After twelve weeks of training my face off–well, eleven weeks of training my face off, plus one week of shin pain/paranoia-induced super taper–it was finally time to put my hard work to the test at the Chi Town Half Marathon.
I got up at 5 a.m. and did my best to get my head in the game, listening to my favorite running motivational video on YouTube and even busting out my sacred I Run the Marathon to the Very Last Mile playlist on the Music app on my phone: a playlist heretofore reserved exclusively for marathon mornings (and the occasional time I need to warm up my dance class because my teacher’s running late, as that playlist and the Hamilton soundtrack are the only music I have on my phone, ha.). I was in a decent headspace heading out of the house, but I still only felt about 35 percent as confident as I hoped to feel when I left my apartment. Marathon Morning 2018 this was not.
I got a ride to the race and did a pretty good job of keeping it together until we got just past Irving Park on Lake Shore Drive, where we encountered an insane backup of traffic trying to get off at Montrose. I thought I had allotted plenty of time to get to the race, but clearly that wasn’t the case. After we finally got off the exit ramp, finding parking was impossible. People had parallel parked on Simmonds, even though you’re supposed to regular park on that road. All that parallel parking reduced the road’s parking capacity by nearly 50 percent, because now each individual car was taking up about 15 feet of parking space rather than the eight or so it should’ve taken.
I was freaking out about the parking situation. Like, literally crying in the car. I didn’t want to walk all the way (“all the way”) from the parking lot north of Wilson to the start line at the bend of Montrose (you know, that whole…half mile, maybe?), and I didn’t want to take off my sweats any earlier than necessary because I didn’t want to get too cold, but I also didn’t have anything to gear check them (since I planned to keep them in the car)…basically, I was a mess, to put it gently. Eventually I got dropped off close to the stop line, made a beeline to the portapotties, and got to the corral staging area about 10 minutes before the race began.
I haven’t done this race (or any other All Community Events race) in five years, so I don’t know how long they’ve handled corralling this way, but it was totally different from anything I’ve experienced at any other race. Instead of all of us lining up in a straight line behind the start line, there were three large corrals to the right of the actual start line: one for blue bibbed runners (“7:00-8:59 pace, no walkers, no joggers”), one for red bibbed runners (“9:00-10:59 runners, no walkers”), and one for green bibbed runners (“11:00+ runners”). I was a little offended that being in the red corral meant that I was considered a “jogger,” apparently, instead of a runner, because I would hardly consider a 9:00 pace to be jogging, but whatever. I guess if you normally run a 7:00 pace, 9:00 is jogging.
Anyway, I got into my corral and maneuvered my way forward to a woman holding a 9:10 minute/2:00 overall pace sign. I struck up some small talk with a girl standing next to me in an effort to distract myself from my nerves. She asked me if this was my first race, which I took to mean my first time doing this race specifically. I told her no, I had done it five years ago (to the day, coincidentally, though I didn’t realize that until much later that afternoon), and eventually asked if she had done it before. Turns out when she asked me if it was my first race, she meant my first race ever, because it was her first race ever. Holy cow! I guess she ran when she was younger, but had never done an organized road race before. I was so impressed that she was starting her road racing career with a half marathon! I had two 5Ks and a 10K under my belt before I even considered a half marathon, plus two more 5Ks and another 10K under my belt before I actually ran my first half marathon. Props to her! She ended up ditching my pace group, like, .25 miles into the race, so I have no idea how she did, but I hope it went well for her.
Two other pacers showed up before the race began, one of which was a very enthusiastic woman who seemed over the moon to be pacing us. She was asking us about our PRs (I was the only one she asked who actually had a PR, because the two other people she asked were doing their first halves that morning. Popular first time race, I guess!) and told us that a year ago, she had been told she’d never run again due to a cocktail of health problems, but here she was. I’ll admit, that made me a bit uneasy. I was hoping for pacers who bust out 1:30-1:45 half marathons every weekend and were taking it easy pacing the 2:00 group, not someone who, it seemed, hadn’t been running much over the past 365 days. But that’s what I got, and I wasn’t about to try to pace myself for 13.1 miles.
We got to the start line about three minutes after the race began, and we went out like bats out of hell. We came through the first mile in 8:56, which is not exactly the 9:10 I was promised. I felt surprisingly comfortable, though, and decided to consider it money in the bank for later on (knowing, of course, that there is no such thing as money in the bank when it comes to racing. Going out too fast is always and only a bad idea.) We hit mile two in 9:04, which was closer to 9:10 to make me not panic too much.
The pacer-with-something-to-prove and first woman pacer I found were towards the front of the group, so I tucked myself in behind the guy pacer in our group, who had said before the race started that he’s run the course thousands of time, because he paces CARA groups out of Montrose. I trusted his credentials more than I trusted the two women (mostly because I didn’t know anything about them), so I felt like he was safe to follow. He was keeping pace with the women in the front, though, and we came through mile three in 8:54.
Incidentally, I had spent a fair portion of the week before the race chatting with people who’ve done a decent amount of pacing, so I went into this race feeling like I knew a thing or two about pacing a race: specifically, that if you’re consistently off pace, you should make adjustments. But we just kept clicking off these way-above-pace miles: 8:52, 8:44 (?!?!?!), 8:57. The race is on the Lakefront Trail, so it’s not like you can really blame buildings for erroneous Garmin signals here. Aiming for a 2:00 half marathon made it pretty darn easy to figure out what time we should hit at the halfway point (1:00, obviously), so when we got to 6.55 miles and I looked at my watch and saw 58:30(ish), I was a bit concerned. Pacers are supposed to aim to finish within one minute of the advertised time (so in this group’s case, 1:59:00-2:00:59). Instead, we were 1:30 ahead of pace at the halfway point, which meant if we kept that up, we were going to finish three minutes ahead of pace.
