Well, folks, I did it: 26.2 miles on my 26th birthday. Now I can go ahead and cross that item off my bucket list.
The Fox Valley Marathon takes place in the far western suburbs along the Fox River, starting and finishing in St. Charles and taking runners through St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, and Aurora. In addition to the full marathon, the race also has a half marathon and a 20 miler, as the race happens to perfectly coincide when Chicago Marathon runners should be doing 20 miles. Unless, of course, you are this Chicago Marathon runner, who decided to throw caution to the wind and run the whole darn thing three weeks before race day, too.
The race had several packet pickup options which I, as a carless city dweller, really appreciated. You could pick up your packet at Fleet Feet in Old Town the week before the race (which I did), attend the expo in the ‘burbs on Friday or Saturday, or pay a $30 fee to pick up your packet on race day, which I would have done if the city option hadn’t been available. But since it was, I went with that choice.
Outside of the Chicago Marathon, I think this is the first time anyone has actually checked my ID when I picked up a race packet, but that seemed to be pretty par for the course for this race. The attention to detail, from top to finish, was absolutely unparalleled. I don’t have any complaints about the organization of the Chicago Marathon–I think that event, at least in my experience, runs like a well-oiled machine–but I was blown away by Fox Valley. For example, each race was color coded–green for the half, orange for the 20, blue for the full–and that color coding ran through the entire event. Your packet pickup bag (which also served as your gear check bag), your bib, your medal’s ribbon color, the arrows on the course, the mileage signs on the course: everything’s color reflected the appropriate race distance (except at the places on the course where all three events shared the same course. Then everything was blue.). The race-provided guides were also so detailed and so helpful. I was seriously so, so impressed, and would recommend this race to anyone based on that alone.
I try not to worry too much about race day forecasts, because if anything is an exercise in futility, it’s worry about race day forecasts. Nevertheless, I almost always end up worrying about race day forecasts, especially when they’re poor, and this race was no exception. While it was a beautiful day by conventional standards–not a cloud in sight, warm temperatures–those conditions are far from ideal during a marathon. I ran through that kind of misery last year at Chicago, and didn’t particularly have any major desire to repeat the experience.
It was fairly cool when I got the the race site around 6 a.m. on Sunday. It took me a little while to figure out where everything (i.e.: the portapotties) were, but eventually I found them behind the start line. I hung around for a bit and headed over to the start area around 6:45 or so. All three events started at the same time, and while the race only let 100-200 people start at once, there weren’t any specific, organized corrals. At a race that size, though, I don’t think you really need them. They had signs indicating where you should line up based on your anticipated pace, so I found a spot near the 11:00/mile sign and crossed the start about eight minutes after the race itself began.
My strategy, per usual, was to hold back as much as I could in the first miles and gradually increase my pace to, ideally, negative split the race, or at the very least, not bonk. I hoped to go out at about an 11:30 or so pace and felt like I was barely moving at all for the first mile, so I was SHOCKED to see my watch tell me 10:41 when I hit the one mile mark. I genuinely thought I was running at least one minute per mile slower than that, and could not believe how easy that first mile felt.
We continued on south through Geneva, winding a bit through downtown. I haven’t spent much time (…any time…) in the western suburbs, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve always turned up my nose at them, assuming all of them to be fake non-towns established in the 1950s with no center, no history, no originality, no anything that would make them in any way appealing to me or anyone else who prefers to keep cookie cutters in the kitchen and out of subdivisions. Well, folks, I owe an apology to the entire Fox River Valley. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was to discover that St. Charles, Geneva, etc. are not terrible (that is to say: not Schaumburg. MAN do I hate Schaumburg, even if it does have an Ikea. Schaumburg is the embodiement of everything I loathe about suburbia.). After all, they are along a river, which would’ve made it a logical place to set up a town in the earlyish 1800s. Regardless, I was SO surprised to find that these towns actually had downtowns, and not only did they have downtowns, but they had lovely downtowns! I found Geneva in particular to be especially nice, and I really enjoyed running through it.
