Let’s talk about the Chicago Marathon, shall we?
Or rather, let’s talk about our experience at the 2015 Bank of America Chicago Marathon, which took place on the beautiful morning of Sunday, October 11th, 2015, in one of the greatest cities of the world that doesn’t rhyme with “Buluth”. Ahh, the Chicago Marathon… for any runner, this is arguably a bucket list event. I mean, it’s a massive race; over 46,000 runners were registered to hit the pavement for the best 26.2-mile “walking” tour of the city imaginable, with approximately 1.7 million spectators cheering you on as you make your way through a most exciting sojourn.
Plus it’s CHICAGO, right? This aint some place that rhymes with “Buluth”; this is the one ginormous metropolis that arguably has THE most soul in the country. Real soul: character, history, music, gangsters, attitude, meat-packing plants, Batman architecture… the works. You want big, bad, and awesome? To quote Billy Flynn, “THAT’S Chicago…”
Well if that’s not enough to entice the nascent running uber-sensei, there’s that little matter of the Chicago Marathon belonging to the elite group of events known as The World Marathon Majors, which is a series of six of the largest and most well-known and well-regarded marathons in the world: Chicago, Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, and New York. Call it simply a branding exercise to generate excitement and demand beyond the pale of the undertaking, but running a Major feels like a massive accomplishment of breathtaking magnitude, the likes of which can barely be expressed in mere prose. As a runner, you kind of owe it to yourself to run a Major, at least once. To take part in a race of such grandiose scale completely dwarfs and exponentially multiplies one’s sense of self all at once.
Yeesh I might be selling this too hard…
OK but to sum up this overlong intro: in a race like this one, you’re only one runner out of tens of thousands, but your race is beautifully, singularly, and inimitably your own epic, heroic adventure, one that would make Homer want to invent the spiral notebook on the spot, just so he could nail all the details.
So when I found out last April that I was selected to take part in the 2015 Chicago Marathon, I was absolutely over the moon. I was still bummed about not making the lottery for New York, so knowing I was still going to take place in a Major Marathon elevated my spirits tremendously. Plus I hadn’t been back to Chicago since my best buddy’s wedding in 2002 (where I set the gold standard for Best Man speeches, but let’s not get side-tracked), so I was more than thrilled to return that following autumn. So without further ado, let’s talk about the event: the arrival, the expo, the prep, the pre-race, the race itself, and the aftermath. And there’s only one real place of note to start…
Boots and I arrived Friday night, landing at O’Hare just before 7PM and dealing with an unbelievable load of traffic and congestion, both in and out of the airport. It was not only a weekend, but a holiday weekend, and a holiday weekend with a huge international event taking place that Sunday! (Note to self: arrive on Thursday next time. Preferably in the early afternoon.) Half an hour on the tarmac, forty-five minutes waiting for our hotel shuttle, then bumper-to-bumper traffic heading downtown… yeesh. By the time we got to the Holiday Inn on Harrison, I was 60% of the way into my Ogre Transformation.
After grabbing some dinner at a local diner, we crashed around 10 PM and were up early the next morning. There was no Race Day shuttle from the hotel to the Start Area at Grant Park, so I wanted to spend the early morning walking there so I’d be familiar with the route. It was only about a mile and a half away, and it was a clear, cool, beautiful morning for a walk. Boots and I headed to the Start Area and explored Grant and Millennium Parks thoroughly. Call it a bit touristy if you want, but then again what were we if not bright-eyed tourists in the first place?
We had a great time checking out the parks, scoping out the Start Line, Runners Area, Post-Race Party Area, and wandering through Millennium Park and Cloud Gate. And of course several wondrous pics with The Bean.
On the way back to the hotel we randomly bumped into our good friend Caroline on Michigan Ave, so of course she charmed a random passerby into taken our picture. It really helps if you’re a charming British lass with a lilting accent when you ask a favor from a stranger, especially if your request starts with “Excuse me, you BEAUTIFUL man…” He acquiesced almost immediately.