Now I, personally, did not have a problem with finishing three minutes ahead of pace, because my goal was to break 2:00, not hit 2:00. But I planned on breaking 2:00 by running a 2:00 pace for the first 10 miles and then leaving the group to run faster, not putting a full minute and a half in the bank by the halfway point. I had run the first half of the race MUCH faster than planned, and while I was still feeling fine, I was concerned about how I’d handle that pace going forward.
The guy pacer was running with someone he clearly knew, and at one point, his friend asked him when we were going to start running a 9:10 pace (THANK YOU). The guy pacer consulted with the pacer-with-something-to-prove at a water stop around mile seven, and we finally slowed down and did a 9:08 mile for mile seven. About time! Of course, when you’ve been running in the neighborhood of 8:55 for six miles, 9:08 feels like quite the slowdown. I considered ditching the group, but I did not want to be responsible for pacing myself for almost the entire second half of the race, so I hung out behind the guy pacer again while we did a 9:10 and a 9:07 mile.
There was a water stop somewhere in the neighborhood of mile nine, and in the melee, I got ahead of the pacers. At that point, I was still feeling relatively decent, so I figured I’d forge on ahead on my own. Now that they had slowed down to the advertised pace, I was worried that the slowdown would somehow keep me from breaking 2:00, and that wasn’t a risk I was interested in taking.
So off I went. Only four more miles! I could handle this! How many times have I “only four more miles!”-ed myself? Too many times. So many times that I should definitely know better by now. “Four more miles” is my nemesis in long distance running. I consistently underestimate how long four miles is during long runs and the marathon, and here I was doing it again during this race. Sigh. Some day I’ll learn to respect the last four miles of a run, though Saturday was not that day.
I looked at my watch when I hit mile 10, and came through it in 1:29:xx (which would’ve been a 10 mile PR for me, had I been running a 10 miler). When we crossed the 5K mark a lifetime ago, I looked at my watch and saw 28:xx, so I spent the next bit of time doing some mental math to try to figure out my overall finish time if I, somehow, managed to running the last 5K as fast as I ran the first 5K. 1:29:xx + 28:xx is 1:57:xx. That wasn’t terrible, but, despite the fact that I only had three miles (and one tenth) to go, I was worried that I’d somehow slow down by three full minutes over that distance, so I refused to take my foot off the gas.
But don’t get me wrong. I was struggling, hard. I thought I had plenty to eat for breakfast that morning, but I was hungry throughout the race, and it was all I could do to only eat my chews at miles five and 10, per my usual protocol. (I didn’t have any extra chews on me, so I couldn’t fuel any more than that.). My hip flexors were screaming. My breath had moved from my comfortable three-step inhale, two-step exhale to a more labored two-step inhale, two-step exhale. I was pulling out every mental trick I could think of: mental math to calculate my finish time, reminding myself how I’ve run this exact stretch of the Lakefront Trail probably hundreds of times before, how I know it’s only about two and a half miles from the Barry underpass to Montrose (thank you, marathon training at Montrose!) and I can do that distance in my sleep, utilizing various mantras (“No bonk, no wall,” borrowed from Erin, who commented with it on my marathon post last fall, and “I will,” borrowed from myself during the marathon last fall). It was helping, kind of, but there’s really only so much you can do when you’re hurting like that.
I saw one of the girls in my dance class who happened to be out for a stroll on the trail just a bit before mile 12, so I said hi to her and tried to use that a motivation to get myself across the finish line quickly in case she’d ask me about the race on Tuesday. I hit mile 12 in 9:12, which was my slowest split of the day. My overall time at that point was 1:48:17, and I was really worried that another 9:12 mile + a 9:12 .1 mile wasn’t going to be enough to me home in under 2:00 (it would’ve been. It would’ve gotten me a 1:58:24.), so I did everything I could to find another gear. As I headed towards the Montrose underpass, I made a conscious decision to go into the pain cave, another phrase I borrowed from various other bloggers, which is something I don’t ever remember intentionally choosing before. But I knew the last mile or so was going to hurt, probably a lot, and I was going to have to just put my head down and power through it, because the sting of finishing in anything slower than 1:59:59 was probably going to hurt worse and for a lot longer.
So power through I did. I was gasping for air. My legs were dying. I saw mile 13 (turned in an 8:42 last full mile, which was my fastest of the day), thanked everything good in this world that for once, the distance between mile 13 and the finish line didn’t feel interminable, did my best to smile for the camera and appear triumphant at the finish line, and stopped my watch.
I visualized my race three times in the week leading up to Saturday, and in all of those visualization sessions, I saw myself cruising across the finish line with tears in my eyes. In reality, I forced myself across the finish line with every iota of willpower I could muster, and by the time I stopped running, I was too spent to feel any emotion. I was worse-than-5K exhausted. I was 10K-PR exhausted, which, prior to Saturday, was my benchmark for feeling exhausted after a race. I made it through the finishers chute and found a French barricade to drape myself over while I tried to recover and process what I done.
This was, hands down, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. It was so much harder than any of my marathons, even my first one. I really think only my 10K PR comes close to comparing to the difficulty I felt on Saturday. All I could think after I finished was, “I’m so glad I never, ever have to do that again.” Unless I magically get about a thousand times fitter, I am a hard one-and-done on the sub-2:00 club, thanks.