Hey all – a retrospective race report today, looking at the Chicago Marathon 2015, including an overall rating of the event based on 10 different criteria.
(TL:DR Overall for me this event rated as 86 out of 100 – I will definitely try to get through the lottery again when the other marathon majors are out of the way. Well worth the travel, especially given how surprisingly nice Chicago is).
The post covers my first marathon, in Chicago which took place on Sunday 11th October 2015. It was a significant event for me and as such this will be a longer than usual post – given that a marathon is a longer than usual race…
My journey to Chicago begins in March 2015, just after I’d completed my first Half Marathon in Bath on my 45th birthday. Before that day I’d decided, like many, that a marathon would be physically impossible for me and running with that theme to the extreme, may even prove fatal. But after completing the half distance relatively unscathed (aside from awful stitch after drinking too much Lucozade too quickly) I felt duty bound to attempt at least one marathon.
I am in awe of fellow Running Club members who are able to get motivated enough by local events to put in the training necessary to complete the marathon distance. I felt I needed something bigger to focus on and settled on trying to get into one of the 6 Marathon Majors – Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo. I quickly discovered that five operate heavily over-subscribed entrance lotteries, and one (Boston) has a minimum qualifying time determined by your age and sex, known as Boston Qualifier (BQ). So Boston was out for two reasons – a BQ of 3:25 wasn’t realistic and anyway, I hadn’t yet done a marathon to prove to them that I had achieved the BQ time!
That left the other five – but unfortunately their lotteries are only open for short periods and so the timing of them meant that Chicago was my only hope for completing a major in 2015 and I duly applied on March 18th.
My wife Lisa has developed a bit of sixth sense for these race lotteries and assured me I would get in – and I found out via email on April 28th that she was right 🙂 She has also correctly called my lottery entries for the Berlin (in), New York (out) and Marine Corps Marathons (in). No – it doesn’t work for real lotteries…
So after that impulsive decision back in March I was committed…and had just over 6 months to train for the full distance. I initially told myself that just finishing was enough but then quickly decided that I should settle on a notional finishing time – 4 hours. A nice round figure and a generous 9:00 minutes per mile pace. In reality this is all mind games and all runners have more than one goal for any race – the hierarchy for mine was:
- DNF – abject failure
- Over 4h00m – failure
- Over 3h45m – ok, not happy but ok
- Over 3h35m – happy, goal achieved
- Over 3h30m – #awesome
My training regime was targeted at 3h45m but I decided I would try to go for 3h35m and signed up for a Chicago Nike pace group of that speed.
So, on to the race logistics. The only thing more painful than the race itself is the hike in hotel prices when a big event is on. For example the budget Travelodge hotel in Bath (first HM) wanted over £300 for one night during the Bath Half weekend. Yes we’d left it late but even so, outrageous. We settled for an early start from home and the £7.50 park and ride in the end! Chicago prices were also inflated but fortunately I chose to book the (free to cancel) hotel in the period between runners entering the lottery and hearing whether they got in, or not. That meant I was able to get a hotel which was on the course at the 1 mile marker – the theory being it couldn’t be THAT far to the start/finish in Grant Park.
Several months of training ensued – mostly uneventful aside from Achilles tendon issues and a number of warm-up races which were largely successful. My times for 5k, 10k and half marathon all significantly improved over the summer – there is a very direct relationship between the number of miles of training done and an increase in running ability. This is blindingly obvious on reflection but was still a pleasant surprise 😉
October, the month of the marathon, arrived quite slowly. I think I was probably at my peak in September so the last few weeks really dragged on, the first week of October especially. But departure day finally came and after an uneventful flight from Heathrow I arrived at Chicago O’Hare airport 3 days before the race.
This is where I found out that getting from London to Chicago was possibly easier than getting from the airport to the hotel. Yes – there is a perfectly serviceable and cheap metro service but no, none of my bank cards worked (I’m too cheap to pay the inflated currency rates at airport exchange booths so had no cash). Four declined cards later I spoke to one of the staff and after some rubbing of magnetic stripes/cleaning of chips on the cards we tried again – but ‘computer says no’. This is where things took a turn for the better…the staff member just waived us through the barriers and onto the train for free 🙂 Twenty dollars saved but Lisa and I had an anxious journey wondering if we could get through the barriers at other end. Mercifully there weren’t any.