After that it was back to the hotel, breakfast, and off to the McCormack Place convention center for the Race Expo. We met Racing Budding Kristi at the entrance and made our way inside. Let me tell you something, I’ve been to some big expos before, but nothing prepared me for the epic HUGENESS of this one. Now don’t get me wrong, if all you wanted to do was get in, grab your bib, race shirt, and swag bag, you could have been in and out in a matter of minutes. The event was very efficiently organized and rather spacious, given the thousands of people mulling about it inside.
But really: where’s the fun in that?
Boots, Kristi, and I walked the entire length of the expo, pausing for photo ops, grabbing free samples, checking out the vendors peddling the wares, bartering pelts… OK, maybe not bartering pelts. Although that would have been part-and-parcel of the “can-do” spirit of Illinois, wouldn’t it? Well… that’s a knish for another deli, perhaps. Boots slightly stumbled by not grabbing a shot of me picking up my bib, but she did get this awesome one of me standing in the wrong line, so there’s that:
Afterward came the shirt pickup, which was soon followed by a trek throughout the entire expo. Highlights included a photo op with this handsome devil…
As well as getting “officially” hashtagged…
Finding my name among the other runners on the Lexus SUV…
And those AWESOME AMAZING free beer samples from the Goose Island Beer Company booze truck!
Otherwise, it was a fine time indeed. I bought a Flip Belt to use on the race (which I’m HUGELY a fan of now. Probably a review at some point) and won a tote bag after posing for this pic:
… which was cool, but it would have been cooler if I weren’t already holding like a half-a-dozen free tote bags at the time. But what a lovely gesture!
Afterward we bid Kristi adieu, hopped a cab back to the hotel, and killed time until dinner. My best budrick (of 30 years now) David lives in Chicago, and we planned to meet for dinner with his wife Jessica, along with Chris, a school buddy from all the way back to 4th Grade, and his girlfriend Joey. We ended up hitting a magnificent Italian place called Buona Terra in Logan Square. I’m not engaging in hyperbole for a second when I say that if you’re in Chicago and don’t hit this place up for dinner, you might be several marbles short of a garden shed. My ravioli stuffed with chicken and covered in a mushroom sauce was beyond exquisite. I can’t wax poetic enough about the garlic spread for the table bread. I only wish I could have spent more time enjoying a few bottles of wine with friends and enjoying the night away, but alas… Marathon the next morning.
Chris gave us a ride back to our hotel, where the usual nightly pre-race routine was done: lay out the flat runner, pin the bib, gather up the gear, weep uncontrollably for half an hour, medicate, and pass out. Just kidding about the uncontrollable weeping. Maybe. Anyway, this of course leads us to…
Alarm goes off at 5:00 AM and I bounded out of bed like a… “bounded out of bed”? What an odd phrase. Hrm. Anyway, I was up, showered, shaved, and good to go in about 40 minutes. We were due to meet our buddies in the lobby of the Congress Plaza Hotel at 6:30 for group pics, and that was maybe a 20 minute walk away. I was dressed in my race wear for the day: purple tank, purple running shorts, black compression calf sleeves, Batman wrist band, and my trusty Hoka Rapa Nui 2’s. I grabbed my new Flip Belt (which, again, I absolutely adore) and stuffed it with my phone, ID, credit card, five GU gel packets, and three One-Wipe Charlies (scoff if you must, but a TP-less Porto-Potty during a marathon is your worst nightmare). My shorts pocket held my Chap-Stick and a plastic container which held my Endurolyte tablets. I also had my running shades and purple Halo Band, but those weren’t going on until race start. Yes sir, I looked like 20 bucks of devilish derring-do five minutes before a $3 ante-up. Whatever that means.
