Yesterday I completed my 14th marathon in Chicago! It went much, much better than expected and today I can still walk, so overall I’m counting it as a huge success. The most exciting thing for me? I ran it in negative splits (which means the second half of the race was faster than the first half)! It’s the first time I’ve ever done negative splits in any race at any distance! Super thrilled with that, since my #1 goal (besides not re-injuring myself) was to start out slow, and the fact that I stuck to that goal and that it actually paid off is amazing to me.
I’ve been to Chicago before, briefly as a kid and once when I was scoping out law schools, but basically I knew nothing about the city and it felt 100% new to me. I arrived Friday morning, and after an interminable 40-minute wait to get a CTA Ventra card, rode the Blue Line into downtown (pro tip – order a card online so this doesn’t happen to you – the lines were insanely long because of arriving runners, none of whom had cards nor understood how to work the machines, including me). It was $5 for the 40-minute train ride (vs about $55 for a taxi with tip), and since the train starts/ends at O’Hare you’ll have a seat for the ride out (although I heard it can be packed/standing room only the other way). Besides the wait for the card, it was 100% easier than using the trains for the NYC airports, so already I was pro-Chicago.
I dropped off my luggage at my hotel (the Westin River North) and headed straight for a shuttle to the expo. It was a relatively short walk to the Fairmont Chicago shuttle location, but the streets around the area seemed to randomly turn into underground parking garages or staircases or open arenas, so the walk was more exhausting than I expected. The marathon shuttle (yellow school bus) was fast, however, and the expo check-in was even faster, so I was done in no time. But of course I wasn’t done done. I spent the next couple hours wandering up and down the expo aisles, snagging free stuff and eating samples and generally making my legs feel like rubber. I only bought a bottle opener plus a hat and headband that said “Where’s the Finish,” so I exercised extreme restraint. Then I got a $25 cotton t-shirt with a picture of pizza on it and felt like a spendthrift.
At the expo I signed up with the 5:45 Nike Pace team (which is kinda meaningless, as no one forces you to stick with a pace team, and you can join any pace team even without signing up, but if you signed up there you got a free pace tattoo for your forearm, a bib for your back with your goal time, and if you were a Nike Plus member you got an awesome bandana with a map of the course plus a matching iPhone case!). I wanted to finish in under 6 hours and was worried 5:45 might ultimately be too fast for me because I always slow waaaay down near the end of a marathon, but I hoped that sticking with the 5:45 group (which was doing a run/walk combo at a 13-minute per mile pace) would help slow me down in the beginning when I almost always go out way too fast due to excitement.
I took the shuttle back to the Fairmont and walked a more direct route along the river back to my hotel, then rested a bit before catching a cab ($10) to see Second City for the 103rd Revue (great, funny show – Second City alums include Bob Odenkirk (aka “Better Call Saul”), Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, and basically every famous person ever). I missed out on seeing Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, but am adding it to my list for next time.
ART & PIZZA
Saturday morning I woke up early, made a CVS run for water and candy, then walked down to the marathon Corral K starting area to see how long it would take me. It was a brisk 30-minute walk, so I decided I’d try to catch a cab from the hotel to the start the next morning. I headed a few blocks north to visit what is now my favorite museum, the Art Institute of Chicago. There was a long line of runners waiting to get in (since we got free admission over the weekend), but it moved quickly and in no time I was looking at so much amazing art that I quickly got overwhelmed. My feet also started aching in a highly concerning manner (it felt like I had aggravated both my tendonitis and plantar fasciitis), so I pulled the plug on the museum early and went to Lou Malnati’s with another runner friend for some deep dish pizza. The butter crust was appropriately named and delicious.
I spent the rest of the afternoon lying in bed watching The Walking Dead marathon on AMC and arranging my costume for the race: Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. No, it doesn’t make any sense for the race, and no, I don’t even like the movie or that character, but it was an easy costume and for some reason I went for it. To top it off, not a single person recognized my costume (although with zero context why would they?). But at least the pearls didn’t bug me as much as I feared.