Perhaps the only thing I found more surprising than the loveliness of St. Charles, Geneva, and Batavia (I wasn’t all that enamored with Aurora, but I also didn’t see any of it beyond the Fox River Trail, as we didn’t veer off the trail at all during that portion of the race) was my pacing during the marathon. Historically, I’ve been fairly inconsistent in my pace from mile to mile, both in marathons themselves and kind of general, though I think I’m starting to get better at pacing overall. Anyway, I was shocked every time I looked at my watch though the first portion of the race. I was so consistently running 10:5x miles (with two 11:0x miles) that, heading into mile 10 or so, I started think I may average a 10:57 pace across the entire race. I did, however, have the benefit of this not being my first rodeo, and knew that mile 10 was far too early to start having any sort of real expectations about how the following 16 miles would shake out.
Around mile six, we ran through the Fabyan Forest Preserve, which was so pretty. Actually, most of this course was really pretty. Granted, it doesn’t take much to impress me with a course’s scenery these days–take me off the Lakefront Trail and I’m a happy camper–but I really enjoyed running through the woods along the river for (most of) the race. (The last few miles weren’t so wooded, but I’ll get to that later.) Somewhere in this forest preserve, a spectator had a sign that said something about losing toenails, and a runner just to my left commented that he had never lost a toenail in a race. I assumed this would be the beginning and end of our interaction, but oh, how wrong I was. Now, I don’t hate talking to people while I run–I do it all the time on my Saturday runs–and I certainly love to have company, but I really think I prefer to listen to people around me talking and not talk to anyone myself while running. This toenailed runner, however, was not of that same mind, and set about to chatting with me for the next two miles, even after I ditched him at an aid station soon after he started talking to me. So I learned about his girlfriend, and his triathlons, and his swimming, and his job, before getting to the eight mile mark, where he turned around and headed north with the rest of the half marathoners, while the 20 milers and my fellow full marathoners continued on south.
The half marathon course split off at mile eight(ish), and after that the full and 20 continued on together until mile 12(ish). Here, the 20 milers turned east to cross the river and then headed back north, while we marathoners kept going south for three miles before turning around and coming back up to that 20/26.2 split, where our course rejoined the 20 mile course. This meant that when I hit mile 12, there were lots of speedsters coming towards me, which I thought was really cool. The 3:25 pace group was the first group I saw, but there had been runners before that as well, so the first people I saw were all probably doing close to a 3:20 or so. Since the Chicago Marathon doesn’t have any out-and-back portions on the course, this was the first time I’ve ever seen those mythological runners for whom a BQ is not a laughable prospect, and it was really cool! I wish I could be one of those people.
Dehydration was my biggest downfall during last year’s Chicago Marathon, so in an effort to maintain some electrolyte balance, this year I brought pretzels along on the run. I had pretzels once during a long run months ago and they didn’t bother me, so even though I’ve barely practiced with them at all, I figured I’d give it a shot during the race and see what happened. I’m SO glad I did this. It was wonderful to eat real food instead of chews, and the saltiness tasted fantastic.
When I hit mile 16, I looked at my watch and was surprised to see an 11:21 split. That was nearly 30 seconds slower than I had been running, but I didn’t feel like I was putting in any less effort than I had been at any other point in the race. In retrospect, I imagine this was me hitting the wall, though it was really less of a “wall hit” than a “gradual encounter with the wall,” more along the lines of my bonk at Chicago in 2013 than my bonk in Chicago in 2014, which was immediate and obvious the second I turned onto Taylor Street that year.
Heading into this race, my #1 goal was to not feel sick when I finished. It was my birthday, after all, and I had food plans that I did not want thwarted by the marathon. When I got to mile 17.5 (by my watch – I didn’t run the tangents all that well and by that point in the race was about .2 miles ahead of the mile markers), I realized that I could continue running and be miserable, or start run/walking and probably be all right when I finished (this is actually the exact same thought process I had during my 20 miler two weeks ago). With that in mind, I decided to do four minutes running/one minute walking intervals for miles 17.5-18.5, and then would reevauluate. My “reevaluation” turned out to be more of a “complete deviation from the plan.” Honestly, there was very little rhyme or reason to my walk breaks after that. I tried to be somewhat consistent, but sometimes my heart wasn’t in it to start running again, or sometimes my heart wasn’t in it to start walking again, so I kind of just did whatever felt right–though that that point, very little felt right at all. I felt miserable and just wanted to cry (and did cry when I saw my family around mile 20ish).