In the early morning wolflight we trekked east on Harrison, stopping at a Starbucks along the way to grab a bagel with cream cheese and a bottle of water, and we made it to the Congress Plaza with plenty of time to spare. I hit the Men’s Room (no line), weathering the comemierda faces from the ladies waiting to use the Women’s Room (endless line), and returned in time to meet up with Jose, Veronica, Anna, Jeff, Mike, and Kristi, so naturally this meant a selfie moment…
Finally the rest of the FIT crew showed up for our group shot, taken by Boots of course:
With the pics taken, it was time to head over to the Start Area. I smooched Boots goodbye, and Kristi and I crossed Michigan into Grant Park. I had to take care of my usual PRP, followed by a walk over to the Gatorade station for some water. I was a wee bit chilly, but I knew the run would warm me up; it was scheduled to rise into the low 70s by the time we crossed the Finish Line. Besides, both Kristi and I were rocking the Hefty Bags, so we had some protection from the elements. Either way, it was a BEAUTIFUL morning in Chicago, clear and cool (mid-upper 50s) and perfect. We were soaking up the atmosphere around Buckingham Fountain when we heard the National Anthem being sung, which meant (for us) that it behooved us to get to our assigned corral (G) as soon as possible.
We were in the corral just before 7:30 AM, and by then it was just a matter of playing the waiting game. Almost immediately I desperately had to pee again, which meant sneaking through a crack in the fence, sprinting towards the Porto, and walking proudly back and sneaking back in. Just like a ninja. In the meantime, here’s our usual pics from the corral. Let’s start with the view ahead of us:
… the view behind us:
… and the usual obnoxious Start Line Selfie!
The first wave began their race at 7:30… seeya at the Finish Line, my Kenyan buddies! I was surprised at how little fanfare there was: no countdown, no music, no fireworks… I think Run Disney has conditioned us WAY too much with their Pixie Dust and what-not. Our wave began at 8:00 AM, and by 8:05 Corral G was moving towards the Start Line. Finally, at 8:10 AM Kristi and I crossed the Start Line and we were on our way, heading north up Columbus Drive to begin the 2015 Chicago Marathon! Let the adventure commence!!
(And I still had to pee again…)
The 2015 Chicago Marathon!
Let’s a take a super hilarious look at the race course, courtesy of my Garmin 920 watch and Google Maps:
…and particularly this opening section, where our route was apparently traced by someone in the midst of a rather severe seizure:
This was a common problem among Garmin users (and probably most GPS trackers): nobody could get a solid lock on their position. For example, when I started my Garmin, I was at the intersection of Columbus and Randolph. The watch thought my position was somewhere way off to the northeast, then it tracked SOUTHBOUND as I headed north, curving back north and zig-zagging all over the place. As I crossed the Columbus Drive bridge, my position veered off again to the northeast, and by the time I turned west on Grand it was all over the place. My tracking was WAY OFF. According to my watch, I ran the first mile in 8:39 and the second in 8:32. I freakin’ WISH. Almost immediately I decided to discount my Garmin for distance and just use it for intervals and overall time. It was kind of liberating, actually. It ended up recording 27.73 miles total, which is enjoyably laughable.
The first six miles seemed almost like a blur to me. Kristi and I kept turning to each other with “Can you believe we’re actually DOING this??” expressions. What an amazing experience. Crossing the Columbus Bridge over the Chicago River, with a red carpet rolled over it to help our footing over the grated area, made us feel like royalty. They weren’t kidding about the spectators; they were everywhere, they were cheering hard, and they never stopped. It was unbelievable to this first timer. We passed by landmark after landmark, from historical building to vintage theaters to towering testaments to modernity and everything in between.
Boots met up with us at Mile 4 and again at Mile 11, snapping pics of the race. And us, naturally.