Hotel check-in was similarly unsuccessful on the flexible friend front but fortunately they let us up to our room on condition that we sorted out payment later. Not a great start but not as embarrassing as having my card declined on honeymoon some years ago (thanks for bailing me out Lisa!). After a hunt around the local cash machines I eventually found one which was prepared to give out some greenbacks so I hit it for all it would allow. The problem was quite simple – the bank hadn’t been told we were going to Chicago so decided the transactions were dodgy. A couple of phone calls later and we were solvent again 🙂
Back to the room and a quick unpack then it was time for the best jet-lag cure I know of – a run! Just a short one down the shore of Lake Michigan and back which stopped us wanting to turn in for the night, it was by now about 3AM UK time.
The hotel was as well located as I’d hoped – the entrance actually on the course and a relatively flat walk to the start/finish area. The marathon is a big deal to the city and that fact was really obvious, really quickly with posters and flags everywhere, local news items and weather reports focused on race day and runners wherever I looked. The epicentre of the event is Grant Park, a very large municipal area next to Lake Michigan. I found having the start and finish in the same place made the event more special for runners and spectators alike – it provided a real focus to the event which is lost a little when the two areas are separated by an appreciable distance.
We had a good couple of days taking in the sights (galleries/museums/boat trips – no bars though!) of what is a surprisingly attractive and interesting city. We also clambered through some barriers to check out the runners village in Grant Park – where the scale of the event became clear. This is just one row of more than a dozen!
Whilst doing so we bumped in to a runner who had just driven up from Florida and was doing a last training run. He was in his early-70s and was planning to run a marathon in each US state, a quest he started aged 63. I was impressed but there are probably more relaxing ways of spending your retirement!
Later on we went to the Expo, travelling on an iconic yellow American school bus, with sweet little children’s drawings stuck above the seats – I was in Emma Burke’s seat apparently. We had hoped for a short bus trip to the expo but we dived down into the bowls of the city to emerge about 30 minutes later but only 5 miles from where we started – who knows what the logic was behind the route?!
Fortunately the Expo was really good with stands from most major sports manufacturers, where I invested in a couple of t-shirts and a Body Glide lubricating stick for those delicate areas.
The Chicago marathon is a global event with runners attending from all over the world, including more than 500 from the UK. An app at the Expo allowed runners to add their home location and by the time I got there much of the world was already covered. There was also an eye opening video of the whole course, which took 8 minutes at an equivalent speed of about 200 mph – 26.2 miles was suddenly feeling a very long way.
After the Expo it was time to rest and plan my pre-race fuelling strategy. I had brought pasta and pesto sauce with me but sadly the hotel ‘suite’ only had a microwave oven – usually this kind of room has a full kitchen. Happily being in a big city meant I still had accesss to pretty much whatever carbs I wanted, and those that know me well know that means egg fried rice – one of my favourite foods (along with chocolate and cheese)! So out we went to P F Changs, a US ‘Chinese’ restaurant chain which I’ve eaten in a few times and knew would have reliably good food, with US sized portions. One and a half helpings later it was time to pay and I opened the obligatory fortune cookie which read ‘Your hard work will soon be rewarded’. What a great sign 🙂 I actually kept it and it’s now glued to my ‘Chicago Marathon collage’ which I’ve got framed at home.
I checked the weather one last time before bed, sunny with 24-26C max and 20mph winds from the south. It had been looking like that for a few days but I was hoping for a last minute change in wind direction to the north – that change came a day or so after the marathon and took max temperatures down to 15C. Too late for the big event though – so I’d just have to make the best of it.
After a few hours of fitful sleep it was 5:30AM and time to get up – not really a big deal given I’d deliberately tried not to get fully turned around to Chicago time, so it didn’t feel particularly early.