The weather for race day was absolutely perfect – low 50s and mostly sunny without much wind. I woke up at 5 am, ate a banana, bagel, Kit Kat, and 1/2 of a Bonk Breaker bar, drank a bunch of water, fussed endlessly with my pearls, and left the hotel at about 6:30. I shared a cab to the start with some other runners (and got dropped off almost exactly at the corral location, despite fear of road closures), went through security (intense when I went through, with metal detector wanding and guards making people open tiny pouches on their belts, but I heard that when it got busy later people were just waved through without any screening), and dropped off my bag at gear check all before the sunrise. I should have worn even more clothing, however, because I got pretty chilly waiting around for the start. They said they’d close the corrals at 7:45 for the 8:00 start, but when you’re in the last corral like I was, it didn’t matter. Lesson learned – I could have arrived a lot later and been fine, but I was also one of the last 10 or so people to cross the starting line (I don’t know exactly how many people started after me since I can’t search the results by start time). This late start probably contributed to the congestion I encountered on the course, so it’s not necessarily a recommended strategy. It was kinda fun starting last, though, since the course looked like the zombie apocalypse had swept through, and the back-of-the-packers were rowdier and more costumed than the mid-packers. They are my people!
I stuck with the 5:45 pace group for the first several miles, even though it meant taking a walk break .4 miles after the start (which, to be honest, I didn’t mind, since I’ve had so many bad training runs during which I’d walk every half mile). I lost them after a couple miles, though, because of the water stops and the course occasionally splitting into two (with a median divider). I didn’t time my walk breaks after that but I tried to jog slowly and take breaks when I saw other runners walking, aiming for about 12:30 minute miles. I kept it pretty steady until about the halfway point when I started going closer to 12 minute miles. I had completely lost my pace group at this point and saw people with wildly different times on their back – everything from 4:30 to 5:45, so I had no idea when I’d finish. I still felt pretty good, though, much better than I had at the end of the Blerch Half or on my training runs, so I kept it up, taking walk breaks and generally trying to stay in a comfortable zone at a pace that never felt too difficult.
Mile 16 felt pretty good, mile 17 was ok, and the miles kept passing by without much struggle. At around mile 22 I decided to really step it up and finally run in the “red” zone of difficulty, which basically meant running with some effort behind it and taking fewer, shorter walk breaks. I still felt pretty good, but the main problem was the congestion. There were so many runners on the course and they were almost all walking at this point. The worst part was that they were walking all over the place – in the middle along the blue line, along the sides, walking several abreast – and they didn’t seem to care that they were blocking the entire course. I had to weave and dodge and stop so much that I was getting so annoyed it was almost funny. I just re-read my Baltimore 2012 recap (coming soon, only 2 years late) and realized that me being annoyed in the last 10 miles of a marathon is a recurring theme and something I need to look into. At any rate, I ran an extra mile trying to get around all those runners, but I still kept up my pace and finished the last 4 miles at around 11:30 pace, with the final mile at about 10:30 (!).
I know all these times sound incredibly slow to you, but for me right now they are great, and the fact that my last mile was my fastest mile is a minor miracle to me. I’ve never really believed in negative splits before, always assuming it was for faster people or for people who have more endurance than I do, but this was amazing and truly a new lesson learned after 13 other marathons. I finished in about 5:15, which is 40 minutes faster than I had hoped, but the real victory (besides finishing at all) was finishing strong. And wearing pearls.
Thinking of Running Chicago?
It’s one of the World Marathon Majors (along with Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, & NYC), with the crowds and hoopla to match. There were about 45,000 runners this year, so I found the course kinda crowded, but if you like running with other people you’ll love it. Everyone seemed really chatty before and after the race, too, which was fun and definitely added to the spirit.
All categories on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best. Note that this review is based on starting almost dead last and running as a “back of the packer,” with a finish time of over 5 hours. Your experience may vary.
- Getting There (Transportation & Walkability) – 9/10 – Pretty easy to fly there, since it’s a major hub in the middle of the US. Tickets from NYC were about $300 and the marathon offers a small discount if you fly their partner airline American. The train into downtown is $5 or a taxi is about $55 with tip. The downtown is very walkable & taxis are also easy to get (and almost every cab ride I took was about $10), except right after the marathon when they are much more difficult, although not impossible, to get.