The weather was cool and comfortable and without a drop of humidity — absolutely PERFECT running conditions. The Race Director had issue a yellow “moderate” warning, instructing runners that the weather would be unseasonably warm and to slow down and hydrate accordingly. For us Floridians, this was our moment to hit the jets. The race started at about 54 degrees (with wind) and ended in the upper 70s, and it felt absolutely glorious to me. Perhaps not to others. Later in the race, there were plenty of runners that were overcome; I saw more than a few treated by paramedics in the shade, many of whom with ice bags on their heads, trying to cool their body down. There were also an unusual amount of walkers midway into the race, many of whom were remarking about how uncomfortably hot it was.
Which brings me to what I would consider to be my only criticism of the race: a complete and utter lack of Runners Etiquette on the part of many taking part in the race. You always expect some, of course. The Run Disney races are chock full of them, but since those caters to first-timers, you come to expect it then. Unfortunately, this spread itself into the Chicago Marathon as well. We’re talking people walking in the middle of the road, three or more abreast, resulting in a lot of weaving and bobbing. I am certainly not anti-walker, and found plenty of conscientious walkers and run/walkers walking to the side of the course. I do intervals myself, and when I’m on a walk interval I raise my hand and make my way to the side. Sadly, this wasn’t the case with many here.
And runners who drop cups, banana peels, and sponges IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD instead of tossing them to the sides, where there are volunteers ready to pick them up and throw them out? This was a constant problem for the entirety of the race. Having to endure these impromptu obstacle courses for 26.2 miles was something of a major nuisance.
And to top all of my gripes off, let’s get together for a story, something we’d love to call…
The Tale Of The Tiny Obnoxious Runner
There were also an unfortunate amount of runners who felt they had no problem with cutting across runners, running diagonally or sideways without looking at who they might run into, cut off, or trip over. This was constant throughout the marathon. Granted there were over 40 thousand runners out on the course, but it wasn’t SO crowded that people were forced into running whatever direction they wanted while veering directly into or immediately in front of other runners.
I will admit to one moment of beautiful karmic awesomesauce: there was this one tiny woman was doing just that — acting like an obnoxious, rude, self-entitled runner. She decided she wanted to get in front of me, and zig-zagged from behind my right and cut directly front of me, slamming into my right elbow. There wasn’t a word of acknowledgement or apology, and the impact, while not hard, threw me off my cadence and nearly caused me to trip. Can you imagine a twisted ankle or face-plant as a result of this yutz? I yelled out a few choice “salty” words that basically resulted in a “WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING” message as filtered through R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket.
A few minutes later I saw her again… she was still cutting runners off, when all of the sudden she saw a group of her friends cheering from the side. The Tiny Obnoxious Runner shrieked back and, without looking beside or behind her, sprinted to the side of the road for her friendly group hugs. If you could bottle the expressions the runners that she nearly ran over were giving her, it would be PURE LIQUID CONTEMPT. She had not a single care for the people who had to dart out of her way.
I shook my head. But of course, there’s more…. after the Tiny Obnoxious Runner had her moment of attention and adoration from her buddies, she turned to run back onto the course. But not in a straight line; she was still running at a sharp angle… AND SHE WASN’T LOOKING AHEAD OF HER. She kept turning behind to wave and scream to her friends, while still running forward. She immediately collided with another runner and slightly tripped, which you think would have alerted to PAY SOME FREAKIN’ ATTENTION. But no, she turned BACK and CONTINUED TO YELL TO HER FRIENDS WHILE RUNNING FORWARD AT AN ANGLE.
And then it happened. She collided with another runner and FACE-PLANTED right onto the pavement. HARD.
Schadenfreude. Sometimes, it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. I sneered something along the lines of, “This is why you need to LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING, Genius…” as she picked herself up.
My race got considerably better after that..
Back To The Race
That takes care of all my gripes, and if you’ll notice they were all RUNNER related. The race itself was otherwise sheer perfection. There were plenty of hydration stops with both Gatorade and water, and all of them were well-staffed and well-stocked. I always make it a habit to thank every volunteer I can, and I did fervently this time. Other stops had gel packets and fruit as well, including the aforementioned bananas. (Banana peels littering the race course… have these runners never watched a single cartoon in their lives?!) And the cheering spectators were an amazing spirit booster. There wasn’t a single moment where I felt bored or alone; there were people cheering us on every step of the way, from start to finish. All of the usual race signs were there, including the ones that desperately need to be retired (*ahem* “Worst Race Ever”).
