 400 meters, nearly half a kilometer. I don’t care how you want to phrase it: .26 miles short is significant. Again, I know my Garmin is not infallible, and there have been plenty of races where my Garmin and what the distance should have been did not line up (the BTN Big 10K, for example, was 6.24 miles according to my Garmin). But there is a HUGE difference between .04 and .26 miles. A huge, unacceptable difference.
I took my post-race water bottle, banana, and finisher’s necklace, but even as I took the necklace I knew I’d never wear it. It’s not really my style, which would be whatever, but I don’t like being reminded of races that completely failed my expectations (it’s why, for example, I never wear my Firefly 5K t-shirt, because that race was a disaster and a half).
Zooma had a program this year where you could get a special PR medal if you PR-ed at the race. Even though I’m a full believer in race medals (for races longer than a 10K, that is), I seriously contemplated not getting my medal, because 2:13:44 is not my half marathon PR. 2:13:44 is my 12.84 mile PR. I clearly would have PR-ed the race even if it had been 13.1 miles instead of 12.84, though, because it obviously would not have taken me almost nine minutes to travel an additional .26 miles (according to the pace calculator on coolrunning.com, I probably would have run a 2:16:33), so I took my medal anyway and then got myself out of there. I had no desire to hang around at a post-race party for a race that had not delivered in the distance department, so I went home and drowned my frustrations in pancakes.
I think the source of these course problems, and, as a result, the short course, is due entirely to the fact that there were no course marshals where there needed to be, which I think is absolutely unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to not have course marshals at a turn on the course, ever, anywhere, period, but it is especially unacceptable to not have course marshals when the racecourse is on the Lakefront Trail on a Saturday morning in August. The Lakefront Trail, obviously, was not closed to the general public during the race, which I don’t think anyone should or would have expected–I don’t think any race closes down the Trail–and that’s fine. But the Trail is an extremely popular place to run, especially on the weekend, especially during the summer, and as a participant in a race, you have no idea of knowing if the people in front of you are part of the race you’re running or if they’re just Jane Smith out for her weekly Saturday morning jog. It’s not like the Chicago Marathon or something where there are so many people running on a closed course that it would be impossible to get lost. Getting lost on a race on the Trail on a Saturday morning–with its multiple side paths and CARA runners and CES runners and Coach Brendan runners, and Team in Training runners and Team World Vision runners and Team 2 End AIDS runners, and random running club runners and just average, everyday, unattached people who enjoy running runners–is extremely easy. I don’t care that this was Zooma’s first time in the city of Chicago — if you’re going to put on a race anywhere, you need to do your research, and it should not have been at all difficult to learn that there would be a lot of people on the Trail on a Saturday morning, and as such the course needs to be well marked and staffed. The staffing thing also frustrates me, because early on in the race there were staffers on the course. Heck, even late there were staffers on the course telling me at Montrose that I needed to go north instead of heading back to the Harbor to go to the finish line. It would be one thing if I were near the back of the race, but Zooma’s website said the course would be open for 3.5 hours. A 2:13 is nowhere near a 3:30, and if you’re going to allow runners to finish the race in 3:30, you need to have that course staffed until the very last walker goes past you. There’s no excuse for not having staff on the course at my time. Maybe they had trouble finding volunteers, and maybe they needed all their paid staff at the start/finish area and at the post-race party, but if that’s the case, I’d much rather see my $90.50 registration fee (which was a steal — I was one of the first to register, so I got a discount. It was $105 for everyone else, unless you registered after July 27, then it was $125. Those kind of prices make Rock ‘n’ Roll look cheap.) go to hiring more paid staff to actually man the course rather than a water bottle, yoga mat, necklace and PR medal.
From a purely running standpoint, I’m glad I did this race. Not only did it show me how far I’ve come in the speed department compared to my half marathon last year, but it also gave me a good indicator of where I am just in general. I honestly think the heat hurt me more in those last four miles than my pacing (though the weather was by no means bad, it still got pretty warm in the sun, which in theory is something that shouldn’t be an issue in October, but you never know with Chicago), but I probably could have been more consistent in the pace department if I had run maybe 10 seconds slower per mile to begin with. All of this is good stuff to know before October 13, and Zooma definitely gave me the best opportunity to figure these things out before it really counts.
I’ve got to be honest, though: I’m pretty disappointed in Zooma as a race company as a result of Saturday’s race. I expected a lot more out of a company that, honestly, really seems in general to have its act together. These races have been going on for five years now, albeit never in Chicago before, and if you’ve been able to survive as a race company for five years, I expect you to know how to staff a race, especially if you’re going to charge me significantly more than any other half marathon around. I have no idea if Zooma will come back to Chicago next year, nor do I have any idea what my running will look like next year, so I’m not going to make any, “I’ll never do this race again!” claims, but if I do run the Chicago Marathon next year, I’d be pretty hesitant to make Zooma my half marathon for the cycle.