I was in the midst of a walk break when my Fitbit alarm went off at 11:18 – the moment I turned 26. Determined to not walk through that occasion, I started shuffling again. This was just past an aid station at mile 21.5, and I felt one billion percent awful. My legs hurt, my ego hurt, and the sun was killing me. While the first 20 miles of the course had a good amount of shade, the last six miles had barely any at all (which benefitted my lack of willpower, because at some point I decided I would start running again when I got to shade, and there was barely any shade to be found!). I knew, when I looked at my watch at mile 22, that there was no way I’d break five hours, which was definitely another goal of mine, so at that point I basically gave up entirely. I knew some people running the half and 20 miler, and texted one of them when I got to mile 23 detailing my misery (“This is absolute hell,” is how I started it.). They had all been waiting for me at the finish, but ended up meeting me on the course around mile 24.5 and walked with me for a bit. No matter how hellish I’ve ever felt during a marathon, I have always, always, always run the last 1.2 miles, and I was not about to not do that on Sunday, so I ditched my support crew and shuffled on.
My family was at the finish line, marking the first time they’ve ever seen me actually finish a marathon (since you can’t get into the finish area of Chicago these days). When they saw me, they started singing Happy Birthday, and the people on the other side of the finish chute joined in as well, which was touching. I crossed the finish line in 5:14:01, making this my second slowest marathon to date.
All things considered, I actually didn’t feel too bad when I finished. The race director was in the finish chute when I finished, and chatted with me for a bit, which I thought was a really nice gesture, considering I don’t even know they guy, and I don’t think he knows me, either. He even got me a cup of Gatorade, which I thought was so nice of him. The volunteer who gave me my medal first tried to hand me a 20 miler medal, to which I said, “Oh no, buddy, I ran the whole dang thing,” and made sure I got the right one haha. They had a GREAT spread of food for runners after the race–pizza, bagels, bananas, donuts, bread pudding, and potato chips, which was definitely put Chicago’s bag of food to shame (not that I don’t like Chicago’s bag of food, but I liked this a LOT more than a bunch of pre-packaged stuff like you get at Chicago). I knew I had brunch coming up, so I didn’t get much, but I was super grateful for the variety and effort nevertheless.
Post-race, we went to Nosh, a breakfast/lunch place in downtown Geneva, where I DEVOURED a three-egg omelet with bacon, ham and cheese, potatoes, and an English muffin. They had an awesome menu, and I wish Geneva wasn’t like an hour away, because I’d love to go there again. I’d also love to go to the All Chocolate Kitchen next door to Nosh, which I tragically did not make the time to visit while in Geneva on Sunday. I did, however, have Portillo’s for dinner later that day, including a slice of chocolate cake, of course, so that sort of makes up for missing the All Chocolate Kitchen.
I’m not particularly happy with how my race went. Ideally, I had hoped to run almost 30 minutes faster than I did, and while I know the weather and lack of shade during the last 10K was out of my control, I’m pretty frusrated with my performance. I wanted a 5:00+ marathon to be a one-time thing for me, or a two-time thing max, as I don’t particularly expect to break 5:00 at Chicago this year, given the whole “I already ran a marathon three weeks before Chicago” thing. I feel confident in my abilities at any race distance except the marathon, and that bothers me more than I care to admit. I don’t need to be the best marathoner, but I don’t even feel like I’m a particularly good marathoner, which really bugs me, since the past four summers–the past four YEARS, really–of my life have revolved around marathoning, and I still can’t seem to get that stupid distance right. I’m probably not training nearly enough for these races, at least in terms of weekly mileage, and I’m sure that’s a huge factor in my inability to do as well as I want to do during a marathon (that, and my diet, which could always stand a bit of improvement). On the flip side, I know when I’m training more, I feel like I’m not doing enough “other stuff,” and that bothers me as well, so I’m in a bit of a catch-22 with this, I suppose. I want to have it all–low mileage, three days a week of non-running training, plus a rest day, and fast race times–and that’s probably not going to happen.
However, I LOVED the Fox Valley Marathon. I cannot say enough good things about this race. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again–Chicago is much more convenient for me, since I live in the city and don’t have a car, and the third weekend in September is even more of a crapshoot than the second weekend in October as far as weather goes–but I’d recommend it to anyone. I loved the course, I loved the organization, I loved the small field, I loved that it didn’t feel like THE MOST IMPORTANT DAY OF MY LIFE, unlike Chicago with all its hype. This was, top to bottom, a fantastic, fantastic race, and I’m really glad I had the chance to run it.