There were two sets of people holding up images of Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze in Chippendale’s dance attire from the classic SNL skit. The first group stared blankly as I sang the chorus to Loverboy’s “Working For The Weekend” as I passed them. The second enthusiastically sang along with me. So I consider that a partial success.
We were always entertained and inspired. There were drag queens aplenty, bands, singers, dancers, and lots of yelling, cheering, and support for the entirety of the race. I think my favorite spectators were the little old ladies waving to us from a retirement home in Lincoln Park. They were up on the fourth floor, waving happily with big smiles on their faces. Up on their window was a huge sign that said something along the lines of “We’d love to be down their with you, but we’re too busy enjoying coffee and doughnuts.” Adorable. That was a serious morale booster of the highest order.
Not to mention The King himself out on the course (and almost minutes after the entire Tiny Obnoxious Runner affair), who was belting out Suspicious Minds to great effect and enjoyment for us runners. I had to pause for a pic and of course a selfie…
So let’s talk about the amazing course itself, which was pretty much the best on-foot sojourn of the Chicago metropolitan area you could possibly imagine. The first several miles took us through the heart of downtown, three times back and forth over the Chicago River until we made our way northbound through Lincoln Park and the North Shore, affording us killer views of the Lake, the parkland area around Stockton Drive (past the zoo and conservatory), turning at Addison (about 4 blocks from Wrigley) and the southbound back into downtown on Broadway. We were downtown and heading west on Adams when we hit the halfway mark. For no reason in particular Kruisti and I started singing the chorus to “Living On A Prayer” and found a host of runners around us singing along. It was a magical moment, even with a song as lame as that one.
At the turnaround at Damen Avenue, we bumped into our friend Sandra, who had an unfortunate spill at the beginning of the race, but was still pushing through the pain to finish her race. Cheers Sandy! But by now, the sun was beginning to hang higher in the sky, and there was less of that cool awesome shade that blessed us in the morning. It still felt fantastic to me, if considerably warmer. I was taking my GU and electrolyte pills every 5 miles, and late in the race I didn’t feel any pain, exhaustion, of weariness. To tell the truth, this race was a landmark for me… it was the first marathon in which I never, ever hit The Wall. Not even once. Not even a little bit. I felt strong and steady the entire run, and my pace was almost entirely consistent from start to finish. This was a first for me, for a full marathon. I was pretty mindblown by this, happy that all my months of training had really paid off.
Another big booster moment occurred was when we turned onto Wentworth Avenue on the South Side, which meant we were entering Chinatown:
Nothing like people in dragon costumes, decorations, lanterns, K-Pop music, and the sweet, sweet smell of Dim Sum to really start stoking our energy fires. I really enjoyed this part. Plus we got our own special support, when I bumped into my Mickey Miler buddy Laura, who had a well-stocked cheering section. I stopped for a great big hug and some quick words of greeting and happy joys, and then quickly moved along. There was race to run, after all! Somewhere past the Mile 21 mark, as we were leaving Chinatown, we bumped into Boots for the third time (she was REALLY working the Spectator Train Circuit to great effect) and she took this buttkickin’ photo of Kristi and I:
It was definitely hot… but nowhere near uncomfortably so. As a matter of fact, being used to the saturated, muggy, steamy, obnoxious South Florida humidity, the dry, cool, breezy warmth of the day felt refreshing. I barely sweat at all, to be honest; I sweat more during the first mile of an evening training run at home than I did the entire 26.2 miles of the Chicago Marathon. That’s neither a boast nor an engagement of hyperbole. The weather felt absolutely fantastic!