After a quick breakfast and a double/triple check that I had everything I needed we set off. Being only a mile from the start line the streets outside the hotel were already full of people heading to Grant Park. After the short walk we said our emotional goodbyes and I was off to join Corral C – for runners with predicted finishing times of 3:35 to 3:45. Corrals are based on previous race times (at half marathon in my case) so I was pleased to be able to get into one of the earlier starting groups given the temperatures expected later in the morning/early afternoon.
I was funnelled through with thousands of others and then hunted down my 3:35 pace group and waited for the start. I had about 15 minutes by the time I was in position so not too long hanging about. It was relatively quiet in the corral, lots of nerves and apprehension I guess but very soon the start was underway and we were shuffling forward towards the start line.
The first half-mile takes runners through a longish-tunnel, at which point a proportion of the (other) male runners made a break for the tunnel walls to relieve themselves. The organisers have tried to stamp out this behaviour but it seems like it has become a race tradition now! Shortly afterwards we crossed the Chicago River for the first of six times and I made a small diversion to grab a kiss from Lisa outside our hotel. Valuable seconds were lost but it was worth it.
The Course the doubles back on itself for a mile or so before heading northwards for 5 miles slightly inland from the lake shore. I was feeling strong at this stage and was getting annoyed at the bunching around the 3:35 pace group, so decided to go ahead by 50 metres or so to give myself some elbow room. That worked pretty well and I took the 6 mile turn at the most northerly point feeling really good. The next stretch heads back towards downtown and the half way point, just past the Sears Tower (or more accurately the Willis Tower nowadays).
I passed half way in 1:45:52 (live tracking here), which was about where I’d planned to be and my legs were in good shape. I hadn’t even noticed them over the course of the first half of the race so was really optimistic for the next section which headed west for a couple of miles into a quieter part of town before doubling back east again to mile 17. This section was where I had a glimmer of fatigue and my legs started to feel a bit heavier, much earlier than I’d expected. I was good for 20 miles in my training runs so I assume it must have been the weather on the day sapping my energy faster than the mild (and often wet) climate of south west England.
I pressed on but started to take short walking breaks at the drinks stations, initially just long enough to glug down the Gatorade but later on I continued for a minute or two to ensure my heart rate didn’t get too high. This routine repeated itself through the next 6 miles as we headed broadly south east and away from the finish. There’s a particularly nasty corner just after mile 23, which coincided with my slowest mile, when I really wanted to start heading north towards the finish but the route had other ideas and headed due south for a short distance before turning east and finally north onto the 3+ mile home stretch.
Three miles at the end of a marathon feels like an incredibly long way but I dug in a bit on this section and managed to keep on moving – still maintaining my walking the drinks station strategy but getting back to running earlier each time. At some point I must have been passed by the 3:35 pace group but was too tired or preoccupied with getting some fluids to notice – that pace was beyond me in the conditions. I hope to do better in Berlin this autumn where it should be cooler.
Finally at the 26 mile point I took a right turn, climbed the only hill (slope…) in the race without too much pain and accelerated slightly towards the finish – crossing the line in 3:42:05 in 6530th position out of 37500 finishers. I was quite emotional at that point, proud to finish the task I’d started months before when I signed up for the race in March. I vaguely remember saying to myself ‘You actually did it!’ and feeling really happy and relieved. I talked to myself a lot during the race, but that’s the only bit I remember – the rest was nonsense I’m sure 🙂
The scale of the event meant it was a long walk to the meet and greet area but fortunately Lisa managed to find me part way. I collapsed on the grass and enjoyed lying in the sun and soaking up the live music and the general vibe whilst giving my legs a rest. I’d been told it takes about 3 weeks after your 1st marathon before you start thinking ‘I’ll do another one’ but by the end of the day I’d already decided I’d have to do more. Perhaps I didn’t push myself hard enough, although it felt like it at the time!
After an hour or so it was time to head back to the hotel. That mile felt harder than the marathon! The chocolate shake and beer had left me feeling nauseous and my legs had totally seized up, but eventually I made it back to the room and then spent the afternoon in bed, watching films and drinking Coke, Snapple (Kiwi Strawberry ftw) and eating Hershey bars – highly recommended!
Overall score – 86 out of 100. I will definitely try to get through the lottery again when the other marathon majors are out of the way. Well worth the travel, especially given how surprisingly nice Chicago is.
Event Registration & Pre-Race updates – 8
Registration very slick – good website and a unique identifier from the start which made me feel like I was already involved with the race, rather than just an email saying I’d entered as is the case with many. Some useful information about the race and pointers to various training regimes or ‘opportunities’ to pre-order photos at a discount etc. Rating: Good.
Logistics – 7
40,000+ people require a lot of herding about so it was inevitable there would be queues, especially in light of the Boston bombings. I got there in plenty of time though and was in my corral well ahead of the start. The logistics were good but it wasn’t as pleasant as, for example, a turn-up-and-race event of a couple of hundred people. Rating: Above Average.
Course – 8
It’s a really flat course with no hills, aside from a very small on-ramp at mile 26 – not ideal timing I guess! There’s enough going on though to not get bored with the monotony. The western and south western areas were a bit bleak, with fewer spectators just when you needed them at miles 17+, although even here it was far more than a typical event. Not many iconic buildings compared with a route like London but I enjoyed it. An extra point for me because it was flat – I needed that for my first marathon! Rating: Good.
Marshalling and feeding/watering – 9
Excellent marshalling, no chance of taking a wrong turn and all roads fully closed. Loads of up-beat people were handing out drinks at the very frequent refuelling points, plus gels and bananas later in the race. The crowd got in on the act as well with anything from beer, through coffee and tacos available – there was even a barbecue complete with sizzling sausage (tempted!). I could have eaten enough for a week if I felt like it 🙂 One point deducted for having cups not bottles – especially given the heat. Rating: Excellent.
Crowd Support – 10
What does running past 1.7 million Americans feel like? Loud and encouraging that’s what – ideal for a marathon. Lots of bands, funny placards, impromptu food stops, vaseline boards etc. A really great turn-out and it lived up to what I was expecting. I got asked my name several times so I could be cheered on (note to self: get it printed on my shirt…). I was misheard once and greeted with ‘You can do it Lionel’ – which kept me going better than if they’d got my name right. Rating: Amazing.
PB Potential – 10
It’s a world record setting course, second only to Berlin. The roads were really wide and you get allocated to a corral based on evidence provided of a previous time (at half or full distance). That means little weaving and not too many runners who have ended up in the wrong pace corral. The weather wasn’t ideal for my run, peaking at about 25C during the later stages of the race and with a gusty wind, but on a cooler, stiller day I have no doubt I could achieve my best possible result on this course. Rating: Amazing.
Results Accuracy & Timeliness – 10
Live results during the race and afterwards – including zones and local McDonalds where spectators could follow their runners’ progress. This was also possible online and was really easy to use. My mum ‘watched’ me cross the line in near real time using a web app. I received an ‘Official Results’ magazine about a week ago which makes a very nice memento. Rating: Amazing.
VFM – 7
This is a costly race – at around $250 for a non-US entrant. It’s a BIG event though so I could see where quite a bit of the money went. It’s not a price I’d be happy to pay more than a couple of times a year for really big races but I didn’t feel ripped off. Rating: Above Average.
Vibe – 10
The city really takes the marathon to its heart – you can feel its impact pretty much everywhere downtown and it features in the local news bulletins etc. Having tens of thousands of runners and their support crew in the city in the run up to the race also added to the sense that I was taking part in something really special. The ‘buzz’ about the run carried on for a couple of days afterwards with people wearing their bling out and about and receiving generous congratulations from waiters, shop assistants and passers-by in general. I couldn’t fault it. Rating: Amazing.
Goody Bag/Bling – 7
I had high expectations for the goody bag and it was wasn’t quite lived up to. The medal is of high quality with a very smart ribbon and I got a free pint of beer and a chocolate protein shake – I seriously advise against drinking them in quick succession, I felt awful! Then there was the usual banana and various energy food combo, plus random (inedible) leaflets. What was missing was another t-shirt imo – I got a participant T-shirt at the ExPo but it wasn’t a finisher t-shirt, and that’s what it’s all about…so I bought a couple the day after at Nike Town. I think for $250 I should have got a finisher t-shirt. The follow-up with an official results magazine was nice given I was an international participant. Rating: Above Average.