- Staying There – 6/10 – There are a decent amount of hotels within easy walking distance of the race start in Grant Park (e.g. the “host” hotel Hilton Chicago, Club Quarters Central Loop, The W Chicago City Center, Congress Plaza, Hampton Inn Majestic, etc.), but they all seem to jack up race weekend prices to astronomical prices (like $300+/night for a nothing special hotel). I stayed at the Westin River North, which was great – incredibly quiet, fairly clean rooms, and a good location just north of the river, within walking distance of just about everything, if you are inclined to walk. Only downside was they cleaned the rooms around 3 or 4 pm when I was always in the room, so I never had my room serviced during my stay, plus it was a little too far from the marathon start/finish for me. If I had to do it again, I’d consider staying at a hotel farther from downtown but close to public transport and just take the train in that morning, but then you miss out on staying downtown and walking around, too, so it just depends on your budget and preferences.
- Cost & Registration – 7/10 – 2014 was the first time there was a lottery to enter Chicago, but rumor has it that almost everyone got a spot. It’s also spendy – $185 to register, not to mention the pricey hotels and the many tempting restaurants and attractions in the city, but it’s also a fun city to visit during a beautiful time of year. They did include free admission for you and a guest to the Art Institute of Chicago (located in Grant Park not far from the start/finish lines), a $46 value! You also get a sad, underwhelming short-sleeved tech shirt, a decent medal, and a nice bag of food at the finish (which included bananas, Fig Newtons, turkey jerky, peanuts, Kashi cereal, dark chocolates, plus Power Bar Protein bars and Gatorade recovery protein drink). Oh, and a free beer! They didn’t even mess with the ticket, thank goodness, and had the beers laid out on tables just past the finish line. You could even walk with the beer outside the finish chute (e.g. to the baggage claim area), just not outside Grant Park itself.
- Organization – 10/10 – The shuttles to the expo were speedy, the expo itself was well-done, the bag check took mere seconds on both ends, and there were a decent number of potties at the start and along the course. The water stations were well-run (except for one of the later stations that was breaking down kinda early, IMO), and the finish area was smooth. There were plenty of emails leading up to the race, plus they actually mail you a hard-copy booklet with participant info. Honestly, not sure what else they could have done to make it smoother besides let me ride in a pedicab the entire way.
- Course – 8/10 – You’ve heard it a million times – it’s flat and it’s a pretty good tour of the city. It is NOT, however, 100% flat – there are definitely a few very very very tiny inclines around the bridges and some other points, which actually helped with the cramping (although my left calf did cramp up a couple times, and there were more runners stretching their calves along the side of the course than usual). That .2 mile hill at the end does seem steep after so much flat, but it’s also pretty short and not so steep that you won’t want to run up it. And as you know I found it congested with walking runners, but I also ran in a crazy way so maybe it wouldn’t have been as bad had I started earlier.
- Crowd – 6/10 (or -6/10) – Yes, there were a lot of people (although not as many as I expected, honestly – it’s got nothing on the NYC crowds), but there were too many idiots. Case in point – three different times groups of spectators ran across the course directly in front of me, forcing me to stop to avoid them, and one time I full-on body slammed into someone and yelled at him, in my most angry New Yorker way, “really?!? Jesus Christ!” I’ve never had such a problem with crowds on the course before. Chinatown was super bottlenecked because the spectators were lining the street instead of the sidewalk. There were also a lot of spectators just sitting or standing looking unhappy, making me wonder why they were there at all. Also, there were too many creepy religious signs, so it loses another point there. Repent or burn, baby.
- Other Factors – 8/10 – It’s a major race in a major city, which can be fun to do. Plus lots of people you know have probably run Chicago, so you’ll have something to talk about when you’ve finished discussing the weather.
- Overall Rating – 7/10 – Chicago, like other huge races, is what it is. While I prefer smaller races for the actual running, I’m really glad I did Chicago and I loved the city itself.
Did you run Chicago? What did you think? See the site for more photos & share in the comments!