A special shout-out to Maria from the 1K Running Club, who I had chatted with on Facebook many times but never met in real life until a random encounter somewhere around mile 21ish! Mid-race hugs from friends TOTALLY rock.
Moving along… even with agreeable weather and friendly hugs, those last 4-5 miles of a marathon are really when you have to dig in and give it everything, but we had plenty of gas left in the tank and maintained our speed. My goal was simply to do a sub-5 hour marathon, but I would have been content with “just” a PR (which meant beating my 5:03 record from the 2015 Fort Lauderdale A1A Marathon from the previous February). The last stretch of race took us northbound up Michigan Avenue, from 35th Street all the way back to the Finish Area at Grant Park. I may have run through more than a few hoses, mists, and spray stations but we kept moving. Kristi was coming off of a hip injury and while the race was hitting her a little bit harder than it was me, she was doing amazing; as if she hadn’t been knocked out for two weeks right before the race at all. We put our heads down and gave that last mile every last bit we had.
“Not long to go,” said a spectator as we were nearing Roosevelt Road. “Two more turns and that’s it!” He wasn’t joking either. We made a right onto Roosevelt, which was a bit of an incline (never fun near the end of the race) but we knew we had it in the bag. The 400m sign told us we had less than a half mile, and we poured it on as best we could. Making another left onto Columbus, there it was. The Finish Line. Flanked by cheering spectators on both sides, this was it! Our moment to wrap the whole thing up in grand style!
We crossed the Finish Line with a net race time of 5:02:09. That would make the 2015 Chicago Marathon the scene of my latest PR.
I couldn’t believe it. I had just run a World Major marathon. And I had run my strongest marathon ever. And I felt great; not winded, not tired, not worn out. Still, I was glad to be finished, because I made a straight beeline to the Goose Island Beer Station and walked away double-fisting two urban ales, but nonetheless… we did it.
We received all the Finish Chute goodies: a bag stuffed with all sorts of snacks like protein bars, pretzels, dark chocolate, and chips, plus Powerade, bananas, and of course the aforementioned beers. I downed my first one in almost no time it all. No beer ever tasted better than that one in my entire life. It was cold and tasty and refreshing and perfect. Then we got our medals; some whiners online were complaining that the medal was “too small” and made it hard to “show them off”. These people are probably running for all the wrong reasons in the first place. The reward of the race is the determination to train, attempt, and complete the challenge, not some piece of cheap metal with a ribbon running through it. I like medals, but if they stopped giving them out entirely I couldn’t care less.
We made our way to a soft patch of grass in the shade, and drank our ice-cold beers and snacked away, still high from the entire experience. I was beyond happy; I felt like I really had participated in something special. Not just the PR, not the perfect weather, not the thousand of runners (even with *some* of their yucky manners), the spectators, the feeling of being part of something so massive, or this great city opening herself up to us… wait, actually that was most of it right there. I was high as a kite from excitement and satisfaction, and I didn’t want it to end.
Also I want to give a shout-out to Running Buddy Kristi, who convinced me to try running marathons again after I had written them off back in January 2013. I pretty much had retired from them, but she convinced me to give the 2014 Space Coast Marathon a shot. Almost a year later, we’ve run six together (out of my total of seven) with plenty more to go. Thanks buddy. And few people ever figured out our rainbow/spectral color scheme!
OK this race review has run super long, so let’s wrap things up with a wrap-up: the 2015 Bank of America Chicago Marathon was a buttkickingly awesome experience, one that I hope any of you fine runners out in Hokeyfolk will one day experience, if you haven’t done so already. For me, it has already started a new obsession: now I want to run the remaining five races of the World Marathon Majors. I’m also not made out of money, so this might take a while to do, but I’ll do it. Someday. So thanks Chicago, this was a phenomenal race experience that will be really hard to top. Not that I won’t keep trying. Ever. Cuz that’s how I roll. Here’s the video. Let’s dance: